The Chilkoot Trail Winter
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999 Days Around Africa: The Road Chose Me
Hiking The Chilkoot Trail in 2009 was a major hiking highlight of my Americas adventure. It seems only logical to head back in during the dead of winter. We’re not going to tackle the entire trail – getting over the pass in winter is a serious undertaking – rather we’ll head in “backwards” to Lindeman Cabin, then double back on ourselves to Bennett Cabin.
Heather, Etienne and I start at Log Cabin on the highway early Friday morning. It’s a beautifully clear sunny day and we’re all excited to get moving. We’re on snowshoes and Etienne and I both drag small plastic sleds. I call mine “Betsy” and constantly give her encouragement and words of praise for staying in the track. Not long after setting out along the train tracks towards Bennett Lake I’m grinning like mad, loving that “self-sufficient” feeling that comes on a multi-day hike.
We make great time along the tracks as snowmobiles have packed the snow down for us, and it’s relatively flat. After a quick snack at “the cutoff” we strike off towards Bear Loon and the going quickly gets tough. Even with snowshoes on we’re regularly sinking up to our waists, and our sleds are no longer co-operating, sliding off every hill and getting snagged on every tree. For a while we manage to stay on what we think is the trail, then eventually we’re just heading in what we hope is mostly the right direction. Etienne tried this same trip a few years ago a little later in the winter and had a nightmare in wet, heavy snow. He wound up spending a very cold night under a picnic table at Bear Loon Lake – an experience he’s in no hurry to repeat.
After another couple of hours we arrive at a series of little lakes, which we know eventually lead to Bear Loon Lake and the familiar campsite there. Traveling on the lakes is much, much easier and we make good time without any problems. It’s cool to see multiple beaver “breather” holes in the thick lake ice.
After another quick snack we decide our best bet at this point is to bush-whack straight downhill which will inevitably lead to Lindeman Lake. As with all bush-whacking in the Yukon, it seems like a really good idea until it doesn’t. We quickly find ourselves on really steep rocky slopes with alder and buck-brush up to our heads. It’s a hard slog especially with the sleds tipping over and getting snagged on everything possible. Eventually we break out onto Lindeman Lake which is supremely beautiful in the afternoon sun. The snow is much deeper here, though we slog down the lake without incident.
The river flowing in has created a huge section of open (not frozen) water, so we give it a wide birth and go one at a time until we’re all safe and sound at the cozy little Lindeman cabin. It’s a perfect little shelter and we’re soon warm and dry with the wood stove pumping out the heat. During the night it’s insanely windy and cold, making us extremely happy to have made it to the cabin and not be inside our backup tent.
In the morning we get moving back down the lake, and spend most of the day trudging through deep snow on a perfectly clear, calm day. More than a few times we encounter overflow – a situation where liquid water has flowed over the lake ice, and is sitting below the snow so it can’t be seen. It’s very nerve-racking to walk through as there is no way to know if the lake ice has been weakened by the liquid water on top, or if there is a big pressure crack or other weak spot in the ice. Each time Etienne and I un-clip our sleds and we all walk a good distance apart in case someone goes in. We also just have to hope the water never gets deep enough for our feet to get wet. As it is all our boots wind up frozen solid later in the day.
Eventually we make it to the end of the lake, and back up onto solid ground where we follow yet more snowmobile tracks all the way to Bennett Cabin. It’s worth noting that due to Parks Canada funding cuts this cabin is now locked in the winter. A locked cabin in the winter in the Yukon is seriously frowned upon as it could make a life or death difference for someone in trouble. Almost all cabins have an “open door” policy for this reason. We set ourselves up, light a nice fire in the wood stove and set a huge pot of snow to melt before heading out to explore the old Bennett town site. It’s now dark and cold, so we don’t last long before retreating to our toasty cabin.
We all sleep like rocks and we’re in no rush to get moving in the morning. Once on the trail we follow the tracks all the way back to our car waiting at Log Cabin, and everything beyond.
It’s an extremely beautiful place any time of year, and I already can’t wait to go back.