SKAGWAY, Alaska — "Is that what I think it is, up there hanging from the pine tree?" I asked Scotty, our guide, as I caught up to him along the trail.
It wasn't all that easy to catch up to Scotty even though his backpack was much heavier than mine. He moved right along with an easy, loping stride. Besides half of the cooking gear, he had two heavy bottles of Yukon Jack stowed away in the backpack.
He shaded his eyes and looked up in the pine tree at the whitened skeleton of a man.
"Yeah," he nodded. "I have never seen him before."
"Then you can't introduce me. He's sort of waving in the breeze, hanging up there from that limb."
Scotty shrugged. The man, hanging from the pine over the trail, obviously had been dead for a long, long time.
We were in British Columbia, over the border from Alaska, about halfway between Skagway and Whitehorse in Yukon Territory, Canada. We were up a few thousand feet and heading west to intersect with the old Chilkoot Trail and the legendary 32 meanest miles in the world. I expected it to be primitive but not that primitive.
The Yukon and White Pass Railroad from Skagway had kindly dumped us off along the side of one of the mountain slopes near White Pass, Yukon Territory. Passengers craned their necks and gathered on the platforms of the famous narrow-gauge railway to see why the train had suddenly stopped in the middle of the pine forest.
We struggled into our unfamiliar backpacks beside the railroad track, hefting the loads cautiously. In my pack was the fuel stove plus seven loaves of bread that I had selected when loading up. The bread puffed up my pack over my head, but weighed less than many other loads although it looked enormous. We would be eating our way through this bread rapidly, with eight of us plus two guides on the trek.
Some of the train passengers waved and wished us well, but one shouted: "If you paid your fare, you wouldn't be kicked off, you know that?"
We grinned and mugged a bit for the photos, but most of us were thinking about the bear warnings we had received. Those ungainly playful-looking Alaskan brown bears and grizzlies are anything but cordial and friendly. And this was berry season so they would all be out.
Already our original campsite at Bare Loon Lake was forbidden by Canadian Rangers, who sent warnings to our guides that we must pack in to Lake Lindeman tonight.
"Is that skeleton any part of the bear warnings that are out?" someone asked Scotty.
"I doubt it," said Scotty easily. "Maybe someone's idea of a joke. "Those old gold miners that came up this way, maybe he was one. I guess in '98 and '99 there were a lot of crude jokes, along with all the deaths and the terrible hardships. They were a rough lot, you know."
Maybe they still are tough on this trail. I looked over our group. The family from Texas didn't look like effete types, nor Bill and his wife from Ohio, both experienced backpackers. Randy, the other guide, was all muscle and bone, handy if the going got tough.
I thought of "Soapy" Smith, one of the first old-time tough mining rascals of the '98 Alaska Gold Rush days. Gold is what attracted all the adventurers in those days to pack in a ton of supplies, picks and shovels, and manhandle even boats up the steep mountain trail in the freezing cold of winter.
Boats would enable them to traverse the rapids from Lake Lindeman to Lake Bennett and then down the Yukon River to Whitehorse and Dawson to the fabled Klondike gold fields for instant fortunes--if they survived and were lucky.
Soapy Smith never did any gold digging directly. He stayed in Alaska digging gold from the miners right in Skagway, which was then and still is a pioneer, frontier town. The boardwalks are there and the mud is there and the saloons are there complete with dancing girls.
Soapy's band of outlaw spies would fleece every prospector possible who came back with gold plus every wealthy would-be miner on his way up to the Yukon.
In 1898, when a man named Stewart was robbed of 15 ounces of gold, an angry town surveyor named Frank H. Reid and four others confronted Soapy. He came at them with a .45 caliber Winchester rifle. Reid recklessly wrested the rifle away from Smith but got shot in the stomach in the process; Reid managed to get two shots into Smith and killed him instantly on the town pier. Reid died a week later. They were buried side-by-side in Skagway, like bosom buddies.
We never did get an explanation of the skeleton swinging there not far from Bare Loon Lake, but it didn't spoil our lunch, washed down with the clear icy-cold water from the lake. It was a beautiful spot but we packed up and trekked on down until we met the famous old Chilkoot Trail.