LESSONS FROM THE CHILKOOT

By GREY HUDDLESTON
It was sometime in June when I felt the calling again. It begins as just an inkling and builds slowly until it’s no longer ignorable. The message is loud and clear: get up off your laurels, strap fifty or so pounds to your back and head for the woods!
Luckily, my place of summer employment happens to be just a short piece from the head of the Chilkoot Trail – to my knowledge one of the most beautiful and historically significant hikes in the nation. After quickly recruiting a buddy and shopping for a few supplies, I found myself many miles down the trail, trekking along like a modern-day stampeder in pursuit of the headwaters of the mighty Yukon River at Lake Bennett.
The Chilkoot Trail, at 33 miles long, is significantly shorter than some of the other backpacking trips I’ve done through the years. But the route involves some peculiar hardships that I, a native of the sunny hills of North Carolina, had never encountered before.
Avalanche dangers, a plethora of bears that seemed to encounter every group on the trail except my own, voracious swarms of mosquitoes, and the grueling climb to the summit all guarantee Chilkoot backpackers a hearty challenge.
Upon returning to Skagway, I was sporting a twisted ankle, a pulled muscle in my thigh, a sore throat from breathing the smoke of Yukon forest fires, and literally hundreds of bug bites on every conceivable part of my body. And I was completely happy.
Why? That’s the question, isn’t it? Many of you Skagwegians are outdoor enthusiasts like myself, and many of you have hiked the trail several times, so you don’t need an answer. But for those that are curious, here’s a justification for braving the challenges of the backcountry.
First, the easy answer: it’s beautiful! The terrain along the Chilkoot is unlike anything I’ve ever seen in the lower 48, and the sheer ruggedness of the hike from the Canadian border to Deep Lake made me feel like I was truly at the last frontier.
Add in the hundreds of Gold Rush artifacts lining the entire length of the trail, and you’ve got a journey that rivals any in terms of both scenic beauty and historical significance.
Secondly, part of the fun of backpacking lies in its physical challenge – in overcoming the adversities of the trail. I’m not an exercise aficionado, and I gave up sports long ago in favor of writing and music. I smoke cigarettes, drink cheap beer, and if the world’s population is divided between those that eat to live and those that live to eat, I probably fall in the latter category.
Yet with backpacking, I find that pushing my body to its outer limits of endurance carries a peculiar satisfaction, a unique sense of accomplishment that I never found while playing any kind of team sport.
And though my partner and I got a later start than most of the groups hiking to the summit that day, I’m proud to say that we were the first ones to make it over the pass and into Canada, covered in snow and fog. Never have I been so happy to see that little red maple leaf.
The third reason I like to spend time in the wilderness has less to do with place and more to do with people. Friendships that form along the trail are different from others – they’re more real, more down to earth. I only met Erik about a month before we set off on the Chilkoot together, and I now count him as a close friend.

The author, driver Christina Markley, and hiking buddy Erik Dunstan celebrate the end of a long hike at Log Cabin.

I think this happens because, when you’re spending the entire day hiking together and then sleeping inches from each other in one of those tents that has no business being marketed as “two-man,” you get a lot of time to talk. About everything. From life and love to what’s around the next bend, from religion and politics to the peculiar effects of dehydrated “chili mac” on the human digestive system, there’s time for it all. There are no television screens, no radio waves and no computers, just pure and unadulterated human interaction.
The final reason I love hitting the trail is something a little less tangible, a little less concrete. It has to do with the feeling of escape I get when living in the backcountry, with the simple lifestyle I can lead, if only briefly, when surrounded by trees rather than pavement.
You see, I live in a world ruled by the dollar, by the bottom line, by revenue streams, car insurance, cell phone bills, and broadband networks. By war, terrorism, politics, and greed.
Somehow, when I’m in the bush, all of those worries fade to distant echoes, and my greatest concerns are where I’m going to sleep that night, where I’ll find some fresh water, and how I’ll avoid getting eaten by bears, mosquitoes or anything in between. When you’re in the woods, those things are more immediate, more real, and ultimately more important.
Coming back to “reality” after being in the woods often gives me a bit of culture shock, and our post-hike stop at the Whitehorse Wal-Mart made me want to do the whole thing over again.
It’s a beautiful world out there, and I often wish that my usual version of everyday life was a little closer to the one I encountered along the Chilkoot Trail.