Dispatch From The Couch: Google Trekker Lets You ‘Hike’ the Chilkoot Trail

Google Trekker brings Google Maps technology to the trail. Photo: Screen shot of Google Trekker homepage.
Google Trekker brings Google Maps technology to the trail. Photo: Screen shot of Google Trekker homepage.

A hundred years ago, to hike to the Klondike gold fields via the Chilkoot Trail meant a grueling trek carrying a required one ton of supplies, enough to last a year. Soon armchair hikers can breeze along the 33-mile trail virtually, in a few minutes, using Google’s Street View.

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“Welcome to the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park, home to the famous Chilkoot Trail,”  says NPS staffers Erica Francis and Elizabeth Blakeley in an informational video produced by the National Park Service. “Hiking the Chilkoot Trail can be highly rewarding; however, unlike many hikes, taking on the Chilkoot means crossing an international border and hiking 33 miles up isolated, physical challenging and potential hazardous terrain…”

But soon there will be another way to experience it. For the first time Google Street View is going off-road in Alaska. This month two Parks Canada staff mapped the entire Chilkoot Trail. They used a backpack-mounted camera system called the Google Trekker.

Parks Canada and Google agreed to partner a few years ago in creating virtual tours of many of Canada’s national and regional parks. The first Canadian park to appear on Google’s Street View was Nova Scotia’s Fortress of Louisbourg in 2013, and more than 100 wild Canadian places have been added since.

Klondike National Park Superintendent Mike Tranel says Parks Canada approached the National Park Service last fall to see if managers here were interested in joining a project to map the Chilkoot, since the Alaskan segment of the trail is managed by the NPS, and Parks Canada manages the Canadian side. The trail starts in Dyea and snakes up the Taiya River to Crater Lake and the headwaters of the Yukon River at Lake Bennett, British Columbia.

“If you can see it online, do you need to still come and do it?” asked Tranel. “You know, I think in in the end it will be good publicity for the trail and a way for people to see what it’s all about, what it looks like and I think it will spur more interest in coming to hike the trail.”

Tranel said the park service mulled over whether putting the trail online would result in more or fewer visitors coming to hike the real thing.  Currently between 2500 and 3000 people hike the entire trail each year.

Parks Canada spokesperson Christine Aikens says they wanted to create a virtual tour of the Chilkoot and other wild places so that people will better understand why these places are so special and encourage in-person visitation.

Mapping the Chilkoot with the heavy camera equipment was a challenge for the Parks Canada team, said Tranel. It was key to keep the camera level and correctly oriented, especially on the difficult Golden Stairs section. During the first week of August,  the weather cooperated and the mapping hike was on.

Tranel says he’s excited about the Street View mapping because it will pave the way for more detailed project in the works…a 1898 Street View version of the trail. Using archeological data and historical photographs and maps…

“We can potentially recreate what it would look like to travel over the trail in 1898 during the Gold Rush. So that’s something I think would be really cool, so doing the Google Street View of the 2015 view of the trail can help us with the ability to do that 1898 Google Street View idea,” he said.

Parks Canada’s Aikens says people can expect to see the trail on Google Maps in the coming months.