Skagway! Gateway to the Klondike!

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Day Six of our journey found us making the long drive from Haines Junction through Whitehorse, and on to Skagway. Much of the Yukon through this part consisted of more of the beautiful broad valleys bordered by towering mountains that had been the “meat and potatoes” of the last few days of driving. Whitehorse is a bustling town of 35,000 or so, and we did take time to stock up on necessaries at the Walmart and have a late brunch at the McDonald’s.

Moving South into British Columbia, things got progressively steeper and narrower, until we were clearly winding our way back up into the mountains, but as we approached the pass at the border, the terrain rather suddenly turned… almost alien.

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… and even a little bit dangerous…
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This unique landscape, we later learned, was once the site of a mile-thick ice field, and it was the continual grinding of the ice that created these odd, smoothed stone shapes with hundreds of small lakes and other water features in between.

The whole pass was socked in with fog, making driving a bit exciting, and there were plenty of mosquitos about to keep us company. But we did eventually make it back into the United States, I think. It was hard to read the sign.

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The Alaska side of the pass is more of a steep, windy mountain valley, carved first by glaciers flowing down from the ice field, and later by the rapid action of the Skagway River.

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The road crosses the San Andreas Fault high up near the head of the valley over this rather unique bridge.
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The Captain William Moore Bridge spans the fault, and it is unique in that unlike most suspension bridges, it is anchored at only one end (the downhill end, left in the photo), so that it will not be torn apart in the event of an earthquake. I must say that driving down this valley in a top-heavy minivan has been one of the more white-knuckle driving experiences I’ve ever had. And I learned to drive in West Virginia…

… but we did soon find ourselves safely in the town of Skagway, Alaska, population 920.

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Note, of course, that just one of the two cruise ships docked that day can carry more than twice the entire (permanent) population of the town…

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Skagway is a quaint little town, and aside from the paved streets hasn’t really changed much since its founding in the gold rush years. Or at least, it’s gone back to its roots. Back in the day, the town existed largely to serve the thousands of men who arrived by ship headed over the pass toward the Klondike gold fields. Today, it exists largely to serve the thousands of tourists who arrive by ship to head over the pass just to see what it’s like. In a way it’s a tourist trap, but somehow it works here, perhaps because the town was always a sort of tourist trap.

Skagway’s “downtown” is full of t-shirt and jewelry shops, antique dealers, rug merchants, hotels, motels, restaurants, and other places that cater to the tourist trade. It’s the Southern end and starting point for the White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad, which takes tourists some 67 miles over White Pass, past Lake Bennett, and on to Carcross, just like it hauled miners over a century ago.

Inside the Klondike Gold Rush National Park office building, which used to be the railroad depot, is a nice museum whose centerpiece is this life-size statue of a stampeder with the two tons of food and equipment the Canadian Government required him to bring with him into Canada.

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The Skagway Centennial statue shown at the top of the post is situated in a small park between the docks and the WP&YR railroad station, and depicts a Tinglit tracker leading a gold rush stampeder up the pass toward his fortune.

And then there’s the Red Onion Saloon.  Once the most exclusive… entertainment centre in town, it’s now a National Historic Building.  Downstairs it’s an authentically decorated saloon, complete with quite a collection of bedpans along the wall.  Upstairs, it’s a museum dedicated to brothels.  The wait staff dress in period costume and the food — especially the pizza — is not to be missed.

We also had a fine meal at the Skagway Brewing Company, outside of which we saw these two adorable labs who were just hanging out, waiting for their master (mistress? we never did see) to finish dinner, and getting petted by nearly everyone who came by.
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The waitress had the same name as our daughter, and was a real trip.  She, like many of the tourist industry workers in Alaska, was only summering in town, and would return south once the snow began to fly and the ships stopped coming in.

Next up: train stuff!  The White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad!

 

 

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