A trip to Bennett Lake, British Columbia, then, and now

Now, the Chilkoot River was running high.  Although the trail is hard-packed and obvious, I wonder if today's hikers are confused by the arrows pointing in opposite directions.

Now, the Taiya River is running high. Although the trail is hard-packed and obvious here, I wonder if today’s hikers are confusedby the arrows pointing in opposite directions.

In 1986, when I arrived at Bennett Lake, my body was beat up, but my spirit was soaring.  After four days of backpacking on “the meanest 33 miles of history,” I’d conquered the  Chilkoot Trail to reach this legendary destination in British Columbia.  That afternoon, my companion and I set up camp amidst rusting tin cans on the shore of a wilderness lake that 30,000 Klondike gold stampeders called home during the winter of 1897.

I had planned my journey on the ferry north from Seattle, after reading about the trail in a guidebook. Back in 1897, thousands of eager fortune hunters had set out from Dyea, Alaska (a dozen miles from Skagway), and hauled themselves and  the required one ton of supplies up and over Chilkoot Pass to Bennett, where they overwintered, building boats and waiting for the ice to break up so they could float down the Yukon to Dawson City, and from there to the Klondike gold fields.

This National Park Service drawing gives a sense of that final tortuous push to Chilkoot Pass.

This National Park Service elevation drawing gives a sense of what the Klondikers were dealing with as they hauled 2,000 pounds of supplies across Chilkoot Pass..

I don’t remember all the logistics of my 1986 trip: how many pounds I carried, or how I’d made it from town to the trailhead, or the campsites where I slept. But I definitely remember the hard push up the “Golden Stairs” to Chilkoot Pass.

The pack weighed me down.  The trail was rocky and relentlessly steep.  Twisting lines of cable — the remnants of a tramway cargo transport service — spilled beside the trail, along with rotting leather boots and rusted tin cans. My companion, a German exchange student named Thomas, laughed at the idea that these items were historical relics — at that point, they weren’t even 100 years old, younger than my still-living great-grandmother.

In 1897, would-be miners either took the Chilkoot Trail from the mud flats of Dyea, or travelled from Skagway over White Pass, a longer route, but not as steep. The fact that the White Pass route seemed easier invited less preparation, more people, and more trouble.

Now, instead of the hike, The Seal and I opted to take the White Pass  & Yukon Railroad to Bennett Lake.  I considered doing the hike again, but realized it would be too much for an inexperienced backpacker to take on.

Now, instead of the hike, The Seal and I opted to take the White Pass & Yukon Railroad to Bennett Lake.

Miners attempted to pack gear by horses, and the animals died by the hundreds,  piling up in a stinking mess at Dead Horse Gulch.

Back in 1986, no one in Skagway mentioned the White Pass & Yukon Railroad, which opened in August 1900 and ceased operations in 1982.  By the time the railroad was completed, the gold rush had ended.  But the railroad filled a transportation need in this remote area (where no highway existed until 1978) and hauled freight and passengers from Skagway to Whitehorse, Yukon Territory until the late 1970s, when low mineral prices resulted in the collapse of the mining industry.  The Railroad began operating again in 1989 as a seasonal excursion train.

Then, in 1986, I remember being very anxious about brown bears, as the banks of the Taiya River were piled with bloated dead salmon. I didn’t encounter a bear, but woke up many times each night wondering if a bear lurked outside the tent.

Now, a brown bear browsing along the Skagway River (and viewed at a safe distance).

Now, a brown bear browsing along the Skagway River (viewed at a safe distance). The bear looks a bit like a horse, doesn’t it?

Then, I remember the glory of reaching the pass, and trudging through snow fields in high exposed alpine territory.  A friendly Canadian Mounty welcomed us near the border, but didn’t ask for my passport, which I wasn’t carrying, because who bothered with a passport when traveling to Canada? (My German friend, however, had to pull out his).

Now, the unmanned border near White Pass.  Customs did check our passports at Fraser, a border hamlet in British Columbia, Canada.

Now, the unmanned border near White Pass. Customs did check our passports at Fraser, a border hamlet in British Columbia, Canada.

Then, I remember feeling so happy to reach “Happy Camp,” several miles beyond the pass.  Immediately I understood why this high alpine camp had been so named by the men and women who had struggled over the pass.

Now, the alpine terrain covered by the White Pass and Yukon Railroad felt wide open.  Maybe not quite as remote, given the train tracks, but just as beautiful.  Flatter, I think, so I can see why the miners thought the route over White Pass was easier.

Now, the alpine terrain covered by the White Pass and Yukon Railroad feels high and wide open, although snow fields don’t linger here, as they do at Chilkoot Pass. White Pass isn’t quite as remote, given the train tracks, but just as beautiful.  Definitely not as steep, and flatter at the pass, so I can see why the miners preferred this route.

Then, I remember Bennett Lake, stretching pale blue through the valley.

Lake Bennett, B.C., now, looking the same as it did back in 1987. But not the same as 1897, when 30,000 would-be gold-seekers spent the winter here building boats to float down the Yukon to the Klondike gold fields, near Dawson.

Lake Bennett, B.C., now, looking the same as it did back in 1986. But not the same as 1897, when 30,000 would-be gold-seekers spent the winter here building boats to float down the Yukon to the Klondike gold fields, near Dawson.  Piles of snow fell and temperatures dropped way, way below zero.  People were definitely tougher back then.

This late 19th century stove looks like it could be resurrected if need arose.

This late 19th century stove looks like it could be resurrected if need arose.

Now, Bennett Lake remains isolated, remote, beautiful, and littered with Klondike trash. At the Depot, I said hello to some hikers coming off the trail.  They warned me that it wasn’t an easy trip and required months of training and preparation.  They looked wet, exhausted, and beat up.  I smiled, now, and remembered, then.

Resources

The Chilkoot Trail is managed jointly by the U.S. National Park Service and Parks Canada.  Permits are required during peak season.

The White Pass & Yukon Railroad offers daily excursions during the summer, but only offers the trip to Bennett Lake (traveling onward to Carcross, Yukon Territory) a couple of times a week.  The railroad provides shuttle service to hikers.

This Presbyterian Church at Bennett Lake is the only building that remains from the winter of 1897.  The depot building where we ate lunch was built later, for the railroad.

This Presbyterian Church at Bennett Lake is the only building that remains from the winter of 1897. The depot building where we ate lunch as part of our excursion was built later, for the railroad.

 

 

About Dianne Fallon

Maniacal Traveler Dianne Fallon writes from a house in the woods in southern Maine. Her interests include travel, hiking and the outdoors, and history, and she is quickly becoming an Instagram-aholic, @themaniacialtraveler.
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3 Responses to A trip to Bennett Lake, British Columbia, then, and now

  1. It’s interesting when we get to go back. I really like that photo of the old church!

  2. Marilyn says:

    Looks like a fun trip. Great pictures!

    • It was, then and now! I contemplated taking my son on the Chilkoot, but decided it would be too stressful to both get myself up the pass AND potentially have to drag him up. Just took a peek at your blog and look forward to reading it in more depth.

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