Skagway was a madhouse when I rode in to meet Ann and the boys at the ferry terminal the next day. Three, huge tour ships lay moored to the docks and swarms of camera-laden people walked all over town.
The ferry from Juneau arrived on schedule and, as soon as Ann drove off, we went to the Chilkoot Trail Center to check in and get our permits. Then I returned to camp to share one last dinner with Smitty. I'd be leaving him alone for five days. Later that evening, Ann and her tribe arrived to set their tents up next to ours just as it started raining.
In the morning, under overcast skies, Smitty followed Ann as she drove her van up to Log Cabin and brought her back on his Harley. While waiting for them, I sorted out my gear and stuffed everything into the backpack Ann brought for me. "Good Lord. This thing must weigh at least 40 pounds," I said to the boys as I hefted the bulky pack.
Ann and Smitty rode into camp at noon. While the boys fixed some lunch, she and I took off with my shoulders complaining under the extra weight. Within the first half hour, we both took some pain medication. "We've got to hike 7.8 miles to reach Canyon City," I said. "I'm surprised how steep and rocky the trail is. I thought it would be a much more gradual incline since we're only going up 500 feet today."
We munched on trail mix and protein bars as we trudged up and down through beautiful forests and along the Taiya River. The boys passed us a few hours later. They seemed to be bouncing right along even though their packs looked huge and must have weighed much more than ours. The sky remained overcast keeping it nice and cool. Ann and I were the last to drag ourselves into camp with every muscle in my body screaming, "I hate you." The Aleve I'd taken didn't seem to be working.
There are a warm-up cabins at each camp where hikers can cook their meals and dry out if it's raining, but no one is allowed to sleep in them. All our drinking water had to be filtered from the streams. Outhouses offered a bit of privacy and the Park Service makes every effort to keep the hikers safe by requiring everyone to hoist their food up tall bear poles at night.
After devouring a delicious freeze-dried dinner, we went to explore the ruins of Canyon City. It is located a mile from the camp across a suspension bridge. During the gold rush, this was the site of a large encampment. An enterprising group of people created a long tramway that started here. If the miners had enough money, they could have their gear carried over the Chilkoot Pass on the overhead tram. Evidence of the hopeful gold-seekers lay scattered around the area. I saw rusted out wood-stoves, pieces of kitchen utensils and broken machinery. The largest piece was a huge boiler that must have been used to power the tram. These artifacts are now protected for future generations.
We pitched the tent 15 feet from the pale green river. Its rushing sounds soothed me to sleep with the reassuring thought that, on day two, we only had to hike 3.95 miles and ascend another 500 feet. Unfortunately, when we got going, all those muscles I'd not used for so long protested even louder with every step, and the trail was much rougher. It took longer to go half the distance as we stopped to rest our aching bodies more often. We both ate pain pills like candy throughout the day.
Because the hike was so strenuous, I felt grateful to have overcast conditions. The silent dense forest held us within its cool embrace revealing secret artifact treasures, mostly rusty bits and pieces, as we tramped over the rocky path. One by one the other hikers passed us. We stumbled into Sheep Camp last again and I collapsed in pain onto my sleeping bag as soon as we got the tent put up. My shoulders felt swollen and bruised, and I began to wonder if I could make it over the pass on day three. Not only did we face climbing a staggering 2,700 feet, but had to cover a total distance of 8.75 miles.
As I prepared for the grueling hike in the morning, I realized that I could adjust the straps on my pack. All this time, I'd been lugging most of the weight on my shoulders and none on my hips. "And," we kept telling each other, "they weigh less all the time because we are eating the food."
We got an early start, leaving Sheep Camp at 8 a.m. and hobbled steadily up hill all morning through very rough country. It seemed as though I had to rest more often and went through my supply of water pretty fast. I realized how much altitude we were making as we looked back down on the hanging glaciers we'd seen above us in the morning. The beautiful scenery changed gradually as we climbed toward the timberline. Stunted trees obviously endured extreme hardships throughout the years with most of them displaying broken and twisted tops.
At last we reached "The Scales", an area just below the pass where the prospectors of 1897 were required to weigh their gear. The Canadian government refused to allow anyone to cross the pass without enough supplies to last a year. That meant carrying a ton of food and gear per person over this rugged trail.
From the Scales we had a clear view of the "Golden Stairs", a name given to the last half-mile of the final ascent. The most famous photos of the Klondike gold rush are of this section of the Chilkoot Trail. They show a snow-covered mountain with a line of black angling up steeply to the pass. That black line is a solid stream of men carrying packs weighing up to 100 pounds. During the winter steps were carved into the snow to facilitate the climb. Transporting the essential ton of goods often took the prospectors a month of toil and countless trips up the "Stairs".
Ann and I took a long rest here. We got out our little stove and prepared a hearty warm meal in anticipation of the energy needs we'd experience in the next few hours. As we ate, the scattered clouds disappeared leaving a forget-me-not blue sky to outline the mountains towering above us. We both felt blessed as the norm in fog and rain.
During the summer the Golden Stairs have no snow covering them and, therefore, aren't stairs at all. The trail dissolves into a fifty degree rock-climb. Flags mark the general direction to go, but there is no path. As I climbed, the thought of those hopeful prospectors kept running through my head. I tried to imagine how much harder their ordeal must have been. The saddest thought was knowing that, of the 30,000 people who staggered over this trail, only a hand-full were able to secure a claim and find any gold. Within a year, the vast majority turned back defeated. All their suffering and labor in vain.
With 40 pounds on my back, I knew this was an extremely dangerous place to be. I carefully picked my way over the huge rocks, with many of the smaller ones tilting under my step. I gazed up at the imposing boulders, judging the distance to go. Ann pointed to the top and crushed my expectations when she said, "That's a false summit. It's only half way."
Just before we got there, the boys appeared and hollered down, "Do you girls need any help?"
"Thanks, but I think I can make it," I replied determined to do this on my own. At last the Canadian flag on the Mounties' station appeared at the top. It took us two and a half hours to cover that half mile of ground. The magnificent view, looking back down the valley, filled me with a sense of pride. Glory swept over my weary bones despite the realization that another 4 miles still remained to get to Happy Camp, the next stop.
Stretched out in front of us, the vast barren landscape lay dotted with blue lakes in sharp contrast with the forested Alaska side. We had to walk over several slippery snowy patches on our way down to Crater Lake. Its deep blue surface was dotted with white caps kicked up by the strong southerly wind gusting at our backs. "There's usually a lot more snow here," Ann said. "The first time I hiked this trail, 30 years ago, I slid all the way down to the lake on my butt."
Thawing ice sent rivulets trickling down the slopes and across the trail. For two and a half days we'd walked against the flow of the rivers and now, all the water was going in our direction. A thrill passed through me knowing that this was the beginning of the mighty Yukon River, a twisting waterway that wound on for thousands of miles before emerging into Norton Sound south of Nome.
Alpine meadows cheered us with a myriad of lovely wild flowers where the trail smoothed out and descended past several gorgeous lakes. I'd look ahead to see it disappear around a hill and say, "Happy Camp must be right down there." That kept me going. But, when we'd arrive at the spot, we'd see the path stretch out again, seemingly forever.
Weariness set in and Ann turned her ankle. Then I stumbled and fell. Fortunately neither of us were hurt. We plodded on and on, and finally Ann spotted something yellow beside the river up ahead. Thankfully it was the camp. It took us exactly 12 hours from Sheep Camp and I slept like the dead that night.
As we left Happy Camp at noon on day four, I almost stepped on a Ptarmigan and her 4 chicks huddled right in the middle of the path, with the male standing by a few feet away. Other hikers said they'd seen goats across the river, but I looked for them all day and never saw any wildlife except rabbits and marmots.
We stopped to rest at Deep Lake, a dark blue gem slumbering among the hills. Here I changed into shorts and tennis shoes as the easy-going trail took us 5.5 miles down 1,000 feet. The river raged through a deep gorge a few feet beside our trail on the way to Lake Lindeman where a large tent city once supported thousands of hopeful stampeders. It was here they built boats to carry them and their gear 500 miles north to Dawson City. A hundred years ago, they stripped the hills of trees for the lumber they needed.
On the last day, we hiked along a river where the gold seekers' hastily constructed boats met their first and hardest test. Many people were lost within a couple miles in the rapids below Lindeman City. Instead of walking on to Lake Bennett, the official end of the Chilkoot Trail, we took the cut-off trail that took us to the White Pass and Yukon Railroad tracks. Walking 4 miles along the railbed proved a tedious task. The thought that kept Ann going was of a sizzling hot cheeseburger, being so tired of freeze-dried meals, protein bars and trail mix. We staggered along under a blazing hot sun arriving at Log Cabin and the waiting van at 2:30 with the boys 15 minutes behind us.
At the parking lot, eight other lady hikers celebrated their victory at conquering the Chilkoot. Ann broke out a case of beer from the van and everyone took lots of group photos. Then we headed down to Skagway recounting our adventure and looking for a restaurant. When it came right down to ordering, I opted for a salad missing the fresh greens more than meat.
Later we found Smitty at the camp at Dyea with seven Dolly Varden waiting to fix us a nice fresh fish dinner. He was disappointed to learn that we'd already eaten and that Ann and the boys had to take off right away for Haines Junction. They were booked on a river rafting adventure the next day a couple hundred miles away. Smitty sent them off with five of the fish and, after they left, we cooked up the last two for a nice romantic dinner. It was so nice to be together with him again, and we planned our travel strategy.
In the morning, we packed up early wanting to get into Skagway to shower and do the laundry before heading out of town on the long trip home. The sky turned gray and started spitting before the clothes were dry. As we sped up the highway, thick fog folded around us and a freezing rain chilling us to the bone. At the border we stopped to layer up and don our rain gear.
We continued north to Whitehorse not wanting to struggle with the construction of the shortcut. Heading east from there on Hwy 1, we saw a couple herds of buffalo in the grasslands beside the highway before stopping to camp at Johnson's Crossing.
One thing was absolutely clear in both our minds. We did not want to ride down the Cassiar again. Instead our bikes raced past the junction and to the southeast as we camped our way across B.C. After a brief stop for groceries at Watson Lake, (with its huge Signpost Forest pointing the direction and distance to almost every city in the world) we rode hard covering 325 miles and made it all the way to the Liard Hot Springs Provincial Park campground. This is a favorite place for tourists as a dip in the hot springs is free.
A quarter-mile boardwalk led us to the steaming blue pool. Bathers from all walks of life strolled along the path marveling at the tropical landscape. Because of the increased temperature, many warm-climate flora and fauna live comfortably in the area year round. Quite a crowd of people availed themselves of the delights in the hot water. With a wooden deck, changing rooms and benches to relax on, the place offers a clean and friendly atmosphere amid lush green foliage. It felt heavenly to let the soothing water soak all the tensions of the past week out of my body. The only drawback was an abundance of mosquitoes.
Next day the mountains were more rugged and punctuated with beautiful lakes and rivers as our route took us through the Muncho Lake and Stone Mountain Parks. In several places, families of big horn sheep stood around on the road, and I saw a moose off to the side. I also saw a caribou cross in front of me. Then we descended into endless stretches of rolling hills covered with lodge-pole pine contrasted with the white trunks of birch.
The weather became very hot as we found a campground at Prophet River, 50 miles south of Fort Nelson. Another Harley rider from Anchorage camped next to us and said he was on his way to Sturgis. I was torn between my desire to go that way and my need to get home. The garden and the promise of salmon fishing in the Columbia River won out, and we sped down the highway with the forest giving way to large pasturelands and farms.
Near Fort St. John we turned to head down the Peace River toward Prince George. As I pulled off the highway to enter the Crooked River Rest Area, I spotted a large pothole too late to miss. I remember hitting it, then woke up with Smitty bending over asking, "Are you all right?"
"I think so," I said as I wiggled everything. After seven years and nearly 45,000 miles, it was the first time I'd dumped my bike. Nothing seemed to be broken although my whole left side had taken a beating with the main impact on my thigh. Several other people offered help and a kind lady put band-aids on a cut on my arm while asking questions to see if I had a concussion. It took a few minutes to remember where I was, but full leathers and a helmet saved me from serious injury.
My bike was in worse shape. The left turn signal and mirror were broken with twisted forks and scratches on the windshield. I sat with ice on my thigh while Smitty got the bike rideable again and we pressed on to Prince George where he got us a hotel room. In the morning, he went to the Harley dealership for a new mirror and got my turn signal working again.
It took us three more days to retrace our steps back to Long Beach where I've been taking it easy as my bruises fade. I'm glad it didn't happen on the way up as I'd never have been able to hike the Chilkoot Trail. It hasn't put me off riding either. We rode around Mount Hood with a couple hundred other Harley riders a few weeks later. I'm just more careful now.