Following the Klondike Gold Rush Trail

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The White Pass & Yukon Route. — PHOTO: Travel Yukon

Disembarking from our Holland America cruise ship in Skagway, Alaska, we didn’t realize that our upcoming detour through the Yukon Territory would follow the trail of the most important U.S. event to occur on Canadian soil since the War of 1812.

Neither did we realize that the stunning scenery and wildlife were just a preview to the natural wonders ahead in Denali National Park.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. First, you need to know something about Skagway’s history.

In July 1897, the steamer Excelsior pulled into San Francisco harbor with a passenger list that included a dozen or so grizzled, weather-beaten prospectors with mud-caked boots. They were hauling a king’s ransom stuffed into dilapidated suitcases, packing crates and canvas bags. At a time when the U.S. was undergoing one of the worst economic recessions in its history, they’d stumbled upon gold in an unknown area called the Klondike. Their story ignited gold fever among a financially strapped public that was hungry for hope — and just plain hungry.

Between 1897 and 1898, an estimated 100,000 men and women from all walks of life attempted the arduous trek through nearly 500 miles of Canadian wilderness to the Klondike in search of gold. The “stampeders” came from all walks of life — from seasoned outdoorsmen to a female dentist from Chicago. Even the mayor of Seattle, who was attending a conference in San Francisco when he heard about the gold strike, was smitten. Without even returning home, he telegraphed his resignation and headed north.

The Skagway of today, located in Alaska’s panhandle, looks nothing like the barren cove that first greeted the stampeders at the end of the 90-mile-long Lynn Canal. But a town soon arose, and the remnants survive. The U.S. National Park Service created the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park at the site, preserving nearly 100 buildings scattered through the community of about 1,000 residents.

Despite the gift and specialty shops, the main street looks much like it did as a post-gold-rush settlement. In addition to the historical buildings (free tours are held hourly), there are restaurants, a small brewery and even a brothel museum upstairs from The Red Onion Saloon, a bustling bar/restaurant that was once the community’s busiest house of ill repute.

Legend has it that a doll behind the bar represented each of the 10 girls available for rent upstairs. When the girl was with a client, the doll was laid on its back. When she was available, the doll was set upright. All that and more is discussed during the Red Onion’s separate-fee tour, which leaves on the hour.

“It’s time to answer the questions you’ve all been wanting to ask,” an elaborately costumed “madame” announces to a saloon crowded for lunch with mostly middle-aged couples. “It will cost you $10 to spend 20 minutes with me, but conversation is all you’re going to get. But don’t worry — I give good tour.”

More than a few eager participants — mostly men — follow her upstairs and into the seamier side of Skagway history.

Heading north

Skagway was one of two starting points for stampeders headed north. They traveled up White Pass to the headwaters of what would become the Yukon River. From there they could raft, sail or float their way to the gold fields outside Dawson City.

A shorter, steeper route began at Dyea, originally located west of Skagway. From there, prospectors traveled up the Chilkoot Trail to arrive at roughly the same place.

Both routes were too steep for pack animals, so the prospectors had to pack in their supplies on their own backs.

The trails ended in Canada, whose government required that all travelers have a year’s worth of specific supplies when crossing the border. Those supplies, enumerated in a list by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, weighed roughly 1 ton. Given that the average stampeder could carry a pack of only about 50 lbs., as many as 40 trips up the steepest part of the pass were required to comply with the law, which was strictly enforced. Those trips, many of them undertaken during the winter, often took weeks to complete.

At the time, there was great debate as to which trail was the better choice; eventually the White Pass won out with the construction of the White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad. Dyea disappeared altogether, with few remnants to mark its existence. But Parks Canada has preserved much of the 33-mile Chilkoot Trail. 

White Pass and Yukon route

Although our luggage was heavy, we didn’t have a ton of goods when we boarded a White Pass & Yukon Route train for a ride through the pass. The narrow-gauge railway, now maintained largely for tourists, took us the next leg of the journey, offering a bird’s-eye view of the boulder-strewn trail that proved the bane of so many stampeders.

The route rises 2,864 feet from its base at Skagway, and the railroad travels an extensive series of switchbacks, many offering dizzying views of the countryside. From some fairly comfortable seats, we looked down on the rough trail that the prospectors traveled and into the deep trough that was named Dead Horse Gulch for the estimated 3,000 equines that lost their lives en route to the summit. 

We made our two-hour railway ascent on July 22.  Once we reached Fraser and entered Canada, we traded our train for a motor coach and began the two-day journey to Dawson City. The Yukon, a land mass roughly the size of California, is home to 37,000 people. Of that population, 27,000 live in White Horse, the capital of the territory. We spent the first night there.

The long journey to Dawson City passed through magnificent scenery carved by what our driver called the “Wisconsin glacier.” Although the ice had traveled as far south as the Badger State, no landscape at home resembles the Yukon’s wide, vast valleys and towering peaks.

At last, we were getting a view of what the great white north had in store for us. Although not yet snow-covered in July, it was greater than anything we could have imagined.

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