Hiking the Chilkoot Trail: Day 1 of 3.

(See this post for a brief history & description of the trail and comments about Day 0 – getting to the trailhead).

I woke up at 5:30am after a relatively good sleep. I took my time getting ready, but was still on the trail at 7:20am. I started off on the half mile trail leading to the actual Chilkoot Trail trailhead. After a quick picture, I was off on my 33 mile and 3 day adventure.

I had little idea what to expect in the way of terrain. All I had studied was the profile pictured here. I also didn’t have an idea how many people I would encounter; I knew it was popular and there were permits required but at the time I didn’t recall how many permits were given out daily, nor did I know if we were anywhere near capacity during the days of my hike.

The trail started with a steep climb. Not particularly long – but akin to a stair climb rather than a nice, switch-backing trail that I grew up with outside of Alaska. Shortly into the climb, I came across the trail register and was the very first person to sign into the trail on August 15th, 2019.

The trail flattened out fairly quickly and continued through the rainforest. It has been a dry summer and it shows, but it did rain for a brief period in the first couple of hours on my hike. The terrain was a relatively easy dirt path.

Despite the ease of hiking, my left foot started to ache. It was a familiar though unfortunate feeling. It crossed my mind that going onward could make it worse and I wondered if I should turn back. The obvious answer is no. And that was a good decision. While my feet hurt plenty later in the trip, that particular pain went away quickly, as it does on most of my runs though the thought hadn’t occurred to me at the time.

At about 10am I came across the first campsite on the trail, Finnegan’s Point. I had not seen anyone yet and I didn’t expect to find anyone still at camp so late in the day. While not really that late, it felt very late since I had already hiked over five miles. I miscalculated, and there were five people finishing up breakfast. I dropped my pack, used the composting toilet, and sat down with the group for a minute to enjoy a granola bar. The group consisted of 3 different parties: two women from Juneau (I had not met either of them previously), a couple from Canada who I would not see again as they were not going as far as the camp I headed to on day one, and a woman from France who I later learned has been living in Canada for over 5 years.

As I finished up my granola bar I heard voices and it sounded like a large group was barreling down the trail. I decided it was time to leave, though they made it to us before I was ready. It turned out to be only four people who had been making lots of noise presumably for bear safety. Both black and brown bears frequent the trail. If you are wondering about my own warning mechanisms given solo travel, I had a bell on my pack in hopes that a bear would hear it and at least know I was there. This trail was also quite open so that I could see a long ways ahead of me on the trail. I kept my eyes open or called out on the rare occasion I couldn’t see far ahead. I also carried bear spray in case there was an encounter and a bear decided to come my direction instead of veer as they usually do. I never saw a bear the entire trip.

The group of 4 stopped for a moment and I pulled out ahead of them. I traveled a few more miles over some easy and some more difficult terrain before coming to Canyon City campsite. I passed four people there off in the distance; I later learned these were two couples traveling separately though I never talked with either couple. They were near the cooking area and I didn’t stop, though I did end up stopping for an early lunch at one of the tent platforms further down the trail. It was a lovely spot and it didn’t occur to me that we are not supposed to eat anywhere other than cooking spots in the campsites (and I doubt I left morsels behind, and if I did, I suspect birds or squirrels would have gotten rid of them long before anyone would be camping there that evening). Each campsite had wooden platforms for tents. Here is what they looked like:

Tent platform with places to tie your tent down on each side.

Just after the campsite is a side trail to the Canyon City ruins. We are not supposed to leave packs along the trail because of bears, but the park service had been thoughtful enough to install large bear lockers at the trail turnoff so we could store our packs. Here is an example of a smaller version of the lockers – these particular ones were used for food and other smelly items at each campsite.

Bear lockers to store food.

The ruins were not particularly exciting, but the side trail to them was after this suspension bridge which was kind of fun.

Smile after safely crossing…

I recall the following 3 miles to Pleasant Camp were rougher. There was more climbing, and the trail was rocky in areas. I plodded along, and then passed 8 people at Pleasant Camp who seemed to be enjoying hot lunches. These were all people I had seen earlier in the day who had passed me during my earlier breaks.

After Pleasant Camp, there were just over 2 miles to Sheep Camp, where I would spend the night. The trail profile shows these miles as uphill, but if it was uphill it was hardly noticeable. This was very easy terrain and I welcomed it. My feet just plain hurt at this point and I moved swiftly, eager to get into the flip flops I carried on my back. I have experienced this general foot ache before on long-mileage days. I don’t know if it is common or not, but it is just general pain without blisters or sore spots. I hadn’t felt any hot spots at all, but during this last stretch I felt two layers of skin against eachother – in other words, I realized that a blister had formed on my left foot with no early warning signs. I hadn’t worn my hiking boots much before this trip – a rookie mistake, and something I could have easily avoided.

I made it into camp about 3:30pm, for a total of about 8 hours on the trail. Sheep camp is the camp closest to the pass, and it is 7.5 miles from there to the next camp. Thus, nearly everyone stays here before the crossing and it is probably the biggest camp. Sites span quite a long distance up a hill, though my tired self stopped at one of the first sites I came too (pictured above).

People funneled into camp throughout the afternoon and well into the evening. A couple of days later when I considered counting how many people there were at camp, I can picture at least 34, and I’m sure that there were people I didn’t see or didn’t recall in my memory. Far too many people to get to know, but I did chat with a few groups of people. Most were from Canada. They ranged in age from young children (maybe 10?) to older. I don’t dare guess how old, but one friendly gentleman from Oregon had been retired for at least a number of years.

There were 3 shelters at the camp to hang out and cook in. The largest was open to the air, and that’s where I made my home to do some work (editing a book I’m writing), talk to other travelers, and eventually make my dinner – a well-balanced meal of mashed potatoes.

The ranger gave his nightly talk at 7pm. He started telling us that rain was expected later in the evening (it had cleared up in the afternoon and we enjoyed some nice sun), and that it would probably rain the following day. He described the pass in fog, and instilled fear about getting lost while traveling between the markers placed in the rocks. Then he made clear that after you reach the top, you still have to go down the other side, and that it is difficult heading down too, with rough terrain. He warned us to leave camp by 8am and to expect an 8-12 hour day to the next camp 7.5 miles away. I was going to travel two camps away, and he warned those of us with the longer journey that the 2.5 miles between the camps wasn’t the easiest terrain in the world.

He took a break before he was going to give an interpretive talk. I suspect it was an interesting talk about the history of the area, but I didn’t stay to find out. I was too tired.

I crawled into bed about 7:30pm, exhausted from my first day on the trail. 13 miles down, 20 to go. The rain started as I zipped up my rain fly. I didn’t set an alarm, though I decided after the ranger’s talk that I best get moving very early and figured I would start moving anytime I woke up after about 4:30am.

2 thoughts on “Hiking the Chilkoot Trail: Day 1 of 3.

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