When we told our son and daughter, then 11 and 9, that we were going to the Yukon to visit family friends, they were thrilled. But when we told them that we were going to hike the Chilkoot Trail - 53 kilometres over five days - their smiles quickly vanished. They looked at us like we were from another planet. People don't walk 53 kilometres. Especially kids. Especially them.
We started training in the spring. Through parks, ravines, cemeteries and parking lots, we marched our pair around the city every weekend. Mission accomplished: Intense whining and borderline boycotting soon gave way to garden-variety grumbling. But these were mere strolls compared with what lay ahead. We weren't doing real hills and we weren't packing gear.
And gear we bought. Leather hiking boots, gaiters, waterproof this and quick-dry that - we were a one-family economic stimulus program. I took to wearing my stiff new boots with my suit to the office every day. Better to get funny looks on the subway than blisters on the trail, I figured. (As it turned out, I didn't get any funny looks and I still got blisters.)
We flew to Whitehorse, the home of friends who would lead us on the hike. Preparation was a community effort: Neighbours dehydrated stews, contributed backpacks and donated old hockey sticks for conversion into walking sticks (a simple one-step operation, as you can imagine). Local stores were cleaned out of trail mix and M&M's. Candy is important. Dentist be darned, do not attempt this hike without candy. It provided quick calories, but, more important, it was the proverbial carrot that kept our troops moving when little legs protested.
Together with two Yukon families, our group of six adults and seven kids set out on the Chilkoot Trail on June 29. This was the trail that thousands of Klondike gold rushers had struggled over more than a century ago. It took them from the port of Skagway, Alaska, up and over the Chilkoot Pass to Bennett, B.C., from where they could navigate lakes and the Yukon River on to Dawson City. The trail is still littered with evidence of their brief presence: rusty cans, saw blades, kettles and cables, now untouchable historical artifacts.
From sea level at the head of a fjord, we were soon climbing up through humid coastal rain forest. It didn't take long for backpacks to be digging into shoulders and backs and begging for rest stops to follow. The breaks proved little relief though, as ravenous clouds of mosquitoes invariably descended.
But soon enough, and by soon I mean roughly eight long hours, we were at Canyon City, our first campsite. I feared the worst - that the kids would be too tired to move and would beg us to call off this crazy idea. But no sooner had we all dropped our packs than they started chasing each other around the site. That's when I realized that this was going to work out just fine.
I was right. By the third day, they were old pros. Our son took his customary position at the head of the pack, together with our friend's son, an eight-year-old veteran of three trail hikes. The two of them marched along, debating whether Sidney Crosby or Alexander Ovechkin would make better hiking partners. The younger girls, including our daughter, pulled up the rear of our procession. They took a "stop and smell the roses" approach: admiring pretty pebbles, photographing toads and birds and eating the snow.
That was the day we climbed almost 1,000 metres by lunchtime, out of the rain forest, over rushing streams and jagged boulders and into a foggy, snow-covered moonscape. The Chilkoot Pass, the peak of the trail, marks the border between Alaska and British Columbia. It was a truly Canadian experience to be marching on snow into Canada on Canada Day, flanked by snowy peaks, the Maple Leaf flapping high above the warden's little hut.
We hiked for about 10 hours that day, finally marching into the aptly named Happy Camp. The sky was blue, the air was fresh and the mosquitoes were AWOL. The boys wrestled on a tent platform and the girls chased a little furball called a pika that was scurrying around the camp. Life was good.
From winter at the peak and spring at Happy Camp, we hiked into summer the next day as we descended in elevation and the temperature soared. Our leader kept us moving, and kept bears at bay, by loudly regaling us with Yukon lore.
Our last day started with a plunge in the recently melted snow called Bare Loon Lake. I lasted about 10 seconds, but one of our group, a hardy 11-year-old Yukon girl, was in the water for 30 minutes.
Then the final tally-ho: a mere six kilometres, out of the subalpine forest and through a sandy desert. Before long, the wooden spire of the lonely church in Bennett, our destination, loomed before us. It was truly a sight for sore feet.
Before heading in for moose stew at the train-station restaurant, where smelly hikers were segregated from cruise-ship day trippers, we grabbed our pair and told them how proud we were of them. They did it. They didn't choose to do it, and they may not be in a hurry to do it again, but they did it.
And you know what? Every once in a while, they put down their iPods and say, "Remember that time on the Chilkoot when …"
Paul Purcell lives in Toronto.