Tuesday, June 28, 2011
We met our intrepid guides, Christian and Stash from Alaska Excursions, at a combination zip line/musher camp outside of Dyea.
Here is Christian getting John geared up:
We then loaded the rig and car on a ferry to Haines, about an hour's ride away. I have a severe problem with motion sickness, but the water was so smooth I didn't have so much as a quease. Here is John on the ferry:
Sunday, June 26, 2011
“One’s hell. The other’s damnation.” -- Mont Hawthorn, Klondike stampeder, comparing the Chilkoot Pass and the White Pass
The trail heads for the two passes began in either Dyea or Skagway, less then 10 miles apart. Both places "exploded" into cities almost overnight where the thousands of gold-fevered "stampeders" landed, got supplies for their trip, and hit the trail north.
Most of the gold seekers would not become rich. But the towns did. Supplies were sold at over-inflated prices, saloons and "soiled doves" took their share, native Tlingits were paid handsomely for helping to carry goods on the trail, pack animals (usually old and lame) went for exorbitant prices, and entrepreneurial women sold apple pies for $10 each -- about $250 in today's dollar.
Two years later, the rush was over for them both, but the future of the two towns could not have been more different.
Skagway, with a deep port and a new railroad, prospered. Dyea, with no port and no railroad was doomed.
Today we visited what is left of Dyea.
Only a very few remnants of buildings remain today. This is an example of a "False Front" building, a common tactic used by purveyors of goods and services to make the outside of their store look reasonably good, while the inside might be rough or totally non-existent.
A root cellar is in an advanced state of decay:
Nature is now reclaiming Dyea. We heard that bear and bald eagle sightings were common, but we saw neither. We did see some lovely fields of
lilies irises, including a few Chocolate Lilies.
Although they started out very much the same, Skagway and Dyea are now on opposite ends of the prosperity spectrum. Skagway's economy still depends on hoards of strangers arriving by sea -- but today's strangers come on huge cruise ships, waves of passengers flowing in and out every day, swarming through the streets like bees from the hive, dropping money and credit card swipes and then departing.
Dyea's economy has nothing to do with money, or tourism, or profit. It is about the balance of nature returning, the meadows filling in the marshes, the spruces and hemlocks filling in the grasslands, and the evidence of humanity's failure being gently covered by mosses and lichens. It is now a marvelous place of silence and solitude and beautiful flowers. Only ten short miles away, but it seems like Skagway and Dyea are a world apart.
Saturday, June 25, 2011
- This is the Arctic Brotherhood building (1899), billed as "the most photographed building in Alaska." The facade consists of 8800 driftwood sticks taken from Skagway Bay, and is called a prime example of "Victorian Rustic Architecture." It is now the Visitor Center.
- The Golden North Hotel (1898) is now retail stores. The dome, which one would think stemmed from the Russian influence in Alaska, was actually made by a Montana carpenter for the express purpose of providing an easy way to direct visitors to the hotel's location.
- We saw vanity license plates for sale (my favorite is the last one on the second row):
- We also passed a lot of very nice jewelry stores. They seemed to either be hawking a deep bluish-purple stone called Tanzanite, or a pearl-like gemstone called Ammolite that picked up a prism of color when the light hit it at the right angle. The stores were geared towards selling quickly -- almost 100% of their customers were from cruise ships and so a customer walking out the door was a sale lost.
They both played on their exclusivity and the rarity of their product -- the Tanzanite sellers implied that they were the only place to buy the African gem (and an investment gem could be had for only $47,000), and the Ammolite sellers boasted that Ammolite was even rarer than Tanzanite. We bought neither.
- We saw what can only be described as ornamental rhubarb:
- We had halibut and fries. Yum!
- And, finally, we visited the Skagway Cemetery:
The man who did the most to provide tour guide fodder for Skagway was one Jefferson R. "Soapy" Smith, who became the town's leading con man sometime in the late 19th century. He'd get a crowd together and let them watch him put bills -- from ones to hundreds -- around cakes of soap. He'd then wrap the soap in plain paper and mix them in with non-moneyed soap. The crowd would get frantic, hoping to buy the cake with the money. Those, of course, only went to confederates whose "good fortune" would further stoke the buying frenzy of the crowd.
He eventually moved up in the ranks of criminals, to running dishonest poker games, high end swindles, protection rackets, and other assorted cons.
He finally was gunned down on July 8, 1898, when a vigilante group came after him for refusing to return $2700 to a miner he had swindled in a fixed three-card monte game. Both Smith, and a vigilante named Frank Reid, fired simultaneously. Smith was killed instantly; Reid lingered for 12 days and finally died from a bullet to the groin (guys, feel free to grimace here).
Reid and Smith are both buried in the Skagway Cemetery. The woman at Reid's grave is a tour guide -- we happened to get there just when three tour busses pulled up, so we stayed long enough to hear her presentation.
Friday, June 24, 2011
Sound tough enough? It actually was worse. At the top of the pass the Stampeders would reach the Canadian border. The Canadian government, in an attempt to keep the miners from starving in the harsh winters (and to control criminal activities), required that each person have enough supplies to last them a year. A year's supply was roughly a ton of food and goods. So each person had to haul at least a ton up the mountain before they could cross into Canada. Most carried this ton by hauling 50-60 pounds on their back, leaving it on "their" pile at the top, and going back down for the next trip.
Here is a small part of the trail they used:
When we got near the top of White Pass, we stopped on a siding to let another tour train pass on its way back down. Our guide told us to give them the "Moose Wave" -- put our thumbs on our temples, and wiggle our fingers as if we had antlers. Of course, the guide on the passing train told their riders the same thing. So, as we passed, we all "Moose Waved" each other:
When we got back, some of the cars were separated so the cruise ship people could disembark at the port. For a moment, there was this image of new and old -- the horse, which was the first transportation in the West; the train, which allowed goods and people to efficiently move into the west; and finally the cruise ships, which finally found a way to make the west profitable.
Thursday, June 23, 2011
Leaving from Whitehorse, the trip to Skagway was just about 100 miles south. We'll stay here for a few days, then take a ferry to Haines, go back into Canada, and eventually wind up in the interior of Alaska.
On the way, we stopped at Caribou Crossing, where teams of Iditarod Alaskan Huskies hole up for "Musher Camp." They take turns giving tourists "rides" (for a fee, of course) in what looks like a modified golf cart. We watched them getting hooked into the harnesses -- the dogs were yapping, pulling at the reins, and jumping in their excitement. They really enjoy what they do!
They also had a slew of husky puppies, ready and willing to be petted. They were fluffy balls of adorable:
And then... we made it! Alaska!
A quick trip through Customs, and we were in Skagway.
My first impression of Skagway is that it will be a fun place to spend a few days, but also that it is no longer a real town -- it has become a Skagway-themed amusement park for the entertainment of cruise ship visitors. The area of town closest to the docks is meticulously done in olde-timey tourist chic: brightly painted store fronts with business names that reference mining companies, railroad lines, saloons, or even bordellos. Waitresses dress like 1890s hookers while serving pizza and margaritas. Wooden sidewalks are smooth as concrete and carefully end in curbs. Walking down the street hand in hand, Mickey and Minnie would not seem out of place as long as he held a miner's axe and she wore a corset.
Wednesday, June 22, 2011
The sky never got any darker than twilight, so the stars never came out. Here is what the sky would have looked like, if I could have seen it:
Along the way, we saw this motorhome:website address shown on the rig's map, and that site has a link to a map of their overall plans to see the world in an RV. There is a link on the site to a different page about their Canadian trip. If your French is as bad as mine, use Google to translate. What an amazing journey this will be!
Some additional things we saw today:
Tomorrow we will finally reach Alaskan soil in Skagway!