We enjoyed the three and a half stops the Jewel of the Seas took us to on our Alaskan cruise vacation (the half was Tracy Arm and the Sawyer Glacier, which I’ll write about next time). Like I said before, the first in Juneau was pretty short, only because the majority our time was taken up with the wildlife boat tour and the bus trip to Mendenhall Glacier. I didn’t view much of the town after that, but maybe there wasn’t much to see, except for some tacky tourist stuff near the ship dock.
For those with money to burn, a helicopter or seaplane tour outside of Juneau seemed to be the way to go. These journeys took tourists flying over glaciers, fjords and forests, and most stopped at remote areas not accessible to everyone. But I sojourn with the original frugal traveler, RAS. So those excursions were out of the question We settled for the next best thing the following day…
Our second stop on the cruise was Skagway, the epicenter of the Klondike gold rush in the late 19th century that took eager settlers over treacherous mountains to the Yukon Territory in Canada and its goldfields. Roughly 100,000 people made their way to southeast Alaska during that time and the small fishing village boomed seemingly overnight during that time period. The influx of prospectors first headed up extremely narrow trails that hugged the steep mountainsides. Later on, a tramway eased the burden for the miners who could afford the exorbitant fee. Finally, an investor group built a narrow gauge railroad that went all the way to the top of White Pass, the highest point of the mountains. A replica of that railway now takes visitors like us up to the summit, and even further into Canada if they desire. We only went as far as White Pass, but it wasn’t hard to imagine the difficulty these hearty people encountered.
Seeing this rugged land, I thought about the John Wayne movie I watched as a kid, “North to Alaska,” about these two men who find gold in this same area, and a whole bunch of hilarity ensues. I don’t remember much of the movie after that, but my brother and older sister had the corny yet catchy 45 single, which was the movie’s theme song:
Probably not too much hilarity ensued for the real-life prospectors and con men here in the 1890’s. It was likely a little tougher than what John Wayne and his co-star went through.
Anyway, our Skagway adventure began with the train ride, and ended with pizza for lunch – an expensive but pretty good one, I might add, because it wasn’t from the cruise ship cafeteria. In between, RAS bought a tiny ibuprofen at local grocery store that cost as much as two economy-size bottles back home, and I was accosted three times by the same slimy jewelry shopkeeper to come inside his store for a free pendant. By the final time, I gave him such an evil eye, he scurried back to the safety of his store, before coming out less than a minute later to prey on some other poor tourist. I’m sure he wasn’t representative of the other 900 or so other permanent residents of this tiny but major tourist stop.
So here are some of the highlights of the White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad, which nearly everyone does when they come to Skagway, but it’s still worthy taking:
Like the Georgetown Loop and the Durango & Silverton here in Colorado, this railroad was built in response to the mountainous terrain surrounding Skagway that necessitated the narrowest possible tracks to take people and supplies up to the mining camps.
One of the first points of interest the tour guide on the PA system mentioned was a stop called Denver Glacier Trail, a narrow canyon clearing with a cool-looking red caboose cabin for rent. I never found out why it was called that and if it had a connection to our home area. We did learn that a shady Colorado transplant named Jefferson “Soapy” Smith came up here during the rush, became a town leader by nefarious means and swindled quite a few people out of their money before he was shot dead on a wharf. Maybe he had something to do with the name?
We finally reached the summit, where North-West Mounted Police (the predecessors to the Canadian Mounties) allowed prospectors by at this checkpoint.
The little replica log shack in the background once housed four to five men who kept watch at this border crossing. It truly did not look any bigger than a regular-size camping tent.
The train ride up took two hours, and the way down only half of that. We then got into Skagway, which despite the emptiness of this photo, is quite busy for a town of less than 1,000 people. It wasn’t as overtly touristy as Juneau:.
Next up…Tracy Arm fjord and the Sawyer Glacier. Ice never looked so dramatic…