Returning home to the Chilkoot

For most visitors, a trip on the Chilkoot Trail is a once-in-a-lifetime event. For John Smarch, it’s a return to a spiritual home that his…

For most visitors, a trip on the Chilkoot Trail is a once-in-a-lifetime event.

For John Smarch, it’s a return to a spiritual home that his ancestors knew well.

Smarch, a member of the Carcross-Tagish First Nation, grew up hearing stories about his family’s ties to the trail.

His great uncle, Skookum Jim — one of the original discoverers of gold in the Klondike — earned his nickname there.

“He was a well-renowned packer. He got his name Skookum for packing like 140 pounds of bacon over the summit,” says Smarch.

But the Chilkoot Pass, less than 20 kilometres from tidewater, can catch the brunt of storms rolling in from the Pacific, and some of Smarch’s relatives met with tragedy while crossing its barren upper reaches.

“A great aunt lost several of her kids right below the summit during a winter storm,” explains Smarch. “A miner went up to look for her and found her amongst the boulders. She had one baby that she was cradling in her arms, and that child survived.”

For the past five summers, Smarch has worked on the Parks Canada trail crew in the Chilkoot Trail National Historic Park. He describes the Chilkoot as a spiritual place, a healing place, and says its power was revealed to him his first summer there.

Whenever he walked the section of trail between Lindemann and Deep lakes, where the waters of Moose Creek plunge through a narrow canyon, he heard an older woman drumming and chanting — the sounds wafting out of the rocky gorge.

According to one of his friends, this phenomenon was easily explained — Smarch’s ancestors were welcoming him back to the trail.

He never heard the woman again after that first summer.

For thousands of years, the coastal Tlingit controlled trade along the trail. Once or twice a year, they would cross the pass—loaded down with eulachon oil, clamshells, dried fish and other goods — and trade with people in the interior.

Before they settled in communities, First Nations regularly travelled long distances on their seasonal rounds, intermingling with people from different regions.

As intermarriages were common, it is not too surprising that Smarch is related to another park employee, Heather Callaghan, even though she is a Tlingit from the interior community of Teslin.

Both are members of the eagle-killer whale or Dakl’aweidi clan, and their grandmothers were cousins.

Callaghan’s grandfather was born in Dyea, now the Chilkoot’s southern trailhead. Once a small Tlingit village, Dyea exploded into a transient community of almost 10,000 people during the height of the gold rush.

Today the two Chilkoot workers describe their work over coffee in Whitehorse. Tomorrow they head out to the park, where Callaghan will start her second season as a Chilkoot patrol person, logging many kilometres on the trail as she answers questions from hikers and makes sure that people are travelling safely.

She appreciates the way her job has parallels with the traditional rhythms of life on the land.

“Our ancestors lived a seasonal life, and it is really neat — in a modern way — to re-enact or re-live this way of life that our families have been doing for thousands of years. It is really an honour,” she says.

“It’s like we’re custodians of our ancestors’ trail,” adds Smarch.

Callaghan has tried to learn everything she can about the area so that she can field hikers wide-ranging questions: Some want to identify flowers and birds, others want details of the trail’s gold rush history.

She and other Parks Canada staff take turns spending time near the summit of Chilkoot Pass, which has long been the lynchpin for managing the route.

Management of the trail is decidedly gentler today that it was in 1898, when officers of the Royal Northwest Mounted Police, backed up by a Maxim machine gun, were stationed at the summit.

They were there to assert Canadian sovereignty, collect duties, and ensure that the stampeders had adequate supplies to last through the Yukon winter.

Today’s managers have different problems; for one, they must ensure that the trail is not loved to death.

Parks Canada and the US National Parks Service co-operatively manage the Klondike Gold Rush International Historical Park, and in the 1990s, they were concerned about the large number of people hiking the trail.

On some days as many as 110 people were crossing the summit.

“There were definitely days when we had more people than we could handle,” explains Tom Elliot, the co-ordinator for visitor and wilderness management research for the Yukon Field Unit of Parks Canada.

He says the limited number of tent spots at Happy Camp, the first camp below the pass on the Canadian side, was a major concern, as well as the sheer volume of human waste generated by the large number of hikers.

A decade ago, Parks Canada introduced a quota system, limiting the number of hikers crossing the pass to 50 people per day.

The agency also began charging user fees to help with maintaining the trail. A good chunk of this money pays for servicing the outhouses at Happy Camp, as helicopters are used to remove the human waste.

In 1993, 1998, and 2004, Parks Canada surveyed hikers in order to track who was hiking the trail, and what they thought of the experience.

After tabulating the results of the most recent survey, Elliot was gratified to learn that 86 per cent of the hikers find the quota system reasonable; the 1998 survey had similar results.

However the three surveys have identified some changes in the types of people hiking the trail.

For most people, the main reason for hiking the trail continues to be a desire to experience the Chilkoot’s scenic beauty, and have an adventure while doing so.

However, the importance of learning more about nature and retracing the steps of a gold rush relative have decreased over the course of the three surveys.

Meanwhile, people’s interest in hiking with family and friends has increased over this time. This trend could reflect that fact that the profile of the average hiker on the trail changed between 1993 and 2004.

More women are hiking the trail, as well as more Yukoners and Alaskans, and the age of the average hiker also has increased with time.

Elliot says it is unfortunate that people are not able to make spontaneous decisions to hike the trail as they did in the past, but the surveys do reassure him that most hikers still find hiking the Chilkoot a classic Northern experience.

 This is the final instalment in a series of weekly columns about the Yukon’s national parks and historic sites. More information on Parks Canada in the Yukon is available at or you can call the head office of the Yukon Field Unit at 667-3910.

This column has been submitted by Parks Canada.

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