Chilkoot Trail plant poisons hungry hikers

A false hellebore plant tricked five Canadian hikers on the Chilkoot Trail last Wednesday, causing two of them severe vomiting and diarrhea.

A false hellebore plant tricked five Canadian hikers on the Chilkoot Trail last Wednesday, causing two of them severe vomiting and diarrhea.

They mistook the “most toxic, poisonous plant on the West Coast” for another edible plant, said Tim Steidel, chief ranger of Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park.

“They had learned about some edible plants, like the watermelon berry, and began to eat a few of the edible plants. They were feeling pretty good and confident that they knew what they were doing,” said Steidel.

“I think they got a little bold and overconfident and saw this plant and thought it looked like it would be edible. They didn’t know it or recognize it, or no one had directed them to it.”

The plant, native to the Chilkoot Trail, is similar to the true hellebore that is indigenous to Europe. It is similar to a lily with elongated leaves and a medium-sized bulb.

“It does look like something you might see growing in your yard or your garden that would have a root bulb that you might harvest and eat, but in this case it was definitely a poisonous plant that they harvested.”

The oldest of the group found and first tried the plant. The others followed suit, but ate less. He gobbled down part of the root, about three times the size of a pinky finger, said Steidel.

“The false hellebore is known to cause lethal poisoning in pretty small quantities, so it didn’t take very much for him to become severely sick.”

The others noticed a burning sensation pretty quickly after eating the plant.

But if a camp ranger hadn’t come across the first victim, he most likely wouldn’t have survived, said Steidel.

Luckily for the hikers, Wednesdays are transition days for the rangers. As one park ranger was walking the trail to end his shift, he came across the group and within half an hour, they were transported by helicopter to a Skagway hospital. Two of them were later flown to the Whitehorse hospital.

After hospital treatment, including anti-toxin medication and IV to rehydrate them, the hikers are back on the trail.

They did not want their identities released, said Steidel.

However, a French-Canadian reality TV show is currently filming on the Chilkoot Trail. And the hikers who were poisoned were French Canadian.

Show producers would not say whether it was some of their contestants who were poisoned and nearly died.

“That’s the kind of information that we keep to ourselves, essentially because it does become a part of the show, so I can’t really talk too much about that at this point,” said Marie-Josee Houle, co-ordinator for the show, La Ruee vers l’or.

Contact Larissa Robyn Johnston at larissaj@yukon-news.com