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Following in frozen footsteps

Backpackers trace the trail of 1890s gold rushers who braved bitter weather and grueling terrain in search of riches in Alaska and Canada.

August 08, 2004|Elizabeth Bell | Special to The Times

Dyea, Alaska — "Gold! Gold! Gold! Gold! Sixty-Eight Rich Men on the Steamer Portland," screamed a July 17, 1897, headline in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

The discovery of gold near the Klondike River set off one of the last great gold rushes in North America, and within a month of the story, thousands were rushing to this tiny town nine miles north of Skagway to cross the Chilkoot Trail to the goldfields 33 miles away. The stampeders risked avalanches, the threat of famine and even death to fulfill their dream of wealth. But most of the 100,000 miners came away with little to show for their hardships.

My husband, Chris Barberich, and I came here from our Oakland home last summer to see the Chilkoot Trail's spectacular beauty and to imagine what it was like to be a stampeder, as they were called, in the winter of 1897. We followed their trail -- once used by the Tlinget Indians to trade with tribes -- through a lush Alaskan rain forest, over the narrow and snowy 3,246-foot Chilkoot Pass and onto the Canadian tundra. Along the way, we passed old leather boots, rusted pots and tin cans left by the bookkeepers, firemen, actors, homemakers and writers, including Jack London, who traveled the path more than 100 years ago.

We were among nearly 3,000 backpackers who annually trace the trail, jointly operated as part of the U.S. Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park and Canada's Chilkoot Trail National Historic Site. Our trip was vastly different from the life-or-death experience the gold rushers faced.

We traveled lightly -- with only 30 to 40 pounds each on our backs. To prevent starvation, the stampeders were required to haul 1,000 pounds of food and supplies by foot. They braved bitter winter storms and often took more than a month, making countless trips from cache to cache to ferry their gear to Lindeman and Bennett lakes. In our journey during 4 1/2 warm days, the greatest hazards we faced were grumpy bears, tired legs and sore backs.

But I was able to envision the stampeders' ordeal, with my imagination aided by the journal of Leo Healy, then a 19-year-old Chicago bookkeeper, who left the security of his city job to join the gold rush in 1898. His diary was one of several placed in huts along the trail by rangers.

"You had better awaken for tomorrow dawn places before you your future," he noted to himself in 1898. Healy and his older brother traveled to Alaska on a ship from Seattle, disembarking in Dyea, once a Tlinget village at the base of the Chilkoot Trail and about nine miles north of Skagway. Dyea once hummed with thousands of gold rushers. "This is a tough-looking town," Healy wrote. "Every saloon runs gambling wide open."

Time has tamed Dyea. As we set out, we could scarcely discern the village from the forest that surrounded it.

On the trail

On our first day, we walked 7 1/2 miles along the beautiful Taiya River, through a rain forest in a steep glacier-lined valley, to Canyon City, a remnant of one of the massive tent cities that sprang up to serve the stampeders.

Along the way, we spotted protected artifacts -- or "old junk," as one ranger described it -- century-old rusted tin cans, pots and pans, wire from an aerial tram rigged to help move gear over the pass, a huge old boiler used to power the tram and a wood stove.

On our first night, we pitched our tent at Canyon City, one of nine designated campgrounds along the route. Most campgrounds have warming huts, a picnic table, outhouses and poles to hang food away from hungry bears. Backpackers, who must register and buy permits, are allowed to stay only in official campgrounds. About 50 backpackers -- the maximum allowed by the Canadian and U.S. park services -- can cross the summit on any given summer day. (In winter, permits are not required.)

We were a congenial bunch. I imagined that some of the camaraderie we shared with other hikers echoed that of the gold rushers. By the second day, we were tasting one another's freeze-dried dinners and sharing jokes. We gave one another nicknames, mostly based on our city, state or country of origin.

There was "North Pole," a marathon-running Alaskan couple in their 50s, outfitted in spotless Gore-Tex and new walking sticks for their first-ever backpacking trip. "Whitehorse" was a Canadian mom hiking the trail with her sturdy boys, ages 10 and 11. "Princeton," also known to us as the "Chilkoot Brady Bunch," was a New Jersey family with four boys and two girls, ages 10 to 16; a pretty, blond mom; and a friendly dad.

Our second day on the trail was easy and sunny, and we spent several hours reclining with our feet propped up by the Taiya River before reaching our campsite at Sheep Camp, where in April 1898 an avalanche killed at least 60 people.

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