Tuesday, August 24, 2010

We are now in Skagway, on the east coast of the Lynn Canal. A few days ago we were in Haines, which is 15 miles across the Lynn Canal. To drive to Skagway from Haines we had to go to Whitehorse in the Yukon (248 miles) and then turn south to Skagway (116 miles.) There are only a few highways in all of Alaska so getting around is always complicated.

Skagway's origins are rooted in the 1898 Yukon gold rush. Men came here by steam ship, and then climbed the White Pass some 40 times hauling their 2,000 pounds of provisions to the other side. From there they built boats and made their way to the Yukon. While the gold rush was a bust for most men, the tiny town survived.

The town has maintained it's turn of the century architecture, boardwalks and replicas of gas lights line main street.

The downtown is comprised of gift shops, restaurants, saloons and many jewelry stores. On September 27 the tourist season ends here and the jewelry stores close, pack up and head to the Caribbean where they open their winter stores. Almost all of the other stores board up their windows and close for the winter. The town goes from 2,600 to 800 people in the winter time. The grocery store, gas station, 5 churches, medical clinic and hardware store are the only businesses open in the winter. Like many small towns in Alaska the clinic has a physician's assistant, a nurse practitioner and an RN. If they can't take care of you they fly you to Juneau (45 minutes away.) The closest pharmacy is in Juneau, most folks get their medicine by mail.

Skagway has a narrow gauge railroad which includes a steam train. The train ride retraces the White Pass trail used by the eager gold miners when they traveled to the gold fields in the Yukon. During the gold rush a ship captain had a cargo of old, injured and sick horses destined for the glue factory. Looking to make a quick buck he took the horses to Skagway where he sold them for exorbitant prices. The miners worked them to death hauling their supplies over the pass. More than 10,000 horses died on this trail and were shoved over the edge into the river below. There were so many, the area was called deadhorse. What's amazing is the foot path is still clearly visible after more than 110 years. Like so many RV parks ours is right next to the train tracks so we have a ringside seat for the trains coming and going. Fortunately, this is only a tourist train so it doesn’t run at night!

Just outside Skagway is Dyea Flats. To get to the flats you have to drive a single lane narrow dirt road for about 6 miles. The road provides spectacular views of the Lynn Canal. This area is so beautiful, salt marsh, fresh water streams with salmon in them, 10,000 foot mountains, glaciers, boreal forest, brown bears and Bald Eagles. We watched a brown bear wade the stream, eating big bites of grass from the banks and catching salmon. At one point he changed direction and headed Jim’s way, you should have seen how quickly Jim back peddled toward the truck!

We've seen two shows in Skagway. The first was an afternoon show called “Liarsville.” It included an all you can eat lunch buffet; a gold rush tent city with roaming musicians and eager working girls; a show that featured one of Robert Service’s poems called The Ballad of Blasphemous Bill; and finally gold panning. The gold panning was pretty funny since there is no gold here. They have to salt the local dirt with gold from Canada! The Ballad of Blasphemous Bill is entertaining so I’m including the link in case you want to read it.


Our bus driver for the Liarsville show is a 3rd generation Skagway resident so we asked him if the McDonald's Mac Attack story was true. He said absolutely true, turns out he had additional information for us. Three of the town’s men were out trapping and heard about the relief effort. They radioed in their orders and the planes rigged little parachutes and airdropped the burgers to the trappers. Our driver was one of the trappers!

The second show was about Jefferson Randolph Smith, known locally as “Soapy Smith.” Before the show we had a chance to gamble in the 98’s Mosquito Casino. Everyone got a genuine Soapy $1,000 bill to gamble with. You could play Craps, Blackjack or Roulette. While I won big time playing Blackjack, Jim lost his shirt at the Roulette wheel. I have to tell you it was a lot of fun playing with someone else’s money.

After stocking up on popcorn and drinks we headed into the theater to watch the show. Soapy Smith was a con man who used his men to do his dirty work while he tried to establish himself as a pillar of the town. In 1898 Soapy contributed to the construction of the first church in Skagway and founded an “Adopt a Dog” program for strays. Eventually Soapy’s luck ran out when his men robbed the wrong man. The town demanded Soapy give back the gold his men had stolen but he refused. The next day he found himself in a shoot out with another town leader, Frank Reid. When the smoke settled both men were mortally wounded.

We visited the gold rush cemetery where Soapy Smith and Frank Reid are buried. Here in Alaska burial plots are fenced so it makes for a pretty setting. Reading the headstones in an old cemetery is always so interesting. Skagway is so small it has no mortuary. A volunteer prepares the body for transport to Juneau where a mortuary does whatever is needed and then the dearly departed is flown back here for burial.

The weather has changed, snow lightly dusts the mountain tops, the trees are turning color and the overnight temperatures are dropping to almost freezing. Winter is right around the corner so it's a good thing we are headed south towards home. Tomorrow we leave for British Columbia and the Cassiar Highway.

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