Highway 98 was opened 1978. It links Skagway and Whitehorse, in the Yukon, and follows the route used by the Klondike Gold Rush Stampeders through White Pass. The present day Canadian and US customs checkpoints are up on the White Pass, where the Stampeders carted up their one ton of food and supplies as part of the first leg of their journey to the gold fields. The pass is at about 3,200 feet and the terrain is barren of all but low lying vegetation. It is starkly beautiful, carved by glaciers and snow and weather.
The Klondike Gold Rush began with a significant gold strike in the Klondike in August, 1896. Winter closes in early in the north and it wasn’t until the spring of 1897 that prospectors started arriving in Skagway to make their way to the Klondike gold fields. There was one hitch. The Klondike was in Canada and the Canadian government wouldn’t allow anyone to travel to the gold fields unless they had sufficient supplies to last them a year. That is, a total of one ton of food and the basic necessities of life.
There were two routes to the Klondike from the Panhandle. Skagway up to the White Pass, or through Dyea, a town further up the fjord. From there, Stampeders went through the Chilkoot Pass, at the top of an almost vertical rise. The Skagway – White Pass route was longer, but less steep. The Dyea – Chilkoot trail was shorter, but culminated in the steep climb to the pass. In the end more prospectors took the Dyea – Chilkoot trail.
The White Pass trail climbs steadily up from Skagway to the pass, which is at about 3,200 feet. The Stampeders broke their supplies up into packs that weighed about 65 pounds – about what a man could carry on his back – and the packs were carried up the trail in stages. The men worked in teams, grouping together so that one man could mind the supplies left at the beginning of the stage while a second watched the packs at the drop point. The rest of the group would slog their way through the dense bush and often treacherous footing, hauling their goods from one point to the next, making the round trip several times before they completed the stage. It took most of the Stampeders a year to get from Skagway to their destination in the gold fields.
Despite the intense effort the prospectors put into getting to the Klondike, few became the millionaires they hoped to be. Most left the Klondike rich in nothing but experience. According to the tour guide, even those who did not strike it rich valued their time in the Klondike, seeing the brutal hike from Skagway or Dyea over the rugged mountain passes as barrier to be overcome and the adventure of a lifetime.
Now the people of Skagway come up to White Pass along Highway 98 and from there drive to Whitehorse to shop or enjoy a movie. In the winter months they come to the pass to ski. There is no formal ski hill, but they use skidoos to haul the skiers up the mountains because the area is completely undeveloped. They don’t have to actually enter Canada, so can spend the day without going through the formality of crossing a border. Though we never came in sight of the Canadian customs building, we did have to pass through US Customs on our way back to Skagway. Our driver handled the conversation with the customs guard, and, though we all had to bring our passports, we didn’t have to show them.