We awoke on the morning of the 4th day of our cruise to find the Volendam docked in Skagway Alaska, the “Gateway to the Klondike.” A town we were excited to explore. During the great Klondike gold rush in the late 19th century, Skagway had 80 saloons and was known as “the roughest town on earth.” But now the small town is filled with souvenir and jewelry shops and caters to the cruise ship tourists.
We still had no idea what we wanted to do in Skagway, besides wandering around aimlessly, which actually sounded like fun with the historic buildings, cemetery, and museum. We had poured over the overpriced excursions offered by the cruise ship and none of them had that “wow, I gotta do that” quality. They were just different modes of transportation to view scenery, which was not much different than the area we lived in hundreds of miles to the south. We had considered taking the White Pass and Yukon Scenic Railway that travels along the Trail of ’98, but we had heard that you are confined to your seat for 3 hours and we thought that might be a bit rough for a 5 year old, even one that loves trains. Some of our family had booked a guided float trip down the Taiya River in a raft and then a guided shuttle tour to the White Pass, which follows the same route as the train but just on the other side of the canyon. This sounded like a fun option, especially since we had rarely seen much family on this cruise (it’s a big ship) and it would be fun to spend time with them. So after a quick breakfast we went down the gangplank and into Skagway where we booked passage for a raft and a shuttle tour where we could see scenery and spend time with family.
We were shuttled out to the Taiya River and traded our shoes for rubber boots. We all piled into the blue rubber raft and the guide pushed us out. The Taiya River is a slow moving river so we would not have the adrenaline rush of rapids, but we were hoping to see bears, or other wildlife. But after awhile we made it to the take out point and the float trip was over without us seeing any wildlife. While the float was not too exciting the guide was very entertaining. She told us about the area’s economy and local population. Basically, people flock to Skagway during the summer to cater to the 1000’s of tourists that arrive daily on the cruise ships. The housing is extremely expensive, so many of the guides and seasonal workers live in tents, which can still be expensive. When the cruise ship season comes to an end, the town is basically deserted. Back on land they served us a snack of local smoked salmon with crackers and juice boxes and then shuttled us back to town.
As the time approached for the White Pass Tour, we loaded into a shuttle with our passports and headed out of town. The tour of the White Pass would have us entering Canada, so we had to have our passports to get back into Alaska. The first stop was the historic cemetery where the infamous Jefferson Randolph “Soapy” Smith was buried. Actually, he was too evil to be buried in hallow ground, so they buried him just outside the cemetery boundary. A con man and scoundrel that did everything he could to rip people off, Soapy died in a gunfight with Frank Reid in 1898. Unfortunately, Soapy Smith returned fire before dying and shot Frank Reid in the groin (ouch!) which caused him to die 12 days later. Frank Reid is also buried at the cemetery. We toured the cemetery for a bit, snapped photos, and then loaded back into the shuttle on our way up to White Pass. The White Pass is a very scenic place with views across the valley of the thin gauged White Pass Railway tracks, which are along the same route that the hopeful prospectors took to the Yukon gold fields 600 miles to the north. It was amazing to see how rugged the route was and how difficult it must have been. It is said that the overburdened pack horses that carried the supplies of the prospectors had actually jumped off the edge of the cliffs at times to kill themselves. That’s rough! After passing the White Pass Summit, we descended into a place called, Tormented Valley; a forest-tundra ecosystem with 300 year old stunted trees and brutal conditions. We pulled over to take a look at the wasteland and feel the bitter cold. We got a brief glimpse at the struggles the prospectors must have had coming this route during the Klondike Gold Rush. The sad part was, most never even found gold as the claims were already taken by the time they arrived, if they arrived.
Back at Skagway, we toured the local museum which was really educational, and then toured the rest of the town. The cruise ship had handed us coupons as we left the ship for free jewelry at certain jewelry stores. So we thought we might as well get Sydney some bling and waste time until we had to board the ship. We were really surprised at how many jewelry stores were in each port and they were all the same companies. We later found out that these companies follow the cruise ships around the world and open stores in each port. But who would want to go on a cruise to buy jewelry? Trying to find the different stores on the coupons was like a scavenger hunt and Sydney was really enjoying the necklaces, charm bracelets, charms, and semi-precious stones she was getting at each of the stores. She was really starting to like jewelry stores, which may not be a healthy thing for a 5 year old. Were we creating a monster?
After finding all of the stores on the coupons, grabbing a beverage at a brewery, and wandering the town of Skagway we headed back towards the ship. Along the way was a marina with a rare ketch rigged Westerly Centaur sailboat that I had to have a look at. The marina had loaner lifejackets for children and after putting one on Sydney we made our way down to take a look at the sailboat. Being former Westerly Centaur owners, it was really cool to see this British built twin keeled sailboat so far from its origins. We were curious as to the history of the boat and how it got here. While Skagway was a great historic town to visit and the White Pass’ scenery had been amazing, finding a Westerly Centaur in such a remote location was one of the highlights of my day.