Hiking with Ghosts

Hiking with GhostsSorry, Hiking With Ghosts is out of print. Check back for news about the planned e-book version.

A little over a century ago, the lure of Klondike gold led thousands of fortune-seekers to travel the Chilkoot Trail from dockside in Dyea, Alaska, to Lake Bennett on the Canadian side of the international border.

In Hiking With Ghosts, Frances Backhouse takes readers on a journey back in time along this world-famous northern footpath, now a 53-kilometre backpacking route jointly maintained by the U.S. National Parks Service and Parks Canada.

Combining first-hand experience and practical advice with engaging accounts of the Chilkoot’s human and natural history, this book is a useful starting point for anyone planning to hike the trail and an equally enjoyable read for the armchair traveller. Published by Raincoast Books, 1999.

Read an excerpt
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In April, winter still rules Alaska and the Yukon. Although the days are rapidly lengthening and the heat of the sun can once more be felt, this remains a land of ice and snow. An uncompromising land that does not hesitate to punish those who do not understand or respect its ways. On April 3, 1898, winter handed out its harshest sentence to some five dozen people who, among all the thousands on the Chilkoot Trail that spring, had the misfortune of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. They have gone down in history as the victims of the Palm Sunday avalanches.

To those who were familiar with the land, there were plenty of warning signs of the impending disaster. First Nations packers who were working on the trail knew that a change in the weather had made the heavy snowpack unstable on the steep slopes around the Chilkoot Pass, and they refused to go up there. But many of the stampeders who were swarming across the Coast Mountains on their way to the Klondike were unwilling to pause in their mad pursuit of fortune. The folly of their decision became evident on the night of April 2, as great slabs of snow started peeling off the mountainsides in the vicinity of the pass and tumbling into the narrow Taiya Valley below.

By morning, two separate slides had buried 23 people in the vicinity of the Scales, but others had managed to rescue them. The first deaths came a few hours later when two more avalanches entombed three people in their tent and obliterated a party of tramway workers as they retreated from the danger zone. No lives were spared. Meanwhile, the last 200 people who had remained up at the Scales, hoping to avoid backtracking, had finally acknowledged the danger they faced there and had started down toward the treeline. Because blizzard conditions had reduced visibility to almost zero, the stampeders walked single file, clutching a long rope to keep from losing track of each other and the trail. Unaware of the fate of the tramway workers, they arrived at the place where that fatal slide had occurred only an hour or so earlier. As they approached, a second avalanche came hurtling down the mountainside, instantly burying those who were at the front of the rope and leaving their comrades at the rear untouched but stunned. Digging frantically, the survivors were able to save a few of the victims, but many perished. No one was ever sure of the exact number of those who died that day. Best estimates suggest the final toll was 65 to 70.

One hundred years later, on a warm, sunny August afternoon, I am thinking about these unfortunate souls as I stand in the small cemetery near Dyea, Alaska, where they were laid to rest. Simple wooden grave markers tilt at odd angles or lie prone, grey against the dark green leaves and scarlet fruit of the bunchberries that carpet the ground. Over and over again I read the same fateful date, but the inscriptions reveal little about the identities of those whose graves they mark. J.C. Murphy – New York, N.Y. C. Beck – Sandford, Florida. Mrs. A.U. Maxon – Pumzataney, P.A. Like most of the men and women who travelled the Chilkoot Trail during the height of the Klondike gold rush, the avalanche victims had left their families and friends at home and were travelling independently or with just a few companions. Within the mass of humanity that converged here at the end of the 19th century, the majority of the deceased were virtually anonymous. A few of the bodies were claimed by acquaintances, who paid to have them shipped back home. As for the rest, their fellow stampeders pieced together whatever information was available about them – from a name found on a letter in a pocket, perhaps, or from someone’s recollection of a hometown mentioned in passing. They laid the corpses of the dead strangers in the ground, marked the graves and did what they could to notify the next of kin. Then they carried on.

The Palm Sunday tragedy caused a few stampeders to reconsider their plans, but most remained intent on getting to the Klondike. They knew they were taking a risk in venturing into the northern wilderness. Avalanches were just one of the hazards they faced. Death could as easily come by hypothermia, drowning or illness. Why did they do it? Well, obviously for the gold. For the chance to shake off the burden of poverty that so many carried during those years of worldwide economic depression. For the adventure and the thrill. These answers are no secret, but it’s still hard to truly comprehend what motivated tens of thousands of individuals from all over North America and from every other continent to travel to this remote shore and face the challenges of such a gruelling journey without any guarantee of success.

I know I am not alone in my desire to peer back into the hearts and minds of the stampeders. Almost every person I’ve talked to who has hiked the Chilkoot Trail has expressed similar thoughts. If the dead were with us still – the ones who died en route to the Klondike and the ones who lived to a ripe old age and never stopped telling stories about this most amazing time in their life – they might explain. Certainly they have left a wealth of written material that attempts to do so, but I have trouble hearing those voices properly when I’m lounging by the fire in my living room or sitting in the bright silence of an archives. I prefer casual conversation that lifts and lulls as I walk along. Stories inspired by a sight, a sound or a scent. And so, I am going to go hiking with ghosts.


I will begin at the Dyea townsite, the historical jumping-off point for Chilkoot Trail travellers. Although not an official part of the modern Chilkoot route, this is where the Klondike stampeders, and the Tlingits who originally established the trail, began their journeys. It is also where my hiking companion, Mark, and I have decided to begin ours. Adrian, the photographer assigned to this expedition by the publisher, has opted to skip Dyea and get straight onto the trail, so we will catch up with him later.

Dyea is located 15 kilometres west of Skagway at the head of the Lynn Canal. Travelling north along the coast of British Columbia and Alaska, this long, narrow fjord draws the Inside Passage to a close. Dyea was first settled by the coastal Tlingit people as one of their most northerly villages. They used it as a base for making trading forays up the Taiya Valley and across the Coast Mountains into the northern interior. Europeans began visiting and passing through Dyea in the late 1700s. The first Europeans to explore the Lynn Canal were the British under Captain George Vancouver, who named the waterway after King’s Lynn, his home in Norfolk, England. Russian, American and British fur traders arrived soon after Vancouver and were followed in turn by a small but steady trickle of prospectors.

The first non-Native to settle in Dyea was John J. Healey, an American who had earlier co-founded Fort Whoop-Up in southern Alberta, one of the most notorious whiskey-trading posts in the West. At Fort Whoop-Up he had built his profits around deceitfully plying the Blackfoot with a vile whiskey substitute made from ingredients like tobacco, molasses and red ink, which sometimes killed those who drank it. Healey’s Dyea trading post, established with partner Edgar Wilson in 1884-85, was a more honest operation. Nevertheless, his attempts to elbow the Tlingits out of the fur-trading business and to turn the Chilkoot Trail into a toll road suggest that he still had little respect for First Nations citizens. Until the summer of 1897, this quiet community consisted primarily of a collection of Tlingit homes and the Healey and Wilson store. Then all hell broke loose.

One of the peculiarities of the Klondike gold rush is the way northern geography caused it to develop in two distinct phases. When Keish (Skookum Jim Mason), Káa Goo x (Dawson Charlie) and George Carmack discovered gold on Bonanza Creek in 1896, it was already mid-August and the chill of autumn was in the air. Although news of their find spread like wildfire throughout the North in the following weeks, freeze-up came too soon for word to get out beyond the Yukon and Alaska. Not until two boatloads of gold-laden miners landed in San Francisco and Seattle the following July did the rest of the world learn about this natural treasure trove. It did not take long for the thousands who were instantly infected with Klondike fever to realize that the quickest and least expensive route to the goldfields was over the Chilkoot and the White Pass Trails. Practically overnight, Skagway – the jumping-off point for the White Pass route – exploded into existence, and the small Native village at the foot of the Chilkoot Trail metamorphosed into a thriving metropolis.

By the fall of 1897, the Dyea townsite had been laid out in neat blocks, and buildings were being thrown up with breath-taking speed. Dozens of hotels, restaurants, saloons and retail stores lined the streets. Doctors, lawyers and seamstresses hung out their shingles wherever they could find space. There was no shortage of customers. During the winter of 1897-98, 30,000 to 40,000 people passed through Dyea, and the town’s transient population peaked in late winter at about 8,000.

Dyea today could not even be called a ghost town. Time and the forces of nature have very nearly erased it from view. A tour of the site is an exercise in imagination and is enhanced by a knowledgeable escort, so we have decided to delay our departure and go on one of the Dyea “bushwacks” offered by the U.S. National Park Service four days a week.

In Skagway, our point of departure, our inquiries about transportation to Dyea lead us to a robust man with a bushy blond mustache who goes by the name of Dyea Dave. Early in the afternoon we meet our chauffeur outside the Trail Centre at the foot of Skagway’s crowded Broadway Street. Mark and I climb into his van along with six others who have signed up for the bushwack. We soon learn that Dave is a local who makes his living showing tourists the nearby sights and conveying hikers to and from the Chilkoot Trail. He is both knowledgeable and loquacious, and he regales us with stories as he drives. He also stops for a quick viewing of the Dyea cemetery, which is too far from the main part of the town to be included in the Park Service tour. At the appointed hour, Dave turns us over to our guide, Matthias Matt.

The tour begins with Matthias leading us out onto a flat, grassy expanse that stretches south toward the ocean, where lofty mountains flank the Lynn Canal and appear to converge in the far distance. In springtime, these meadows are blue with wild irises. Now they are decorated with pink fireweed and ivory-toned yarrow. Here and there, young Sitka spruce trees stand stiffly among the languid grasses and flowers. Stopping beside what appear to be a couple of weathered stumps, Matthias draws our attention to a line of similar stumps extending all the way to the water’s edge. These are the remains of pilings, he tells us. Originally they supported a pier known as Long Wharf, because of its incredible 3.2-kilometre span.

From the placement of the pilings it would appear that much of this wharf was built over dry ground, but such is not the case. One hundred years ago, these meadows were muddy tidal flats that were submerged for half the day and exposed for the other half. Dyea was an awkward location for a port because the tidal flats prevented ships from getting close enough to shore to conveniently unload freight and passengers. Water deep enough to accommodate large vessels was nearly two kilometres from the high-tide line. People who disembarked when the tide was out had to struggle through the muck to get all their gear moved to higher ground before the ocean flowed back in and washed it away. The completion of Long Wharf in the spring of 1898 solved this access problem.

Even if Dyea had survived beyond the gold rush, this wharf would have eventually become obsolete because the entire Taiya Valley, including the mudflats into which the pilings were driven, was and still is rising out of the ocean at a rate of two centimetres per year. During the Pleistocene ice age, the weight of the glaciers that covered this land caused the pliant subcrustal rock beneath them to deform and flow, slowly but surely, away from the ice accumulation centres. When the ice melted, it was as if a very heavy person had gotten out of bed, leaving a sag in the mattress. Gradually the subcrustal rock has been flowing back and the sag has been disappearing as the land lifts. Because of this phenomenon, known as isostatic rebound or post-glacial uplift, Dyea is now two metres higher than it was 100 years ago and the mudflats are now meadows.

This is not the only change that time has wrought. A forest of Sitka spruce and cottonwoods has also taken over most of the townsite. As we walk along, Matthias points out subtle clues to the past: a rectangle of sunken vegetation that indicates an old cellar; a straight line of trees marking the edge of a street. Not one single intact structure remains, and the only upright remnant is the false front of a building that once stood on the southwest corner of Fifth Avenue and Main Street. I find it delightfully ironic that this lone survivor was once the A. M. Gregg real estate office, where Mr. Gregg no doubt declaimed his visions of Dyea’s glorious future to all who stepped inside.

When developments elsewhere caused the Chilkoot Trail to fall from favour as a transportation route, Dyea went bust as quickly as it had boomed. One reason so little of the town remains is that many of the buildings were shipped out, whole or in pieces, to Skagway and other communities along the Alaska coast. The other reason is that the town was built along the west bank of the Taiya River’s main branch, and over the past century that channel has shifted, washing away a significant portion of the old business district.

Matthias leads us up Broadway, now just a mossy trail, until we reach a crumbling riverbank and can go no further. “In 1898,” he says, “this street we’re walking on was the beginning of the Chilkoot Trail.” I borrow his copy of an old townsite map and trace the route – from the waterfront to the northern edge of town at Seventh Avenue, just beyond where we are now standing, then on through the military reservation, the Native village, and the secondary commercial district known as Uptown or North Dyea. From there, the stampeders crossed a bridge over the Taiya and strode off into the wilderness. Gazing north up the valley, I feel impatient to follow them.

After answering a few final questions, Matthias winds up the tour just after 3:00 p.m. and leads us back to the parking lot, where Dyea Dave is waiting. It takes only a few minutes for him to deliver us to the modern-day trailhead on the east side of the Taiya River. Just before Dave drives off, we ask him to take a photograph for us – the “before” picture, with bodies, hair and clothes fresh and clean. Mark, who has just shaved off his beard for the first time in decades, looks more boyish than his 42 years, and his pack sits easily on his broad shoulders. Judging by the comments of Dyea Dave’s other passengers, who are watching from the van, I’m looking a little scrawny in comparison to my partner, despite my months of working out in preparation for this trip. The picture taken, Dave and the others wish us luck. We wave good-bye as the van pulls out of the dusty parking lot. I do a few warm-up stretches, then we turn toward the trees. This is it. The Chilkoot Trail.

Published by Raincoast Books, 1999. ISBN: 1-55192-276-2. Sorry, this book is out of print.


BC2000 Book Award


Victoria Times Colonist: “Martha Black tackled the Chilkoot Trail in 1898 in a corduroy velvet outing costume. … A century later, Victoria author Frances Backhouse retraced Martha’s steps, but Backhouse’s outfit was the finest Mountain Equipment Co-op could offer. The result is a delightful mix of history, nature, photography and travel, all packaged in a paperback book that will satisfy the eco-tourist or the more sedentary reader.”

Focus on Women: “Richly textured, with luscious photographs, this book is a treat to read. … I recommend it.”

Quill and Quire: “Another enjoyable trekking volume based on a historic anniversary is Frances Backhouse’s Hiking With Ghosts. Part travelogue, part guidebook … [it] combines human and natural history with personal anecdotes that are as faithful a recreation of a week-long hike as you’re likely to read.” Read the full review.

The Martlet: “It made me want to get my tent and sleeping bag and head up to northern BC. … Backhouse writes descriptions to tempt any hiker or nature-lover and her obvious enjoyment of her second trip over the Chilkoot, despite some bad weather, shines through.”