Ione, Phil and Paul Christensen on their first hike over the Chilkoot Trail in 1980

In 1898, Ione Christensen’s great-grandfather and his four sons hiked the Chilkoot Trail on their way to find fortune in the Klondike gold fields. Over her lifetime, Christensen, who recently turned 86, has spent a lot of time on the historic trail herself. In fact, between 1980 and 2000, she hiked the 53-kilometer route 21 times. On some foggy days she thought she could almost catch a glimpse of her ancestors walking before her.

“I’ve never seen a ghost, but there is a special aura about the trail,” she said. “I don’t think you can have a place used by so many people for so many years without something being left behind.

“I think of all the people that walked over it—long before Europeans came it was a trading route between coastal and inland First Nations.”

The Chilkoot Trail connects the coastal mountains at Dyea, Alaska, to the inland lakes and river systems at Bennett, British Columbia. It is now co-managed by the US National Parks Service and Parks Canada.

In 1896, a large amount of gold was found on Rabbit Creek in the Klondike. That started the Klondike Gold Rush. Over the following few years, more than 30,000 gold seekers and would-be millionaires travelled to the northern gold fields. Christensen’s family was among that number. The trip to the then-remote region was long, painstaking and expensive. While on their journey, her family even had to stop to earn a little money along the way. They spent three months at the pass while running a little business towing supplies up a particularly steep and treacherous part of the trail called the  Golden Staircase. They used a tow rope and toboggan attached to a small engine.

“That engine is still up there on the trail sitting near the rocks, if you know where to look,” said Christensen.

Her great-grandfather’s journey was the beginning of her family’s connection to the Yukon. After following the Chilkoot Trail, they continued on to the Klondike region and mined a claim off of Hunker Creek.

“They worked it all winter, digging the muck, bringing it up to the surface, and stockpiling it until the spring when they could wash it out to find the gold,” said Christensen. “They made quite good money that first year, but figured they could make a lot more if they had a steam boiler to melt the permafrost and make it easier to dig.”

They ordered one from Saint John, New Brunswick, and brought it across the country by train. Then it came up the coast and over the White Pass and Yukon Route Railway in 1900. While picking up the boiler, Christensen’s grandfather also accomplished a much more important task.

“He had been betrothed to my grandmother, an Irish lass from Belfast who had been working as a housekeeper in Boston where they met,” said Christensen. “He wrote her a letter that said, ‘I’m up in the Klondike and I’m coming back out in the summer of 1900. If you want to still marry me, meet me in Halifax and then you’re going to the Yukon.’ And she did, she came across the country and that was the last time she ever saw her family in Ireland.”

The pair settled in Dawson City and had children, including Christensen’s mother, Martha (Ballentine) Cameron. That’s where they made a life for themselves. The marriage worked even though the boiler did not. 

“They ended up going broke,” said Christensen. “And the boiler is still up there somewhere in the bush.”

Two generations and more than 80 years later, in 1980, Christensen, her husband Art, and their two sons, Paul and Phil, hiked the trail for the first time together to follow the footsteps of their ancestors. From the first step, Christensen was hooked.

“That first trip we did we were not prepared at all, but we still would have had much better supplies than my grandfather would have had,” she said with a laugh. 

After 13 hikes, Art had had enough. He said he’d seen everything there is to see on the trail, but Christensen kept going, once or twice each summer for nearly 20 years.

“I’ve always loved the trail,” she said.

She knows the rhythms of the path well. How it starts low in damp boreal forest, then climbs gradually and gets very steep through the mountain pass. The climb can be difficult, especially if rain or snow makes the rocks wet and slippery, but it’s Christensen’s favourite part.

“If there’s a strong south wind with rain or sleet driving at your back, it’s miserable,” she said. “You’re on slippery rocks and working your way up, but then you get to the top of the pass and into the Yukon where it’s protected from the coastal weather. It’s a whole new environment.

“At the top of the pass you sort of step through a curtain and then, ahhhhhh, there’s a lovely sunny valley in front of you in the Yukon.”

Judy Dabbs, Ione Christensen, and Pat McKenna offering sourdough pancakes from their cook tent on Bennett Lake, 1989

Today, Christensen still uses the same batch of sourdough starter that her ancestors carried over the pass more than 120 years ago.  And although she has many credits to her name (she was a justice of the peace, Mayor of Whitehorse, Commissioner of the Yukon, and Yukon’s Senator), that historic sourdough starter has been her claim to fame over the past few years.

She’s been interviewed for a number of stories about the starter. She even cooked sourdough pancakes with Martha Stewart. 

Back in the summer of 1998, on the 100th anniversary of the Klondike Gold Rush, Christensen was looking for a novel way to mark the occasion. She and two friends raised money and set up a cook tent at the end of the trail at Bennett Lake, where they served sourdough hotcakes with butter, syrup, tea and hot chocolate to hikers as they passed by on the trail. 

“The tent was bear-proof, clean and perfect,” said Christensen. “Parks Canada put an electric fence around it too. The fence never worked, but the bears didn’t know that.”

The trio would get up early, cook all morning, and yes, they used Christensen’s grandfather’s sourdough starter to make the hotcakes.

“My sourdough was never happier than when it was down there on the Chilkoot Trail,” she said. “It must have found some friends because it never tasted so good.”

This series is provided by Government of Yukon Historic Sites to highlight the work of Yukoners and their connections to the territory’s heritage.

What a difference a year (or 40) makes