Photos from Skagway and Environs
[Note: earlier, this album was missing all its still photographs for some reason. I have updated the album, so please view it again to see all the photos of Skagway, etc.]
I decided to cheat. My first visit to Alaska would not be the usual entry point on the Alaska Highway; instead, it would be a 100 mile southward detour, to Skagway. I had noticed a thin little line on the map tracking south from Whitehorse, and remembered I’d always heard of Skagway as being a major port of call for Alaska cruise ships. So around 6 AM, I left camp and headed on down. It was a pleasant enough drive for the first part, with nothing much to report except the spotting of a moose with mooselet. I passed through the Carcross Desert, the world’s smallest desert. Soon the road began to climb into the mountains, and I entered a lunar landscape. We were high enough that only the most tenacious trees were able to hang on, and the vegetation seemed to be mostly lichen and small scrubby bushes. Mostly, it was bare rock and lakes.
The actual pass is high enough, and the weather poor enough, that neither Canada nor the US has chosen to put its border facilities at the actual border. Instead, they are over 20 miles apart, creating this bizarre no-man’s land in between. As I drove in, the road was blanketed in a thick fog, such that I could barely see 100 feet in any direction. For about half an hour, I was unsure of where I was or even which country I was in. At length, a sign loomed out of the fog announcing the US border, and then a “Welcome to Alaska” sign. I stopped and took a selfie. I had arrived, at least in a technical sense.
The road began to descend steeply, and gradually the fog began to lessen. I passed the checkpoint with minimal formalities, and shortly thereafter found myself in “downtown” Skagway. It was around 6:45 AM, since I had crossed into a new time zone as well. I saw a sign for the “Gold Rush Cemetery” so I turned down the gravel road and took a look. It was a pretty typical 19th century cemetery, except for one very large monument. I took a look and saw it said “Frank Reid — He gave his life for the honor of Skagway.” There was an 1898 date of death. I thought that was rather enigmatic but I had no further information to go on. Later I found out that Reid had shot and killed the infamous frontier conman and criminal boss, “Soapy” Smith, in a shootout. Smith died instantly but Reid lingered for days, shot in the groin. Smith was also buried in the cemetery, but as I knew nothing about all that at the time I didn’t find his grave.
I made my way back into town and found that I had the place entirely to myself. I wandered around and took photos of many of the old Gold Rush era buildings. I went in to the depot of the White Pass and Yukon Route railway, and saw that they had a three hour excursion train up to the summit due to depart at 8:15 AM, at the astronomical price of $129. Railway robbery! I left, but thought better of it, and decided, what the hell, you only live once. Going back into the depot, I walked up to the counter and asked to purchase a ticket for the 8:15 trip. I had failed to note that, by this time, it was already 8:22, and the lady pointed out that passengers had already boarded. There would be another train at 12:45, but frankly, my guess was I would be bored to death kicking around Skagway till then, so I persisted and she reluctantly sold me a ticket. I raced down the platform after “All Aboard” had already been called and climbed aboard with moments to spare. And, with that, we were off.
The White Pass and Yukon Route was built to ferry gold rush traffic into the interior, and it’s a very scenic route. The road climbs over 3,000 feet in about 20 miles, crossing a number of long trestles and passing through two tunnels in the process. You can sit comfortably inside the heated cars, but I found I preferred to stand on the balcony outside, as it offered much better views. It was also exceedingly cold and windy. I took many photographs, but just as we were about to go through the first tunnel, my iPhone died. Its battery had gotten too cold, and had given up the ghost. I took it back inside and thawed it out over the wood-burning stove in the car, and it revived enough to keep using it. But I fear it is now on its last legs and will have to be replaced. It’s gotten cold a lot on this trip and that is fatal to batteries. We continued on to the pass and briefly entered Canada to turn around. The last remains of the old 1898 foot trail were still visible off to the side of the track.
When I got back to Skagway around 11:15, I found that the cruise ships had disgorged their contents and the streets I had stood in the middle of at 8 AM for taking photos were now thronged with tourists. In my earlier reconnoitering, I had noted that “Jeff Smith’s Parlor,” Soapy Smith’s old saloon, was now a museum operated by the Park Service. Free tours were given at 11:15 and 1:15, but you had to get a ticket from park headquarters, and only 14 were given out for each tour. I raced over to park HQ and found that all tickets for 11:15 were gone, and that only one was left for 1:15. I grabbed it, and with two hours to kill, I started seeing the town again. I visited the town museum, a nice little collection of random artifacts in an old college, appropriately priced at $2. Then I hit the streets again, and before long it was time for the tour.
Jeff Smith’s Parlor was originally Soapy Smith’s headquarters, and later it was converted into a museum by an eccentric townsman. The park ranger giving the tour described it as “probably the weirdest museum operated by the Park Service,” and I would tend to agree. All sorts of odd bric-a-brac was plastered to the walls, and there were three weird mannequins, including a woman sitting on a toilet, referred to as “Lucy Loo.” A reindeer with glowing red lightbulb eyes and two stuffed moose locked in mortal combat rounded out the presentation. The space was small and intimate, explaining the limited tour size.
After the tour, I felt like I’d seen what Skagway had to offer. I grabbed the car and headed to the gas station. I was running pretty low and wanted to fill up before the 100 mile trip back to Whitehorse. Imagine my shock when I got to the gas station to discover that every single pump was down! Some quick calculations suggested that it would be an uncomfortably near thing to make it back to Whitehorse. What now? I did some research and found a single other gas station in town. Making my way over, I found that it had a single pump. I filled up, but that was cutting it close. The last gas pump in Skagway.
Hitting the road again, I made my way over the pass, and found that it had changed completely. The fog had burned off, and I was treated to fine scenic vistas. I stopped at Carcross briefly to see the desert, then continued on. I realized I was going to make it to Whitehorse after 5 PM, and that the SS Klondike would be closed. That had really been the attraction I had wanted to see in Whitehorse, but I wanted to put more miles behind me. I decided I would visit Whitehorse on the way back instead, and bypassed downtown. Thus, I have yet to actually see the town.
The rest of the drive was fairly unremarkable until I reached Kluane Lake, the end of my trip. I don’t know what this place is but it was weird. Very long and narrow, surrounded by mountains on all sides, the surface seemed to be steaming in places and there were rafts of grass or something similar near the shore. Little islands dotted its surface. It was beautiful but strange. I took a few selfies, and later realized I was wearing sunglasses at 10:30 PM. I drove along its shore for maybe 30 kilometers before coming to the Yukon Government campground. A sign warned that, due to bear activity, campers with tents could only stay inside the electric fence. I decided to sleep in the car.
Photos from Skagway and Environs