Tuesday, July 5, 2016: Skagway, Alaska—On the Klondike Gold Trail
We had already arrived in Skagway by the time Llew and I awoke at about 6. 30 am. But since we were not scheduled to begin the packaged shore excursion we had booked online until 10.00 am, we had a bit of time to kill before we set out for the day.
After showering, we left to eat breakfast in the Lido Dining Room where the choices are a- plenty. I have resolved to try something new each day—today I asked the chef to make me a custom-designed omlette: shrimp, spinach, mushrooms and goat cheese with smoked salmon on the side. It was awesome. I also ordered some freshly squeezed OJ for Llew and me. He settled for eggs over easy and decaff coffee. We could already see folks leaving the ship for the day and walking along the bridge that took them into the city. We had no idea how far the city was from our cruise terminal—so we were pleasantly surprised to discover that we could go back and forth in under ten minutes. A real boon that!
Exploring Skagway on Foot:
It was about 8.45 when we left our stateroom for a day that was filled with deep interest. First of all, the main street called Broadway that runs like a main artery through the town has been beautifully preserved to serve as a tourist attraction. We soon learned (from the self-guided Walking Tour we took later in the afternoon) that most of the historic buildings have been moved from other parts of the city and brought to this main street. It is like a mini Disney World—each building is freshly painted in its original colors. Charming shops line the road on both sides—most of them are jewelry shops owned and operated by Indians from India who spend 3-4 months of the year in pursuit of cruise ships. For the rest of the year, they literally close shop and head to the Caribbean Islands looking for business from cruise passengers there. I chatted with a few of them and found them to be courteous and very gracious and not the least bit pushy. What’s more, most of them offer a little charm simply for walking into their establishments. By the end of the day, I had collected quite a few of them and felt very pleased with myself. The charms are meant to be worn on a charm bracelet and feature various symbols of the region—whales, trains, bears, etc.
A Bit of Skagway’s Gold-Digging History:
And talking about trains, I ought to say that Skagway’s heyday were the years 1898-1900. Just two years put this town forever on the world map. It was in 1898, that a man found a nugget of gold quite by accident while straining mud from a pan of gravel. That did it! Word spread literally around the world and the Klondike Gold Rush began. The name came from the Klondike river that weaves it way through the area in glacial green tones that are vastly appealing.
A few of the early prospectors (also known as stampeders) made a considerable amount of money on the gold nuggets themselves. Several made money from the business that sprouted around gold digging such as hotels, selling apple pies to prospectors, laundry owners, saloons for there was seriously nothing to do here except drink, gamble and go whoring. Needless to say, whore houses did brisk business and when drink, women and especially money (to be made from gold) is at stake, a frontier town fills with gun-totting desperadoes who pull out their weapons at the slightest provocation. Skagway became rife with crime and as time went by, its chief crook was one Jefferson “Soapy” Smith who ran a huge brazen operation in gambling and prostitution with some good old-fashioned thieving thrown in at the side for good measure. He was the most notorious gangster of the bunch. Old Soapy was killed in a real old-fashioned gun duel with one Charles Reid that took place right on the main street and a plaque today marks the spot where he fell dead. Peace returned to Skagway and to the prospectors most of whom did not make a dime.
Since we were supposed to pick up tickets from the Visitors’ Center that is run by the US National Park Service (as the entire area is protected as a historic area associated with the Gold Rush), we headed there first. We got tickets for the 2.00 pm walking tour that is led by a park ranger—having booked them online before we left home. With our tickets in our pockets, we continued our exploration of the cute town popping in and out of the shops to pick up free charms or magnets or postcards. Then, with little time to spare, we made our way to the Golden North Hotel (no longer in use as a hotel although once the town’s most famous inn) to pick up our three-hour guided tour of the White Pass and Summit as well as the Yukon Territories—for an exploration of Skagway is an exploration of its towering snow-streaked mountains and its curving hairpin roads that lead one into the Yukon Territory of Canada.
White Pass and Summit Tour and Entry into the Yukon Territories:
The Gold Rush sprouted traffic on one of the most treacherous trails—known as the Chilkoot Trail that originated from Skagway—originally known only to the Tlingit and Huna natives peoples who populated this region. As thousands of people flooded the town to try their luck panning gold during what was a very depressed time economically around the world, the US government insisted that each of them carry enough supplies so as not to starve on the trails. It was stipulated that they carry a ton of supplies each—needless to say, this meant several trips up and down the mountains—a hard enough task in the summer but essentially the area is a series of killing fields in the winter.
After a few months of dealing with these wretched conditions, as a result of which many hundreds died, it was decided to build a railway line that would go over the White Pass Gulch to reach the Summit of the mountains that would then lead into Canada. The railroad line—one of the grandest feats of Victorian engineering—was created in 2 years, 2 months and 2 days and continued in operation until the 1960s. Today, it is a huge tourist attraction for passengers can take joy rides (for the pricey fee of about $400) along the same railroad all the way to Carcross in Canada’s British Columbia province. For those passengers wishing to spend less (as in our case), you can take the 3-4 hour guided tour by coach which follows the exact tracks of the train and enters the same territory. Ours was conducted by Frontier Excursions and cost us $65 for a four hour trip that left Skagway at 10.30 am and brought us back at 3. 00 pm. Needless to say, this meant that we missed our 2.00 pm ranger-guided walking tour, but we found a way around it pretty easily.
Our guide was the lovely Jess (aka JJ) who proved to be a brilliant narrator and tour guide. She talked continuously as she gave us a ton of information about the history, the topography, the vegetation, the building of the railroad, the Gold Rush itself, the development of Skagway. There was so much we learned on this trip from her. We left the town of Skagway, crossed the railroad lines and the creek and made our way into the mountains. From time to time, we stopped to see the train winding its way on the slopes—its green and yellow head followed by a long trail of brown carriages. There were also a number of waterfalls (and we stopped to take pictures at a few), great green vistas draped with Sitka (Alaskan) spruce trees hung frequently with moss that is referred to as Old Man’s Beard.
We had our passports checked at the US-Canadian border (a short and very painless process) and were welcomed to Canada’s Yukon Territories—which are the most remote parts of Canada. In this area, we stopped for restroom breaks and hot beverages at what is called the Yukon Suspension Bridge. Although we did not actually walk over it (it costs $15 to do so), we got really close. After a ten minute stop, we headed further north towards Tushai Lake and Bennet Lake. The scenery was spectacular, the mountain air was clear, clean and cool, peaks covered with ice followed us everywhere and the silence of the area was amazing. We also made one stop at a Dogsledding place where two of our passengers hopped off to take a dogsled ride. This allowed Jess to bring in some husky pups into our coach and we all had the chance to hold them—a real thrill for us! We got a very good sense of how awful the circumstances might have been for 19th century prospectors and how brave (if not foolhardy) they were in risking their lives to make a fast buck.
It was exactly 3.00 pm when we returned to Skagway after a four hour inland journey that had taken us into Canada and then back into the United States–where again the immigration process was quick and simple.
Alas! We had missed our 2. 00 pm tour and all slots were filled for the rest of them. Still, we were not daunted (in fact, we were quite pleased) when the ranger gave us a very detailed brochure that allowed us to take a self-guided walking tour that followed in the exact footsteps of the tour guide. But since it was just past three and we had eaten nothing since breakfast, we felt the need for some sustenance and decided to go back to our ship (just a ten minute walk away) to get some food. It would be too late for lunch but Afternoon Tea could be just as substantial.
Afternoon Tea on the Ship:
And that was precisely what we did. We headed straight for the Manhattan Dining Room where Afternoon Tea was in progress. Of course, they offered the full three courses and by fueling up on a number of finger sandwiches, scones with cream and jam and a selection of cakes, we had ourselves a really nice meal rounded off with lovely decaff Earl Grey. It could not have been a more welcome break. It was by then about 4. 00 pm and since our embarkation time was 8. 30 pm, we had ample hours left to continue our exploration of the town.
Taking a Walking Tour of Skagway:
Before we began our tour on foot of Skagway, we entered the National Parks office to watch a film entitled ‘Gold Fever: The Klondike Gold Rush”–a 25 minutes documentary that was highly recommended by Lonely Planet. It was a really superb introduction to the reasons why Skagway developed from a once sleepy First Nations People’s settlement into a thriving center of commerce. It also set the tone for our walking tour that followed immediately.
The self-guided tour was a lovely way by which to enter, visit or pause at the many historic buildings and architectural treasures of the town. We entered the old train depot and saw the old station house (now used by the National Park Services), we walked into the Red Onion Saloon (once the most notorious house of sin), and the Mascot Bar. We saw Moore’s Cabin, a log cabin that was built by one of the most successful prospectors, the army barracks used during World War II when Skagway became an important armaments depot. We saw a number of interesting buildings that varied from simple log cabins to fanciful Victorian dwellings. Most of the buildings have been moved from their original venues so that the walking tour was very easy to do indeed. It took us about an hour and half, so that about 6.00 pm, we decided to get back to our ship as we were tired and foot sore and needed to do some serious relaxation.
Dinner on the Ship:
We decided to go for dinner early as we have at least a half hour wait if we go at 8.00 pm. At 7.00, we were easily seated in the Manhattan and finding that the priest who has been saying Mass, Fr. Timothy McCarthy, was seated alone at a table, we invited him to join us. He readily agreed and we had a really nice meal with him for company. He is an Irishman who now lives in Vancouver. Now retired, he does about 3 cruises a year mainly for HAL where he serves as ship’s Chaplain.
It was Jacques Torres Evening—meaning that today’s menu was devised by the French pastry chef Jacques Torres who has a flagship chocolaterie in Brooklyn, New York. Llew had the Venison Sausage Soup while I had the Cheddar and Beer Soup (both were very good indeed). Since I needed a salad, I decided to have the Caesar Salad with anchovies (which was also very good) while Llew asked for a side serving of the day’s main salad which was one with grilled chicken, mango and varied veg. They brought him almost a full-size salad which he tried to share with me—except that for a little bite, I wanted none of it. I had my main course yet to come: the Yankee Pot Roast served with mashed potatoes, mushroom medley and roasted veg. It was wonderfully tender and very tasty. Llew decided to have the Veal Tenderloin which was equally good. I ended with the Baked Alaska made with rum raisin ice-cream—nothing to shout about. Llew had the coffee fudge ice-cream. Throughout our meal, we enjoyed interesting conversation with the good priest who kept us both amused and entertained.
Country Night at the Piano Bar and Magic Showtime:
It was time to get to the Piano Bar for a sing-song with Jimmy Maddox, the Piano Man. But he was doing songs with which we were not familiar and it was time to head off for the Magic Show by Fred Moore in the main theater. It wasn’t great and my eyes were closing. Clearly it was time for me to head back to my stateroom. Llew decided to stay on while I adjourned to our stateroom where, a very short time later, I was fast asleep.