Have you ever staggered into Happy Camp on a blustery Chilkoot Trail day and wished there was a pub with steak-and-ale pie and a beer, instead of a tiny hut full of people hogging the two tables and comparing their blisters?
There are such pubs scattered along Hadrian’s Wall, which your intrepid columnist just hiked with his family. You can also stay in B&Bs;, camping barns, the former 53-room country home of Sir William Blackett and a hotel eerily similar to Fawlty Towers.
Like the Chilkoot, Hadrian’s Wall is a breathtaking historic walk. The Romans built the wall across Britain to keep out the savages in what is now Scotland, and it stretches across some spectacular moors, crags and picturesque river valleys. While the bath houses, cockfighting, public executions and brothels the Romans enjoyed along the wall have not been recreated, the trail now aims to serve everyone, from the determined coast-to-coast hiker to the daytripper looking for Roman ruins.
There is even a bus that follows the route discreetly a few miles south on the military road the Redcoats built to chase down Bonnie Prince Charlie in the 1740s. It’s numbered “AD 122” after the year Emperor Hadrian ordered the wall to be built. When the English rain has turned horizontal or you’ve spent too long captivated by the archeological dig at Vindolanda Roman Fort, you can slip onto the 122 and arrive quickly at the next pub on the trail.
It’s a less demanding walk than the Chilkoot. If you twist an ankle, Bus 122 definitely beats being choppered out of Happy Camp as dozens of European hikers record your humiliation for posting on YouTube.
The trail also boasts some spectacular ruins and interpretive centres, since the highly organized Roman legions built forts every five miles and more watch towers, milecastles and pagan temples than you can keep track of. English Heritage and its partners have done a superb job bringing this history to life for the visitor.
Hiking vacations have been growing in popularity around the world. In Europe, for example, old pilgrimage routes such as the Santiago de Compostela trek are back in vogue. And there are lots of options, from old-fashioned camping to hut-to-hut routes to hikes in the Alps where donkeys carry your gear. “One ass per family,” as a friend pointed out.
All this makes it strange that the number of hikers on the Chilkoot has been on a “gradual trend” downwards for years, according to Parks Canada’s 2009 newsletter. About 2,200 to 2,700 overnight visitors are on the trail each year, which isn’t very many at all. Alaskans represent about a quarter of the traffic and Yukoners another five per cent.
Parks Canada seems mildly worried about declining numbers. Its 2009 newsletter about the review of the Chilkoot management plan, the most recent document Yukonomist could find on its website, discusses the idea of “hard-sided accommodation” (bureaucratese for cabins, one presumes) and guided rafting trips near Bennett.
But on the other hand, more users are a problem to Parks Canada. According to the agency, the current quota system has been “successful” in dealing with concerns of “overcrowding and damage to cultural resources” in the 1990s.
Some Yukoners joke that Parks Canada finds park users a bigger nuisance than bears, and that it would be quite happy to have the park to itself. The sheepish look on the American ranger’s face as he tells hikers each night at Sheep Camp that they mustn’t pick berries on the Canadian side or move rocks to hold down their tents (a point reiterated in the 2009 newsletter) does verge on the ridiculous. But in reality, the US and Canadian parks people do a fine job running the trail as it is now.
The big question is whether Parks Canada would be able to attract more visitors to the Chilkoot given intense public scrutiny and its bureaucratic constraints, even if it wanted to.
The European trails described above all pass through villages and privately owned farmland, where entrepreneurs can easily set up a pub, B&B or guided walk service. This is, of course, impossible along the Chilkoot, and any concession offered by the US parks service or Parks Canada would likely have plenty of red tape associated with it.
Your luxury wall tents, gourmet salmon dinners and whitewater rafting along the trail would have to comply with a plethora of vegetation management plans, cultural resource management plans and so on. Parks Canada also operates under a bright spotlight, and no significant change will be universally accepted by those who like the park as it is and those who would like to see greater visitor numbers.
The Chilkoot people also face the challenge of a small, highly seasonal market. On a typical Wednesday afternoon the Roman Army training session at Birdoswald Roman Fort, complete with helmet, shield and sword, had as many participants as go on the Chilkoot Trail on a typical day. That’s because more than 50 million people live within a four-hour train ride of Hadrian’s Wall.
The English friends we hiked Hadrian’s Wall with have also done the Chilkoot. At the end, we asked them which was better.
Despite Hadrian’s Wall’s 2,000-year-old ruins and tasty fish and chips, they were unanimous: the Chilkoot. It is simply a spectacular wilderness experience.
So it’s probably fine that no one is in too big a hurry to change the Chilkoot Trail. For the 2,200 to 2,700 people who do it each year, it’s a treasure.
For everyone else, missing it is their problem.
Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels.