View to Juneau, Alaska at the base of Mendenhall Glacier and Mount McGinnis

Author’s Note: In July 1983, my brother Dave and I (a.k.a. Joe Juneau and Skookum Jim) headed off for a three-week trek into the vast frozen reaches of the Klondike. It was Dave’s first backpacking adventure – and probably his last. He was not big on tent camping in the freezing rain, or surviving on freeze-dried meals for weeks at a time – nor was I. But having recently graduated with a college degree in camping, I was eager to put my new knowledge into practice.

Sailing deck fare on the BC Ferries
Sailing deck fare on the BC Ferries

Departing Seattle at dawn, the ferry carried us north to Alaska through smooth, opaque water in the early morning calm. The Inside Passage weaves through coastal islands on the Pacific coast of North America, and was one of the sea routes carrying prospectors north during the Klondike Gold Rush. 

Traveling deck fare – warmed at night under heated lamps – we sailed for four days past jagged snow peaks and glaciers flowing in awesome silence down to Spruce and Hemlock-covered ravines, streaming with cascades. A few fellow deck passengers snored easily as we approached Juneau, Alaska’s remote capital.

Camped by Auke Lake at the terminus of Mendenhal Glacier – calving huge chunks of ice into the lake – we broke out our rain gear as a few drops began to fall from an overcast sky, and hitched into town for dinner at the Red Dog Saloon. Chatting with a local “fisherman by trade” in the drizzle of Juneau, we met fellow passengers Kate and Terra who saved us deck chairs the following day for our trip to the Tlinket Indian settlement at Sitka City on Baranof Island. 

Hiking through coastal rain forest
Hiking through coastal rain forest

We saw Bald Eagles, Killer Whales, hiked historic trails by Native totem poles carved from massive Red Cedar trees, visited a Russian Orthodox church and climbed Castle Hill, high above the city where Russian Alaska was formally handed over to the United States in 1867.

Sailing on to Skagway at the northern turn of the Alaskan panhandle, we hiked through lush, moss-carpeted coastal rain forest bursting with life – eager to live it to the fullest during the short summer season.

We climbed from sea level up into snow and ice and finally over the steep 3,500 foot Chilkoot Pass, made famous during the 1898 Gold Rush. Information boards along the trail told the story of that epic journey undertaken by so many hopeful prospectors, including historic photos of the huge loads of supplies and equipment – even horses – being transported over the pass.

In winter, Gold Rush stampeders struggled through blizzards, freezing temperatures and avalanches, transporting thousands of pounds up 1500 steps of the “golden staircase” cut in snow and ice. Indeed, many items never made it, including neatly piled caches of long wooden slats wrapped in canvas we passed along the way, that were to be assembled into boats to float down the Yukon River to the gold fields.

Summiting Chilkoot Pass
Summiting Chilkoot Pass

Descending into British Colombia, Canada, we entered yet another world of snowy boulder-strewn tundra and moraine. Glaciers flowed in every direction from towering mountains feeding the clearest, coldest cascades of snow melt.

Camped by pristine lakes, twittering loons laughed from across the water. Happy Camp, as it was aptly named, was the first camp established by prospectors as a welcome reward and rest stop after summiting the steep and perilous 26 mile pass, which shoots up a additional 1000 feet in the final half mile. Happy Camp was also reportedly the first camp where prostitutes were available. Although those services were no longer in evidence when we arrived, we did meet two friendly Canadian lasses camped there who joined us for the rest of the journey.

We also met a nice couple in Whitehorse, the capital and only city in Yukon Territory, whose 28,000 people comprise the majority of Yukon’s population. They graciously lent us their canoe and then picked us up downstream a few days later.

Paddling down the Yukon River
Paddling down the Yukon River

So off we went, paddling down the mighty Yukon River – through wide open, empty wilderness – 10,000 square miles of Yukon Territory to every resident. North-country breezes bracing and invigorating, and not a soul in sight.

On the Alaska-Canadian Highway, we hitched to the park entrance and registered the color of our packs at the ranger station for identification in case we did not emerge on time. We were given instructions to be on the lookout for Grizzlies, particularly when hiking through patches of Sedge Grass that the bears like to eat (we soon noticed that stuff was everywhere!) and set out on foot into the uncharted wilderness of Yukon’s Kluane National Park.

Stay tuned for Part Two, coming soon!

You can read more about Jim’s backstory, here and here.

 

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