Hiking Canada’s Gold Rush Trail

Frontier Challenge

·    By Margaret Webb
More Magazine, April 2008

·    There we were, five women the night before the adventure of our lives, huddled in rain gear around a sputtering campfire, five spoons digging into a single bag of reconstituted, freeze-dried mash. Tomorrow we would be brave princesses living up to our group nickname, The Pre-Menopausal Menace. But on this drizzly night at a trailhead in Alaska, we were a middle-aged mess confessing our deepest fears: being attacked by bears, drowning in glacial waters, bad knees and backs giving out with the challenges ahead.

·    This was all my idea so how could I share my anxiety, which ran along the lines of two big, fat questions: What dreadful situation might I be getting us into? And why?

·    You could put it down to midlife impulse. At age 19, I hiked the 53-kilometre Chilkoot Pass, first leg of Canada’s legendary Klondike Gold Rush Trail of 1898, now a national historic site. Then, I was a foot-loose, wonder-seeker as were many of the 30,000 thousand men and a few gutsy women, who, on hearing of the world’s largest gold strike in Dawson City, Yukon, jumped aboard steamers to Skagway, Alaska, then packed hundreds of pounds of supplies over the Chilkoot Pass through the Coastal Mountains to the headwaters of Canada’s mighty Yukon River. Where my journey ended, the Stampeders pushed on to seek their fortune, building boats and paddling some 600 miles to Dawson, a tiny First Nations village that, almost overnight, transformed into a city of 100,000, the “Paris of the North.” The town’s mogul, Belinda Mulrooney, never panned for gold yet made bags of it from the men who did by building fancy hotels with raucous vaudeville shows and fancy dress-up dinners with raw oysters and champagne shipped in from France.

·    When I turned 45, I found myself yearning to hike the Chilkoot again. But this time, I wanted to complete the whole journey. Of course, there would be no gold waiting for me at the end, but the trek seemed a good way of focusing my mind on another anxious question: what did I want out of the second act of my life? What was my gold rush?

·    I put out a call to some sporty friends — gals who played hockey, hiked, took canoe trips and boxing lessons. Though no one had ever done anything like this, four immediately signed on for their own bizarre reasons (which they now claimed to have forgotten). We threw ourselves into months of preparation: training hikes and canoe lessons. Knowing that I was all about the big idea and pathetic with details, each organized a section of the trip — arranging flights, trail reservations, canoe rentals and food. When the rather sensible suggestion of hiring a guide came up, we decided against it. We relished the satisfaction of completing this on our own. Besides, we had invented our own form of leadership: Princess Days. Each would have a day to rule and could demand as much pampering as the wilderness would allow.

·    Seeing us having so much fun, a sixth decided to join us for the canoe leg. The business consultant, or “Trixie” as she reigned on her Princess Day, had her own profound reasons for coming along: “I didn’t want to be sitting around an old age home listening to you all talk all about something I missed out on.”

·    The group awarded me, Adventure Girl, the first and last Princess Day. But the only indulgence I demanded was a cup of the coffee they had taken weeks to democratically choose — fine-grind, fair-trade, organic and appropriately named Grizzly Claw. Which was when the face of the packer of the coffee went blank. She had left our black gold with the canoe supplies we would pick up in Whitehorse.

·    The first thought that ripped through my mind — five days in the wilderness with the Pre-Menopausal Menace on caffeine withdrawal might not be so fun. There was no second thought, as I was already in the throes of a full-blown snit fit.

·    ***

·    After a disconcerting 15 minutes searching for the path from the campground to the trailhead, we started our adventure on a giddy high. The insurance lawyer, aka Princess Kitty Star, had filled my leadership void by trading legal advice for coffee to a German couple who had sunk their rental kayaks on a river trip.

·    And thank god for that caffeine fix. The Chilkoot, a narrow footpath that starts in the lush coastal forest of Southern Alaska, welcomed us with a reality-check slap – a steep 300-foot grunt up the wooded mountainside. After an hour climbing, we encountered two exhausted hikers in their seventies. One was white faced and sweating profusely. He had overestimated his abilities, he admitted. He and his friend were turning back.

·    The teacher in our group listened keenly. She had her own health concerns, having survived two near-death experiences over the past two years, one a brain aneurism. A slim blond with a closet full of colour-coordinated hiking outfits, she had impressed us during training by confronting every challenge with a primordial scream: I’m not afraid to die! We called her Royal Princess. But now I wondered if the two shaken men might rattle her. She expressed concern in her gentlest teacher’s voice. Then she asked them if we could have their supply of coffee.

·    Maybe fate had offered up two ominous signs, but we paid no heed. We were enthralled by the beauty of the trail as it dipped into the mountain valley then flattened alongside the rushing Taiga River. We crisscrossed water and wetlands by raised suspension spans, wooden bridges and board walkways. The Royal Princess burned through half her memory card snapping pictures of rainforest wonders – bubblegum-pink mosses, fire-orange mushrooms and Devil’s Club leaves five times larger than the size of our hands. To scare off bears, Kitty Star, channeling the spirit of vaudeville dancer Klondike Kate, perverted the words to old songs and limericks. The software manager in charge of the map, Warrior Princess, was laughing too hard to notice the weight of her pack or that the kilometres were passing more like miles

·    I traded turns leading with Shena, who had just started a pet-sitting business. Though athletic, she loves the cushy comforts of the city and was most wary of roughing it in the wilderness – setting up and breaking camp each day, foregoing showers, indoor toilets and scented toiletries (which attract bears). Yet, she was also starting to explore her First Nations roots, perhaps why this trail, forged by Tlingit traders hundreds of years before the Gold Rush, had beckoned to our Princess Shena-hontis.

·    But it was not a day for deep thoughts. The Taiya roiled and roared with a thundering gush of glacial waters.

·    “Maybe this is about getting some clarity in my head,” I shouted to Shena-hontis.

·    “I agree,” she said. “I can’t wait to get some hair gel for my head.”

·    ***

·    We reached Canyon City at 6 p.m., as it would turn out, the earliest we would arrive at camp. This one was named after the tent city of thousands that had sprung up during the gold rush. Across the river were eerie reminders – a massive cook stove from a makeshift hotel and a boiler for a tramway that once hauled supplies up the Pass, just two of the thousands of rusty artifacts strewn along what historian Pierre Berton once called “the longest museum in the world.”

·    The trail is still a magnet that draws folks from around the world. Tonight, our little village of 30 or so hikers included a retired soldier from Alaska who did the trail each year with a different son (this was his fourth pass); a 71 year-old American dance teacher who was traveling with her 50-year-old boyfriend and her 21-year-old granddaughter; two buddies from British Columbia who were celebrating their 60th birthday; and the “Von Trappp” family, Keith and Stacey from Whitehorse and their friend Lindsay from London, England, who were hiking with their passel of eight children, aged 6 to 12. We were all thinking the same thing: Hey, if six-year-old Ewan can do this….

·    The next morning, while the princesses slept in, I also met one of the thousands who had passed before us. He appeared in the form of a photocopied diary placed in the warming cabin, written by one Leo Healey, aged 19. The Stampeder worried that his life had amounted to nothing thus far so he had joined the throngs rushing to Dawson, to find purpose and perhaps his fortune. Upon arriving, however, he was horrified to see the luckless men who had landed just a year before and were now sick and impoverished. “I have my health,” he wrote, “and that’s worth more gold than I could ever get.” After taking months to get to Dawson, he promptly returned home.

·    His words thumped in my head that day as we limped on to Sheep Camp. The Warrior Princess, the most experienced outdoors gal amongst us, had been carrying the hero’s share of our group supplies in her pack. Her knee, stiff from the first day, started screaming. Kitty Star and I offloaded some weight and now Kitty’s back and my flat feet were cursing Leo’s wise words. After trekking past a blueberry stand (and smelling bear, claimed Kitty), we stumbled into camp at 7 p.m., in time to hear the park ranger describing tomorrow’s challenge: The Pass.

·    After a 5.4 kilometre hike up 1,500 feet to the base, the trail lurched way up – a 1,200 foot ascent in less than a kilometre. This was mountain climbing, albeit without ropes. Here, the trail became a route through an ancient rockslide of giant boulders. We would cross snowfields. The Summit often welcomed climbers with nasty weather: rain, high wind, snow. While the view of the valley could be spectacular on a clear day, the ranger reminded us to lean in, lest the weight of our packs pull us off the peak. And if we ran into trouble, our only choice was to keep going – at the top, an officer at the Canadian border could radio for a pricey airlift out.

·    At least there won’t be bears that high up, I joked. Wrong. Two grizzlies were roaming the Pass though they hadn’t bothered anyone yet. The ranger was chock full of fascinating details, for instance, that bears are eating machines, consuming up to 40,000 calories a day. Shena-hontis and I, the smallest in our group, contemplated whether we might comprise a meal or an entire day’s feed.

·    Though the notion of turning back floated above the Pre-Menopausal Menance like a cartoon blurb, no one burst the bubble by speaking it. Emboldened by what we had accomplished so far, we turned our attention to body repairs. At dinner, we filled an old zip-lock food bag with glacial water and slapped that on the Warrior’s swollen knee. We poured boiling water into a new food bag and, with our dinner cooking inside, we placed that on Kitty’s back. I hit on the bright idea of a tampon fix for my arch-supports by carving up the cotton and stuffing it into my boots. And then I jammed a hiking stick into the ground beside my tent, placed a bright red sandal on top and declared the foot-massage parlour open for business.

·    The Pre Menopausal Menace was not for turning.

·    ***

·    But the Royal Princess woke up crying. Though she had been strong on the hike so far, the night gave her hours to stew about the grueling day ahead. At breakfast, she burst out sobbing, said she was sick with fear. She begged us to go on: she and our wounded Warrior could lag behind or turn back.

·    We responded as women do. We gave her a hug, embraced for a group hug. We were in this together, we said, and we would stick together. Besides, it was Warrior Princess Day – her call. Her knee had swollen into that fat cartoon blurb. She could barely bend it, faced hoisting herself up the Pass on one good leg. We offered to take more weight from her pack. Boldly, she opted to push on.

·    Our fellow hikers, now straggling to the ranger’s cabin to make breakfast, wanted a picture of our 6 a.m. departure. Yes, I had finally managed to rouse my troops for an early push off to our next camp, oh Happy Camp, and now I would inspire them by dropping my pants, to reveal the underwear I had brought along especially for this day – white briefs emblazoned with big happy faces. The cameras snapped. The smiles on my whities glowed. We even managed a few grins of our own.

·    Since the start of the hike, I had been telling the Menace that the Pass was not as gruesome as it sounded – I remembered it as my favourite part.

·    “Yeah, and do you remember you were only 19?” they teased.

·    Well, perception is different at that age. There are so many routes up a mountain and it seemed then that I had abundant time and energy to scale them all. So why do the harder work of choosing? In the years since, I admit, I have scrambled up (and slid down) more than a few paths. Maybe it was time for wise choices, a sure route?

·    The trail meandered from the thinning rainforest, flirted alongside the tree line. We crossed about a dozen streams gushing from the mountain. The nimble Shena-hontis skipped over slippery rocks, extended a hiking pole back to help the rest of us cross. The Warrior’s knee was holding up. Kitty found a fresh pile of bear scat and, after scouring the horizon, called us over to have our picture taken with it. The Royal Princess had a smile that stretched from earring to earring.

·    We reached the base of the Pass in good time, 11 a.m., and only two parties had passed us. We stopped for an early lunch of pasta, hot chocolate and Advil.

·    Then the fog rolled in. Maybe it was a good thing for we could not see how far we had climbed, how far we had yet to go, how far we could fall. We started up The Pass.

·    In this dream-like wrap of mist, the ghosts of 1898 seemed to be hiking with us, though chortling that we were getting a “free pass.” Then, wily entrepreneurs made winter the best time for crossing when they carved steps into the snow and charged Stampeders a fee to climb “The Golden Staircase.”

·    Now, midsummer, a few snowfields still lingered, packing the deepest crevices. Our group treaded carefully over these, while I scrambled wildly to take pictures of us mimicking that historic march up the mountain. This stroll over the snow proved easy compared to the spew of rock rubble. We packed away walking sticks to squeeze between the massive boulders – or haul ourselves around and over.

·    At times we stopped, amazed that we were actually climbing this high, over such rough and surreal terrain, yet we were having a blast. The climb was as fabulous as I remembered. Shena-hontis blazed skyward like a Tinglet trader who had traversed this route hundreds of times. Kitty and the Royal Princess followed on her heels, whooping like Klondike Kate on the dance floor.

·    But the Princess Warrior was growing weary. I hung back, climbed side by side, thinking her way through foot and hand holds, cheering her progress, even wiping the sweat that trickled from her nose with the back of my sleeve. I could only imagine her pain as she did not swear or complain or cry, though our rest stops came faster, stretched longer. “It doesn’t matter,” I said. “Getting to the top safe is all that matters.”

·    After two and a half hours on the Pass, I spotted a giant pile or rocks rising from the gray swirl of clouds, just meters above, our signpost. The Royal Princess raised her arms in silent triumph. “I think we’re close,” I said. Our Warrior pushed on, spotted the Canadian flag at the top, and let out the most serene smile. We had reached the Summit.

·    We whooped it up with the ranger who took pictures of us under the flag. But we didn’t linger — the temperature hovered just above freezing and the wind howled. And we still faced another 6.4 kilometres stump to Happy Camp.

·    On another day it might have been a stroll: a gradual descent across a snowfield then a gently rolling trail alongside azure Alpine lakes now winking in the sunshine. But walking proved more searing on the Warrior’s knee than climbing and the dead-slow pace scorched my flat feet and Kitty’s back. Still, we took on more weight from the Warrior’s pack. Her injury had become our injury, though I was not nearly as stoic. My mind railed against all the injustices in the world – starting with the twisted spirit that had blessed me with a love of hiking and two plank feet.

·    We staggered into Happy Camp at 10 p.m., some 15 hours after the start of our day, with but an hour of Yukon light to make camp. Now it was Adventure Girl’s turn to sob pitifully into any shoulder that would have me —- the fear, the pain, the anger and the great relief that we had arrived safely needed to get out and the great spew of saliva seemed the fastest way.

·    Then Kitty purred, and produced a mickey of scotch. We swigged straight from the bottle, like miners celebrating a gold strike. Hearing the laughter spilling from our tent site, our fellow hikers straggled over to offer hugs. And when the Von Trapp family arrived a half hour later, little Ewan, six years old and wearing an orange hiking shirt exactly like mine, asked me how I had enjoyed my day.

·    ***

·    Let me spare you the agonizing details of the next two days except to say that our snail’s stroll afforded us the thrill of drinking in the Yukon’s golden beauty, her necklace of multi-coloured glacial lakes and sub-alpine valleys that plunge into frothy gorges of ripping rivers. To ward off bears and bad spirits, we sang, we told fart jokes (oh that delicious freeze-dried food), we talked about the journey.

·    “Oh, we’ve all learned something from these dreadful challenges,” cracked the Royal Princess.

·    Kitty, who has a cast of cartoon characters in her head, asked us to declare our favourite superheroes. That distracted us for a few kilometers. Then I wanted to know, what were our superhero strengths?

·    Warrior Princess fessed up to her abundant determination: “This reminded me that I can accomplish whatever I set my mind to.”

·    Shena-hontis, already raring to do the trail again, realized that she could make her home in the wilderness: “You just have to know how to do it.”

·    Royal Princess discovered that she was stronger than she thought. “I have more confidence in my body, which is great, though I don’t need to take on this kind of challenge again. I would rather stay in a nice bed and breakfast.”

·    At Kitty’s turn, she dropped a bombshell: the cans of bear spray we had borrowed from friends had long passed their best-before-dates, by years. “And I’ve been having nightmares about bears since I was five!” she said. “But the bear represents intuition. So maybe it’s time to stop running and trust my intuition.”

·    The path turned to sand at the trail’s end and Bennett Lake came into view. Tears gushed from my eyes again, though not from pain. We linked arms as a float plane cruised in to pick us up for the return trip to Whitehorse. The pilot flew over glaciers to the north of the trail, then swung over Chilkoot to show us the terrain we had traversed – from this height, the path was a scratch across rock, through history and into our hearts. We Super Princesses basked in our considerable triumph.

·    As I sat in the back, sipping a cold beer, the ghost of Leo nudged me in the ribs. And what about Adventure Girl? Had I found my gold rush?

·    Well, Leo, I was taking a few notes of my own, and I hope they inspire an escapade or two. Because I can say we still had our health, save for a few aches and strained ligaments. And we had friendship, forged deeper by the journey. And that is truly golden.

·    The Chilkoot: