Tuesday, July 20 - South Klondike Highway David, Patrick, and I drove into Whitehorse mid-morning to get an oil change and wash the car. The car is now clean, while the trailer is still filthy from the Cassiar Highway. Locals say they can always tell from which direction a traveler has come. Dirt from the Cassiar.
We were a late in getting back for lunch. When we got back, we discovered that someone had left the door open and Duncan had gone for a walk. I was feeling anxious to get on our way to Skagway, as we had to be there for a 4:30 departure of the White Pass & Yukon Route railway trip, and was now faced with the prospect of having to leave without Duncan. We hitched up the trailer, had lunch, and packed. Just as we were ready to go, Duncan showed up – guess I should trust more.
On the way to Skagway is Emerald Lake. The brilliant blue-green colour of the lake is incredibly beautiful, the result of light waves reflecting off the white sediment of the lake bottom. This sediment, called marl, is comprised of fragments of decomposed shell mixed with clay. The lake can be viewed from a pullout right at the side of the road.
Just further down the road is the smallest desert in the world, Carcross Desert. This unusual area of sand dunes is composed of sandy lake-bottom material left behind by a large glacial lake. Strong winds off Lake Bennett make it difficult for vegetation to take hold here, and the site is an International Biophysical Programme site for ecological studies.
Then came Tormented Valley, a rocky and desolate moonscape of stunted trees and small lakes.
With these stops along the way, I was getting up tight about getting to Skagway in time to make the train. When we passed the border into Alaska, however, there was a sign reminding us to set our watches to Alaska time – one hour behind Pacific time! My anxiety evaporated!
The border crossing is located at the White Pass Summit. Many stampeders on their way to the Klondike goldfields in 1898 chose the White Pass route because it was lower in elevation than the famous Chilkoot Pass trail, and the grade was not as steep. But the White Pass route was longer and the final ascent to the summit treacherous. Dead Horse Gulch, which we saw from the railway line, was named for the three thousand pack animals that died on the route during the gold rush.
For modern day travelers, the hardship consists of going down a steep, windy, and narrow 18km long hill into Skagway.
Skagway is located at the end of the deepest fjord in North America, making it accessible by large ocean-going cruise ships. Four to six cruise ships come each morning, stay the day and depart at night. This is repeated day after day, a new wave of cruise ship passengers and crew arriving each morning. The ships carry a couple of thousand passengers and a thousand crew. I was told that the price of commercial real estate rentals in the first five blocks in Skagway rivals that of Manhattan.
Skagway got its name from a Tlingit name meaning “the place where the north wind blows.” And blow it does – constantly and stiffly, all the way up the channel. When the Gold Rush hit, it grew from a few tents to a town of about 20,000 in the space of six months. Within a couple of years, though, most of the miners had gone, and the population dropped to around 3,000. Nowadays, there are about 850 year-round residents.
At Bridget Kirkwood’s wedding this spring, Heather Hoffman met Jeremy Simmons, Bridget’s husband Patrick’s brother. Jeremy works on the White Pass & Yukon Route railway, and through Heather, encouraged us to look him up when we got to Skagway. We exchanged a few e-mails to set things up and met him this afternoon, just before the train trip. This was very timely, as he gave us passes for the train, which would have otherwise have cost us $356 US.
The White Pass & Yukon Route was born in the Klondike Gold Rush of 1898. Although the first gold was discovered in 1896, it wasn’t until a ship carrying gold arrived in Seattle in July of 1897 and the newspaper headlines proclaiming “Gold! Gold! Gold!” that the rush took hold. The news spread like wildfire, and the country, in the midst of a depression, went gold crazy. One hundred thousand people started out, with 30 - 40,000 actually making it to the Yukon. Of these, 9 out of 10 made their way through the twin cities of Dyea and Skagway to begin the overland trek to the Klondike. The Chilkoot Trail left from Dyea, while the White Pass Trail left from Skagway.
In May of 1898, construction on the rail line started. The WPYR climbs from sea level in Skagway to almost 3,000 feet at the summit in just 20 miles and features steep grades of almost 3.9%, two tunnels, and numerous bridges and trestles. The cliff hanging turns of the White Pass called for a narrow gauge railroad – the rails were three feet apart and only required a ten-foot road bed. Working under grueling conditions, the workers reached the summit of White Pass by February, 1899 and then Lake Bennett, a further 13 miles, by July.
The WPYR was designated an International Historic Civil Engineering Landmark in 1994. This is an honour shared by only 36 other engineering marvels such as the Eiffel Tower, Statue of Liberty, and the Panama Canal. For decades, the WPYR carried ore to Skagway to be loaded on ships. When world metal prices plummeted in 1982, mines closed and the WPYR suspended operations. It reopened in 1988 to operate as an excursion railroad for tourists.
The trip we took was a three-hour round trip from Skagway to the White Pass summit. The original steam locomotives, now replaced by diesel engines, pull the original passenger coaches. You can stand outside on the platforms at either end of each coach. The trip was spectacular, the scenery breathtaking. To think that the segment of rail line that we traversed was built in 9 months is hardly imaginable.
Jeremy was the conductor for this trip. We sat together when he got a break and got to know him a bit. When the train returned we took Jeremy out for dinner. As a treat for the boys, not to mention me, I had promised them that we would try Alaska King Crab at some point on the trip. So tonight was the night. We split one order among us as an appetizer. Having done it, I’d say that it’s really good, but not worth going out of your way for – Dungeness crab is every bit as good, and costs far less.
Whitehorse to Skagway photos, click here.
Wednesday, July 21 - Skagway After witnessing the desperate conditions of many men arriving in the Klondike, the NWMP superintendent set a minimum requirement of a year’s supply of food and equipment for anyone entering Canada, which translated into roughly a ton of goods. Miners climbing the Chilkoot Pass had to climb the 45 degree angle carrying a 50-100 pound load on their backs up to forty times to transport their ton of goods to the top. In the summer, the miners had to scale the rocks to get up. In the winter, 1500 steps were carved in the ice. One trip took six hours. If somebody was tired and stepped out of line, they sometimes had to wait hours to get back in the line. As winter wore on and snow fell in the pass, those who got to the top dropped their packs in caches at the top. They found them later, the caches buried up to 7 layers deep in the snow.
Once all their gear was at the top, the miners then had to repeat the packing process another 13 miles to the head of Lake Bennett, where they passed the winter. The average miner took about three months to get to this point, just 33 miles from Skagway. And this was just the start of their 600-mile trek to the gold fields. But the rest of the trip could be made by boat. At Lake Bennett, nearly 7,000 boats were built and when the ice broke up in May of 1898, the entire flotilla departed in a matter of days, arriving at their destination at Dawson City 8 days later. When they got there, they discovered that virtually all of the claims were already taken, and many exchanged their dreams of gold for wages, working for those who had the claims.
When the railroad hit Skagway, Dyea died overnight. But today, one can still climb the Chilkoot Trail. The boys and I hiked the first couple of kilometers of it, amazed at the history we were retracing.
A six square block area of Skagway is part of the Klondike Historical Park. There is a museum that hosts videos and talks by interpretive guides. I get completely absorbed in it, feeling like I’m reliving the experience of the people who actually made the history.
Although quite a few people come to see these historical displays, it’s just a fraction of those who content themselves with going into all the shops selling overpriced trinkets.
Jeremy had told us that the steam locomotive would be downtown around noon. It’s used to pull the train to Lake Bennett, an 8-hour excursion, once a week. We came to see it, and Jeremy made arrangements for the boys to have the ride of a lifetime – in the steam locomotive right alongside the engineer. The went a few miles from the downtown depot to the railyard where I picked them up, the steam locomotive chugging and puffing out clouds of steam and blasting out hoots from the steam whistle. The boys said it was smelly and noisy!
We had to be in line at 3:15 for the 4:15 ferry from Skagway to Haines, a one-hour trip. I won’t ever make a negative comment about BC Ferries again! This ferry didn’t even leave until 6 o’clock! Unlike our ferries, this one loaded on the side. You drive up the ramp and then turn down one of the lanes into the ferry. That didn’t seem like such a big deal – until it was time to unload. To get out, you then have to back up in order to turn to get out the side. Try doing that when you’re a 48 foot long combination of car and trailer! If the late departure wasn’t enough to do one in, the food was there to take another crack at you. The original plan was to eat our own food in the trailer in Haines. Leaving so late, though, it would mean too late a dinner, so we opted for the ferry food. It made BC Ferries food seem gourmet. Enough said.
Skagway photos, click here.
From Whitehorse to Skagway and then the ferry ride to Haines. Scroll down to read our Journal.
South Klondike Highway photos, click here.
Skagway photos, click here.