Day 5 of our vacation brought us to Skagway. We woke up to a view of the train and Skagway's well know ship graffiti. For years, ship's crew members have painted the ship's names and flags on the side of the cliff alongside the dock in Skagway.
If you've never been on a cruise, you may not be familiar with the huge variety of excursions when the ship is in port. We are not big on excursions. They can really run up the cost of your vacation higher than you planned. Plus, we enjoy getting into the towns and doing what we want to do on our own schedule. Our Alaska cruise had an exceptional number of excursions available and it seemed that everyone was doing excursions at every port. We were warned that, in Alaska, excursions go rain or shine. If you book in advance, you can't cancel even if the weather is bad. They will not refund your fees if the pilot decides to fly or the captain feels like it's safe to go out on his boat, you are stuck.
The only excursion we booked in advance was a trip on the White Pass & Yukon Railroad. We chose the White Pass Summit Excursion. It's only a 40-mile round trip and it takes a couple of hours. Cruise ship passengers get dockside service which is very convenient. We literally walked off of the ship and onto the train.
The White Pass & Yukon Railroad is a historical civil engineering landmark (so is the Eiffel Tower). It was built during the Klondike Gold Rush of 1898 and was an amazing fete of engineering. There were two crews working, one from the North and one from the South. It took 26 months to lay 120 miles of tracks. Thirty-five thousand men worked on the project and used 450 tons of explosives. They worked year-round in deep snow and temperatures as low as 60 below.
The scenery and views on the trip are nothing short of spectacular. When the train topped out at the summit, we were actually in Canada. We were not allowed to get off the train, but we were parked there for about 15 minutes while they changed engines for the trip back down. On the way back, Patrick and some of the other passengers saw a bear eating berries along the side of the track. I didn't look fast enough.
The most interesting part of the trip was that you can actually still see the trail that the gold miners followed into the Klondike. So many men climbed the trail in the late 19th century that the trail is still visible today. We were very interested to learn that Canadian officials required each prospector to carry 2,000 pounds of food and equipment with them on the trip to the gold fields. This was to ensure that they didn't starve. So many pack animals died along the way that part of the trail became known as "Dead Horse Trail."
|The center photo on the bottom row shows the original wooden bridge next to the new steel bridge.|
We were back in Skagway around noon so we got a ride into town on the S.M.A.R.T. which is the municipal bus system. You can ride all day with a $5 pass. The cruise ship dock is so close to town that we really could have walked. It could not have been half a mile.
Downtown Skagway features boardwalks and restored buildings. One of the most interesting places is the Arctic Brotherhood Hall which is covered with 8,883 pieces of driftwood. It is the most photographed building in Alaska. Skagway is also home to the oldest hotel in Alaska, the Golden North Hotel.
Skagway was the gateway to the Yukon Gold Rush. During the Gold Rush the population of Skagway swelled to more than 10,000. Today its population is less than 1,000 and it's economy is totally dependent on the tourist and cruise industry. One of the shopkeepers told us that they basically have to earn their entire annual income in the three month summer season.
We did a little shopping and ate lunch. There are some really nice shopping options that feature local artisans. We were also interested to learn from one of the shop owners that some of the scenes from the old movie North To Alaska were set right outside on the street in Skagway. It was easy to imagine John Wayne walking down that street.
We really enjoyed the day in Skagway and our trip to the White Pass Summit. We were also delighted to find a coffee shop that served Starbucks Coffee. However, it was not actually a Starbucks outlet. We did sit and enjoy a hot cup of coffee before catching the bus back to the ship.