And what a road it was! A little over two miles from the heart of downtown it turned into a hiking path that climbed into the sky past glorious waterfalls and an ingloriously decaying gold mine that was once the largest in the U.S. Oh, it was good to get out in the woods like that, even though we had to yell out "Hey Bear!" every minute or two to let them know we were in the vicinity. Rangers at Glacier National Park taught us to do this years ago, since bears just hate surprise visits from humans. Let 'em know you're coming and they'll leave is the theory.
Skagway was our third stop. Captain William Moore was a prescient fellow. He had done some prospecting himself and knew that other gold hunters were wandering all over Canada's Northwest Territory. In 1887 he staked a homestead claim in what is today Skagway on 160 acres at the base of White Pass, the lowest pass over the mountains from Alaska to the NWT. He farmed enough to "prove up" his homestead claim, and he waited. And waited. Nine years after he arrived and built the cabin you see here, a few fellows 300 miles to the north were stuffing every sack they owned with shiny rocks that were turning them into millionaires, and Captain Moore's ship came in the next year as the Klondike Gold Rush began and the population went on from 7 Moores in 3 generations to 10,000 mostly single fortune-seekers. Except it was more complicated than that. Those thousands descended onto his property with little regard for fine points like legal title to land, and it took several years of litigation before he, too, joined those first miners in the millionaires club.
The National Park Service today owns a lot of historic downtown Skagway and leases much of it out to stores that agree to properly conserve the buildings and spirit of Gold Rush Skagway. The 1899 Arctic Brotherhood building, a fraternal organization that fizzled out 20 years later, is now the tourist bureau and reportedly the most-photographed building in Alaska thanks to the 8,800 pieces of driftwood adorning it.
The Park Service runs a small but excellent museum that brought the Klondike Gold Rush to life, such as this model of just how many provisions a miner had to bring before the Canadian Mounties would let him cross the border in search of gold. It was supposed to be enough clothing, equipment and food to last him a year, and it weighed approximately a ton - 2,000 pounds!
The vast majority of miners actually hiked from nearby Dyea up the Chilkoot Pass, a taller crossing but several miles shorter. Since it took many trips up and down the trail to bring your ton of goods to the top, short was important. Just as the gold rush was almost over, however, a railroad made it over White Pass and on to Whitehorse, and Dyea became a ghost town. Skagway survived, and the White Pass and Yukon Railroad today is mining tourists better than any of those early settlers mined gold. $117 gets you a 2 1/2 hour round trip to the summit, $129 if you buy it as an excursion from the boat (you get a 4 minute bus trip to the train station for the extra $12), and we saw four pairs of locomotives each pulling about 15 fairly full passenger cars, and that was mid-day on the second of three runs! There were 4 cruise ships in port and we estimate their passengers left close to a quarter of a million in the railroad's coffers that day, plus who knows how much more in the shops in town. OK, we admit it, a few of those dollars were ours as we picked up a stuffed toy for grandson Tyler, whom we see in two weeks.
The next two days involved sightseeing from the decks of our ship, and we lucked out with dry days in the 50s. Jeff visited Glacier Bay on a cruise ship in May 1987, and saw a lot of wildlife and several excitingly large splashes as ice "calved" off the glaciers. On these two days we saw a few whales, a small pod of porpoises and a few dozen sea otters, one of them floating on an iceberg, plus acrobatics from hundreds of starkly colored kittiwakes, but sadly much less than on the earlier trip. The glaciers were also having off days.
That said, the scenery was still awe-inspiring. We'll turn off the audio commentary for a while and let a batch of our favorite shots speak for themselves. To get a sense of the scale, keep in mind that all but the last 3 shots were taken from a deck 75' above the water, and the last three from the top deck at twice that height.
Welcome back. The first shots were in Glacier Bay, the last ones on College Fjord the next day. This second waterway is where a bunch of university science professors sailed into an area previously blocked by ice and named the newly-discovered glaciers after various East Coast schools. We parked for an hour in front of Harvard Glacier, down the street from Vassar and around the corner from Yale, among others.
One week out of Vancouver we reached Whitter. It was created during WW II to bring supplies to Anchorage and on to the Alaska Highway that was being hurriedly cut through the wilderness, in case the Japanese tried to attack the U.S. from the north. As it turned out, they did, but never got closer than the Aleutian islands of Attu and Kiska, almost as far from Anchorage as Seattle is. After WW II Whitter remained a military installation, this time because of the fear of Russia. Today Whitter is dominated by two enormous buildings, each one the largest structure in Alaska when it was built. The Buckner Building off to the left was abandoned when the military pulled out about thirty years ago, and is today an empty and heavily-vandalized hulk brooding down on this cold, wet place. The Begich Building has been renovated and looks better now than when it was built over fifty years ago, and today houses 98% of the population of Whittier. You can even go by underground tunnel to the public school from it! It's certainly an improvement over the housing options during the 1940s, as seen in an old photograph we found in town.
With pretty much every "sightseeing" spot covered in 15 minutes, and with a steady rain and a temperature of 50, the highlights of our port call were a slow inspection of the lone grocery store, the last chance to buy American products for the next 2 months - and we did come up with $10 of odds and ends to purchase - and a long visit to the cafe to use wifi in one last orgy of connectedness before our week-long crossing of the Pacific. Back on the boat we still had a good cell phone signal so called up family and friends for one last chat before we suspend service 'til our return in late November.
OK, time to let go of North America. For the next 6 days and 7 nights our ship's engines will be pounding as we cover over 3,000 miles to Japan. With lots of time to explore the boat, we'll tell you about our floating palace in our next blog from the other side of the Pacific.