There’s something about getting off the beaten path that brings about a certain type of inventiveness. That’s not to say that city folk don’t have their fair share of ideas. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that when left to employ natural resources, interesting things happen. Skagway’s just such a place. The ship docked in Skagway that morning under overcast skies. The ocean astern was steel gray. A later departure time for our shore excursion allowed for a lingering breakfast.
Our decision on a Skagway shore excursion was predicated on setting aside time for walking around town. So, to ensure we’d have the afternoon to explore, we chose the White Pass & Yukon Route Railway summit excursion, a 20-mile ride to the 2,865 foot high White Pass summit. The WP&YRR was built in 1898 during the Klondike Gold Rush — ironically completed after the Gold Rush was finish — as an alternative to the trails climbing almost 3000 feet in just 20 miles. The narrow gauge railroad was a cooperative project that brought together American knowhow, British money and Canadian labor.
In a vintage coach car we passed through the east side of Skagway and began a climb that would take us past Bridal Veil Falls, abandoned trestles, Inspiration Point, Dead Horse Gulch and broad vistas looking back on Skagway and down to the Skagway River. The trees and bushes were painted with a blush of fall colors. Leaving the forest behind, we entered the alpine zone and arrived at the summit, our halfway point and the only point of the trip that entered Canada. The hard beauty of the summit was accented by trees dwarfed by a short growing season and heavy snow. Summit Lake seemed to kiss the edge of the railroad bed.
Then it was time for the “Summit Shuffle.” We were instructed to stand up, grab the back of our seat and pull it towards us, reversing the direction of the seat, then move to the opposite side of the aisle, guaranteeing that everyone would be have a new view for the ride back to Skagway. A neat trick. Just as remarkable was every passenger’s good natured approach to switching seats.
It was clear that on this trip we’d be laying groundwork for a return, as we soon accepted that our trip on the WP&YRR would one of those excursions that’d be repeated. Now knowing that Skagway isn’t a large town, next time I’d opt for the full-day 67½-mile WP&YRR trip to Carcross, Yukon.
The first sight to greet us after disembarking near town was that of pink salmon, stretching from bank to bank and filling the Skagway River. It’s one thing to see a few salmon heading upstream, or someone else’s video, but it’s another to see enough fish, hundreds of salmon, give reality to the old timers’ expression that “one could walk across streams on the backs of salmon.” I spent some time in awe of this sight, so stunned that I didn’t once wish for a fly rod in my hand. …well, maybe once.
The main part of town is a bit of a walk past what is probably one of the smallest immigration stations I’ve seen, the WP&YRR station and WP&YRR rotary snowplow #1. Downtown Skagway still has that small, frontier town feel, albeit with the obligatory stores focusing on cruise ship passengers (jewelry and souvenirs). If you ignore those tourist traps, there are some interesting local shops, including a yarn store that required a stop for the wife for a gander at qiviut (kee-vee-uh’ t) yarn. However, the price of this qiviut — the soft wool lying beneath the long coat of the Arctic muskox — made me wonder if it was laced with some of that Yukon gold (nearly $100 for 1 ounce!).But well within the budget, down near the end of 7th Street sat Skagway Brewing Co. Now, I’ve been scoffed at for usually refusing to drink, much less pay for, relatively flavorless beers. It’s a principle that serves me well and often leads to pleasant surprises. Skagway Brewing’s signature ale, Spruce Tip Blonde, was one such surprise.
We decided on lunch at the Skagway Brewing Pub, and started with an appetizer flight of the only-available-in-the-Pub beers: Prospector Pale, Chilkoot Trail IPA, Boom Town Brown, Blue Top Porter and the only outside beer, Alaskan Brewing’s Amber Ale. All were good, but absent from the flight was the Spruce Tip Blonde. Told by the waiter, of course, that Spruce Tip Blonde was worth a full glass, it would be the beverage accompanying some pretty awesome fish ‘n chips. Brewed with hand picked Sitka Spruce tree tips, Spruce Tip Blonde offers an experience that begins with an almost flowery aroma of spruce but tastes of a unique sweetness akin to a fruit and/or spice.
If you’re ever in Skagway, the Skagway Brewing Pub is worth a stop for lunch and beer. Or two.
I was reminded of my childhood when the ship began to dock the third morning of our Alaskan cruise. Years ago my sister and brother and I, still sleeping, would be packed into the car, and we’d wake us up numerous miles down the road. This time it was our captain announcing the successful mooring of the ship and clearance to disembark passengers.Ketchikan greeted us with sunshine and colorful waterfront shops. The rest of the town huddled between mountains and the sea. Our half-day shore excursion would take us to visit the Deer Mountain Tribal Hatchery and Eagle Center, the nearby Totem Heritage Center, the Saxman Village and the Southeast Alaska Discovery Center.
Though it’s no secret that Ketchikan, as well as Juneau and Skagway, owes much of its financial survival to tourism, our guide/driver that morning exemplified the tourist-friendly attitude that would greet us during all of our on-shore travels.The Deer Mountain Tribal Hatchery and Eagle Center is within a relatively easy walk east of the dock. Our guide walked us through a town park to the entrance of center, next to a creek in which numerous pink salmon milled about. We were greeted by a docent and resident owl, and entered the eagle habitat. To be honest, I was hoping for something, well, a bit more. However, it did offer an up close look at two of these amazing birds, which haven’t been released into the wild due to injuries. A creek running through the small habitat allows them to hunt spawning salmon.
The Deer Mountain Tribal Hatchery is just as small in keeping with its mission to ensure the survival of various salmon species rather than supply fish for a fishery. Its operation was well described by the docent, though the distraction of big salmon in a holding pen interfered with my hearing everything she had to say.
Perhaps more remarkable was the Tlingit and Haida totems, moved from islands throughout the Inside Passage and now housed a short walk away in the Totem Heritage Center. The unrestored appearance of the totems housed in the center — each 100-plus years old — lend a sense of history. Small, surrounding exhibits cover Tlingit and Haida history and traditions.We next visited Saxman Village, a tour highlighted by a carving demonstration and nearby totems. Of note is the Seward Shame totem built to shame the former U.S. Secretary of State for not repaying a Potlatch (a gift-giving festival) to the Tlingit people. While the color red is used to indicate shame, indicating stinginess, red also figures prominently on the nearby pole built out of respect for Abraham Lincoln* and commemorating the U.S. Revenue Cutter Lincoln in its role in helping two rival Tlingit clans establish peace.
Back in downtown Ketchikan, we were dropped off at the U.S. Forest Service’s Southeast Alaska Discovery Center. Worth a visit, the Discovery Center offers displays and information covering a wide swath of the area’s natural and human history, and might have offered a better starting point.
Lunch in Alaska is simple for me: various versions of halibut fish and chips, this time in view of Ketchikan’s Thomas Basin Harbor, at the south end of town.
We’d been warned that all three of our ports of call had been invaded by jewelers who typically started their businesses in other, more tropical cruise ship destinations. My wife, in fact, already wanted to look at a particular ring.
We oohed and ahhed along while strolling diamond row, picking up a few of the compulsory t-shirts along the way. Our last stop was to see “The Ring.”
I hadn’t been warned about the sales folks. They are smooth and slick. It all starts with an innocent question: “What do you think the price is?” Let’s just say it was too much, even with the initial offer of a discount, but it must have been apparent — in our eyes or maybe our body language — that we had no plans to buy. Another substantial discount raised my eyebrow.I’m terrible at picking out jewelry and recently began an early search for a suitable ring for our 10th anniversary, which is not too far off. I was having a heck of a time. But again, I went into a defensive huddle with my wife, shaking my head with such exaggeration that another offer was made. Earrings were thrown into the deal. The sales manager stepped up with calculator in hand. I’d even go so far as to say we had the original salesman sweating, just a bit. Another huddle, another offer, the incorporation of sales tax into the offered price, and a deal was struck.
I was hoping to see ice in Alaska, and I thought it would be in a glacier, but regardless of the profit earned on the sale, we walked back to the ship feeling we’d done okay.
* This one is different from the Lincoln Totem in the Alaska State Museum.
A photo slideshow, already playing. (I’ve added photos since last posting the album):
(You can directly access the Picasa album, with captions, by clicking here.)
We’re back after travelling from San Francisco to Ketchikan, Juneau and Skagway, Alaska, and back again in 10 days…leaving at the end of August and returning to the start of September.
I’d say our trip when by fast, but the ship rarely exceeded 21 knots and the days were packed with the history, wilderness and the people of Southeast Alaska.
There was amazement that two of our ports o’ call can only be accessed via plane or boat. Pink salmon crowded the rivers and brought out the bears. We tasted beer that can’t be found anywhere else.
Pictures for now; words later.
(You can directly access the Picasa album, with captions, by clicking here.)
Sometimes it’s better to let the pictures tell the story. Before that happens, a few high points of our recent vacation and cruise (Vancouver and Victoria, B.C., round trip from Seattle):
• Fun time all around with mostly good to great weather.
• Spending time with the folks who raised us and The Bro’s family.
• Meeting a fellow fly fisherman/author who happens to live in The Parents’ hometown.
• Vancouver. Loved it.
• The cruise itself. Already planning another cruise.
• The food on the cruise.
• Meeting with The Wife’s online knitting friend and family.
• The fact that The Brother and I ate frog legs.
• Butchart Gardens. Amazing.
• Did I mention good beer?
Enjoy! (If the gallery pictures run together in Internet Explorer, try using “Compatibility Mode” by clicking the broken page icon next to the address bar.)
Along the coast of British Columbia. More later.