It has never been suggested that the north attracts Canada’s most mentally stable individuals. The brutal winters, the soul-crushing isolation and the occasional mauling by grizzly-sized mosquitoes have always drawn people lacking the gene for self-preservation. In the Gold Rush of 1897, 100,000 dreamers risked their lives on the crackpot theory that the gold would be as plentiful as the misery.
So many prospectors died of starvation and exposure along the Chilkoot Trail route from Alaska through British Columbia to the Yukon that the government issued a mandatory supply list that was 90 items long, including 180 kilograms of flour and five metres of mosquito netting. Which pretty much sounds like the worst backpacking trip ever. And that’s why I’m hiking the 66-kilometre Chilkoot Trail with a daypack. In one day. Nowadays, most hikers take four days, which allows time to appreciate the glacial moraines and crystalline lakes. But that isn’t nearly lunatic enough for my tastes. Beauty be damned: to really feel that northern essence, you have to suffer!
My companion is my brother-in-law, K.C. He’s not exactly a mountain man — he’s from Toronto and wears glasses that look really expensive — but he can do a zillion pull-ups and he doesn’t eat bread. Just ask him and he’ll tell you. For hours.
Our goal is basically to survive, which is all the Gold Rushers could have hoped for. And don’t tell the Mounties, but we’re ditching the mandatory 45 kilograms of dried beans. We’ve kept our packs light, basically beef jerky and bear spray.
The trail begins in lush rainforest alongside the milky-white Taiya River near Dyea, Alaska, about seven kilometres north of Skagway. We start out at 6 a.m. and, feeling strong, jog in the flat spots. Unfortunately, there aren’t many flat spots. The elevation gain for the entire trail is a little over 1,000 metres, but that’s a meaningless number. You go up, you go down, you go up again. You cry a little. And then you have 59 kilometres to go.
I had hoped this would be a chance for K.C. and me to do some brotherly bonding. But the steaming mounds of bear scat reduce all conversation to screams of “Go away, bear!”
The Golden Stairs, an ice-and-boulder field that rises nearly 800 metres in less than a kilometre, are the crux of the trail. The ground here is littered with rusted tools that miners decided to abandon rather than haul. I consider ditching my bear spray. Water sluices off the glacier in lethal torrents, sunlight glares off the ice. The air smells like greed and broken dreams.
We pick our way upwards, kicking steps into the snow until we reach an unstable ice bridge that’s about to collapse. Too gassed for prudence, we skitter across and hope for the best. Reaching the summit feels great … but would feel a lot better if we didn’t still have 38 kilometres remaining.
By now my hamstring is twanging and K.C.’s hip is doing a funky rolling thing, so we spend a few clicks lying about how great we’re feeling. At Happy Camp — halfway home! — we watch two backpackers get evacuated by helicopter. As it turns out, there’s nothing so invigorating than to be doing slightly better than somebody who is doing really, really badly. That second wind lasts until we realize that the evacuees are 30 minutes away from showers and 500 metres above the nearest grizzly.
With 22 kilometres left, we settle into a grim rhythm. An hour of agony follows each 30-second water break. I have a blister that, defying physics, is larger than the toe upon which it resides. Locked in our personal bubbles of wretchedness we could step over bricks of gold on the trail and never notice.
Most people end the hike at the train station in the ghost town of Bennett, B.C. The miners, of course, were just starting out here — they still had 880 kilometres of brutal raft and foot travel to reach Dawson, Y.T. During our own planning, an additional 13 kilometres of railroad track didn’t seem that bad, so we didn’t plan on catching the train. That was idiotic. Cramping, chafing and exhaustion aside, the bears come out in force along the tracks. We consider allowing ourselves to be mauled; at least we could stop walking.
Then, with eight kilometres to go, our friend Luke appears like a shimmering vision. We fall in line almost giddily and he takes over the job of throwing rocks at bears. Mercifully, 20 hours after we started, we strike gold: Luke’s VW Golf, stocked with Molson and Motrin. I quickly down two of each, then vomit. And then K.C. and I finally get down to that brotherly bonding: we swear a solemn blood oath never to hike this trail again.