For Annie Brady all trails lead back to Skagway and the Chilkoot Trail.
A Skagway native and Park Ranger for the trail, she sometimes hikes up to 13 miles a day making sure hikers are safe both during their treks up and down the rugged path
“The biggest part of my job is interacting with hikers,” Brady said. “All the time I’m up there I’m wondering how people are doing. Sometimes you have to nudge them a little, make sure they’re wearing something warmer, make sure they have dry clothes when they get to camp. I do a lot of thinking ahead for hikers.”
Having grown up in Skagway, Brady has fond memories of camping in Dyea with Camp Skagway and Ms. Capozzi and competing in the annual Buckwheat Ski Classic held every spring as a child. Brady, whose father, until recently owned the Skagway News Depot, a local book and newspaper store, also used to be part of the “newsies,” a group of young people dressed in old-fashioned newsboy garb and who distributed free newspapers to visitors. The Depot’s history, and the newsies, goes back to 1898.
“Around age nine or so my dad hires kids who go down to the docks in the morning and hand out brochures that look like old-time newspapers,” she said. “You only work for about an hour, yelling, ‘Extra, extra, read all about it.’ Sometimes you even get tips. In 1898 there were steamships with prospectors looking for gold. Today, there are cruise ships with passengers on vacation.”
Brady later received her B.A. from Loyola University-Chicago in theater and human services, and she faced a choice early in her post-college career: Theater or the outdoors. Brady chose the outdoors.
“For a while I had every intention of jumping into theater as a career,” she said. “When I started working for Packer Expeditions, a local guiding company in Skagway, it set my life on a very different course than I thought I would take. For the past five years I’ve been working outdoors. I have a soft spot for Packer because they helped me turn a hobby into a job.”
Now her job as an NPS park ranger takes her on the 33-mile historic trail doing everything from briefing hikers on trail conditions to picking up trash and making sure there is toilet paper in each of the seven outhouses along the trail.
“Part of my job is being a campground host, so I have to maintain the outhouses at the camps,” she said. “It involves some dirty work, so there are definitely aspects to the job that are not glorious.”
Brady is trained as a Wilderness First Responder, and she is always alert to weather conditions, trail conditions and who is traversing the rough terrain. She lives at the Ranger Station at Sheep Camp, Mile 13 of the trail, and at the station rangers brief hikers on trail conditions, campground rules and they do a presentation on the history of the trail. The Chilkoot Trail was a major access route to gold fields during the Gold Rush of 1898.
“I just walk the trail and interact with the hikers,” she said. “I monitor what they’re doing, find out where they’re camping, where they’re going to. Despite the fact that this is a pretty rugged trail in parts you get a number of people walking and backpacking on the trail for the first time. I especially monitor what those people are doing.”
She said most people are properly prepared for the hike, but some are a bit cavalier about their journey.
“I’ve had hikers who have climbed the Matterhorn and Mount Denali,” she said. “I almost watch out more for those people because they’re the ones who can become complacent. We do a really good job of making sure people are prepared ahead of time, but you’d be amazed at the number of people who don’t listen to warnings.”
For those who underestimate the sometimes inclement conditions on the trail, Brady is there to help.
“You have to make sure they get warm, dry layers on,” she said. “Some people become mildly hypothermic and they’re shivering. If someone is shivering, you want to get them in dry layers and give them warm liquids like hot chocolate, something to kick-start the metabolism.”
She said many inexperienced hikers don’t understand that temperatures can dip into the 30s in July, and that wet, cold rain can fall or foggy conditions can occur. Hikers must also scale the “Golden Stairs,” named for the 1,500 steps cut into the ice and snow along the steepest part of the trail during the Gold Rush and the steepest part of the trail.
And, of course, there is the wildlife.
“During my first shift ever, we had to close the trail due to significant bear activity,” she said. “You don’t want to mess with bears but for the most part they don’t want to mess with you.”
Even so, for Brady herself, there is nothing like solo hiking. While she enjoys hiking with others, solo hiking allows her to move at her own pace and take in the spectacular vistas on the trail.
“The scenery on the trail is spectacular,” she said, “There are some extremely mossy areas that are very magical, and the view from the top of the pass, whether looking on the Canadian side or the American side, is stunning.”