Alaska Travelogue Part 7 – Skagway


Skagway is an adorable old gold rush town, so if you are not in the mood to go off adventuring about, there is plenty of shopping and history to enjoy in town.  I, however, am not a big fan of spending my vacation time shopping (sadly, I will never be one of those people who brings back thoughtful souvenirs for all my friends) so I booked us on an all-day adventure through Chilkoot Charters.  I chose the Yukon Bus and Rail Excursion which is a combo mini-bus/train trip up to Carcross in the Yukon Territory in Canada.  You have the option to do the rail portion first and take the train to Fraser or do the mini-bus portion first and take the train back from Fraser.  The lady at Chilkoot told me that most people choose the train-first option, but the views are better on the return trip, so I chose the mini-bus-first option.

Our day began with just the 3 of us in a mini-bus with our delightful guide, James.  James is an Irish ex-pat who spends his summers working as a guide for Chilkoot, and the rest of the year teaching US citizenship classes in Arizona.  That, my friends, is how you do it!  James told us a little bit about the history of Skagway as we headed out of town onto the Klondike Hwy towards our first stop at Fraser.

As we got out of town and began to gain some elevation we were unexpectedly socked in with a thick fog.  At one point James stopped to show us a waterfall that was literally on the side of the road, but it was completely obscured by the fog.  I took some snaps just because the density of the fog was hilarious!  We could tell James really wanted us to have a great tour because he was freaking out about the weather and kept telling us in his lovely Irish brogue that surely the fog would be liftin’ soon.  We drove along for several minutes, each of us thinking “oh man, we better not have 8 hours of this!” when James suddenly pulled over in what seemed to be the middle of nowhere.  He had something special he wanted to show us – hundreds of little inukshuks (inuksuits) dotting the landscape on the side of the road.

Hundreds of inukshuks on the side of the Klondike Hwy

Hundreds of inukshuks on the side of the Klondike Hwy

Inukshuks are figures that the native peoples make by piling up natural stones in various shapes.  They can be used for navigational aids, as memorials or place markers.  You may remember that the mascot for the Vancouver Winter Olympics was an inukshuk in the shape of a man.  The Klondike Hwy is the only way by land out of Skagway, and everyone takes that route to do their main shopping.  So for whatever reason, the locals and tourists alike have turned flat areas where ancient glaciers have conveniently deposited thousands of suitable rocks into “inukshuk villages”.  James invited us to add our own inukshuks to the landscape, which we happily and quickly did as the cold, damp wind was making the mini-bus awfully inviting.

It's hard to build a decent inukshuk when your teeth are chattering from the cold!

It’s hard to build a decent inukshuk when your teeth are chattering from the cold!

At this point I resigned myself to a day of icy winds and dense fog, but the weather steadily improved the farther we got from Skagway.  Supposedly Skagway (the proper name is Skaguay but the federal govt misspelled it early in the town’s history, and we all know how the federal government is about fixing their mistakes) is Tlingit for “windy place with white caps on the water”.  It is definitely windy there, and in the Yukon too, for that matter!  Our next stop was the train depot in Fraser, British Columbia which is the entry point into Canada from Alaska.  Here we picked up 11 other people who chose the “train-first” option and headed off for the Yukon Territory.  Since we were such a small group we were able to make lots of quick stops for photos and stretching our legs.

Just outside of Fraser

Yukon Territory on Klondike Hwy

Emerald Lake – that wind made picture taking a challenge!

Our lunch stop was scheduled at something called the Caribou Crossing Trading Post.   As we pulled into the parking lot I could see this place was giving off some ticky-tacky tourist trap realness.  Oh well – we gotta eat, right?  Lunch was surprisingly good and the three of us shared cans of all 4 different local beers they had, which was fun.  The highlight of lunch, especially for my sugar-toothed sweetie John, was the homemade cider donuts.  Big heaps of them!  John ate four (!), while Cristal and I ate a more lady-like one – and then stuffed her purse with more of them to eat later.  We ain’t no dummies!

We learned a little lesson tho as we made our way to one of the trading post’s other attractions, namely the petting zoo:  do not stuff your purse with donuts and then go to a petting zoo.  The horses ain’t no dummies either!

Yes, those are delicious donuts in my purse!

Yes, those are delicious donuts in my purse!

The trading post also boasts sled dogs and a sled dog cart ride (which we did not do) and an AMAZING taxidermy museum with an incredible collection of Canadian animals – mooses, bears, seals, muskoxen, sheep, you name it.  They supposedly have the world’s largest taxidermied polar bear (I believe it) and I had no idea how huge a moose is – I just had to get a snap of John next to one for scale.  That ticky-tacky tourist trap was fun!

I had no idea a moose was that big.  I think John needs to reconsider his life goal of meeting one in the wild!

I had no idea a moose was that big. I think John needs to reconsider his life goal of meeting one in the wild!

We next headed up to Carcross which is a bit of a non-starter, but at least by now the weather was sunny and bright, which made the drive all the more gorgeous.  It felt very odd trolling thru this tiny, Inuit community in our touristmobile.  Not a soul was in sight, and James explained that the locals aren’t too fond of being ogled by tourists.  No wonder!  There really is nothing to do in Carcross except root through a general store (got my obligatory Crunchie bar – can’t go to Canada without buying at least one!).  I did however jog up Main Street to get a snap of the local coffeehouse.  Has to be the most beautiful coffeehouse in the world; I absolutely love the native art of this region.

The most beautiful coffee house in the world

The most beautiful coffee house in the world

From Carcross we headed back to Fraser where the three of us would be offloaded for the train trip back to Skagway.  Along the way James showed his Irish roots by reciting for us a lengthy poem he wrote in honor of his aged father’s birthday (a total tear-jerker) and then he shared a very sweet “life lesson” story about a dear friend who passed away and left him a special gift.  I really do think there is something about all that space and beauty that puts people in a frame of mind to ponder life’s ponderables.

Their motto is apropos. And yes, my crazy sister is wearing flip-flops in the Yukon, but in her defense she broke her toe right before our trip. Not fun!

As we bade James farewell and boarded the White Pass & Yukon Route train, he whispered to us to “sit on the right!” for the best views.  Uh yeah, it’s the best view because in places this narrow gauge rail line is impossibly perched on the side of steep cliffs!  I’m sure it’s all incredibly safe, but if you have issues with heights, you will not dig this part of the tour.  I thought it was very cool that the train occasionally stopped at specific places to pick up hikers.  What a great way to get out into the wilderness for a good hike!  The story of this historic rail line is fascinating and I encourage you to spend a few minutes at their website.  Here are a few sights from the train portion:

Emerging from a very narrow tunnel – onto a rickety trestle bridge!

The beautiful tundra in British Columbia

As we pulled into Skagway the hostess explained that a customs officer would be boarding the train and we would all have to cough up our passports.  Also – no talking!!!  Yikes!  We all sat in silence, holding our passports over our heads while a uniformed hulk with a gun strapped to his hip scrutinized each one.  It reminded me of the scene in “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” where Indy throws the bad guy off the blimp saying “no ticket” and all the other passengers start frantically waving their tickets at him.  It was a far cry from the petite Canadian lady in Fraser who merely poked her head into the mini-bus and sent us on our way.  This guy took his job seriously, for which I guess we should all be grateful.

We spent the rest of our time in Skagway poking around the shops and looking at the historical displays.  Skagway is definitely one of the places I’d like to return to as the area was gorgeous, the people were friendly and it looked like a good place to base camp for a few days while doing some hiking and sightseeing.

Downtown Skagway. The shop in the center is faced with thousands of pieces of driftwood.

I leave you with another recipe for a yummy drink I discovered on our trip, the Ice Pick:

  • Firefly Sweet Tea Vodka (I use the sugar-free version sweetened with Truvia)
  • Freshly brewed iced tea
  • Lemonade

Fill a highball glass with ice.  Pour in one shot of the sweet tea vodka.  Top with equal parts iced tea and lemonade; stir.  I plan to serve these at my summer suppers on the porch!

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