On the Trail
We start out on the trail at 3:00pm. We realize that the thing we forgot was bug dope. Worse, there is fairly steady rain, and no sign that it will let up any time soon. We slit some garbage sacks to fend off the rain, and keep our gear dry. We also bum some bug dope from some more well-equipped hikers.
It seems like a fairly crummy beginning for our great adventure. The trail immediately rises steeply up a rocky slope, and we are quickly winded. This is a sobering introduction to the ordeal of the hike. It removes most of our fuzzy notions about what this hike could be all about. Fortunately, the trail levels out a little further on, and we are not forced to face our real commitment to this hike so early on.
Gabe and I quickly find a pace and a schedule of rest stops that works most efficiently in terms of conserving energy, and in terms of speed versus the possibility of twisting an ankle. A twisted ankle could mean a $1,000 evacuation from the trail by helicopter.
Basically we hike for an hour, then stand or sit with our packs on for five minutes. We also take a drink of water, and munch some trail mix.
At the end of two hours we take our packs off, and either sit or lay down for 10 to 15 minutes. The snack is more substantial; some cheese or fruit, or some hard salami for example.
After a couple of hours we arrive at Finnegan's Point. It is still raining, and little bugs - probably noseums - are thick around our heads, but we gamely set up camp and cook our first trail meal.
Our First Campsite. Our tent does not keep the little biting bugs out. They swarm around our heads and make us miserable as we try to sleep. I wonder about the kinds of things that could make this experience worse. Though I did hang our food up in a tree some distance from our tent, I specifically do not otherwise think of one hazard that could really add to our misery... bears.
Eventually, we drift off, and sleep without further disturbance. In the morning we are met by relatively high overcast, no rain, and a nice view of the Irene Glacier across the Dyea river from our campsite.
Wonderful sun shine.
We leave Finnegan's Point at 12:10pm. As we start the gradual climb toward Canyon City on the way to Sheep Camp, the sun finally makes an appearance. The dappled shadows falling on the moss and tundra all around us are beautiful.
After passing through Canyon City, two Skagway people and four German tourists are having lunch. The Skagway guy says that the eight of us who are now at this log cabin represent light trail traffic. Trail traffic has been much heavier up till now.
We leave the cabin for a side trip into the remains of Canyon City as indicated on the map, but have no success finding any ruins. We did find a rusted old stove though. The local fauna moves quickly to reclaim the territory grabbed off by us humans for our temporary and fleeting purposes.
The tempurature as we leave the cabin at Canyon City is 60 degrees. It is a beautiful day, and there are no bugs.
Midway along the trail to Pleasant Camp, we are met by a park ranger who warns us that there was a bear incident on the trail between Pleasant Camp and Sheep Camp. A British tourist had been confronted by a bear, but he (the Britisher, not the bear) did not panic, and the bear eventually moved away.
Gabe and I arrive at Pleasant Camp at 6:30pm. The trail from Canyon City was long and difficult. The trail is also dangerous in the sense that it is very rocky, and the risk of slipping and twisting an ankle is very high. Despite these difficulties, the sunny day raises our spirits immensely.
Despite the news of the bear, Gabe and I decide to press on from Pleasant Camp. We leave Pleasant Camp at 7:00pm. The day is still sunny, but the sun is behind the mountains, and it has turned cool.
Just before we arrived at Sheep Camp, we passed a ranger station, and stopped in to ask about weather, and to see if we could bum some bug dope. He said the weather was forecasted to be very good, and time to the summit would be about four to five hours. He could not spare any bug dope, however.
We arrive in the main part of Sheep Camp at 8:15pm.
Our camp next to the raging Dyea River
We are too late into Sheep Camp for the guided tour offerred by a local park ranger. Sheep Camp is crowded. We can not find a decent camp site so we move a ways up river.
Gabe Catching up on his Notes
Gabe and I find a rock outcrop which extends into the river. We camp very near the people who loaned us a shot of bug dope at the trail head. I also run into Henry Cole (aka Dr. Science from the Administration of State of Alaska Governor Steve Cowper). When Henry and I get together, we usually exchange notes on the latest Shakespeare Plays, classical music and other really high-brow stuff since we consider ourselves to be quite cultured. We also, soto voce, swap a couple of low-brow jokes.
Out of Sheep Camp toward the Pass
First Snow Field
Sheep Camp marked the last of the tall trees on the trail. We are passing through bushes and tundra-like mosses on our way to the "Golden Staircase." There is a glacier high up to the left of us. It is in contrast to the 81 degree temperature on the trail. Gave says it is hot. I agree.
As we continue up toward the 3500 foot summit of the Chilkoot, the vegetation grows sparser, the rocks more rough and tumble, and sharp. Following the trail is not easy through these rocky areas. Somebody has set a series of cairns, however, which guide us on our way. In the picture, above, Gabe is standing in front of one of these cairns.
We are close to the "Scales," at the bottom of the Golden Staircase. The Klondikers on the trail of '98 had to stop at the scales to weigh their goods. This was necessary to make sure they had about a ton's worth per person, thus assuring the Canadians that they could survive the winter. The scales were also the place where negotiations took place between the Klondikers and the Indian packers who would, for a price, actually haul the stuff over the pass and into Canada.
It is 5:00pm, and it has been a rough trail up from Sheep Camp because of all the rocks and broken trail. As we contemplate a night's rest at the scales, versus a final push to get up the staircase as evening shadows complicate a hike that will already be difficult and dangerous, a new problem arises in the form of a person approaching us from the direction of the pass.
She is a State of Alaska Park Ranger, and she does not look happy. "What now?" I think to myself.
The ranger is abrupt. She asks us why we are so far behind others on the trail, and what are our plans for the night? I tell her we are trying to decide whether or not to attempt the climb up the staircase. She tells us we can't stay at the scales because it is essentially a museum exhibit. If we do not go to the summit, we have to return to Sheep Camp. My inclination is to go up, but I figure Gabe needs to speak his mind on this decision.
With the lateness of the hour, the ranger seems skeptical about our ability to climb to the summit before nightfall. Gabe is succinct. "I want to go up," he says without ambiguity.
As a sweetener, the ranger, obviously relieved, says there is a Canadian ranger cabin on the Canadian side of the summit, and we can spend the night there.
The Golden Staircase
In the image above, I am shooting down the staircase toward Gabe. These rocks are typical of the whole climb. Our time on this most difficult and steepest part of the staircase is 50 minutes. It seemed an awful lot like several hours to me. The staircase was steep enough that, with a full 50 lb pack pulling me off balance with each step, the possibility of a fall onto the sharp rocks all around made me very nervous. Gabe, the mountain man, says he wants to do it again.
Top of the Staircase
Gabe is ahead of me now on our way to the actual border with Canada. The border is marked by the rectangular monument on top of the rocks just ahead. The monument was placed by some kind of a commission sponsored by that old "Trail of 98er" Governor Wally Hickel. To me, after the struggles of the pass, such monuments are lot like finding a big Mac wrapper at the top of Mt. Everest.
The orange stake between us marks the trail during bad weather. The weather now is beautiful and the winds are calm, but snow storms with hurricane force winds can start up at any time. The potential for sudden storms here is a result of the funneling effect of this pass between the high and dry interior, and the low and wet rain forests of southeast Alaska.
When continental weather systems decide to shift, the effects in this small pass are dramatic and spectacular.