"The goal is to become the unique, awesome, never to be repeated human being that we were called to be." -Patricia Deegan

Saturday, September 28, 2019

Running From America: The Chilkoot Trail

I fell in love with the Yukon Territory's winter beauty in February 2017, racing the Montane Yukon Arctic Ultra 300 mile event, where I pulled a pulk for 5 straight days (with less than 8 hours' sleep). In February 2018, I went back to thru-hike that same Yukon Quest route from Whitehorse, Canada to the Alaskan border solo and in my own time.

Enroute to Alaska, one follows the route of those who came during the Klondike gold rush of 1896-1899. Those seeking adventure and fortune came north a few ways, but by far the most popular was by ship to Skagway, Alaska. Just a few miles out of Skagway, they set up camp at Dyea (pronounced Dy-ee), at the foot of the Chilkoot Pass. After negotiating this pass, 53km later, they arrived at Bennett Lake, British Columbia. There, they cut down every tree to build boats and headed downstream, joining the Yukon River, headed for the Bonanza and Dawson City area. It was very tough going. The Canadian mounties saw starvation looming, with tens of thousands of ill-prepared people arriving, so instituted a "one ton of food" requirement. This had gold rushers going up and down the pass numerous times to haul 900kg of food - I can't imagine this!

The Chilkoot Trail is a well-maintained and well-used multi-day point-to-point trail, jointly managed by the US National Park Service and Parks Canada. Most people take 3 to 5 days to hike the trail. A few ultrarunners do it in a day. After my "run", I met a woman who had hiked it in a day - 12 hours was her time. Considering 10 to 12 hours seems to be the norm for "runners," it highlights the technical nature of the trail - fast hiking and slow running merge!
Although it looks like it should be much faster the other way, I doubt it is, given the terrain between Sheep Camp and Stone Crib.

For me, running the Chilkoot would be like putting the "Preface" on my Yukon winter book of experiences. Of course, I worked out-of-sync to most prospectors! I ran in the autumn (September 8, 2019) and pulled a pulk over frozen rivers and lakes to Dawson City in the winter. Most prospectors aimed to come over the pass in the winter and have their boat built for spring breakup on the river, so they could paddle downstream, arriving in time to prospect before the ground was frozen by winter conditions again.

That 6km to the summit packs a punch.
Preparing to do the trail is an endurance event in itself. The Chilkoot is a long point-to-point run, coordinated between two countries, in areas where the "bush telegraph" is almost your only means of communication.

Runners and hikers most often go west to east, the same direction as prospectors. This means a net uphill. I got ~2010m up and ~1350m down by going west to east. There's little to be gained in speed going the other way, I expect, as the boulder section around "The Scales" and the international border take a significant amount of time and wouldn't be any faster down climbing than scrambling up (unless you were racing, perhaps). And by "border," I don't mean there is anyone there checking passports. You have to call in to Canada Border Services Agency when you get to civilisation after your adventure.

Everyone needs a permit to day run on the Canadian side. At the time I did it, permits were only required in summer and early autumn. Check with Parks Canada, as you need to have the permit attached to your pack. It was less than $10 CAD. If you run only on the US side for the day (e.g., out and back from Dyea), you don't need a permit from the Americans. We arrived in Whitehorse on the weekend (Whitehorse Parks Canada office closed), so were able to get our permit from the US Parks Service Chilkoot Trail Center in Skagway on Saturday - they even charged in Canadian dollars, as it's a service for the Canadian side of the trail. Nice teamwork!

Going point-to-point requires getting to the start and getting out at the finish. The start - Dyea - is really a ghost town. There's a basic US Parks campground nearby. The only other accommodation nearby is a private operator with some cabins for rent. Dyea is about a 20 minute drive out of Skagway.

I didn't know a local available to get us from Whitehorse to Dyea, so we took the one-and-only bus (which I think only runs in summer, linked to the White Pass tourist train) at 8am Saturday morning from Whitehorse to Skagway. Crossing borders on the bus means a stop with passports handy.

Skagway - a touristy place, given cruise ships can dock. Here we have a backpacker and a fastpacker, obviously :)
We spent a few hours wandering Skagway, purchasing our permits at the Trail Center and getting food for the evening ahead. Given that everything we took with us on the bus had to be carried back whilst running, I chose to get a $7 outfit at an "op shop" (second hand/charity store) in the days prior, which I left at the rental cabin on the morning of the run. Our full luggage was left with a hotel in Whitehorse.

A private shuttle driver took us from Skagway to the cabins at Dyea. We were fortunate that the owners agreed to have us for one night, as their policy is a two-night stay. It was autumn, so they were less choosy. We found out by fluke conversation with a hiker who'd just finished her multi-day, that the shuttle driver might have extra spare bear spray she would lend us for free. That saved us a ton of money! We couldn't fly with our bear spray from Calgary to Whitehorse and we couldn't legally carry bear spray cross-border on the international bus to Skagway. We were able to use the "friend of a friend" type thing to get the shuttle driver's two cans of bear spray back to her after we finished.

Getting "out" at the end of the trail at Bennett Lake, BC, also posed a logistical challenge. Bennett Lake has a nice little town called Carcross on its shores. The problem is that Bennett Lake is huge and Carcross is at the other end of that lake. When you come off the trail, you are probably at least 40km from Carcross. Your options are (1) hire a float plane with a pre-arranged pick up time, (2) hire a boat (same thing) or (3) arrive in time to get the White Pass tourist train back to Carcross. There is no village in Bennett Lake - just the tourist train station, a backcountry campground, and one private home.

The train only runs in summer and I believe at time of writing, the train leaves Bennett Lake for Carcross at 3pm. Thus, runners aiming for this train tend to start from Dyea at 4am! When we left Dyea at 7am, the owner said we were the latest leaving runners she'd ever seen. But we'd hired the float plane for a 6pm pickup (the latest time they would agree to).

Very happy to see our float plane arrive - 1.5 hours late, but it arrived!
In my online searches, I came across mention of runners or hikers going out via "Log Cabin." This option misses the end of the trail. At the last campsite, Bare Loon Lake near Lindeman Lake, there is a right fork that takes you to the railway line. From there, people follow the railway track out to the Log Cabin, a day use area along the highway. A pre-arranged vehicle can pick you up there. Don't count on having any cellular signal. A satellite phone/Delorme inReach is awesome in these remote places.

If you take the Log Cabin exit, not only do you miss the purity of going all the way to the end of the trail, you trespass illegally on railway right-of-way. The signs are clear that they don't want pedestrians on the railway and they have the right to charge you with an offence. Just saying.

Going east from Alaska, there's a time change, so our 7am start was really 8am. We had 10 hours for a day that takes most runners 10-12 hours. And we got held up at check-out, so our start was closer to 7.10am (8.10). Tick tick tick.

The campgrounds come regularly and provide neat little ways to "compartmentalise" the journey. There are great setups at most camps - basic sites, firewood, maybe a shared-use walled tent or log cabin with pot belly stove (I didn't note if there was a cabin at every site). We were at Canyon City (second campsite, 12k) in 2hr08.

The terrain from the start to Sheep Camp (fourth campsite) had little variation on the theme of rainforest running in autumn - gorgeous colours, and technical terrain with slippery tree roots and rocks. Water was plentiful. So was bear scat. At our briefing with the ranger the day before, we were basically told about a bear hanging around every campsite. One camp had a "habituated bear." Not a good thing. But the scat on the trail every few kilometres told us that the bears were not just at the camps!

We caught up with three multi-day hikers having a break. The fellow enthusiastically offered me some beef jerky. I politely declined. When Rolf arrived just behind me, he was offered the same. Very kind to share one's trail food, but besides the vegan thing, I really wasn't keen on the idea of smelling that good to a bear for the next 7 hours!

I had some rough splits to work off of, but didn't know how "bad" (slow) the Golden Staircase/Scales area would be. It took ages. And the boulders were solid, not those loose things that move underfoot. But it was just slow terrain. I had drawn up a 9hr15min plan, although I expected we'd need the full 10 hours.

We were at Sheep Camp, the fourth one (20km), in 3.5 hours. Just where I hoped for time. But we took about 20 minutes there, changing out layers of clothes and repacking everything.

At the summit (~26km) with 5hr47min on the clock, we were 45 minutes behind my hopeful estimate. That meant we had no more cushion left. It had taken 2 hours to travel 6km. Granted, Rolf had been having shoe and foot issues - he had expected cold, wet terrain, so wore his European mountain-glacier shoes. They were a half size big to accommodate big socks. The shoes were sloppy and awkward in the technical terrain and his feet were moving inside, making him prone to blistering. Plus, his feet were sweltering hot and soaked in the big socks. We had a wonderful 18C calm autumn day! Wonderful, except when you wear black Goretex light mountaineering shoe-boots.

With no time to sit and enjoy a "summit sandwich" at the high point, we cheered our arrival into Canada and carried on, eating on the go. I had expected the Canadian side to become more runnable. I had read much about the American side being a wet rainforest and the Canadian side being a "lunar landscape." Certainly, the landscape changed, the valley was more open and vast, but the terrain was still markedly undulating, with many tree roots, rocks, and wet areas. Tired legs make for less agile movements in such terrain.

I had the only water filter between us, so stopping for water took twice as long. A mini-Sawyer weighs less than 150 grams. I have to admit, I'm over carrying the one-and-only filter for everyone in my group and spending all my "break" time filtering water for people. The mini-Sawyer is so small, light, and inexpensive that there's really no good reason for everyone not to carry their own now. Heck, I'd even carry the filter for others if they would only just gather their own water. This trip sealed it. Rant over.

The terrain on the Canadian side really was gorgeous in a different way to the forested US side and despite the pressures of time, we made sure to enjoy it. I broached the subject of our average pace and the looming deadline for the float plane. I suggested that we might have to consider the difficult decision of taking the fork out to the railway line and the highway, in order to hitchhike back to Whitehorse. We had continued to travel slower than projected for the Canadian side. We needed to start running an 8min/k average and we were lucky to do anything sub 11min/k.

The "Golden Staircase" - part of "The Scales" section near the summit. Goes on forever. That is a false summit. Very fun in the dry.
We knew there was plenty of daylight for a plane to fly well after 6pm, but we did not know whether they would wait at all. Rolf was very keen to take a chance on it. I silently contemplated the implications as we ran on. Likely at Bennett Lake, as there had been at other campsites, there would be a walled structure of some sort with a pot belly stove. (Though not guaranteed!) If necessary, we could keep a fire going and stay warm, if not fed, for the night, and see if a float plane would show up in the morning. Doubtful they would just take a chance to show up in the morning, doubling their costs. But there was the tourist train at some point the following day.

A major change in landscape on the Canadian side.
Then I remembered my Delorme inReach - my way to contact the outside world! I fired it up and pulled their email address from my phone. I sent a message indicating we would be late, but hoped for a 6.20pm arrival. We were hoofing it, knowing we were on a much bigger adventure now, but we stayed in good spirits. It makes all the difference to an adventure to have everyone in the team rational and clear-thinking, whilst maintaining some sense of humour.

Totally runnable. Bahaha. Well, totally gorgeous, anyway!
With 2km to go, it was 6.20pm. I was listening intently for the sound of a plane. Then we hit sand! How cruel! Carcross is known for its sand dunes, but I didn't know the sandy ground extended so far. It was brutal. Rolf was out of water and I was giving him sips of my last bit. I couldn't afford to stop to filter any more. We had stayed close together for bear (and general) safety, but with 1km to go, I bolted ahead. I couldn't bear the thought of hearing a plane fire up and see it fly away!

As I got to Bennett Lake, the trail divided. Left down to the campground. Right down to the train station. Both ways had lakeside access. Which side would the plane be on? I couldn't choose one trail without Rolf knowing where I'd gone. I tried glimpsing between the trees to the shoreline both ways. Nothing visible. Rolf arrived and we split up. I went left down to shore, he went right and down. A few minutes later, we met up again at the junction. Nothing. We saw a family going into the one and only house there - and signs indicating private property. I'd had no reply to my satellite message. I sent another.

Glaciers everywhere. We were at 900m, so they might have been at 1400m. Seems crazy, but it's latitude, I guess.
"We're here, but can't see a plane. Did we miss you?" Nothing. We walked down towards the shore at the train station. I was recalling the small cabin I'd seen 1 or 2km back, which appeared to be privately owned, but open for anyone to use when the owners weren't there. Would that be tonight's lodging?

A few minutes later, a woman with a satellite phone approached. She was a Parks Canada ranger. She had brought her boat up from Lindeman Lake to visit the family, who had remarked that they had just seen a couple with "very small backpacks." She was able to call the aviation company. They informed her that they'd been delayed by several other clients over the day and wouldn't arrive for us until about 7.30pm.

Whew! Time for high-fives and hugs. We snacked in relaxed luxury by the river as I filtered a bit of water and contemplated the incredible day we'd had.

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