This, then, is where it begins, with a simple trailhead at the curve before the Dyea bridge. A fan of powdered root-dirt spills over rocks and dribbles into the grass and gravel. A gust of wind and the trees exhale pollen and dust. Angular bootprints overlap each other in a jostle for permanence. A camera whirs, preserving the broad clean grins of hikers as they pose next to the Chilkoot Trail sign. One more, someone says, I had my eyes closed! and there are groans and shifts of weight as people flex their shoulders under their packs. Then another contrived grin and the camera is tucked away and there are claps on shoulders as hikers turn to the trail, stepping up into the trees. Bright packs span the length of their backs to rest on half-hidden buttocks, colored rings of heavy socks decorate their ankles; bare knees crease with each step until they are swallowed up by the trail.
For the next few days, these hikers, like the group before them and the group before that, will belong to the winding Chilkoot which in turn belongs to Parks Canada and the National Park Service. This summer, I too belong to the Park Service. I'm a summer worker, a student-hire from the university in Fairbanks. I took the job at the Skagway Trail Center because I grew up just across the water in the town of Haines, and I feel I still belong to this corner of the world, this skinny elbow of Alaska that branches south into the panhandle. I've returned to scratch a few short months into the earth here before leaving Alaska for graduate school back east. Sometimes, I think I'm looking for some sort of history on which to graft my own experience—or maybe just the inverse—but my grounding here, like that of the trail itself, has shifted in the intervening years.
A hundred-ten years ago, Dyea's main road—Trail Street—ran from the beach to the Taiya River crossing with a wagon road rambling further up the route. For some, the lower river was the trail, as they poled canoes and rafts upstream, while later ones sledged on the winter ice. Tents and freight filled the corners of the route for miles as some thirty-odd thousand stampeders rushed north toward Dawson and the Klondike gold fields. The original trail navigated the canyon at Canyon City; the new trail skirts it. Glacial rebound has raised the valley nearly ten feet and the Taiya has wandered in its bed, washing west over the remains of Dyea's downtown and even its cemetery, while logging roads from the 1950s obscured or appropriated early sections of the old route. In 1961, convicts and juvenile delinquents roughed out a trail for renewed use on the east side of the river, rather than the west. Camps and tent cities that once housed a thousand or more among saloons, boarding houses and restaurants have been gobbled up by the landscape and replaced by bare warming huts and tent platforms. Early Dyea and Skagway residents collected trail-discarded goods for use or to sell, while hikers slipped them into their packs as souvenirs.
It's not the same trail, and yet hikers—limited to fifty a day over the course of the hundred-day season—still come. The limit is imposed for environmental concerns, to protect the trail and its habitat of bears and mountain goats, martens and voles and the odd moose, and promote a wilderness experience for the hiker far different from the wildness that crossed this pass over a century ago.
When the Klondike was discovered in 1896 and word steamed into San Francisco and Seattle a year later with over two tons of recovered gold, it spurred one of the last great gold rushes. The country had been suffering a slow depression since the Civil War; people began to hoard their gold, and in 1893, the economy crashed yet again. Four years later, Klondike gold filled the nation's consciousness; it was a lottery that any man willing to work could win, and the image of Klondike kings wrestling their suitcases filled with gold down the gangplank impressed itself upon a country.
Within hours, the stampede had begun. Clerks jumped counters and policemen left their beats. The Mayor of Seattle joined, along with a general, a former governor, and an hotelier. Some hundred-thousand prospectors and proprietors left their homes for the Canadian gold fields, traveling catch-as-catch-can toward the north.
Routes to the Klondike—some untried, some unknown—multiplied. A rich man's route entailed sailing the entire way, cutting across the Aleutians northward to St. Michael at the mouth of the Yukon and then taking a steamer up the river. An all-American route dumped some 3,500 dreamers off at Valdez, in front of its uncharted glacier. Perhaps one in 200 made it to the Klondike that way (Berton 200). Other routes—the Ashcroft Trail, the Stikine Trail, the Edmonton Trail—snaked across Canada, delivering only a handful of aspirants.
Two in the upper crook of Southeast Alaska, however, proved most popular: the Chilkoot Trail and the White Pass Trail, originating in Dyea and Skagway respectively. The idea of each was the same: to traverse narrow passes through the Coast Mountains, drop down to the lakes and rivers that fed into the Yukon, and float the rest of the way northwest to Dawson, where the streets were strewn with gold in flake and nugget form.
Overnight, the trailheads bloomed into competing towns of tents, straggled roads and saloons. The more westerly of these was Dyea (pronounced Die-ee, from the Tlingit word diyei meaning "to pack"), originally the site of a Tlingit fish camp on the mouth of the Taiya river. For at least two centuries before the rush, the Chilkoot Indians had used and guarded the trail as their primary trading route through the Coast Mountains. When they found they could not prevent the steady flow of miners over their pass, they hired themselves out as packers, charging up to a dollar a pound. If the stampeder bargained too much, the Native packers simply refused to port that person's goods, leaving them at the mercy of the tides on Dyea flats.
The demand for packers intensified as the Northwest Mounted Police appeared at the summit of each trail, claiming Canada's boundary with a pair of machine guns. From those dual posts, they required each stampeder to carry with him a full year's supply of food, plus whatever accoutrements he may also need. Early prospectors had slipped into Canada with plans to purchase food as they went, not realizing that there simply wasn't any; even as stampeders struggled across the northward trails, Dawson itself was slowly starving, waiting for next summer's supplies.
And so the stampede carted—on their own backs, on sleds, on the backs of friends and porters—a rough ton of goods including 400 pounds of flour, 200 pounds of bacon, forty pounds of candles, and five bars of soap, heavy winter clothing of wool and mining tools: saws, hatchets, nails, shovels, and stove. All had to be portaged and cached, in fifty or hundred pound bundles, over the thirty-three miles. The trip could take anywhere between three weeks to three months.
I leave work at the Trail Center at six p.m., and am on the trail by seven-thirty. The first half-mile climbs 300 feet up Saintly Hill, thus named because its early incline could try the patience of a saint, or perhaps only a saint could keep from cursing. Tonight, after a day spent standing and sitting in a small office, the climb feels good. It's early July, and my legs feel strong; I don't curse, but breathe deep and inhale a small mosquito that chokes at the back of my throat. I hack for a moment, and continue.
The sun is high but oblique behind thin clouds, shooting side rays through the trees. Hiking in the evening is cooler and quieter; I can hear the gentle swoosh of the river and the creak of branches, the squeak of my pack and the ping-ping of borrowed hiking poles as they bounce off small stones.
Descending from Saintly Hill, the trail is broad and packed, two or three could walk abreast here. But no one else is on the trail with me during these miles; I am alone with my thoughts and the mosquitoes investigating the moist vestiges of my skin. I pause to lather on more bug dope, smearing it on the back of my neck, the outer curve of my ear, the small of my back where my shirt rides up.
Without the stampeders' supplies, the trail takes only three to five days, and few hikers carry more than forty pounds, some less than thirty. My pack weighs in at just twenty-seven pounds, plus a hefty half-pound canister of bear spray that dangles from a loop at my side and knocks against my thigh. I don't like carrying the spray; there are too many ifs tied to its effectiveness—if the bear is ten yards away, if it's downwind, and if I can unhook the canister, aim and spray before such a bear could swat me sideways—but I carry it because my boss wants me to.
My boss is a ranger for the Klondike Gold Rush National Historic Park; this summer I work as a Visitor Use Assistant in the Chilkoot Trail Center. I answer hikers' questions and sell them permits, and on the weekends I wander around the Dyea campground picking up litter and making campers feel safer. Just as my gray and green uniform reassures some, bear spray makes people feel safer.
Four miles into the trail, a little before Finnegan's Point, I see my first bear. The trail is broad here, slipping gradually down toward the campground. An old, heavy spruce on my left briefly darkens the sky, and then I'm past its shadow. A scattering of slim birches fringed with tall grass on my right and I am singing to myself again, singing nonsense songs collected from the radio, and planting the hiking poles forward in a swinging arc.
On the right, a movement catches my eye and I slow to look over. A small face peers back at me through the tall grass. Perhaps thirty feet away, just out of range for the bear spray. He's a honey blonde-brown, and his shoulders weave slightly as he lifts his nose, trying to smell my combination of shampoo, bug dope and human. Upright, then, I think, and realize he must be young, barely more than a cub. Inquisitive.
More startled than scared, I forget about the bear spray slapping my hip and lift my hiking poles over my head, clacking the metal together instead. "Hey bear," I say, "Hey bear." I can almost see his brow ridge lift with curiosity as I turn, facing him, and move sideways down the trail, past him. "Hey, pretty bear." I clack the hiking poles above me. The bear drops, his face disappearing in the blond grass as I inch further down the trail. He goes his way, I go mine.
These trails have always acted as conduits, not only channeling travelers of all types and species from one place to another, but collecting them as well. They congregate populations, siphoning them up through the mountains, draining them out into the lowlands, the headwaters of the Yukon. Our shoulders rub against others; each of us displaced, we share this communal space, giving way, moving forward, intent on our common purpose.
A hundred years ago, this trail brought together ministers and whores, card sharks, bus boys, shopkeepers, writers, dreamers, a few murderers, more drifters, engineers, farmers, students, the unemployed and the unemployable. In the winter of 1897-1898, some 22,000 crossed the Chilkoot Pass, converging upon Dawson with the veterans of other routes. As stampeders spilled into the Klondike, Dawson bulged with some 40,000 men, women and children; a few months later, by 1899, four out of five had left. By 1903, Dyea, the mouth of the Chilkoot, had crumbled from 8,000 residents to just three.
The numbers have become a litany rounded by history. Who is to say that a few more didn't slip through, a few less turned back early? For a moment, they were part of the greater collective; afterward, they scattered, pushing on to the golden beaches of Nome, Fairbanks and the fledgling outposts of the north, or turning back, retreating from their dreams, returning to the farm, office or shop they had left the year before.
For a moment, these people were seen, thrust into rough relief by their exertions, their aspirations. For a moment, they congregate: they see, and are seen.
Between Finnegan's Point and Canyon City, the Alaska summer sun begins to wallow, dipping into the trees and behind the ridges. It is nearly 10 p.m. I stop singing and start listening, not sure what I want to hear: the sway of the trees, the whine of mosquitoes, my own sharp exhalations.
It's the second time I've hiked this trail this summer, but as the day wanes the trail telescopes and distance kaleidoscopes. I know I'm on the right trail, I know I'm not lost and that Canyon City and the Trail Crew cabin are ahead of me. Still, the woods seem to whisper to me. A chill creeps across the nape of my neck, and I pull down the sleeves of my long underwear top.
A water creature dives into the river below, beyond the trail's cusp; by the time I look, the ripples have vanished in overhanging branches. I convince myself that it was a bear. That there are lots of bears on this trail. And that all things happen in threes.
I count the triplicates in my life for the next mile, letting bear and boogey-man stories coalesce in the back of my brain. The air deepens to a spruce-scented grey and I start hoping that the trail crew will wonder about me, will hike down to find me. One, Adam, has asked me out a few times but the relationship has stalled in that uncomfortable space of conflicting schedules and my own indifference; now I wish I had radioed ahead so that he would be expecting me.
The trail climbs with a drunken gait, twisting, dropping, climbing back out of gulches and gullies. I begin to feel tired. My right knee aches a bit after a sharp ascent. A mosquito raises a welt between my knuckles and I stop to scratch it furiously before looping the hiking pole back over my wrist. I start to worry that I've missed the turn off to the Trail Crew cabin, its steep granite scramble hidden in the grey light.
My aloneness shrinks the space around me, leaving me vulnerable. For the first time on a trail, I feel afraid. Of what, I'm not sure. I breathe harder, recite prayers and the things I hate about myself in thin whispers that collect around my lips.
And then, a rustle. The bushes next to me convulse slightly and I jump half a foot sideways. A bear! A bear! The third, promised bear, hidden behind a screen of dusky greenery. I don't see it, but I hike faster, knees in a quick lockstep, pack-straps creaking, hiking poles pinging a staccato against glacial-scoured rock. I don't exhale until I see the thin twist upward, the path toward tonight's home.
Inside, collages plaster the wall near the loft-ladder, images cut and pasted from magazines, rippled with time and too much glue. Women's eyes look back at mine in a sensual, angular repetition that's vaguely disconcerting. Joe, one of the Trail Crew, hands me a cup of cocoa. It's a hobby of some of the guys, he says, but they try to keep them from being offensive in case women come to visit. I sip the chocolate and wonder what women have visited since my short lunch here a month ago.
The cabin is brushed clean in that bare wood style that speaks of outdoors and pragmatism. A metal cabinet under the loft contains a summer's worth of spaghetti sauce and pasta, canned fruit and Bisquick, airlifted here back in May. A spectrum of gold rush-era bottles—greens, blues, whisky-browns—lines the front window, looking out over the helicopter pad and the crew's tent platforms. Bright orange dome tents—their bedrooms—dot the hillside; I have the one-room cabin to myself. It's a perk of the job, knowing the people who work out here, getting to crash in their summer homes. I lean my light pack against the wall, happy I'm not carrying a tent, water filter or stove.
The men—and this season they are all men—on the Trail Crew work eight days on and six days off, days that begin shortly after the morning radio call at 7:45 and last until or after the evening radio update at 5:15. They clear brush, build bridges, maintaining and preserving the Chilkoot via strong backs and chain saws. At the end of the day, they take turns making dinner for each other, listening to the static radio station from Haines, playing puzzles and games and reading. There's no TV here, no phones, no alcohol. I pull a bag of slightly smashed brownies out of my pack—my peace offering and thanks for hospitality—and put them on the counter. Joe takes one, smiles, and then stashes the rest away where the smell won't reach out to passing bears.
Joe bids me good night and I crawl up into the loft, warm and protected and smelling only slightly of DEET. I spit on my fingers, try to wipe some of the chemical from my face. It collects under my short fingernails in dirty crescents. I give up and fall asleep.
In the morning, I wake to the sound of a helicopter. There are flight seeing tours out of Skagway and Dyea, but I don't know of any that come this far, or this early. Joe comes back to the cabin and we share a banana, waiting for the early morning radio call. My co-worker Jennifer from the Trail Center reads out the weather for the next day or two, the schedule of hikers at the various campgrounds with notes to keep an eye on the Boy Scouts and one couple that seem under-prepared. The other trail camps report in: Ellis, the Trail Ranger at Sheep Camp and Sarah the Canadian Warden from Lindeman. A sick hiker has been evacuated from near Sheep Camp—he got sick in the night, and his daughter finally went up to the ranger cabin for help. Ellis thinks it might be the man's appendix. Each party gives their well-wishes and signs off.
We don't say anything, the silent listeners.
Breakfast ends in a rush. Joe ends his shift today and he is in a hurry to return to Dyea and then Skagway, to see his fiancée and dog again. I'm not sure which he is more excited about, and I shove my sleeping bag into my pack and catch his directions toward the trail's shortcut; his hand makes pointing and turning motions. It's right near the outhouse, he says, and I nod. But if you need to go, he says, pee outside. It's urine that makes an outhouse smell.
Canyon City—the ruins and the present-day campground—sit just above where the Nourse River meets the Taiya, at the mouth of a narrow canyon. The trail wriggles upward here, white rocks bulging through the earth-padded trail to trip the unwary hiker. I trip more than once, and start watching my feet.
When I hiked the trail back in June, I spent the first night at the ranger's cabin in Sheep Camp, and these late miles of pushing off stone pounded my feet. That night, Pleasant Camp, with its open sandbar and river view, seemed like a sick tease; I paused only minutes before continuing. Now the bright morning seems welcoming, and I hitch my pack off next to the picnic table. I wait to watch Adam and Ellis shoot film for the Park Service's new orientation video. They have just finished their eight-day shift as well, but instead of hiking back out via Dyea, they've agreed to hike through over the Pass and take the train back to Skagway.
I didn't realize that our schedules would converge in these campgrounds for the next two days, and am not sure quite how I feel about the company. Last night, I would have given my chocolate for someone to hike with, now I feel awkwardly captured by their loud conversation, an intruder walking into a private poker party. Somehow, it seems rude to push on past them, to purposefully shuck their company. I have no excuse to do so, and so I linger. I slap at black flies and watch while they take turns setting up and breaking down a camp stove and filter water at the bridge.
From here the trail rises gradually north to Sheep Camp, flanking the river. Sheep Camp, nestled in a basin just below tree line, is the last campground before the ascent to the Pass. During the Gold Rush, it held some 1,500 people with their tents, goods, and businesses, along with stray dogs and packhorses unable to climb the grade. Now, as then, travelers about to cross the Pass stay here by necessity. The next campground is four miles into Canada, and hikers are required to stay in the campgrounds to manage our environmental impact. A collection of tent platforms dot the forest as groomed trails snake to warming huts built by convicts, bear-proof boxes and brand spanking new outhouses. The men film me entering and exiting the outhouse, twice.
Just past Sheep Camp, we pass the ranger's cabin, where I met Ellis a month ago. Then, he showed me videos on his computer, poured me red box wine, and kept up a steady patter of conversation. I nodded mutely, rubbing my cramped feet, unable to keep up with his energy. The same energy drives him now: when we finish with the outhouse, he has me sign in on the Hiker's Log. (As a woman, I'm recruited to provide gender diversity in the orientation film, which makes me wish I had borrowed my neighbor's matching poly-propylene, rather than my collection of ragtag hiking clothes.) He says, write whatever, and so I scrawl Whatever in the narrow line, too shy and uncomfortable to be anything but literal. This messes up his camera shot.
Soon after Sheep Camp, the men pass me by. Adam lingers for a moment to slide his hand against my shoulder, and then he too moves ahead. For years, I thought I was a slow hiker, a plodding, out-of-shape weakling, too physically frail to lay claim to any trail. But as I watch them bounce forward up Long Hill, I feel good in my own limbs. Strong. The ranger hikes this ascent daily; the trail crews ascend and descend the entire Alaskan side carrying chainsaws and wood planks; together, they spend their days off climbing the trail-less mountains that ring Sheep Camp. That they are faster than me casts no aspersions on my own ability.
More than that, though, I am happy to see them move ahead. If they slowed for me, we would both be frustrated: they bored and sluggish, I rushed and irritated. Their voices still flitter down, and that is plenty. The separation leaves me alone to pace myself, plant my feet squarely, to breathe deep and long and even.
The trees give way to high foliage, bushes, scrub and false hellebore, a curious plant that will raise a rash if you brush against it under a sunny sky; the sunshine releases poisonous alkaloids. I am careful, holding it away from my legs with the hiking poles, edging past carefully. Then it too yields to the high alpine—a mess of angled boulders studded with sun-stippled snow.
I thread through the rock field, following cairns of stacked stones, splotches of old paint, and bright marking tape. Some of the rocks tip gently under my feet to tease my precarious balance. In the space of four miles, Long Hill climbs some 1,500 feet; looking up I feel as though I am in the bottom of a narrow jaw, the mountains around me dark molars spotted with sheep and snow.
Early in the season, snow hangs dangerously from these peaks and ridges, rumbling as it sloughs off. In today's warmth, the snow seems to lean away from me, slumping back into shadow to hug the mountainsides. I can trace the path of fallen iceballs that have tumbled down the receding glaciers and snowfields like a child's battle weapons; they leave thin tracks in the sunny-gloss of the snow. It looks benign and picturesque, and I pause at the edge of a snow-patch to rub the granular cold against the back of my neck. As it melts, it trickles down my spine, dampening the strap of my bra. I sigh, happy, resting against a boulder and gulping down some water. A light breeze lifts, flattening my shirt against my front; I stretch into the coolness, retie my bandana over my scalp, and pick out a palmful of cashews before beginning to hike again.
The winter of 1898 was not kind to those on the Chilkoot Trail. Nearly seventy feet of snow fell at the summit, burying supply caches. In February and March, heavy snows blanketed the slopes and slowed the stampeders' progress to a creep. On the first Saturday in April, a blizzard blew another six feet of snow upon the peaks (Berton 256), before dropping some with Palm Sunday's daybreak; fidgeting stampeders set off for the summit despite avalanche-ripe conditions that made others—including the Native packers—balk. Late morning, three slides claimed over sixty lives; the largest and most deadly of these covered ten acres. Within minutes, over a thousand men responded from Sheep Camp and all traffic halted for four days as bodies were recovered.
On Monday, April 4, 1898 the Dyea Press published a special bulletin headlined: "A Disastrous Avalanche—First Authentic List of Fatalities Reported. Complete Details As Far As Can Be Procured.—Many Encounter Sudden Death On The Trail." The ambiguity of death remained unsettled, however. A committee of miners turned a Sheep Camp tent into a makeshift morgue; strangers shuttled bodies south. With Soapy Smith, Skagway's local crime boss, acting as coroner, bodies arriving in Dyea were stripped of their valuables. Some were shipped home for burial while others were interred there in Dyea in a cemetery dedicated to them. Still others were tucked into the mountainside itself, silent witnesses to the parade of the humanity that once again shouldered its packs.
No one knows, exactly, how many died or who they all were. Each account differs slightly, overlapping some but never completely. Six tombstones in the Slide Cemetery are blank; if once known, they are no longer.
As I continue hiking, I reflect on the anonymity of death here. My purpose for the summer is, of course, to prevent such—to track each hiker by name and itinerary, to know where they sleep each evening, to notice if someone goes missing. If I broke an ankle or stopped to sit here on a rock in the sun, someone would soon find me, collect me, carry or fly me home. Were the achievements of forgotten stampeders any less, I wonder, because their stories were less recorded? Their exertion, their pain, their daydreams less noted or less crucial?
The duality—the anonymous seeking the unknown—intrigues me. What would it be like to not know the next camp, the next day, to step out on a foreign trail—or no trail—with simply a hope of gold, to say goodbye and simply keep going? To slip past the humanity with a nod, a smile, and disappear into a silent future. The possibility still draws people to Alaska, channeling them northward, and for a long moment, I am tempted.
When I reach the Scales, I pause again. Here the trail levels for a moment; here stampeders' packs were reweighed and packing fees renegotiated. From here, the slog of Long Hill pitches upward and the climb begins. The snowy route has melted out into a rock pile, a sludge of boulders and scree rambled together, an exercise in balance. I telescope my hiking poles to their shortest length and tie them onto my pack. They are more unwieldy than helpful as the trail steepens to a forty-five-degree angle. The best bet is the three-touch rule, three points of contact between me and the rock at all times—two arms and a leg, two legs and an arm, a shoulder or knee when I can swing it.
I move up as much as I move forward, curving my back to lean into the rock, holding my balance close to the earth so that my ungainly pack won't pull me sideways or backward. I feel my cheeks redden with exertion, my hairline dampen with sweat as I twist and lift my body upward.
There is a pattern, a logic, to this movement refined into separate motions. A boot nosing into a crevice, fingers that curl, press, against rough granite edges. Like working a crossword puzzle with my body: the mind's focus zeroing in on a scrolling patch of slope not much larger than me. The rest—job frustration, worry, anxiety, the niggling emotions that prickle up and down my spine in Skagway—sloughs off. I don't move quickly, but I move steadily, not looking up, not looking down. Upward is overwhelming, turning to look down is scary, providing a gorgeous view, but also reminding me what happens if I misstep, if I turn an ankle and let go. I watch my feet, lever myself forward.
Minus the snow, this is the image people conjure when they imagine the Chilkoot: the dark swarm of men thinning to a single line as they wind upward on a stairway cut into ice, one step at a time, no pausing, and no stepping off. Ant-like, their ascent blurred by snow and sweat. The best of these images come from E. A. Hegg, a photographer from Seattle who spent the winter of 1897-1898 documenting the movement on the Chilkoot and on Skagway's White Pass trail. Of the Golden Stairs, he chose to shoot panoramas, dwarfing his stampeders by the mountains surrounding them; their faces minute, tucked behind scarves and collars; none looking up, none posing. His photos starkly contrast the black figures with the washed whiteness of the snow. Like nothing else, his images embody the movement of the stampede, distilling the men to their raw motion.
Today, the photos are reproduced as postcards and posters; in Skagway, they are omnipresent, staring back at me from walls and license plates. Sometimes I forget to stare back. Sometimes I choose not to, choose to slide my eyes lightly over the anonymous figures and faces. Other times, I catch myself wondering about them. About how and why they came: not just the gold, but what they wanted from the gold, what they prayed as they fell asleep, who they missed. What drew these men to do this? To climb this same hill forty times with heavy packs? At some point, in the swarm of humanity, their sureness of riches must have faltered, and yet they pressed on. Why?
In trying to explain the same thing, Pierre Berton, the son of one such miner, points to their age and impetuosity—most "were still young enough to want to search for something even though they did not exactly know what it was they were searching for" (408)— and the "steadfastness" (409) of those who persevered to Dawson.
When I see their photos, my throat tightens.
Refusing perspective keeps me calm. My hopes don't rise at the false summit or as old snow appears, smooth and sweet, between rocks. I distrust the snow. It is too simple, too easy. Summer melt has undercut its presence until only a thin bridge, too weak to hold my weight, lingers. I tamp the crusty snow with a boot before edging on to it.
From above, one of the men halloes, checking on me. I holler back. It's Adam, and he says he'll wait. I lean against a rock for a moment, blink to refocus my eyes. The afternoon is waning and the sun beginning to pull away; fresh wind spills over the Pass to cool my cheeks. It smells like rock and long winters and new frontiers. Thin wisps of clouds race across the sky. Goosebumps begin to pebble my arms.
A packless Adam waits for me at a rock outcropping near the false summit. He's already been to the summit and has dipped back down to hike the last rise with me. The ground is mostly snow here, but it's melted out around the weathered spines of collapsible canoes. The wood and tattered canvas have bleached to almost the color of rock, and we look at them for a minute, then shrug and continue. Their owners no doubt meant to canoe from Lake Bennett to Dawson, another 550 miles of lake and rapid-studded rivers. I wonder, briefly, if their owners ever made it to Dawson, if this abandoned cache meant they turned around, slid down the steep snow and walked home.
Adam looks back at me, smile splitting his face apart, and I smile back. He comes down to give me a hug, rubbing his rough red beard against my cheek and says that he's so glad I decided to come and hike with him. His eyes are wider than most, as if he were perpetually surprised, a child excited by each new moment. I don't tell him that I didn't come here for him, afraid of marring that smile. So I hug him back and we try to hold hands and hike up together, but the snow is too slippery and so we let go to keep our balance.
At the summit, water boils cheerily for hot chocolate in the Warden Cabin where Alaska and Canada meet. Sarah, one of the Parks Canada Wardens, has hiked up from Lindeman, and together we watch the evening weather roll in from the north, funneling smoggy clouds through the gap until a thin mist clings to the glass windows, refracting the blank light. Winds buffet the small cabin; at the table our knees knock into each other. The inside is cramped and white; two rooms. The first holds a kitchen with a nook of a table where our knees touch, in the back are facing bunks.
After dinner, the men mosey down to the unheated warming hut, and Sarah and I roll out foam mattresses and sleeping bags. It's the second time I've met Sarah; when I hiked through last month I stayed with her at Lindeman. That night, it was the other warden's birthday, and for nearly an hour I hand-whipped egg whites for a meringue while she rolled out a pie crust. We sang happy birthday and ate moose stew, tossing our napkins into the stove as we finished. Laundered underwear and socks hung from a wire behind the stove pipe, dripping occasionally on the firewood.
Afterward, she and the other warden compared notes about the recent bear sightings. I sipped quietly at my tea as I listened to them unravel the history of the area's fauna: this adolescent as the offspring of that sow, that blackie and little brown that hung out last summer, the current crop of cubs, and the small herds of elk and goats that move through the area. If the radio hadn't squawked goodnight from Whitehorse, they could have talked past midnight.
Tonight, as the winds scream and die and settle and scream again, we burrow into our bedding—I wear my long johns to sleep in, and can feel the poly-pro rasp against DEET-tendered skin—and talk in the half-light of clouds. About the trail, some, about how we came to be here. The magnetism of this place that draws us back. She's worked on this trail since the mid-1970s, putting in her first season soon after the international park began staffing it. I realize that she must have been the warden here when my own father hiked this trail, when he was my age, before I was born.
The minutes billow over us like the wind. Sarah rolls over, looks back up at the ceiling. One of the Native groups here wants to adopt her. It hasn't happened yet, she says, but it's an honor, and she is very excited. Don't tell anyone yet, she asks, please?
A day and a half later, we hike together near Bare Loon Lake. Listen, she says. Can you hear them? The back of my neck shivers. I pause in drinking and a trickle of water spills from the corner of my mouth. I wipe it away with the side of my palm and hold my breath in the silence. A moment, and then a high quavery call like lakeside ripples. A singularly lonely sound echoing between the trees. The call pauses, drops to the common loon's signature three-tone wail. Neither of us moves despite the whine of a close mosquito. The lake falls quiet again, and then another loon answers.
John Muir described the call of the loon as "one of the wildest and most striking of all the wilderness sounds, a strange, sad, mournful, unearthly cry, half laughing, half wailing." This morning, there's something haunting about it, something ghostly that mingles in the morning mist, shadow-like. Echo-like.
Sarah leans down to adjust the tongue of her boot. The straps on her pack creak with the movement, and I blink, gulp down one more swallow of water before tucking my Nalgene away. The lake gleams dull and silver over my right shoulder, its surface pocked with droplets and water bugs.
She settles her foot back in the boot, wags her ankle back and forth before pointing toward the small island where the loons nest each summer, hatching and raising their twin-egged clutch. I can't see much in the mist. We wait another moment, listening to the echoing calls, then I pull up the edge of a lazy sock and we continue hiking. Bare Loon Lake has one of the smallest of the Chilkoot trail's campgrounds, and yesterday's hikers—I remember seven from the radio call—have already pitched camp and must be ahead of us on the trail.
Once on the Canadian side, the stampeders followed a trail of lakes—Crater, Morrow, Long Lake, Deep Lake—to the six-mile long Lake Lindeman. Some stopped there while others pushed on to Lake Bennett, where they met up with the veterans of that winter's other route, the White Pass trail. There they stopped again, halted by winter's ice. Along the lakeside they built quick bustling towns of heavy canvas tents and cached goods. They denuded the flanks of unnamed mountains, using the wood to scrabble together the river boats that would, hopefully, carry them north to the burgeoning Dawson.
Pierre Berton recorded the lakeside sounds in his Klondike: "the rumble of avalanches mingled with the screech of the new sawmills, the crash of toppling timber, the rasp of saw and plane, the pounding of mallets, the incessant tap-tapping of a thousand hammers, the shrill altercations of embittered partners, the neighing of horses, the bleating of goats, and the howling of malamutes." (263).
In contrast, today's trail is foggy with quiet. Ellis and Adam have spent the morning leapfrogging us with their camera; they are ahead of us now and so we hike in silence. Nor is there much to see in these last miles: A bit of rusted metal. A twisted thread of telegraph wire. On the side of the mountain, a line of green marks a century's worth of growth. It's our last day on the trail and much of the debris has been carted off by souvenir-seekers. Lake Bennett is four miles ahead; on our left is Lake Lindeman, on our right, Bare Loon Lake. We slip between the rocks and the trees and the long bodies of quiet water, our boots leaving dry patches in the trail's dew-damp crust, and sandy outlines on exposed rock. The grey sky brightens slowly, burning through the wet clouds.
As we walk, Sarah tells me about the loons' daily schedule, how they leave each morning to fish and forage for the chicks—which prefer minnows and snails—before returning to the nest in the evening. The funny thing is, she explains, they think we do the same thing. Every afternoon-evening, the campground fills up with hikers setting up their tents, racketing around making dinner, and then in the morning, they break camp and head on to Bennett. And when that evening's hikers come in, the loons just think it's the same people returning. They can't tell the difference.
I pause for a moment, nod. An anthropomorphic view, but something about it makes sense: here the people are transitory and the loons, which live up to thirty years and return every summer to this lake, are the locals. From a bird's eye view, yesterday's wave of hikers is the same as today's, and this season's steady stream of boots and backpacks is no different than the previous year's. Even in my own mind, the hikers I meet in the Trail Center have begun to slip, to conflate into yesterday's group or last week's pilgrimage. I can't tell them apart any more than I could keep track of the color of their North Face coats. They appear as reincarnations with the same fears, bandanas, accents, and the same ripe aroma.
We hike on, silent now, and I wonder if Sarah sympathizes with the loons as well. She's overseen generations of people like me, summer rangers and trail crew, students crammed into uniforms, witnessed the daily waves and the seasonal tides of workers for thirty years. This trail is home to her, and she knows it with a depth that makes me feel fumbly and awkward. And yet, two nights ago she told me about her upcoming adoption as though I was the only one she'd explained it to.
Now she pulls her graying hair back with combs and she places her feet solidly upon the trail, as if she already knew each step—each rock, root, shrub—before making it. In a slow sea of people, the rocks are a constant.
When we reach Bennett, Sarah peels away. In an hour, she's giving a historical talk for the day passengers coming up on the train from Skagway—she'll meet them at St. Andrews church, the only surviving Gold Rush structure at Bennett, but first she wants to walk down to the beach and glass the hillside for bears. I turn left, loosening the shoulder straps on my pack, letting the weight sway over my hips as I walk down toward the bright, boarded-up station. A few picnic tables weather in the sun, and I drop the pack on one of them. The clouds spread further apart and the sun turns hot. Bennett turns more beautiful. The lake mirrors a glassy blue and sunshiny weeds poke around the grey picnic tables.
I press a finger to my forearm to check for sunburn. None yet.
Across the train tracks a few straggling hikers mince blistered feet down the last rise, the lake stretching out to the right. As I watch them, sharing a piece of cheese with another hiker, emotion swoops in and sucker-punches me in the gut. The bright sun turns to an embrace. For me, this is the end of the trail, here on the banks of Bennett Lake. There will be no boat-building, no whip-sawing logs into tippy rafts loaded with all my worldly goods. There will be no Dawson, no gold. In an hour, I'll take the train south from here, zigzagging down through White Pass, the Chilkoot's parallel route that began in Skagway. Tomorrow, I will be back at work, answering mindless questions for faceless visitors and next month, I'll say goodbye to Adam and leave Alaska for school back east.
I pull out my Nalgene, take a gulp of tepid water. With the clarity of sore knees, dirt-rimmed nails and exultant muscles, I feel placed, purposed, known. Although it's the second time I've been here, I've yet to explore the lake edges or the few buildings; still, the long-gone ghost town with its railroad tracks and bright, boarded-up station house seems congenial and friendly now.
When the train rumbles its early boarding call, I walk my pack in front of me, kicking it forward with my knees and lifting it into the last car. A dozen or so other hikers are taking today's train back; their packs lean against each other in small mountains, and their untied boots and laces dangle off grime-ringed ankles. I prop my pack against theirs and wave a hello. Many are familiar faces from the Trail Center and from three days of leapfrogging through the various campgrounds. Most of the women hikers are wearing braids or bandanas, decorated with small haloes of escaped hair. The men sprout half-inch beards.
The train hisses and starts, leaving behind the cheery but locked boarding house that used to sell lunches, and we begin to trundle south. I pull the last of my trail mix from my pack. There are a few M&Ms left, and I chase them through the various nuts and dried fruits before offering the rest over the seatback. In a practical discrimination, hikers are segregated to the last railcars, where our outdoor smell won't bother the tourists. As yet, I can't quite smell myself, but I know that's coming.
A few miles down the tracks, I'll feel the caked sweat in the knees of my nylon pants. I'll become aware, again, of the streaks of dried mud that paint the inside of my calves, a souvenir from walking a wet trail. I'll become aware of my own hair, stringy with scalp oil and matted with movement. My muscles will begin to cramp, and my stomach will begin to ache for a burger and beer. The windows will slide closed between me and Bennett.
But not quite yet: I can still judge the weight of my boots as natural and, even better, purposeful. The train still feels foreign, the air stuffy with prepackaged heat, varnished wood, plastic and people. The sounds of hikers' voices strangely contained, their crescendo and fall spilling over each other, unable to escape.
In two short hours, we weave over White Pass, pausing to salute a deserted line of flags before descending back to Skagway, where the engines hiss and hoot, shuffling the railcars across Broadway and bisecting the short six-block shopping area from the harbor lined with cruise ships. Conductors stand on either side of the tracks, waving off the tourists who gather in to see. The whistle blasts and we are home. I shake my head of sleep and retie my bandana. Arms lifted, I sniff. Other hikers are doing the same, stuffing fleece back into packs and readjusting their straps. Of the different cars, ours is the one the tourists stare at: we are incongruities of Gore-Tex in streets lined with shops selling cheap shirts and overpriced jewels. Holding onto the handrail, I swing myself off the deep step and onto pavement. The crowds of tourists on Second and Broadway are overwhelming and I watch others slip under their packs and scatter homeward, disappearing in the throng. I realize I never exchanged names with any of them.
Berton, Pierre. The Klondike fever: the Life and Death of the Last Great Gold Rush. New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, 1958.
Muir, John. Edwin Teale, ed. The Wilderness World of John Muir. New York: Mariner Books, 2001.
Neufeld, David and Frank Norris. Chilkoot Trail: Heritage Route to the Klondike. Whitehorse, Yukon: Lost Moose, 1996.
Copyright © Alita Putnam 2008.