Ten-year-old Danny Brady, ready to lead his dad up the Golden Stairs.
Father and Son on the Chilkoot
Trail Power to the 10th
Part one of two
Story & Photos by Jeff & Danny Brady
Summer of Hikes
Some time this past winter, my son Danny and I committed to a summer of hiking, with a goal of conquering the mighty Chilkoot Trail at the end of July 2010.
Danny had studied the Chilkoot in a Klondike Gold Rush unit in his third-fourth grade class last fall, and he really wanted to see the trail and walk the steps tread by the stampeders and the native packers before them. He had read Will Hobbs’ great juvenile book, Jason’s Gold.
Shortly after school was out in May, we started hitting the local trails to get ready. This just happened to coincide with the start-up of the inaugural Skagway Trails Challenge, organized by the Rec. Center. We started knocking hikes off the list almost weekly, and by the end of July were ready for hike number 10.
Ten was a big number for us. Danny had turned 10 on July 15, and this would be my 10th time hiking the entire length of the trail. I am also carrying a tall, curved willow hiking stick that Chuck Buchanan of Carcross used a decade ago as the model for the stick held by the Native packer in the Skagway Centennial Statue. Carrying it over the Chilkoot in 2010 will bronze it in my memory.
Danny Brady walks the plank by the beaver dam on the lower trail.
Day One - Dyea to Canyon City, 7.5 miles
Not so saintly packs, beaver trail, berry recovery
We started up “Saintly Hill” by the wide Taiya River at about 10:30 a.m. after getting a pancake breakfast and send-off from Mom (Dorothy). She had decided to spend the week with the horses in Dyea, rather than follow us up the storied trail. She had hiked the Chilkoot with me back in the 1970s, when there was a minimal National Park Service presence and fewer rules. Now you have to obtain a park permit, go through an orientation, cook and camp in designated areas, and stick as best you can to a schedule.
“I’m not going anywhere where they won’t let me build a campfire,” she said.
So be it, but the no-fire rule is a good one on an international historic trail – it’s there for the people who don’t know how to build fires, and there are enough of them, even on this trail.
We had packed up the day before and did a weigh-in at home. Danny’s pack was about 25 pounds, and mine was 60 pounds. I felt we could handle this, but soon discovered that some adjustments would have to be made.
Danny had climbed the first hill a year ago during a summer camp hike-float trip, but this was his first time with a pack. We stopped at each bench to catch our breaths, and all seemed fine. But coming down, he started complaining about the pack straps digging into his shoulders, and by the time we reached the flatland by the Taiya, he was hurting.
We stopped and had a talk. He was carrying the same youth backpack that his sister Annie carried over the trail eight years ago, when she was 12. It contained mostly his clothes and sleeping bag, but I had added various snacks for the trip to his outside pockets. I told him I would take most of the snacks, but that I couldn’t fit much more into my pack. If the weight was too much for him after this exchange, then we would have to turn around and go home.
He had a bit of a breakdown when I said this, but I encouraged him. “Let’s go a bit further and see how it goes. How does it feel?”
“Better,” he said.
“Good. The next three miles are flat.”
My next move would have been plastering moleskin on his shoulders, but I was hoping to save it for our feet. Immediately, I realized I might be the one who would need it. The extra five pounds I had just taken on caused my new pack to dig in, but I constantly adjusted the straps and found my semi-comfort zone.
After an eighth of a mile, he stopped and rested while I stood by – the last thing I wanted to do was take my pack off and put it on again. A family from Calgary that had been having lunch by the river passed us. I think they had heard us before and had a look of concern.
“We’re okay,” I said. “Just taking our time.”
In the back of my mind, I wondered just how long it would take us to get to Finnegan’s Point, and if we would make Canyon City before dark. At times like this, it’s best to just load up with gorp and see what kind of energy you can get out of the boy.
He started whistling, a good sign. There was bear scat every mile. The whistling kept me from having to sing.
We came upon a sign that told us to stay on the trail because the land was private over the next 1.4 miles. Just past it began a series of planks that park crews had placed over a section that was mostly underwater. I knew this was the Mahle family’s native land claim, and I thought to myself, “This must be Andy Mahle’s revenge for the park crossing his land.”
The planks crossed by a large beaver dam, and I figured Andy’s spirit was at its strongest there. Danny just thought it was cool.
We reached Finnegan’s about 2:30 p.m. after a brief stop at the old Hosford sawmill, its 1950s-era buildings now completely fallen in. We stayed at Finnegan’s nearly an hour to rest our shoulders and have a late lunch. Danny read the interpretive sign and played around the huge hemlock tree, where the Calgary family had been spread out along its sprawling roots. It looks like the captain of the death ship in one of the “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies. I stay away from its tentacles and stretch out by the river where I have a great view of Irene Glacier, just under the cloud cover.
We have another three miles to go, through more rugged terrain. Our feet are fine, a good sign. But the real test of our pack weights is coming up. I was hoping to see Danny’s famous “second wind,” which kicked in on the afternoon of every long hike we had been on this summer, from Sturgill’s Landing to AB Mountain.
The Devil’s Club on this section of trail is stunning. It emerges in waves from the forest floor, sometimes reaching more than eight feet tall. Its healing power is inside its stem, but the cover it provides gives those walking through it a sense of peace. Unless you fall into its prickly leaves by mistake so we are careful. Danny finds rest stops on stumps or rocks that will fit my pack. He pats spots next to him. We’ve reached some kind of rest stop harmony. Even though we are taking many rests, we are still making progress.
From the top of one hill, I can see Danny is struggling. Maybe I was wrong. But then I look down and spot a blueberry bush.
“Blueberries!” we both exclaim.
He is on them like a mosquito on a bare back. If Devil’s Club cures all, then blueberries boost all. This is just what we needed. In no time, it seems, we are through the rock garden (old riverbed section) and on the final hill and descent into Canyon.
He has been constantly asking, “How much longer?” But I assure him this is the last hill. He doesn’t believe me, so as the trail flattens out I start “running” to the Canyon creek bridge.
In a flash he is past me. The camp is fairly full but we find a site near the hillside. Danny drops his pack and we start setting up the tent. A squirrel interrupts us as it scampers up a fallen tree – it has a nail in its mouth, a relic of the gold rush or the latest cabin rehab. Danny tries to give chase. The hill is steep, and he asks for permission to climb higher so he can practice for the Golden Stairs. I let him go but tell him to be careful.
I think to myself, “We have arrived.”
After a supper of sweet and sour chicken, a freeze-dried concoction that was more like soup but tasted fine, we were ready for the tent.
Climbing MF hill, waiting for Dad.
Day 2 – Canyon City to Sheep Camp, 5 miles
Easy day up to rocky top, decked out base camp
I was up early and peeked inside the 1960s-era cabin which had been restored in the past year by a park work crew. Its bottom two logs had been completely replaced, along with some new roof supports, and it had a new floor and roof, including a skylight. Inside I found Rick from Maryland relaxing in his camp chair. It was warm inside and we talked about trips. He had visited 54 of the country’s 57 national parks. The Chilkoot, as part of a national historical park, did not count, but it was a good warm-up for his son and him before they headed to Glacier Bay for a kayak trip. I told him about our usual summer paddling trips up in the Yukon. They will be back to paddle the Yukon some day. The son, 25, joined us later outside as we cooked by the deck. His leg twitched so much that it shook the picnic table, and his dad made him stop. I thought he was nervous, but I learned later that he just liked to get up, leave early, and “get there.” They were the first out of camp.
Danny was up on the second try and we had toasted English muffins with honey. This was going to be an easy day, theoretically, so there was no need for us to rush. He found a nice hiking stick – just his size – that a previous party had left behind. Now he has one to match mine. Without packs, we walked the half-mile to the old Canyon City historic site. We had been warned about a bear kill on the other side of the river, just past the suspension bridge. A black bear carcass had been discovered there by rangers this summer, an apparent victim of a brown bear. They had cordoned off the area just south of the bridge to keep out looky-loos and potential new kills. A couple with packs on was somewhere behind us and kept blowing their whistle. We just talked. Bears out here know human voices and usually get out of the way long before you see them. The couple must have been scared because we never saw them on the loop trail among the artifacts, nor on our way back from the “City.” Danny poked the huge steam boiler with his stick. This is the stoutest artifact of the gold rush, the sole standing survivor of the tramway system that operated less than a year from here to just past the summit.
Back at camp, we pack up and are on the trail at 11 a.m. We climb what we used to call “MF Hill” during my two summers as a guide. Those aren’t the maiden initials of my dear mother, rest her soul. But I strangely think of her smiling down on us as we head up it.
I let Danny in on an old trick: “Loosen your hip belt, it makes the steep climb easier.” And he is up there in no time.
“That wasn’t so bad,” he says, as I lumber up the hill with my heavy pack.
“Good, that’s the second hardest hill on the trip. Now you are ready for the big one tomorrow.”
We rest and look down the valley, hoping to get a glimpse of Dyea, but the trees are too high. We see a patch of blue above. This is going to be a good day.
Devil’s Club and spruce and hemlock groves makes this one of the more beautiful stretches of the Alaskan side of the trail. Huge and deadly amanita mushrooms and six-inch-tall broomrape sprigs sprout up from the forest floor. We’re still stopping every one-eighth mile. We take turns leading, and we just sort of know when we are ready for another breather. This is our pace, our Chilkoot.
High up above the Taiya River canyon, the trail ascends onto a stretch of flat rocks that are bathed in sunlight. We stop for lunch – the last of our pre-made sandwiches – and turn around to see the Nourse Glacier and peaks to the west emerge from the clouds. Danny lies on the rocks with a bag of gorp on his belly and pretends to be dead. I find a softer spot in the moss. A couple from Vancouver, Heather and Chris, has caught up to us. She woke up with a scratchy throat and is moving about as slow as me. I tell them to turn around, and the sun hits them as they take in the view.
The trail goes up and down, up and down, and Danny is getting impatient. We finally drop down to the river by the old Camp Pleasant.
“You said this was going to be Pleasant Camp?”
“Nope, old Pleasant Camp. New Pleasant Camp is further.”
We walk on, and when the new camp appears he runs to the shelter and we go inside to snack away from the bugs.
Then it is up the trail to the impressive 11-Mile suspension bridge. We are careful not to drop our sticks. It’s tricky holding your stick and needing your hands to guide you across, but we make it. Danny says he feels a possible blister on his foot forming, so we stop and take off our boots. There’s no blister, but I apply some moleskin at the base of his big toe, and another where an older blister had calloused a couple toes over. I have no “hot spots” on my feet but am watching an old blister from our AB trail. I’ll slap a band-aid on it tonight. Our feet haven’t gotten wet, which is a blessing, but that is about to change.
We enter the section of trail below the “Old New Sheep Camp” camping area that was flooded eight years ago when I was last here. My daughter Annie and I were the first through after the flood, but still waded about a 50-yard section. The trail now has been diverted to higher ground, and is really the only bad trail of the entire trip, with some sections of deep mud. But we get around it and drop down to the former campsite. I fill up our water bottles at a branch of the Taiya, which has taken over this part of the valley. Again, it’s almost as if nature dares humans to get in its way. The old Sheep Camp higher up was just fine 35 years ago, but the Park Service wanted to expand its campground away from the few artifacts by the old city. It moved the camp to lower ground and the Taiya claimed it. We walk on to “New Old Sheep Camp.”
The Brady boys at their Sheep Camp tent platform.
A ranger passes us and I tell him this, giving him a modern history lesson. He says we are not far. The ranger station is in the same location, and about an eighth mile past is the old cabin and two cooking shelters. Choppers have been bringing in logs and materials to the cabin and ranger station all day, the first flights in more than a week. The sky is now completely blue. This cabin is being restored, but a new roof collapsed from the winter snow load, so they’ve had to start over.
Behind this area a new trail winds up the slope to several new campsites that were built by a crew that included my stepson Scott two years ago. We finally find an open wooden platform near the outhouse. Thankfully there is no wind. It’s 5:30 p.m. and the sun has gone down in this walled-in valley. Waterfalls drop from the granite 1,000 feet on either side. We’ve reached our Chilkoot base camp on the best of days.
After a supper of lasagna, we head outside for the ranger talk by Pete Lundberg. He’s new to Sheep Camp this year, having come from Glacier National Park in Montana, but he has been well-schooled on the history and certainly knows about bears and backcountry. A pleasant fellow, but not energetic enough to keep my 10-year-old interested, not at this hour. Danny rests his head on my knee. We are off to bed by 8:30 p.m. We need to be up around 5:30-6 a.m. so we can be on the trail by 7:30-8.
On the steepest part of the Golden Stairs, waiting for Dad again.
Day 3 –Sheep Camp to Happy Camp, 8.5 miles
Long Hill longer, Taiya smaller, Summit finally over
Danny got up on the third try; he really wanted to sleep in, but after two cups of tea I was shaking the tent and got him moving and down to the shelter for breakfast. Our food was in these new bear storage containers. I had brought rope for the bear poles, but they are now a new relic of the modern Chilkoot.
We also had all these extra clothes for the worst possible weather: extra shell layers, a heavy coat for him, rain wear, hat, gloves. Danny would put on some of the layers at night, but we never needed them during the day. The sun came out 10 minutes after we hit the trail at 8:15 and we stopped so Danny could change into shorts and a short-sleeved shirt. I hiked in shorts every day except the last.
Again we were the next-to-last group to leave camp. Many had left before 7 while the fog still covered the peaks around us. I wondered if they would even see the summit if they got there too soon.
The Calgary family was ahead of us, and a party of two couples from Anchorage were behind us. They passed us an hour up the trail; one of them was hiking in sandals, but with his toes covered.
I kept telling Danny that Long Hill would be the worst part of the day. It takes forever, it seems, to get to the Scales and within sight of the Golden Stairs. We make frequent stops as we climb and the sun rises higher in the sky.
“Is that the Taiya?” he asked at one point, during a water stop.
“Part of it. It braids some up here.”
“It’s so small now.”
We finally emerge at the crest of Long Hill and are in view of the fallen down tramway powerhouse and tower. Below it, by our first snowfield, is the Calgary family. It’s some time after noon and we are ready for lunch: cheese and crackers dipped in peanut butter, nothing finer. A member of the family obliges our request for a photo. There is a southerly breeze that keeps us from baking in the heat, but I apply sunscreen, and we move on up to the Scales. It takes us about an hour.
Danny has been taking the lead as I continue to struggle under the weight. At the Scales, I drop my pack and find a slope suitable for a backrest in view of the Golden Stairs. We watch the family start up the steep scree of rock that has supported thousands for thousands of years. We break out the gorp and power bars. After a 10-minute nap, I walk over to Danny’s pack to get some more gorp and find a ground squirrel perched on his pack and starting to nibble at the plastic bag. He chirps and Danny gives chase to his series of holes around the sea of discarded gold rush relics. Danny can’t catch him.
“That squirrel is a gold rush descendant just like you,” I say. “He learned the art of food gathering from packers from his ancestors. Don’t think you can catch him on his turf.”
This gives us energy somehow, and Danny is ready to go.
“Come on, Dad.”
Standing by the artifacts after reaching the first summit, and a father's moment of reflection.
It’s 2:30 p.m. I’ll be happy if we get to the summit by 6 at our pace. We cross another snowfield and up we go. He’s a rock hound and getting ahead of me, so I tell him to stop every third pole marker.
At the second pole I am out of breath. “Stop every second pole and wait for me.”
He’s up to the next series of poles in no time, lots of space between us so I don’t have to worry about falling rocks, and he’s so light on his feet.
About halfway up I ask him, “Well, what do you think so far?”
“This is awesome!”
I think how I helped carry a kid his age from a greenhorn Mississippi family up this slope 35 years ago.
“That’s my boy,” I say. “Now if the old man can just keep up with you. Next time, I’m bringing someone to help me, or you can be the Sherpa.”
We reach the first summit in a stiff breeze. We can’t stop for long or we’ll get chilled, but the view back down the valley is as stunning as ever. I’ve been lucky with the weather on most of my Chilkoots. Only once in 14 trips up here have I considered it to be bad. Last week’s travelers were mildly hypothermic, says the ranger, who passes us on the way down. He is happy to see that we are going to make it, and on such a nice day.
“We’re taking our time,” I say.
“No need to hurry on a day like this,” he says.
Still, this has been my toughest by far. The four extra trips done on visits to the rangers in the 1980s and 90s were with day packs. All my 10 full Chilkoots were done with packs ranging from 40 to 70 pounds, but I was much younger. The 65 pounds are weighing down on my nearly 54 years, but I am probably more proud of this effort than any, watching my son conquer the pass in the footsteps of his sister. He takes a photo of me reflecting on the moment.
Then we are off to the second summit, but a too bold move on his part gives us a scare. He tries to jump a rock that is entirely too high and falls short and down between the rocks. Nothing is broken but there is an inch-long cut on his leg. Thankfully, it only needs a double band-aid treatment, but it made us both think of how frail we are and how a slip-up can ruin a trip if you are not careful.
We stop and get some water in a trickle between the rocks.
“Is this the Taiya?”
“The start of it, yep. It gets fed by this snowfield and all the water falling down around us.”
I tell him to look for the monument that the Boy Scouts, under the leadership of Skip Burns, placed for Governor Wally Hickel in the early 1970s. Just as I did on my first trip up here, Danny climbs right up to the monument and then reads it, outloud, for me.
We opt not to take a side trip to look at the knockdown boats left by the stampeders; they are a snow slope over to the east.
“Next time,” he says, and we head up the shorter third summit and cross the border into Canada. No one is at the warden station, and we stop briefly at the shelter for a snack. It’s 5:30 p.m. and we still have another three or four hours to hike the four miles to Happy Camp. It will be a race to make it before dark.
Read Part 2, featuring the pair’s hike from the Summit to Bennett, from the Aug. 27 edition.