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TRAVEL JOURNAL INDEX > Fools Rush In

Skagway, AK  09/01/06 (Day 129)
Fools Rush In
 

The weather does not improve as we creep our way down the White Pass and enter the town of Skagway where the Klondike Gold Rush gained a strangle hold on this part of the world between 1897 and 1899. And boy, does the town make sure you never forget it.

The main downtown street is lined with restored Gold Rush period facades including the recently restored Arctic Brotherhood Hall 1899, which is covered with 10,000 pieces of drift wood which were recently replaced . Everywhere you look there’s a saloon, some staffed with waitresses dressed up like the call girls who would have worked there 130 years ago. It all ends up feeling like Gold Rushville or maybe Klondikeland.

Now that the gold is gone, Skagway is busy mining for new riches, mainly from the pockets of the thousands of cruise ship passengers who pass through here each day, in summer, to eat, drink and shop their way through town. This means that any real estate not already occupied by a  saloon or other hold over from 1899 is now home to a jewelry shop, or craft market, art and antiques vendor or t-shirt emporium.  You can even buy a nail file with Skagway printed on it, though why you’d want to is beyond us.

We’ve got nothing against honest commerce, but many of those making the most off this new gold rush aren’t even from Skagway (less than 1,000 people are actually residents). Many vendors simply descend on town at the beginning of summer then pack up shop after the last cruise ship of the season has left in early fall and move their whole operation to a port in the Bahamas for the winter where they peddle the same wares to different cruise ship passengers.

If you arrive in Skagway near the end of cruise ship season, like we did, be warned that most of the people in town—locals and transplants alike—have had it up to HERE with tourists by then so don’t expect service with a smile. We stayed in a B&B run by one of the surliest women we’ve ever met. Not sure if she’s any sweater in June, but it’s a fair bet.

Luckily, you can escape since the area around Skagway offers miles and miles of trails and at least one remarkably accessible back country cabin. To get to the Laughton Glacier Cabin in the Tongass National Forest, simply board the White Pass & Yukon single-gauge train in  Skagway and get off at the Glacier Station stop. This is the trailhead for an easy 1.5 mile walk to the a lone, very basic US Forest Service (USFS) cabin ($35 per night). From the cabin, it’s a two mile, non-technical walk right to the Laughton Glacier which hangs amongst the 3,000’ walls of the Sawtooth Range. The Skagway River is within walking distance of the cabin as well and the area attracts mountain goats and bears (in summer).
That’s what they tell us anyway. Sadly, when we begin planning an excursion to the cabin we quickly find out that the it’s closed for the season so the USFS can repair and improve it.
Looking for something to do other than window shop or hang out with Mrs. Cranky, we take a drive out to Dyea, a ghost town from the, you guessed it, Klondike Gold Rush era. In the summer the National Park Service runs walking tours of the Dyea Town Site which is literally at mile 0 of the 33 mile Chilkoot Trail. This little field trip effectively occupies about an hour.

On our way back to Skagway we notice movement on a sandbar in the middle of the Taiya River. To our amazement, it’s a grizzly playfully pouncing on what we assume are fish that have become trapped in the reeds around the bank or stranded on the bank itself as the heavy rain we’ve been drenched with raised the water level in the river. We pull over and watch the bear run, stalk, waddle and generally cause chaos until it gets too dark to take any more photos of it.

Besides, we’ve got a ship to catch. No, no not a cruise. We’ve got to board the Alaska Marine Highway ferry MV Taku for the one hour run between Skagway and Haines, since the towns are not directly connected by road. Our ship sails at night and in the dark we take an eerie leap of faith as the captain navigates through narrow rocky passages, sometimes with the  help of a spotlight or two. It’s probably even more nerve wracking in the daylight when you can see just how close you are to the rocky outcroppings.
 
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