2000: Alaska

Skagway and Haines

September 1

The town of Skagway.

The ship docks early in the gold-rush town of Skagway, a small hamlet nestled snugly in a deep valley formed by soaring peaks on all sides except the harbor inlet. Home to 20,000 in 1897, Skagway now has only 850 permanent residents and the "historic" buildings - once saloons and general stores - have morphed into street after street of jewelry stores and souvenir shops. The town seems quiet as we enter, despite the fact that we are again sharing the dock with a giant cruise ship.

We bask in another beautiful sunshiny day. Marian complains; she says she can see plenty of sunshine at home, she had hoped for some Alaska rain to wash off the Texas dust!

Waiting for the train.

When news of the Klondike river gold strike in the Yukon reached the outside world in 1896, thousands of gold seekers sailed into Skagway and attempted the narrow 33-mile Chilkoot trail leading up 2,865 feet to White Pass Summit and then down to the headwaters of the Yukon River.

In 1898 the White Pass and Yukon Route narrow-gauge railway was built to carry the fortune-hunters over the pass. Today, it serves as a tourist attraction, carrying visitors up to the pass and back down. Our ship's visit to Skagway is only seven hours long, and we've decided to take the train as our shore excursion, since neither Marian nor I possess the shopping gene.

First, we are driven around town in a funky old-fashioned taxi (or is it a limo?) and given a bit of a history lesson about Skagway by a costumed young lady. What her costume represents, I'm not sure - long hippie-like skirt, straw hat with a big sunflower in it. She narrates the points of interest, which seem to be mostly former saloons. After a strenuous half-mile tour (if that long), we disembark at the station to board our train.

The WP&YR rounds the bend.

As we board and choose our seats, a disembodied narrator enjoins us to sit on either side, since we will switch positions at the top to guarantee everyone an equal view. We chug out of the station along a riverbed. Our narrator points out "Tie-land" to our left - a pick-up-sticks jumble of defunct railroad ties.

The train trip is pleasant, with some wonderful scenery and a lot of narrated history about the gold rush days. The Chilkoot trail over White Pass Summit is narrow and steep, less than a foot wide in some places. This treacherous climb with too-heavy loads caused many hapless pack animals to stumble. Anxious prospectors whipped the creatures on until they fell, then removed their gear and supplies and pushed the poor beasts over the cliff. More than 3,000 pack animals met their deaths at a place called Dead Horse Gulch, where you can still see the bones bleached by sun and snow (or so they tell us).

Taiya Inlet in the distance.

To cross into Canada, gold-seekers were required to bring "gear for a year" -- at least 2,000 pounds (that's one ton, folks) of equipment and supplies with them; they were not allowed to cross without it.

So prospectors without pack animals would carry supplies on their backs, 100 pounds at a time, making 20 trips up to the summit and back, to get their allotment to and over the border. Sheeesh!

Probably more real money was made from outfitting the starry-eyed prospectors than from the gold itself. Others made fortunes by pandering to the gold fever, with offers of balloon trips and promises to build a bicycle path to the gold fields. My favorite story related by our train narrator was of an enterprising con artist who fleeced desperate prospectors by selling gophers "trained to dig for gold".

Rickety obsoleted trestle. Rapids on the Tiaya River. She'll be comin' round the mountain... Top of White Pass. Looking back to Skagway.
Shafts of sunlight. Look out girls, the train's right behind you! Micro-train, macro-mountain. Light at the end of - aw, you know. Taiya River trainside.
Nice mountain. Get me off this trestle! Touring car. Stragglers shop in Skagway. Mike rides, uh, <em>walks</em> the rails.

After the train re-deposits us in Skagway, we head back to the ship for lunch. Marian opts for a return ride in the yellow taxi-limo, but Mike and I take a short and pleasant walk back to the dock.

Lunch starts with broccoli soup. The sore in my mouth is now at its fiery peak. I'm talking like Elmer Fudd and any chewing or swallowing of solid food is extremely painful. Philip, ever aiming to please, asks if I would like more soup, and "Yes, please" is my Dickensian answer.

Five minutes later I am presented with a Lake Michigan-sized tureen, filled to the brim. The brew is warm and comforting and I feed with a minimum of wincing, even though I only manage a small withdrawal from the soup-lake.

Beautiful soup, so rich and green,
Waiting in a hot tureen!
Who for such dainties would not stoop?
-- Lewis Carroll's "The Mock Turtle's Song"

Over lunch, Tom and John share their kayaking experience with us. It sounds like fun, I might want to try it on some future trip.

Steve entertains onboard.

A local musician, Steve Hites, entertains in the lounge before we depart Skagway. As his strumming and playing start to waft through the dining room, I scurry up to the lounge as if summoned by the Pied Piper: I can't resist a performer!! The rest of my party chooses to linger over lunch and listen on the intercom.

Steve sings, plays guitar and harmonica, and holds forth with saloon-type stories for 45 minutes. He's pretty good, but tries a little too hard to be funny and over-dramatizes the baloney.

It interests me to see how different people make a living off the tourists here, not that unlike how they did it 100 years ago off the gold-seekers. A very different life from us corporate types!

Haines harbor. Horsing around in Haines.

Our next destination, Haines, is only 15 miles by water but 360 miles by road!! Sign me up for the short ship-trip. Haines looks a little like Butedale from the harbor -- not at all like the spiffed-up tourist towns of Ketchikan and Skagway.

But they have their tourist-driven businesses. A giant warehouse-type building on the dock is really a huge souvenir shop, and as we disembark two horse-drawn carriages are loading up some of our passengers for a "Haines city tour".

We have chosen to take the river float trip in the Chilkat Eagle preserve. A bus drives us 20 miles or so up the road running beside the Chilkat River, where we meet our guides and rafts.

We exchange our Nikes and Adidas for some fashionable rubber boots and don bulky lifejackets before boarding the rafts.We have quite a group for this trip, they will need four rafts to accommodate us all.

For a few minutes I'm concerned that I may have pushed Marian too far this time, but with some group help she settles onto the raft and we take off.

The 90-minute trip downriver is serene but uneventful. The water seems quite shallow and in many sections is more mud flats than river.

We see perhaps a dozen bald eagles; it's hard to get photos because the raft moves rapidly. One new thing: we see several nests, usually about two-thirds of the way up slender tree trunks. One nest actually has an occupant, its snow-white head just visible over the edge.

Floating the Chilkat.

I have learned many interesting things about bald eagles on this trip. Just seeing them in the wild was exhilarating; the only live bald eagle I had ever seen before was in a zoo. I was surprised to see them in groups, especially on beaches; I had thought they would be intensely territorial and not tolerate each other's company.

The nests are also a surprise, all I had learned before about eagles led me to expect them to nest only on high mountain crags -- aeries, if you will. But these nests look much like those of any tree-nesting bird, though considerably bigger.

We see a couple of trumpeter swans flying overhead, and one feisty kingfisher flies past our boat.

Our guide pulls us over to a sandbar to show us bear tracks -- but no bears. The tracks seem small, hardly large enough to support the bears of my imagination.

Marian seems right at home.  Our guide does the work. Eagles on the river. Trade my shoes for WHAT?
An eagle to take home.

Our guides coax the rafts into shore where our buses are waiting, and after de-lifejacketing and re-shoeing, we bus back to the dock.

At the gift shop, I buy a t-shirt with an artistic eagle design, and a small stuffed eagle that "flies" by bouncing from an elastic string.

As we sail away from Haines toward Juneau, our final port, we sit down together to enjoy the Captainís dinner, toasting Captain Dave Kay and celebrating a truly fantastic voyage. There is wonderful food as usual, and more good times with friends. We try not to remember this is our last night aboard. A final shipboard treat: the Northern Lights show up before bedtime tonight, and Marian finally gets to see them. Alas, it's time to pack; we dock in Juneau at 9 a.m. tomorrow.