“An unbroken line of men, stretching into the cold skies, provides the stampede with its most memorable spectacle on the slopes of the Chilkoot Pass.” With those words on page 244, Pierre Berton, in his book, Klondike Fever (see details below) describes an agonizing episode in the Alaskan Klondike Gold Rush of 1897-98. The Chilkoot Pass was a route from present day Dyea, Alaska, to Bennett in British Columbia, that was used by gold miners making their way to the hoped-for gold treasures in the Yukon. Dyea is located near Skagway, a familiar stop for many tourists who travel to Alaska.
On our trip to Alaska in the summer of 2005, my wife and I took a bus trip in order to “Experience the Yukon.” While we didn’t actually get onto the Chilkoot Trail, our driver/guide told us the gruesome details. It made me glad we were riding in a bus during warm weather.
Originally a trade route used by members of the Tlingit society (an Alaskan ethnic group), the Chilkoot Trail was used to carry fish, seal oil, and seaweed to the interior of Canada. In 1896, gold was discovered on a tributary of the Klondike River in Canada. When the news got out in 1897, the rush was on. The Chilkoot Trail became one of the primary ways into the Canadian Yukon territory.
The trail is 33 miles long. At one point, it rises almost 35 degrees, where, as Berton writes, a man could drop to his hands and knees and still be almost upright (page 249). From Sheep Camp, the last staging area on the way over the pass, the trail rose four miles to the summit. In the winter, the climb was even more arduous. Our guide told us that to help in the climb, the men cut steps into the packed snow and ice.
If all of this was not bad enough, the task of the climbers was made almost impossible by a Canadian government regulation that required every miner to have certain equipment and food that totaled approximately one ton! Since one man could not carry that much weight at one time, part of the load was carried up and deposited at the summit. Then the man would go back down and get more until everything had been transported. Some miners cooperated with others, taking turns hauling the equipment and guarding the pile at the top. Since the Klondike was in Canada, a North West Mounted Police Station was located at the top of the pass to ensure that the miners obeyed the regulation.
Just to give an idea of what the miner had to have, here is a partial listing:
A steel stove
Two frying pans
A coffee pot
A canvas tent
400 pounds of sugar
50 pounds of cornmeal
100 pounds of beans
25 pounds of evaporated apples
25 cans of butter
And that’s just a very partial list! The complete list is found on pages 253 and 254 of Berton’s book.
The equipment and food were, of course, for the protection of the miner, but it made it difficult–and expensive–for anyone to make the trip and get over the pass.
Many never made it, and the trail was strewn with discarded objects and the shattered dreams of men who had gambled everything they had on the hope that the Klondike would make them rich.
The Chilkoot Trail can still be traveled today, but only on foot. There are outfitters who can equip you and get you started. Before you begin, remember that the trail is 33 miles long and has an elevation of 3700 feet. The first 100 feel is level, but it goes up after that.
Pierre Berton, Klondike Fever (New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, 1958)
Wikipedia has some helpful information about the Klondike Gold Rush: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Klondike_Gold_Rush