Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Fish Wheels and Eagles

I recently read a review of Haines that compared it to Cicely, Alaska, the fictional town from Northern Exposure. It is an apt comparison -- the town is about the right size, a bit quiet and sedate, and, from a couple encounters we have had with residents, we suspect the people are a touch quirky. But unlike Cicely, this town actually IS in Alaska (Northern Exposure was shot in Roslyn, Washington).

Here is another view of Haine's harbor:

We took a drive today along the Chilkat River, and saw something I have only read about -- a working fish wheel:
Fish are captured by the rotating nets. As the net moves to the upright position, the fish fall into the chutes at the bottom of the net, and then drop into the holding tanks on the side. The fish wheel needs no motor -- it is powered by the flow of the river. Here is a short video of the wheel in motion: We saw our first bald eagle today, flying over the bay outside our window. We also visited the American Bald Eagle Foundation, where we met its founder, Dave Olerud. Dave told us about many of his experiences in this part of Alaska, including hunting (and being outwitted by) mountain goats, flying in a helicopter over lush green valleys, and fishing for trout that practically jumped on the hook. Thanks, Dave. We enjoyed talking with you!
Haines is visited by about 6 cruise ships each month, a very slow pace compared to Skagway's 4 per day. But we expect one will dock tomorrow -- so we'll see if Haine's sleepy little-town personna changes when the crowds of tourists arrive.

Zip Line!

This morning John and I flew in a way we have never flown before -- on a zip line!

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:

Here is Stash, demonstrating how NOT to gear up (actually I don't remember what he was talking about at this moment!):
John flies:
John flies and lands, caught on video! We got to fly from tree platform to tree platform, over streams and waterfalls, high above the forest floor, spinning and twirling if we felt like it. It was fun being a kid again!
The time on the zip line was over way too fast, and we had a wonderful time. Definitely a bucket-list item. Thanks to everyone who suggested we do this!

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:

"Ahoy, Matey!"
We arrived in Haines where we are tired and sore from using muscles we don't normally use in our non-zipline lives, but ecstatic about the view out our front window:
We'll be here through the 4th of July, and, we are told, fireworks will be shot over the water. I can't imagine a more beautiful setting for an Independence Day celebration!

Sunday, June 26, 2011

A Tale of Two Cities

“One’s hell. The other’s damnation.” -- Mont Hawthorn, Klondike stampeder, comparing the Chilkoot Pass and the White Pass
In 1896, the routes through the mountains from the Pacific to the gold in Dawson City were two: the longer White Pass, or the steeper Chilkoot Pass. Neither was easy, especially when each person was required, by Canadian Immigration, to bring enough provisions to see them through the year -- at least 2000 pounds.

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.

This is our stalker, Ellen, a Park Ranger. Or maybe we are her stalkers -- all we know is that we have run into her in each of the three days we have been in the area. The first time was on Friday in the Park Visitor Center, on Saturday in the street, and today at Dyea where she was leading our tour. In this picture, she is holding an historic photo of Dyea in front of the field that used to be the town.

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.

The owner of this false front building, which was a real estate company, was named A.M. Gregg. Since I am related to most Greggs, this may actually have belonged to a distant relative!

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

Skagway Walking Tour

Today was overcast and cool, a perfect day for wandering through Skagway's shops and tourist traps.
  • 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.

    This cemetery is also home to the "Largest Nugget," in reality a huge gold-painted rock.
    Good thing they thought to chain this one down!

Friday, June 24, 2011

White Pass, Skagway

Today we took a 3 hour round trip train ride from Skagway to White Pass, which lies on the border of Alaska and Canada.
The weather was perfect, the scenery was beautiful, and we got to see a bit of history that is unavailable from the highway.
This area was a major overland route in the Alaskan gold rush of 1898. The gold strikes were in the Dawson City area, but there were limited ways for "Stampeders" to get there -- overland through the Rockies was mostly impossible, so the next best alternative, merely extremely difficult, was to hop a ship to Skagway, cross the mountains using the Chilkoot Pass or the White Pass, and then build a raft for floating on the Yukon river for the 600 miles to Dawson City.

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:

We finally reached Summit Lake. We were technically in Canada, but since we were not allowed to disembark the train, we did not have to pass through Customs.
Before we started back down, the engines were moved from the front to the back of the train (which became the new front), we flipped our seat backs so they faced the other way, and the passengers on the right and left sides of the train traded seats so everyone got the "good" views on one leg of the trip.

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

South to Alaska!

"South" to Alaska? Yep, that's what we did today!

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!

Here is how they are kenneled -- each dog has his or her own house:

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.

We did have two meetings of note -- John got to meet Tutshi (pronounced too-shy), who seems to be a mascot of the railway line:
And we took these photos in front of a souvenir shop:
A fishy, yet mavericky time was had by all.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Last Day in Whitehorse

Here is a photo of the office in our Whitehorse campground:
It is not an impressive office; it is not even a good photo. It was, however, taken just about midnight on the Summer Solstice, without a timed exposure. I was outside in my robe and slippers to see what midnight looked like at 60 degrees north latitude. It looked like an overcast day, which it was. I loved it.

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:

After we got up this morning, we did more touristy things -- a trip to see the S.S. Klondike, a passenger and freight ship that sailed the Yukon River until the Alaska Highway made it obsolete, an art gallery, and a tour of an extinct copper mine.

Along the way, we saw this motorhome:

It was a type of motorhome I had not seen before, and its plates were French. The owners weren't in the rig, but the the map on the side seemed to tell a story of their travels. Here is the detail showing where they have been (it may be hard to see, but there is a green line around Africa, then a trip across the ocean to South America):
They have a 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:

The World's Largest Log Cabin Skyscraper

Tlingit Art: Eagle and Fish

Whitehorse Mural

Tlingit Art: Mask

Tomorrow we will finally reach Alaskan soil in Skagway!