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Monday, September 3, 2012

Day 69: Chilkoot Pass

When gold rush fever hit North America in the late 19th Century and for a couple of years, Dawson City in the Yukon became the destination of choice for tens of thousands of people heading north with dreams of striking it rich, a major challenge for each one of those hopefuls was actually getting there. There were no roads into Dawson City from the south, so traveling up the west coast by boat became the obvious solution - this then constituting the first part of what would be a long and arduous get-rich-quick journey.

Skagway in Alaska was where the incoming boats docked. From there, gold rushers had to traverse the steep and treacherous Chilkoot Trail or White Pass Trail on foot, before walking on to Caribou Crossing in Yukon. With that first little 106 kilometer jaunt safely under their (ever-loosening) belts, they boarded paddle-steamers at Bennett Lake - linking them into the Yukon River waterway system and landing them, a good 600 kilometers later, in Dawson City.

It was quite a journey, and that was before you even got to the panning for gold part. Skagway, for its part, was where the gold rushers stocked up before setting out..."Stocking up" being no small matter given that only those carrying with them a year's supply of food were allowed to proceed up the pass.

If a lot of those gold rushers came back empty-handed or didn't come back at all, Skagway did pretty well out of the gold rush. More than 100 years on, it's still cashing in on it. Not only has the town gone to great lengths to keep the Klondike spirit alive - safeguarding its period buildings and scattering tableau-vivant-style reenactments of famous gold rush moments up and down the main street; by turning itself into one giant shop-till-you-drop consumer experience, it is also making big bucks off the hoardes of tourists who pour off the cruise ships and, in a buying frenzy that has to be seen to be believed, snap up anything with a price tag on it. The only difference between Skagway then and now, it would seem, is the nature of the currency: yesterday's gold nugget is today's American Express gold card.

All to say that after the quaint and quixotic charms of Haines AK, Skagway AK wasn't so much a gold rush as an adrenaline rush. Having disembarked from the ferry and found a place to park Ruby and Carmella, we even tried to buy-buy-buy along with the best of them...Two hours and one very sad hat later, we de-bunked to the Skagway cemetery (tellingly marked by a giant spray-painted nugget) before setting off up the Chilkoot Pass.

These days, the 22.5 km climb to the summit can be done in the relative comfort of your car. Alternatively, you can cut along the side of the canyon in what looks like a terrifying train ride. Opting to do it by road, we found this first leg of the Klondike Highway to be spectacular, albeit a trifle scary. Arriving at the small lonely shack that passes for the Canadian border at the top was utterly surreal, as was the lunar terrain all around us. Exquisite emerald lakes glistened like jewels. Wispy clouds floated in and out of the mottled hillocks and vales that encircled them. To our left and to our right, rising up behind us and looming ominously ahead of us, lay mountains of every imaginable shape and hue. And over the crest of the empty 'highway,' a bear trotted nonchalantly up front of us. We were gob-smacked - there is no other way to describe our wonder.

We traveled into dusk along that extraordinary stretch of road: in awe of those gold-seeking adventurers who had made the same journey on foot; arriving in Carcross (the new name for Caribou Crossing) as the sun set and day turned into night. Parked up in the $12/night campground run by the local band council, we felt a million miles from Skagway. We couldn't help but wonder whether the gold rushers had felt the same way.