Tim Bourcy is only half-kidding when he talks about how he wound up in Skagway.
"I was up on vacation, got drunk in a bar, and woke up with a job,” is how he explains becoming a cook at the Red Onion Saloon and later a National Park Service guide on the Chilkoot Trail.
That was in 1989. The Colorado native has been in Alaska ever since. Now, as President of Packer Expeditions, Ltd., and The Mountain Shop, Bourcy has become someone you must see if you’re planning to hike the Chilkoot Trail. He started the company in 1992 with his friend Carlin "Buckwheat” Donahue, and in 1998 they opened The Mountain Shop, "a kind of climbing, pedaling, backpacking outdoors shop, a small version of REI. We do sales and rentals in winter and summer.”
The Mountain Shop and Packer Expeditions is the place to get outfitted for any hiking trip in the area. The staff is friendly, knowledgeable and skilled. In addition, they have a great reputation in the community. They’ll answer any and all questions about your trip and your hiking needs. They have maps and ideas for specific places you should see on the trail. That’s why the BBC chose Packer Expeditions for a news feature about hiking the trail.
Bourcy himself was practically meant to live in Skagway. The setting reminds him of Colorado — "pretty laid back, lots of opportunities, nice people and beautiful surroundings.” He has never regretted his decision to stay in Alaska, although some winters make him wonder.
"This winter was as cold and nasty as it’s ever been,” he said. "I question my decision sometimes but I don’t regret it. My wife and I raised kids here. It’s a place that’s near and dear to my heart. It’s a special place, and I’ve been able to enjoy running a business here for 26 years.”
Bourcy’s depiction of his arrival in Skagway reflects a droll sensibility that’s also present in the name of his company. Packer Expeditions is named for Alfred Packer, a prospector who wound up murdering and cannibalizing his companions after getting stranded during an ill-fated attempt to cross the Colorado mountains in the harsh winter of 1874.
"He was a gentleman who as a guide tried to cross the Rockies with five other men during the Gold Rush,” Bourcy explains. "They got stranded in a cave and he ate his clients. He was later convicted for it. So I guess the name is the product of a warped sense of humor.”
While Bourcy may be a bit puckish, he is dead serious when he talks about the dazzling and difficult nature of hiking the Chilkoot Trail. He describes the rugged 33-mile pathway as a "beautiful, unique coastal rainforest that goes from sea-level to alpine and then to boreal forest. Every part of it is gorgeous.”
What To Know Before You Go
The Chilkoot Trail is the first 33 miles of a 450-mile trail leading to the gold fields near Dawson City in northwest Canada. The 450-mile trail is, he said, "a pretty epic journey” and he has hiked the 33-mile section "14 or 15 times.”
"The whole trail is beautiful,” he said. "My favorite part of the trail is from the summit to Deep Lake. It’s an Alpine hike where the views are beautiful, lots of little tarns (small mountain lakes) and rivers and streams. It’s stunning.”
Hundreds of people hike the trail every year, but in spite of its beauty, it can be treacherous if you’re not prepared. Bourcy said it is critical to have the right equipment for the trek.
First, he said, have a "decent number of hiking socks” that are wool, not cotton. In addition, he said waterproof hiking boots that are broken in and offer ankle support are critical. Wear pants, not shorts, he said.
"Proper rain gear is also important — Southeast Alaska is a rain forest so it can get pretty wet — but no ponchos,” he said. "Make sure you have decent base layers to insulate you because the trail can be quite wet and you’ll spend quite a bit of time in the Alpine area, where you’re really exposed to the elements. In 33 miles you go through numerous different eco-systems, and each of them is unique.
"Preparing for the heat and the cold is also important. On a really nice day, the scales (rocky patches of the trail) can get scorching hot. Or it could be raining sideways. You have to be prepared for both.”
He suggests bringing sunglasses, a baseball cap, an insulated jacket and a rain shell. It’s good to have extra shirts and pairs of pants. If you’re camping along the trail, bring a tent appropriate for the environment and a sleeping bag rated for the varying temperatures along the trail.
And don’t forget your passport, since the trail goes through Canada.
"It’s also good to be in decent shape,” he said. "It’s rocky and a pretty rugged trail. The better shape you’re in, the better and more enjoyable the trip is.
Bourcy’s Packer Expeditions, Ltd., has led some interesting clients through the trail, including Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski and the BBC film crew.
Bourcy said the business has a lot of cruise-based clientele, and that a day-trip from a cruise ship can give visitors a brief look at the trail. Bourcy has some advice for the day trippers.
"You aren’t going to see a good chunk of the trail, but if you take the train you can go to Bennett Lake and spend a couple hours exploring. It’s a pretty spot,” he said. "The other thing you can do is go to Skagway, take the shuttle and spend the day hiking. You can probably get to Finnegan’s Point and back safely.”
If you're in town for a day, you can still experience the Chilkoot Trail:
- Sockeye Cycle offers a Rainforest Bicycle tour of Dyea where you pass by the trailhead
- Skagway Float Tours offers a Chilkoot Trail Hike & Float tour where you hike the first 2 miles of the trail before rafting down the Taiya River
"There are lots of ways to get a taste of it, but ultimately you need several days to really take it all in.”