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Alaska Travel Magazinenext

It was a ladies high button shoe, half buried in a snow bank at the summit of the Chilkoot Pass, that bothered me the most.
For years I have pretended to be an old-fashioned male chauvinist pig who delights in holding doors open for the weaker sex. Men can do this, women only that.

The Chilkoot Trail of '98 was a man's game —30,000 of them in 1897-98, each packing a ton of supplies up over the meanest 32 miles in history on their way to the Klondike.

I'm sure you are familiar with pioneer photographer Hegg's famous photograph of a line of men, loaded with 75 to 100 pound packs, toiling up a slope comparable to the chute on Oregon's Mt. Hood. In other words, a real mountain climb.

But women? Hegg also took a few photographs of the fancy girls that ended up in stories and poems, such as the lady named Lou —but these frontier sirens were different, needed, accepted and expected to earn their own weight in gold (which some did) just like any other "man Jack."

It wasn't until after we left Skagway, with a stop at the cemetery where the victims of an avalanche on the Chilkoot Pass were buried, that I noticed that one of the faded headboards was lettered with a Mrs., and I began to wonder about the "11 good women" that shared the hardships of the trail with their husband, and maybe even a family. How many of the so-called weaker sex followed the trail of '98? No one knows.

At Canyon City camp, in a very comfortable shelter cabin, complete with bunks and wood stove my wife, Bernice, fit well into the scene with her sourdough biscuits for dinner.

At one time, as with all of the camps along the trail, Canyon City had a population of 10,000 stampeders. Tent "hotels", restaurants, and the women cooks needed to feed hungry miners, all are gone now, except for a few rotted log walls and scraps of an old tablecloth.

Further up the mountain at Sheep Camp and Stone House (named for a natural formation) remains of a woman's touch were less visible. There is a photograph of a family's "traveling lunch counter" set up to cater to those climbing the long hill to the scales.

A stampeder's diary tells about one squaw, an 8-year old boy, and a babe, that lost the trail in a storm. The mother and son were found frozen to death and she must have felt death coming, for the baby was wrapped in her clothes, and was alive and warm.
Martha Louise Purdy left another account, though she was not a typical female traveler, as her husband was a wealthy man. This party hired professional packers to carry their gear across the pass. All Mrs. Purdy had to endure was hiking in a tight corset, long skirt, and full bloomers.

At the summit, she stopped at a tent cafe, while her husband cleared Canadian Customs through the Northwest Mounted Police, and she asked to warm her hands. Wood sold for 25 cents a pound, so her husband ended up paying for a $5 fire.

Two stories, but what was the tale behind the old high button shoe? Did some housewife have to leave home and hearth behind to follow her husband's dream? To her, .the "Grand Adventure" of the North must have been pure misery. Was it fair of me to ask my wife and daughters to share the bite of heavy pack straps cutting into one's shoulders, the danger of an ice-hard snow climb with the cold wind whipping across a deep snow pack?

I photographed that shoe, then returned to the sheltering rocks where I had left my family, to ask Bernice if she wanted to rest some more —"Hell no! Let's get moving."

Bernadette and Colette were stamping out a Stevenson High School cheerlead —Bulldogs, Bulldogs, go, go, go— so one tired old Dad had to pick up his pack and push on. I didn't have any excuse left to rest anymore.

Somewhere between Crater Lake and Long Lake on the Canadian side, Bernice fell through an ice bridge and wrenched her knee. I didn't find this out until later when her limp became apparent.
"Bernice, let's camp here."
"No."
"Let me help you along."
"No, I'm going to make Lake Lindeman on my own two feet."
She did, making the longest stretch between shelter cabins in this recently being developed International Park, at 12:20 a.m."

This put us behind schedule. We had to meet the White Pass and Yukon narrow gauge railroad train at Lake Bennett the next day to pick up our boats at the railroad station, or they might go on to Whitehorse. I sent Barry Jr. and Colette ahead, while the rest of us helped Bernice hobble the last six miles.

At about two miles and twenty minutes to go, my son heard a train whistle. He dropped his load, told Colette to stay until he returned, and ran.

He made it! We all did. Colette came trudging into Bennett by herself — carrying both packs.
Women! We had conquered the Chilkoot by woman power. Tomorrow, the Yukon.



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