In the Klondike Gold Rush of 1897, the most direct route was on the Chilkoot Trail, which began at Dyea, Alaska, and required a difficult 45-degree climb to Lake Bennett. Gold stampeders built boats at Lake Bennett and if they survived the winter and Whitehorse Rapids, they went on to Dawson City. Today, hiking the Chilkoot, now part of national historic parks in the U.S. and Canada, requires a fee and a permit, allowing no more than 50 backpackers on the 33-mile trail each day.
Rita’s story began in January 2013. Her sister, Fran, ten years her senior, said that she and daughter Rachel were going to hike the Chilkoot Trail to celebrate Fran’s 70th birthday and asked if Rita wanted to join them. It is wise to know your traveling companions, and that does not exclude relatives. Do they arise early, get their start at noon…or…well, you’ll understand as you read about Rita Moriarty’s Chilkoot Trail Adventure.
Katie, Rita’s daughter, helped with decisions on backpacking equipment and personal gear. Rita read that only experienced hikers should attempt the trail and wondered if this hike was such a good idea, but thought, “How hard could it be? I’m in decent shape.” That was mistake Number 1.
Their first day on the trail began with a group of seven hikers and a class of photographers. The women started up the trail over rocks that were waist high. Fran and Rachel neared the top, but even using her trekking poles, Rita, whose height is 5 feet, couldn’t get over them. Everything about her new backpack was off—weight, size, configuration and balance. She bounced backward to the bottom where the photographers were taking pictures. Rita said, “I was their next photo op as I rolled toward them. The backpack protected my head and neck, but the rest of me was bruised. The photographers helped me over the rocks. From then on, Rachel stayed behind and helped Fran and I whenever the rocks were too steep or too high.”
Beyond a flat area filled with ripe berries and bear scat, it was 7.5 rough miles to the Canyon City campsite. When Fran complained about aching shoulders and back, Rita said if the hike was too hard, they could go back the next day. There were no more complaints.
Rita commented, “Although my boots fit, the lightweight Crocs Katie suggested felt great after a long day of hiking. We set up our tent next to the river. The campground had outhouses, campsites, a cabin already occupied, picnic tables, and bear boxes for food.
“We had agreed before the trip that it would be easier to cook our meals together, but now they decided to cook separately. At their insistence, I had packed a big cooking kettle instead of a smaller one. That was mistake Number 2.”
Fellow hikers explained that their dehydrated food, water filtering system, and all-in-one stove-cooking setup were included in backpacks weighing less than 20 pounds each. The other hikers included a group from Colorado, counselors with teenage boys, several Canadian groups, plus people from all over the world.
Rita said, “An older Virginia couple was up and out by 5 a.m. and into the next camp by early afternoon. They took breaks, enjoyed the hike, and rested for the next day. I wished I could have hiked with them.”
While Rita continued to be up by 5 a.m., Fran and Rachel were up and ready to leave closer to 10 a.m. Rita said, “I began to realize mistake Number 3. I’m a morning person. Fran and Rachel are not. I was totally worn out by the time we got into camp each night.” Rita didn’t want to deal with cooking a full meal on her own, but in settling for soup, she didn’t have the protein she needed for the next day’s grueling hike.
Snow and Rocks
It was a tough five miles to Sheep Camp. The park ranger talked about the next day’s 12-hour hike over Chilkoot Pass into Canada. She warned them to start by 6 a.m. at the latest. In climbing over rocks at a 70-degree angle, it was crucial to have three points of contact, two feet and one hand, or two hands and one foot, planted before moving on. If anyone was seriously hurt, others could either return to Sheep Camp or go ahead to the Canadian summit to a ranger station radio. Cellphones didn’t work anywhere and if they screwed up, a helicopter escape cost $25,000. It was wise to reach the summit by early afternoon, as the snow on the other side would be getting soft and dangerous. If they slipped, they could slide 200 feet into the lake. She warned about crossing from rocks to snow, and snow to rocks. The snow might be melting underneath and a 40-foot drop was possible. They should avoid problems by sticking to the orange-pole-marked trail.
Rita said, “I was close to tears. That night, Rachel let a father and son from Switzerland use her water filter. That action saved my life. My family told me to get lost when I awakened them at 6 a.m. We were almost the last people to leave at 7:30. The Swiss dad gave me a foothold when I slid down a steep rock toward the creek. His son lightened my pack by carrying my tent, sleeping pad, and heavy food.”
Rita explained, “The cable the stampeders used was broken and frayed but it helped us get up and over the rocks. We got to the summit around 3 p.m. Two women joined us. The snow on the other side of the summit was very slippery. I fell and slid a short distance. The older woman gave me one of her shoe grips. It made hiking a lot safer and easier for me.”
They struggled through large patches of snow, the smallest a half-mile long, and crossed over twenty or so runoff streams from four feet to 12 feet wide, via rocks, or through the water. Rita says, “Fran had water inside her boots and major blisters on her wet feet. Dry socks didn’t help because her boots were wet. The younger woman pulled moleskin from her first aid kit and tended Fran’s feet.”
Attacked by Bugs
Arriving late to Happy Camp, they had become a cause of concern to their fellow hikers. Rita says, “The Swiss men were waiting and helped me set up my tent. When I got up the next morning, I sat with the others, watching a grizzly bear grubbing for food on the other side of the river.”
They hiked steep rocky trails above the river to Bare Loon Lake, where bugs bit their bare ankles and arms. They put insect nets over their heads. Rita twisted her left ankle twice.
The situation between the three had worsened with tension building around schedules and cooking but the next day was only a four-mile hike to Lake Bennett. Steep rock climbs, and then hot, dry sand, made it hard to walk, but they had to be there by noon to catch the Skagway train that runs only twice a week.
Says Rita, “It was a great feeling to finish the hike and still be in one piece. It was beautiful, but I wouldn’t do it again. When Fran called in January 2014 to ask if I wanted to join her on a bike ride across Pennsylvania this summer, I said, ‘find someone else.’”
NOTE: Though it is only 33 miles, the Chilkoot Trail is rugged, and fraught with boulder and snow dangers. You must be prepared for a demanding hike, and you will be crossing the Canadian border, requiring a passport. A great deal of prior research is necessary regarding climate, appropriate equipment and clothing, campgrounds, itinerary options, shuttle and train schedules and costs, reservations and permits. Do not take your preparation or prior trail education lightly, and almost as important, know your fellow hikers!
Sharlene Minshall’s e-book novel, Winter in the Wilderness, is available at most Internet book sites. The print edition is available at Amazon.com or you can order an autographed copy from the author at Box 1040, Congress, AZ 85332 for $7.95, plus $3.50 for postage and handling. The fourth edition of RVing Alaska and Canada is available through Amazon.com. Follow her blog, “The Silver Gypsy” at rvlife.com.Research Campgrounds, Plan RV Safe Routes & Turn your phone into an RV GPS.
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