Wednesday, August 29, 2007


Alaska Trip, Day 6, Skagway

(Day 06 Photos),
We had a very long excursion day in Skagway, so there was no rush to get off the ship, or back on it either. The plan was to pickup our rental car (reserved) and then drive up the White Pass. Once we got to the "rental car place," we noticed that the parking lot was empty. Yes, that was a bad sign - they were having mechanical problems with two of their cars and, sorry, they couldn't fulfill my reservation.

I was bummed since this was another cancellation following our Ketchikan cancellation, but again, things turned out OK. We got a referral to a small tour shop around the corner. People taking the train were paying between $100 and $200 - and they don't let you get off the train to walk around and see stuff. And to top it off, the train is likely going to be rolling around the whole time. This tour we took was only $40 each, and in a nice van with plenty of stops along the route. Both the train and road take similar paths due North to the White Pass.

We had a couple hours to walk around before the tour bus was going to leave. So the 4 of us (parents plus ES) just walked around the town a bit. The population of this town (soon to be a borough) is ~860, so when 3 cruise ships pull in, the town just gets overrun, probably increasing in size by an order of magnitude. The sidewalks were packed with people, and I got sort of sick of the crowds. Did a bit of shopping, and got some lunch to eat on the bus.

Headed out on the bus - the driver was just another bonus to what would have been a great tour (at a great price). He wasn't a Skagway native or anything, but he seemed to be sort of a naturalist, interested in the history of the town. He had a lot of stories to tell about the "old days" when Skagway was a major gold rush port for the Klondike.

We drove around the town for a bit for starters. He parked at one nondescript point on the street, and we got out to see, in the gutter of the street, there was a little stream and there were 4 or 5 salmon in there swimming upstream. Seemed improbable at the time. There are no doctors in Skagway, only a nurse. He said if you get injured or sick, it's a $300 ambulance ride to see the nurse, where she will tell you that she's not a doctor and that she cannot treat you. Then you take another $300 ride to the airport, where it's a $300 ticket to get to Juneau, and one final $300 ambulance ride to the Juneau hospital. Doesn't sound too wonderful to me! I asked him if anyone goes to Whitehorse for treatment, but he said that would be unwise.

Skagway is right at the mouth of a fjord where a glacier carved out the valley, and the deep water port. The water is 2000 ft deep at the center of the fjord, which was surprising since it is not very wide. And since the land Skagway was built on used to be under a glacier, the ground had significantly compressed under the glacier's weight. They have noticed that the ground is slowly uncompressing now as much as 8" upward per year. I have to assume that makes for tough times keeping your house from breaking apart.

Then we headed up the White Pass along the highway. This highway connects Skagway into the Alaskan Hwy system, so you could feasibly drive to Skagway from, say, California, but not sure why you'd do that. Along the drive we saw a handful of hanging glaciers, or ones that are just on the side of a mountain but not touching water. All of the peaks along this drive were rounded at the top except for a few very jagged ones. The jagged ones were higher than the ice that flowed through here X years ago, so the jagged ones would have just been islands in a sea of white at one time. Now, they look like saw teeth, so they are aptly named the Sawtooth Range.

We also saw a narrow waterfall coming down the mountainside. This waterfall is flanked by a pipe - the driver used to work for the power company, and part of his work was on that pipe. The pipe concentrates the water into an electricity-generating turbine (turbines are just so apt to generate power, aren't they?) which primarily powers the city, including during the winter. He flew with a Vietnam Vet chopper pilot to get to the top of that pipeline. Apparently the pilot was pretty risky in the way he flew.

So I asked the driver how he found his way to Skagway. I think it surprised us all that he was originally from New York City, and he drove cabs. Then once he got a fare that told him about Skagway: a city where there wasn't any crime, and they needed drivers. So he says he packed up and headed to Skagway - now he drives tour buses. Really seems like he found a good job match.

We drove into Canada along the pass - this border doesn't even have a guard shack for the Canadian side. The U.S. side has a newish building as part of an effort post 9-11 to tighten up border security. But there are plaques around at the pass commemorating the trust the two countries have over this porous border. Not sure how to connect that to the new guard shack on the U.S. side, but OK. The new border patrol agents are recently up from San Antonio. Sort of a change in climate for them.

At our turn around point, we were in a pretty wide valley that had some water flowing Northward. Water north of the border flows north. We were reminded by the stories of the gold towns that people had taken the route he just described on foot carrying hundreds of pounds of gear over weeks. One trail was called dead horse trail back in the day. They weren't too creative at naming things - the names were more warnings than anything else.

On the drive back, the driver read us two poems actually. Seemed out of the ordinary, but the guy had it all memorized and practiced. One was "The Cremation of Sam McGee" by Robert W. Service - Google it to read it - it's a tall tale. There are lots of stories from this area, and we heard that folks like to tell them. I hate to link sites from here since I have no idea how long they'll be around, but here's one with lots of tales: Overall, Skagway was interesting for its true tales also - it's a very colorful bit of history.

We did a quick trip to the cemetery - heard more about the town's history, and then headed up a hill a ways to see a waterfall. Along the way I noticed a plastic box in a rock crevasse. I uncovered it, and found out it was a geocache. Cool - forgot to mark it, so not sure if it's listed on the main geocache website. Looked new. My mom got interested though - we put in a business card from our hometown and then re-hid the box. Too bad we didn't have anything better to put in there, but we never expected to see a geocache.

Once we ended the tour, ES and I shopped around a bit. I saw a guy that had been in the same shop about 6 hours earlier sitting at a table selling his photo book of the Norther Lights (a.k.a. the aurora). I had no interest in buying the book, but seeing that he hadn't moved in 6 hours I thought I'd ask him a bit about how he takes the pictures. I could tell that it had to be brutal to get the shots. The best time to see the aurora is during the winter, and as close to the Arctic circle as possible. He told me that he uses 5-30 sec. exposures, and the pictures form this book happened to be mostly from around Skagway. He liked to get the landscape illuminated by a full moon to compliment the aurora. And since it gets so cold, he only uses mechanical equipment - batteries immediately die in that kind of cold.

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