We set the alarm for Skagway, knowing the day ahead would be long and full. This time we decided to do one of the Princess excursions, because we didn’t want to miss the chance to do the two things really important to us and still get back to the ship on time. Skagway is a delightful little town, with an old fashioned boardwalk, and some good shopping, but our focus on this day was riding the White Pass Railroad and going kayaking.
T he White Pass Railroad is part of the epic history of the Klondike Gold Rush, with the construction of a narrow gauge train 112 years ago. The White Pass & Yukon Route was designated an International Historic Civil Engineering Landmark, along with the Eiffel Tower and our recent destination, the Panama Canal. In addition to the many hazards and obstacles the builders overcame, they built this railroad in two years, two months, and according to some storytellers, two days, two hours, etc. etc. Riding this train is a fabulous experience, unlike the many touring trains that dot the western landscape, this one has real views, and tunnels, and trestles, and has such an amazing history.
Fascinating as well, was the young woman narrating the journey. She was born in Skagway, a town of about 800 residents and a population that drops to less than 500 in the winter. She graduated in a class of seven, all them them with close to a 4 point average, and all of them continuing that average when they went away to college. Her family has a gun business and a restaurant and were long time Skagway residents as well. She is entering medical school this fall and plans to be a plastic surgeon. She gave us lots of information about the train and the journey, but because we were in the “sound car” we got to hear her side conversations with some other people about what it was like to grow up in a small tight community like Skagway.
The train climbs from sea level in Skagway to nearly 3,000 feet at the summit of White Pass, in just 20 miles, passing through some of the most magnificent terrain in the US. The purpose for this train was to get people in and out of the Klondike, in anticipation of the huge gold rush expected there. What I didn’t know before this trip, was that that huge gold rush actually burned out after only two years, with very few people actually making any money. But the stories of steam engine number 9, and the rotary snow plow number 1 were fascinating. Other stories from Skagway include the notorious “Soapy” Smith, a thug who ran the town until he was killed by another thug who was then eulogized as the man who saved Skagway. I took a photo of the “trail of 98” where men hauled literally a ton (2000) pounds of goods over the pass for hundreds of miles on their backs. They had to make many trips because the Canadian government at this time wouldn’t allow a foreigner in the country without enough provisions that they wouldn’t become a drain on the Canadian economy. It was said if you lost your place in the line of men on this tiny trail, it could take a day to get back into line to continue forward. What a story.
After White Pass, we got off the train at Frasier, British Columbia, to begin our kayak trip on Glacier Lake. Our guides were typical young, adorable river boys, who gave us a lesson in tandem kayaking with a rudder, helped with our skirts and life jackets and let us out into the lake. Now you know that Mo and I are kayakers, but we do usually each have our own. It’s fun trying to figure out who is in charge when there are two people in a kayak. We did fine, eventually, and I did eventually figure out the rudder pedals. The lake was lovely, clear, and windy, with protected coves. The wind saved us from what I assumed would be legendary bugs, with only one mosquito to mar the day. Just one. That was amazing in itself! The mountains around us were topped with snow with several glaciers visible. The lake is in a place called Tribulation Valley, desolate and windy and incredibly harsh. We were on the water for just over an hour, not nearly enough, before we had to return to Frasier and the waiting coach. The train up the pass follows the east side of the river, and the Klondike road on the west side of the river was our route back down to Skagway. Our coach driver told us stories about Skagway and the local history as she negotiated many bikers from Sockeye tours who refused to move to the right of the road to let the bus pass. She had a few pithy comments about Sockeye, and asked us to please not do a tour with them, ever. From the way everyone talked, it was obvious that this was a small community, supportive of each other, but also much like a small family with some infighting as well.
By the time we got back to Skagway, I was starving and grumpy, and made a beeline for someplace to eat. After an Alaskan Amber and a burger at the Alaska Brewing Company I felt much better. The restaurant was great, and looked historic and interesting, but a closer look at the historical walking tour brochure revealed that the building was erected 3 years ago, called Old Town Skagway. The town itself is completely taken over by tourism and the cruise industry, with only a few local businesses on some of the side streets. Again, Diamond International and all the associated Caribbean jewelry stores dominate the main street of Broadway, with just a few interesting local shops caught in the middle. The town was crowded and busy, and with a population that swells daily from 800 to 10,000 or so with the cruise ship arrivals, it was certainly more like Disneyland than a true Alaskan frontier town. Mo and I were shopped out, even though we haven’t really bought a lot of “stuff”, and walked back to the ship. Again, the flowers were brilliant and gorgeous, the skies a perfect blue, and the mountains magnificent.
When we left Skagway, Kathy talked on the microphone about the glaciers and waterfalls, and Mo and I braved the incredible winds at the front of the ship to get great photos. We passed Haines on the right, the mountains adjacent to Glacier Bay to the north, and got an extremely rare view of three magnificent glaciers as we cruised down the sound. I took a ton of photos. Perfect. Perfect that is, until this morning, when I discovered the horrific fact that I left the smart card in the computer and took all those photos without a card in the camera. Geez, you would think a camera would tell you something like that. So, no photos of the extremely rare sunny departure from Skagway, while we listened over and over to just how incredibly lucky we were to see the glaciers and the mountains. We were, I just don’t have photos of that experience!
Again, we skipped dinner in the dining room at 8 in favor of the production show. It was well worth it, finally, this show was fabulous. “I’ve Got the Music” was filled with great dancing, great singing, and all the bells and whistles. We felt that we had truly been entertained. It was so good that we decided we would have to go to the 10:15 show after our formal dinner at 8 on our sea day tomorrow.
I fell into bed filled with visions of mountains and glaciers and lakes and all the wonders we had seen on this day and slept like a rock!