7:15am: Funneled by the narrow Lynn Canal, near gale force winds (according to the Beaufort scale) and driving rain met us as we met Rylan, our guide from Packer Expeditions, for the 8-mile 9-hour round trip hike to the Laughton Glacier.
We walked through downtown Skagway (population ~1000) to meet our train on the White Pass & Yukon Route Railway. While once a bustling gold rush waypoint, today Skagway has little reason to exist beyond inclusion in the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park and its catering to hundreds of thousands of visitors each summer. Many come simply to ride the precariously perched narrow gauge railroad into the Yukon dating from 1899. The more foolhardy hear The Call of the Wild, abandon the tracks, and venture deeper into the last frontier.
The train slowly wound its way up White Pass over narrow trestles and past varied signpost stops, such as Denver where you can spend the night in a boxcar by the side of the tracks and hike various trails near Skagway. Our stop was a little over 14 miles up the pass where we disembarked in the rain (but less wind) and to start our hike.
We started our hike through easy flowered meadows of fireweed and Devil’s club and lush and dampened green temperate rainforest trails before starting a more arduous ascent into the sub-alpine region. Along the way, we were reminded of the wilds in which we hiked by the bear scat and bear markings on a tree along the trail.
As we climbed the terrain changed and became steeper and more rugged. We traded the muddy trail of the valley below for rocky gravel and boulders. The trail all but disappeared and we were left to follow in single file footsteps of our guide Rylan towards Laughton Glacier.
Arrival at the glacier brought us chills. It was cold. We were soaked. People were wringing out their hats and gloves as we prepared for the next portion of our hike by affixing our crampons to our hiking boots for another 30-minute hike up the glacier.
Hiking on the glacier was easier than we anticipated as the crampons provided more secure footing on the ice than our boots did on the boulders. We stopped about halfway up the toe of the glacier for a quick lunch. And it was quick. To stop moving to was to get cold. The rain, the wind chill, and the glacier-effect of sitting on a massive block of ancient ice made the effective temperature hover somewhere in the upper 30s. We quickly downed our ham sandwiches, a Snicker’s bar with a quick cup of cocoa to muster enough energy to hike further up the toe for a better view of the ice falls, the vertical portion of the Laughton Glacier, and some interesting features.
After hiking different portions of the glacier we started a rather quick descent. Everybody was cold and wet and wanted to get off the glacier. My thumb was frozen. There was a kid from the cruise hiking in tennis shoes and sweatpants who was soaked to the bone. We made it back to the railway and took refuge from the rain in an old railcar on the side of the tracks while we awaited our train back to Skagway.
The hike was pretty difficult with rain, wind, and cold making it harder. Even so, while shivering our way back to the ship we all felt a sense of accomplishment and awe in having stood and hiked upon a glacier that 100 years ago extended close to where the train dropped us off and picked us up again after the hike, and was predicted to be completely gone in another 35-40 years.