Alaska Travel: The Dead Horse Trail

 “They became beasts, the men of the Dead Horse Trail.”

Jack London.

My very first adventure as a pilgrim was spending five months in Juneau, the capital city of Alaska. This village is located on the Gastineau Channel in the Alaskan panhandle. Juneau is unique in that it can only be reached by sea or air, thus maintaining a limited population and a small town atmosphere. Rich in lush natural beauty and animals, it is a paradise for those who dream of traveling Alaska.

Having loved every moment of an earlier cruise that I took along the Alaskan coastline, I chose this village not only because of a deep need to know more about the largest state in the union, but also because of its fascinating history and the role it played in the  Klondike Gold Rush of the 19th Century. The joy of daily hiking the stunning Perseverance Trail, delving into the archives of the Alaska State Library, and spending hours immersed in the artifacts of the Alaska State Museum was a dream for a retired librarian, history teacher, and nature lover.

Determined to see the world on a limited budget, my quest to return to this land led me to The House of Wickersham, a stately Victorian two-story home and museum in Juneau, perched on the top of a hill called Chicken Ridge. There, in a large comfortable apartment overlooking the harbor, each night I sat motionlessly, peering out the oversized windows and into the narrow darkened channel. With a warm cup of cinnamon tea in my hands, I watched the cruise ships as they sought safety in the harbor until the breaking dawn would allow them to proceed on their journey.

Below me, the twinkling lights of the ships revealed a dark, tumultuous, watery world. It awakened in me a much needed solitude where I discovered a reprieve from the difficulties that I had faced in my lifetime. As one mesmerized, I bathed in the night’s beauty like a child being cleansed in a warm, sudsy bath on a bitter cold night. Thoughts of lost love, damaged children whom I had taught, the death of my own children’s father, and the fears that all parents carry within them for their sons’ and daughters’ futures drifted away over the channel, which the magnificent bald eagle, Alaska’s largest resident bird of prey, calls his home.

There are those who use a lovely metaphor to describe our limited knowledge of our creator and our lack of understanding about why we are here on this planet. They tell us that a mystical veil has been pulled over our eyes, leaving us with only an illusion and with an inability to see reality. They believe that it is like a caul, the membrane which covers a newborn’s head, designed to protect it from danger. They believe that this veil, which prevents our deeper understanding, can be lifted if one is ready to peer into the unknown. Prayer, meditation, deep immersion in nature, and service to others are a few of the pathways that lead to the slight parting of the veil.

 Alaska Travel ThroughVoluntourism

On my very first volunteer experience, it seemed to me that the caul lifted ever so slightly as I sat for hours, unmoving, watching this visual symphony of the lights dancing upon the waves being performed before my eyes. I finally understood the words written by the English poet, William Blake, “To see a world in a grain of sand and heaven in a wildflower, hold infinity in the palm of your hand, and eternity in an hour.” After my five months in Juneau, it would become clear to me that now there was no turning back. I had become a pilgrim, one who would travel the world, seeking a cleansing and an understanding now that her responsibilities in life had been completed.

The one thing I require in voluntourism, is that I be provided with housing, the greatest expense of travel after air flight. This is a practice that has been a part of our world since Medieval times. It is known simply as barter. If I were wealthy, I would not be so adamant about this requirement. For those travelers who find deep joy in nature one the best resources for locating volunteer positions within the United States, some of the positions with housing provided, is at, America’s Natural and Cultural Volunteer Resource Portal.

My task in The House of Wickersham was that of leading tours for people from all over the world, most of whom had just disembarked from cruise ships that travel Alaska’s Inside Passage, such as Carnival, Princess, or Royal Caribbean. Although I was provided a script, my love for history and stories made it impossible for me to simply quote someone else’s words. Digging deep into the archives of the library I was able to find stories that were so rich in the human experience on earth, that I inserted them with care (with my supervisor’s permission of course) into the script. The participants in my tours were delighted, falling deeply in love with the amazing Yukon Gold Rush era in which an estimated 100,000 prospectors migrated to the Klondike Region in search of that illusive metal, gold, the elixir of hope, comfort, and security in a country which at that time was undergoing a severe depression.

A Tale of the Klondike Gold Rush That I Learned in My Alaska Travels

One of my favorite tales  I learned from traveling Alaska comes from the Klondike Gold Rush era. It is the story of The Dead Horse Trail which took place on the terrible, life-threatening White Pass, a treacherous mountainous trail that led from the coast of Alaska to the Canadian Yukon.  Of this story, Jack London, the author of such beloved books as White Fang and Call of the Wild, stated:  “They became beasts, the men of the Dead Horse Trail.”




Alaska Travel By Train



The House of Wickersham

Alaska Travel by Voluntourism: The House of Wickersham



The House of Wickersham

Alaska Travel By Voluntourism: The House of Wickersham



Juneau Harbor

Juneau Harbor



Juneau, Alaska Juneau, Alaska



The well-documented narrative about which the author Jack London was commenting is a bleak and unforgiving story born of men’s desperation, greed, and ignorance. I have included Alaska’s Dead Horse Trail in A Pilgrim’s Parable in response to  the readers in different areas of the  world who have requested that I provide more stories about the 19th century gold rush in Alaska.






Like a fairy tale, the story began in a land of incredible splendor. It has been stated that Alaska is so large that if one saw 1,000 acres each day, it would take 1,000 years to view it all.  The forty-ninth state of the Union is larger than England, Spain, France, and Italy combined. Its terrain is so rugged that, even today, only 20% of the state is accessible by roads. Within Alaska’s borders lie 10,000 glaciers, Mt. McKinley, the tallest mountain in North America, 3,000 rivers, and 3,000,000 lakes. Alaska is a part of an area known in ancient times as Beringia, which included the region surrounding the Bering Strait, the Chukchi Sea, and the Bering Sea, into which Alaska’s mighty Yukon River flows. Of the many tales told about this beautiful land, the story of the Dead Horse Trail is one of the most documented and most poignant.

Why, you might rightfully ask, do the terrible events that occurred on White Pass stand out above most other stories of the Klondike Gold Rush? The answer is simple.  In very few of the parables and tales that occurred in Alaska’s history, does the cruelty of mankind toward the innocent eclipse the brutality of an interior Alaskan winter. Unlike the folk tales of our childhood, there were no heroes in this story. There were, however, thousands of victims. Interestingly enough, the victims cared little for gold. Their lives were lived at the whim of man. Their backs were heavily laden. Their tasks were seemingly impossible.

Striking It Rich in the Klondike

Hidden beneath Alaska’s snow-capped peaks lay the mother lodes, streaks of solid gold that could be removed only through lode, or hard-rock, mining. Eons of movement in the underbelly of Alaska had created these rich veins, as the earth’s tectonic plates strained, pushed, and collided against each other and, like a mother laboring to deliver her child, birthed the mountain ranges that are the pride of Alaska. The mineral, in the form of nuggets, was also hidden in the frigid rushing mountain streams where the constant flow of melting ice from the peaks above had for centuries washed them down, depositing them in the crystal clear  mountain streams, in cracks and crevices, beneath raging waterfalls, under stones, and mixed with the muck of the Yukon. The process used for prospecting these nuggets is called placer mining. In its simplest form, it  is most often referred to as “panning for gold.”

In 1897, George Washington Carver, Tagish Charley, Skookum Jim, and  Robert Henderson hit pay dirt near Dawson, a village located just across the Alaskan border in Canada’s Yukon Territory. When the news of the discovery reached San Francisco and Seattle, ships heavy with would-be prospectors immediately began navigating the Pacific Ocean, bringing the adventurers by the thousands to Alaska to begin their journey to the gold fields. Most of the miners were unprepared, with no experience in prospecting. More importantly, the majority had never experienced an environment where it has been documented for temperatures to reach as low as  -80 degrees Fahrenheit.

Chilkoot Pass or White Pass?

In order to be allowed entry into Yukon Territory, each miner was required to carry a minimum of 1,150 pounds of supplies, enough to last one year. As most of the adventurers could only carry about sixty-five pounds on their backs, each miner would move one load about five miles over the pass, cache it, and then return for the next load. However, if the prospector had enough money, he could avoid those long treks by purchasing a pack animal to carry his supplies.

Horses and mules could easily be purchased from Seattle, where many of the creatures patiently and unknowingly awaited their demise in the lines of the glue factories. Most had never felt the burden of a pack on their backs. In addition, the majority of prospectors who purchased them had no experience in handling animals.

When the ships anchored, the prospectors and their pack animals descended upon the tiny village of Skagway by the thousands. Soon after coming ashore, they would begin a long climb over one of the  two mountain passes, Chilkoot Pass or White Pass. Once they reached the summit, they would be welcomed to Canada’s Yukon Territory by the Royal Canadian Mounties. Then they would be allowed to proceed on the final trek into the richly laden gold fields.



White Pass

White Pass



The first pass was Chilkoot, which has been described as “the meanest thirty-three miles in the West.” At times, Chilkoot would be covered by snow that reached a depth of seventy feet. The second was called White Pass. Of the two, White Pass was the most practical way to make the journey into the Yukon, for the drifts did not reach the depths of those on Chilkoot Pass, nor did its winds sweep so widely.  Yet, one must not be misled. White Pass was a death trap, and it was here that the story of the Dead Horse Trail occurred.

The cruelty of an interior Alaskan winter cannot be overstated. It was a time when one, including animals, did whatever was necessary for survival. Miners who became stranded on the trail in the storms that raged between the Rocky Mountain Range and the Brooks Mountain Range tell of their sled dogs on the edge of starvation eating leather snow shoes, gun straps, harnesses, and gloves in order to stay alive. First hand accounts tell us that the hungry creatures would sneak into cook tents and eat dirty dish cloths simply because of the smell of the meat grease that clung to them. This was the world into which the pack horses were led, following trustingly behind their owners.



White Pass

White Pass



The brilliant author of Klondike history, Pierre Berton, provides us with insight from which to understand the plight of the newly acquired animals when he tells us how the extreme conditions affected the prospectors.  “In the tension of the trail, something had snapped. Men wandered about, eyes glazed like inebriates. All the energy had been funneled into one driving purpose – to reach the land of gold.”

Alaska’s Dead Horse Trail

The first obstacle the pack animals encountered on White Pass was called  Devil’s Hill. Winding like a corkscrew, the pathway was approximately two feet wide, with sloping cliffs on one side and a sheer five-hundred feet drop on the other. A horse unused to bearing a heavy pack, which left the animal in a perpetual state of imbalance on such a narrow trail, faced imminent death with only one misstep. In addition, when many of the oxen, mules, and horses no longer possessed the strength to continue to move the massive loads, the animals were beaten by their owners in a desperate attempt to force them to continue up the pass.  It was on Devil’s Hill that many of the pack animals lost their lives, for, underfed and robbed of their strength, they could not withstand the brutal beatings they received when illness or accident left them unable to continue on.

The second obstacle was named Summit Hill.  Like Devil’s Hill, it also had steep cliffs on one side, one thousand feet of solid rock with rivulets of mud and rocks streaming down over the pathway. It was here that the sharp, jagged rocks which broke loose from the mountain tore viciously into the horses’ flanks and feet. Because of the conditions of the trail, the pack animals, on whose backs were strapped hundreds of pounds of supplies, were often required to stand for twenty-four hours at a time. Stories from miners who observed this tragedy tell of horses, crazed with pain and fatigue, flinging themselves over the edge into the crevasse below.

The policy of the Canadian Mounties prevented an injured or sick animal from entering the Yukon Territory. A miner whose horse, dog, or mule attempted to enter Canada in an unfit condition would have his animal shot. In order to disguise the cuts, bruises, and sores inflicted on the animals, the miners would cover the horses’ backs with blankets, hoping the Mounties would not look closely. However, the policy was strictly enforced by the Mounties.

Today one can see the sun bleached bones of the pack animals that began, but because of treacherous and unbearable conditions, were unable to complete the deadly climb up White Pass in 1897. Their bones lie broken like fallen tree branches in the land that promised such riches. For, of the more than three-thousand animals that began the climb, hardly a single one lived to see the sparkling gold of Canada’s Yukon Territory.

A parable is defined as a short story that uses events to illustrate a religious or moral point (Merriam-Webster Dictionary). The lesson learned is unique to each person, based upon his or her spiritual path, cultural expectations, and deeply held personal convictions.  No matter the interpretation, the fact remains that the brutal treatment of the pack animals of the Dead Horse Trail is a vivid reminder of mankind’s responsibility to treat animals as humanely as possible.  It has said by some that the tragedy on White Pass was one of the catalysts that led to a worldwide movement to rethink and redefine that responsibility.


Photographs courtesy of E. A. Hegg, Klondike photographer


Suggested Resources:

Travel Juneau

Travel Alaska: Official State of Alaska Vacation and Travel Information

House of Wickersham

White Pass and Yukon Journey by Train




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