Monday, June 9, 2008

Cruise To Alaska: Juneau, Skagway, Mendenhall Glacier, Sawyer Glacier (Part II)

We arrived at 7.00am the next morning at Skagway. When gold rush fever hit in 1898, Skagway was overrun by hordes of prospectors. The prospectors came in their thousands until the population numbered over 10,000. Skagway soon gained a reputation as a lawless frontier town. Over 30,000 of these '98ers crossed the perilous trails during the first year of the gold rush to the Klondike. Skagway remains a gold rush town thanks to the spirit and enthusiasm of its people.

We joined a coach and our first stop was to a viewing area. We had a good view of the Skagway Canal, so called a canal as the man who named it couldn't spell Fjord (or so we are told!). We drove to the Gold Rush Trail Camp tucked into the mountains at the foot of the White Pass. We were met by a malamute sled dog who was a real gentle giant.

After a very interesting and amusing talk on what it was like here in the old days. We were entertained by two men and the madam of the camp who told and sang stories to us about the gold rush. We then panned for gold, the gold we found we brought away with us, it was a lot of fun. The camp was laid out just as it was in 1898.

We were told about Soapy Smith. Soapy was a con man who convinced the gold miners that inside the soap he sold was a ten dollar bill. By the time the soap was used and the miners realised they had been conned, they were miles away from Skagway. He was also a small time crook and the townspeople were pretty fed up with him. Soapy Smith killed Skagway's surveyor Frank Reid in a shoot-out on a July evening in 1898. Soapy died straight away and Frank Reid, wounded, died some days later. Both are buried in the Gold Rush Cemetery which we next visited.

Gold Rush Cemetery

Frank Reid's tombstone is inscribed "He gave his life for the honour of Skagway". Nearby, we are told, is buried one of the notorious ladies of the town, with the obituary "She gave her honour for the life of Skagway". The Gold Rush Cemetery is a wooded area just outside of the town and right beside the White Pass Railway Line. Most of the gold miners died young. We saw, just outside the cemetery, 'The Largest Nugget in the World' - a large rock, painted gold!

Back to Windward for lunch and out on the White Pass Scenic Railway tour.

White Pass Scenic Railway Tour

We climbed aboard the narrow-gauge railway car that was right beside our cruise ship. The railroad was born of the rush to the Klondike in 1898. It became the supply line for the Yukon gold fields. It was an engineering marvel of its time, and still is. More than 200 miles of track were laid in 17 months. The gold rush ended almost as quickly as it had started, but the line continued to run commercially until 1982. Then, more recently, it was reopened for the tourist trade.

The scenery was breathtaking. On the way up the track we were sitting on the scenic side, then at the top we all changed sides so that everybody had a good view either going up or coming down.

The original Klondike trail can still be traced, etched into the rock by the hobnailed boots of the thousands of gold prospectors, trekking with their mules. When we reached the top of the White Pass we were in Canada, we had crossed the border and were therefore not allowed off the train.

We were told that the Mounties would not let the gold miners into Canada until they had enough provisions to support themselves for a year. The gold miners had to make many journeys up from Skagway carrying all their provisions before the Mounties would let them into Canada.

People, younger and fitter than us, trek up the trail today following the old trail up into the Yukon. On the way down we stood on the outside platform. The conductor came and chatted to us for a while, he was a cheerful chap. The old railway bridge, thankfully not used today was made of wood and looked very dangerous.

We arrived back at the docks at 4pm. All along the dockside are paintings of the logo's of all the ships that have called in here with the name of the captain written there too. We were told that if we looked we would see Windward but there were so many ship's names spread over a large area that we never did find Windward's name.

We leave Skagway and cruise to Haines which only takes about one and half hours.

Haines began as a trading post in 1879. Until then the Chilkat Indians had controlled this spot. We arrived at Haines at 6.15pm. As we came down in the lift we found we were sharing it with a big white polar bear and a moose. As I patted the moose on the nose a hollow voice said

"It's jolly hot in here". The polar bear answered in a plaintive voice "Someone's got to do it".

As we left the ship we met the bear and the moose on the quayside acting as photographic props. We had our picture taken with them of course. It is raining quite hard.

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