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