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Published: July 17th 2018
Along the highway toward Skagway
Southeast Alaska's seacoast: mountains, forests, water.
Do you remember that very old joke that puts the word “henway” into a sentence and then lets the victim ask, “What’s a henway?” The answer: a hen weighs about two and a half pounds. Sorry …
Please go to your atlas again and look at southeastern Alaska. This area, including the panhandle, is made up of as much water as land. (Did you know that you can’t drive to Juneau, the state capital?) Everything from groceries (once a week barge from Seattle) to people move on the on the water. If your atlas shows you the roads, you’ll see that most of Alaska’s roads are in the southeastern quarter, but the towns on the coast are relatively isolated, due to the long fjords that pierce the mainland. We traveled from Skagway to Haines by ferry, a ride of about an hour. By road, it’s over 350 miles with two international border crossings. Oh, and the only road leading out of Haines is under construction, with miles of rough rock (not gravel) and frequent blasting
There are only a few roads that lead from Canada to Alaska, and we chose to enter near the town of Skagway along a
The Eagle Preserve on the Chilkat River
Our raft guide is completing his PhD in environmental education -- most of the guides, bus drivers and other employees are also scholars.
valley of unbelievable beauty. We prepared to cross the border by digging out our passports and Maggie’s paperwork and listing the country of origin of our vegetables and meat. We had no problem at all.
Skagway is famous for two reasons:
1. It played a big part in the gold rush of 1898.
2. It’s a cruise ship port.
Skagway has a deepwater port (see below for reason #2) and, in the 1890s, became the launching point to the gold fields of the Yukon for thousands of hopeful prospectors.
Up the Skagway and Taiya Rivers from Skagway was the First Nations town of Dyea (pronounced dy-ee), where thousands of miners created a boom town that lasted about as long as the rush did. The Chilkoot Trail to the Klondike goldfields started in Dyea, and it was amazingly hard. Click on the link (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chilkoot_Trail#/media/File:ChilkootPass_GoldenStairs2.jpg
) to see a great photo taken in April 1898 of the start of this journey. To reach Dawson City (almost 440 miles away), requires overland travel, and the miners had to carry, as required by the Canadian authorities who were tired of rescuing city slickers from the hazards of the north, a
Bald Eagles on the Chilkat River
Located on the Chilkat River, the Bald Eagle Sanctuary is reached by raft.
year’s worth of equipment with them. If you’re a fan of Jack London’s stories, you’ll know that he also hiked up the Trail. Modern-day hikers can sample the first part of the trail, starting at the park at Dyea. One day, we took a ride on the narrow gauge White Pass and Yukon Railroad up the Skagway River (no one paddles it – too dangerous) into Canada, on the same route the miners used to get as far inland as possible. We learned that the railroad replaced the old Chilkoot trail, making the miners’ lives at least a little easier. This was not the first time we road this train. In 2007, we got off the train and hiked up to the Laughton Glacier. Lucky we did – that glacier is almost gone.
I found it hard to imagine why anyone would undertake this crazy and – mostly – hopeless journey until I realized that if today there were rumors of untold wealth somewhere, thousands of people would leave their homes and families and do the same thing. They’d be just as clueless about both hazards and the poor chances of really making a fortune.
We rode our
motorcycle from Skagway and walked through the forest and fields that are now Dyea. You can see remnants of ships and buildings, but not the long harbor, since in the 120 years since the heyday of the town, glacial uplift has eliminated it. (Glacial uplift, I learned, happens when glaciers melt and the thousands of tons of ice disappear. The land underneath rises.) We walked through a meadow that had been the river port and is now 7 feet higher than the river.
So, reason #2: Skagway was an ordinary town of about 1000 people with an interesting history until the cruise ship lines discovered it. Multiple ships can dock here, dumping up to 10,000 passengers onto the streets. We were lucky, since only two ships were in port, but it was amazing. Between cell phones, selfies and basic stupidity, the streets were full of people walking in the traffic and turning the place into a combination of Disneyland and an insane asylum. Skagway now has everything from fake gold rush saloons to tanzanite stores. Tom has more patience than I do, since I would probably have just put my fist on the horn and kept it there. I
Past and Present
The White Pass and Yukon Railroad has been moving people up the Skagway River toward the gold fields since 1900.
know Skagway isn’t unique, as I see the same behavior when the tourist train stops at the Nantahala Outdoor Center in North Carolina. Do people really leave their brains at home when they travel? OK, rant over.
From Skagway, we traveled on the ferry to Haines, one of my favorite towns. It’s also on the coast, but has only one tiny cruise ship dock, so is not infested as Skagway is. Besides tourism, it’s oriented around wildlife and salmon fishing. We took a raft trip through the Bald Eagle Preserve and (Tom’s words) saw more bald eagles in one day than the whole rest of our lives and learned a lot about the rivers, fish and birds from guides. By the way, the raft guide is finishing his PhD in ecological education, and the bus driver is working on his PhD in fish biology. The next day, we rode our motorcycle over to a salmon packing plant, where we were able to buy both smoked and fresh salmon, Dungeness crab, and halibut. Maggie enjoys the crumbs from our table these days! The weather was far from ideal, being both chilly and rainy, but we walked downtown to a brewery
This is attached to the back of a locomotive and blows the snow off the tracks.
and bought groceries, even though we knew we’d be crossing back into Canada the next day. Uncertain of the rules, we ended up throwing a lime and a lemon out the Cruiser window on the way to the border, about 40 miles away.
One night, we stayed in one of The Yukon’s wonderful provincial parts: Million Dollar Falls. If you’re traveling through that area, please stop there. The falls are actually a rapid that puts Gorilla to shame – we’ve been wondering if anyone has had the skill and courage to run it.
The last few days, we went back and forth between the US and Canada as we drove north. The land has changed from the seacoast to a landscape of huge mountains, forests, rivers and glaciers. The landscape is both majestic and desolate, and you realize how small we people are in the scheme of things on earth. Critter count: we’ve seen bears (both black and grizzly), moose, wolves, foxes, bald eagles, trumpeter swans and other birds, elk, beavers and – a first for me – a porcupine!
Both the Alsek and the Tatshenshini rivers run through this country, and we’ve both wanted to run
Loved this sign on one of the Skagway souvenir stores
them for years. Maybe next trip!
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