I got a dose of humility yesterday during a pit stop on the White Pass and Yukon Route, a train ride that begins in Skagway, Alaska, skirts a water-washed valley through a range of impossible mountains in British Columbia’s furthest reaches and ends in Carcross, Yukon.
The dose of humility in question occurred at a National Historic Site called Bennett.
After descending from the train in a gorgeous setting kilometres from any other sign of humanity I climbed a path weighed down by history. From my vantage-point high above Lake Bennett I looked down at the train itself, forlornly squatting at the base of barren mountains with almost perpendicular slopes.
I gazed across the white-capped waters whose surface was traversed by a multitude of prospectors nearly twelve decades ago. They’d wintered here, building all manner of boats and more motley vessels – more than seven thousand. When the ice broke up on the lake they all set out, next stage of the road to riches.
Tens of thousands of prospectors negotiated this wilderness road in Canada’s north. A tragic few found riches.
But on to the humility.
Past a dilapidated wooden church, seduced by the aroma of Sitka spruce, I discovered a forest trail that climbed almost immediately. Scattered along this trail were rusted metal artifacts, testament to the journey of roughly thirty thousand people. Those artifacts were carted by human beasts of burden through a mountain pass that is the stuff of history itself, a trail I ascended for something like fifteen minutes before giving up the ghost and returning to the comfort of the train.
I did the last half-kilometre and was plumb tuckered out.
This was the end of the Chilkoot Trail, a place called “The Golden Steps,” by some; a more apt moniker might be the “Trail of Broken Dreams.”
Today this little outpost (boasting a congregation of ghosts no doubt) epitomizes a very cool chapter in Canadian history.
Sometime around 1896 a handful of people just outside what would ultimately become know as Dawson City discovered gold.
By 1898, Bennett was a bottleneck on the road to riches in the Klondike Gold Rush.
Prospectors followed this very trail – and another one nearby, the one we traced on our train ride from just inside the Canadian border.
People headed for the Klondike had two options. The train follows the White Pass route while this path before me marked the end of the latter – the Chilkoot Trail.
An American writer of the time, named Tappan Adney, apparently a much more dedicated journalism than me, negotiated both routes.
The Chilkoot one was shorter but much steeper. The White Pass Route was “easier” but a lot longer.
“Easier” is a relative term. “One route is called ‘Hell’,” Adney wrote. “The other is called ‘Damnation’. Whichever route you choose, you’ll wish you’d taken the other one.”
Here at Bennett, on what is now a lonely but evocative site achieved only by foot, by boat, by train or by floatplane, the two trails converged. At one time it was a bustling community. Today there is a train station, a single cottage and a church buffeted by time and the elements.
Way up near the sky above where I trudged wilderness-ward I could see snow blanketing the peaks. It is mid-August and I was traversing what has to be the easiest stretch of the trail. And I was shivering a couple of metres from a signpost in about ten different languages warning hikers, other courageous explorers (and me) that this was also bear country.
I stopped and listened to the wind creaking in the spruce trees, making the leaves on the aspen dance like so many glittering coins. If there be ghosts, they would surely haunt this spot.
This morning I meditate along the shores of the Yukon River at Whitehorse, a handful of kilometres downstream from where once-dangerous rapids that looked like white horses gave a town its name; I reflect on the fate of those in search of dreams, on the river whose very name is part of my birthright as Canadian.
The river flows north: cold, fast and implacable.
Tomorrow we make our way to Dawson City, where it all began, where the road to riches ends.
But first – today and yesterday – another pivotal pit stop.
More pit stops on the road to riches (?).