Posted by: jsmcfadden | August 15, 2009


After we left Juneau, we headed up during the night to Skagway, about 100 nautical miles north. This is the area many of the Klondike gold rushers left the ships and took to land. The Chilkoot Trail still exists, headed into the Yukon Territory, which is part of Canada.

Our shore excursion here was the longest we’d booked — 6 hours — and included bike riding, hiking and floating. We felt quite capable after our great time canoeing across the lake, and meeting up with our bike guide was fun. It would just be 2 couples; the other couple was from Florida and were about our age, with grown children. Their ship had started in Anchorage and was headed south after Skagway. They’d spent time in Denali!

We drove up to the place where the bike trail began, got used to our bikes’ gears, remembered how to balance and brake, then crossed the bridge on our bikes. We headed up toward Dyea, which used to be a town of thousands, but now is empty. I kept recalling the reference to the town in Jack London’s “To Build a Fire.” Dyea had been Skagway’s prime competitor, in fact, for being the prime jumping-off-place for the gold rush, according to our guide.

 A really nice trail for hiking or biking goes from the road near the river up to the site of the former town. We got off our bikes to slow down and see things like stovepipes still lying on the ground. The forest had been clear-cut for the town, and the trees that were standing now were only a hundred years old or younger. Nothing of the town’s buildings remains except those few metal chimneys and one store-front and dilapidated fence.


Near this place was a sign that had an old photo of Dyea in its hey-day. You could see this front there in the photo.  Our guide, a soon-to-be graduate student at Michigan State, said that it’s the front of the former land agent’s office, ironically.dyeagraveyardforweb

Near the former town is a cemetery with dozens of these markers, each one for someone who died in the avalanche on the Chilkoot Trail in April of 1898. Many of the markers only list a last name and no hint of where the man was from; others have just a state but no name. I wondered about my great-grandfather who had left the mining fields near the Feather River in California to head up to the Klondike.

Back onto bikes and through a beautiful broad valley. Off in the hills to the right we could hear what sounded like hundreds of dogs barking. Our guide told us it was a camp for sled dogs. The valley broadened and far in the distance we could see the sea — at another time of day, where we were might be underwater. The tides can vary as much as 20-25 feet between a day’s high tide and its low tide. So, we had biked onto the tidal mud flats! It was a challenge to navigate where the mud wasn’t so deep it would stop us flat and yet not so dried out as to be no different from the regular trail. It was so much fun and a huge mess on shoes and jeans.

After returning to the river & bridge, we gave our bikes back and met our guide for the hiking and raft-floating part of our day, a young woman who’s newly married and will be experiencing her first Skagway winter in a few months.

The Chilkoot Trail is a well-kept hiking trail now; lots of people, according to our guide, hike the whole thing during the summer. Our plan was to cover a couple of miles of the trail — one pretty steep uphill section and back down, and then a calm, flat section that follows the river.


The part that was steep uphill — well, it was pretty steep uphill.

Our guide kept reminding us that the men who were headed for the Klondike gold fields had to have at least 2,000 pounds of supplies to their names before the Canadian government would let them into the Yukon. So that meant they had to carry the supplies — and pay others to carry other supplies — and make several trips. One of the men in our group picked up his teenaged daughter and slung her over his shoulder to get a sense of what it might have been like.  He didn’t do it here on the steep uphill part, though. And it was July when we hiked it, not March or April when so many of them started.

Then it was onto a raft (which, by the way, is difficult to climb into) to float down the river to wrap up our time ashore.

Here’s Skagway as we left it.skagwayforweb


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