Day 3: Sheep Camp to Happy Camp….and the Chilkoot Pass!
Another morning of rain…breakfast of lumpy cream of wheat, apricots and raisins before 10am departure. Seems hard to get ‘out the door’ much before that – I could hear others leaving earlier but too lazy to move. Poor Ron, his pack gets heavier with the constantly wet tent while mine gets lighter as we eat the food. A big day today, we climb up the fabled “Golden Staircase’ before summiting the pass itself at 1122m / 3680 ft.
First thing we see is this grave marker – again, is it old or more recent. Nothing is written or carved but it certainly is weathered.
There is some scrambling up large boulders. The hiking poles helped to steady us over slippery rock with heavy packs. Ron gazes at the socked in valley below. The trees are getting more shrub like as we gain elevation. More artifacts line the train, especially what look to be horse bones. A wash pan is nailed to a tree. Crushed tin cans amongst the rock. The trail starts to climb.
Resting on the long climb up to the Scales. Its been a slow and steady grind up along the gushing Taiya River. When I’m not staring at my feet, I’m looking at the collapsed posts of the old tram way and telegraph lines.
Odd leather shoes, canvas clothes, leather bits litter the trail, thick pieces of broken glass, green, brown, white china. Nails, bolts, a few rusting shovels. Amazing that this junk is laying here away after 100 years of wet – history is alive when its literally at your feet.
The way is well marked with stone cairns but the likelihood of getting lost is remote: just walk up the river, picking the route amongst the rock. By the time we reach the foot of the Scales, a chilly damp wind keeps the lunch stop to a bare minimum. We have caught up to other people: everyone is basically doing the same things – fuel up with food and water before starting the 45 degree slope ahead.
With a last heave of the packs, Ron disappears into the fog, heading uphill. Lots of artifacts remain strewn on the ground – it truly is the ‘longest museum in history’.
Excited to be ascending this historic route, I point the way. Snow is common on the valley floor which also contributes to the fog. Note the red fleece hat – despite the effort of walking uphill with a pack, its chilly.
The Golden Staircase was so named because of the tolls charged by the two entrepreneurs who carved steps in the snow. Apparently it took Klondikers one to six hours to make the upbound trip and some needed 30 trips to haul the required 1 ton of gear across.
However, in August there is little snow on the steep incline leading to the summit thus the Klondikers had it easier traversing this route when it was snow filled. Now, it’s a boulder scramble. Many of the rocks are loose and constant vigilance is needed to maintain balance. The fiberglass ski poles aren’t great as the basket frequently gets caught in between the rocks. Yanking the pole out is a sure way to loose balance!
The way is marked with stone cairns and red plastic wands about every 100 m. They look very far apart from each other! We climb blind for about 45 minutes, not seeing anyone else - bits of conversation occasionally float down the slope. This is the steepest elevation gain of the Chilkoot Trail, climbing 838m in less than 1 km (930 ft in half a mile).
We think we are at the top but it’s the first ‘false summit’, which is only ¾ of the way to the top. However, it looks pretty much like the real summit and the smiles are genuine. Bad news: there is a 2nd false summit as well! Keep on going….
This last bit is the worst – I’m tired from 45 minutes of solid exertion but also getting discouraged about ever reaching the top. It’s a two hand plus feet scramble now – poles are stowed, being useless over this portion of the trail. The weight of the backpack threatens to topple me over backward and I lean into the slope.
Donna, last night’s park ranger, passes us by. She says we are close to the canvas fold boats – with some diligent searching, we locate them despite the fog. They are not exactly on the trail but hidden behind a rock outcropping below the summit. Abandoned by the import company, they were to be sold to Klondikers for their journey down the Yukon. The summit is only a short distance away – with no view, its almost anti climatic.
Through the Chilkoot Pass. Elevation 1122m / 3680 ft.
Yes, these is a customs stop as you enter Canada, manned by the Canadian Parks service. It’s a short break as the cold wind (stiff flag testifies to wind speed) and my knees are starting to stiffen. I don’t want to linger as there are no views and its another 6.4 km / 4 miles to Happy Camp, tonight’s destination.
The vegetation is decidedly arctic just below the summit and before Crater Lake. The small alpine flowers, stunted shrubs, tough grasses line the sandy trail. Walking is easy with a gentle descending elevation, a welcome relief after the climb.
Crater Lake is surrounded by rocky slopes, various greens of the vegetation a relief to the eye after the monotony of light sucking fog. We rock hop on the set path in the effort to keep our feet dry. Other hikers start to appear in the distance. I wonder if they are feeling weak in the knees too.
The first sun hit in three days! I’m hopeful that the dance of low hanging fog clouds will thin and lift to reveal more of the surrounding landscape which so far has remained largely hidden..
Looking back, the snowy ditch leads down from the Chilkoot Pass. The trail is well worn by hikers dragging footsteps - I’m also counting the distance to Happy Camp. One hundred year old scars from wagon wheels mark the land. Rusting horse shoes, bleached skulls and worn teeth are evidence that animals too suffered this pass.
This side of the Chilkoot pass is higher and drier than the American side. The resulting change of climatic condition is reflected in the vegetation. Instead of lush greens of a wet rain forest, explosions of bright colour dot the slopes. Pink is fireweed, yellow is arnica.
Elation! In the distance, the roof shelter of Happy Camp appears amongst the scrub. Finally reaching the campground, with a grin on my face and my knees in agreement, the backpack is unceremoniously dumped. Sunshine breaks through lingering clouds, driving dampness away. Fantastic end to an incredible day. Wow!
The 14.1 km / 8.7 mile walk took about 8 hours.