Skagway and Haines, Alaska
It was about another 8 hours to Skagway, Alaska by ferry. Since we departed so late, we arrived-mid morning, just in time for morning coffee. The first thing I noticed when it became light was how different the landscape appeared and how much cooler the air felt. The Lynn Canal is the deepest Fjord in North America and is one of the deepest and longest in the world. The glacier-capped mountains rise sharply from the water, towering over the landscape. Skagway is the northern most point accessible by the water ways of the inside passage. Its history directly correlates to the Klondike Gold Rush of 1896. From Skagway, would-be gold prospectors took the difficult and dangerous Chilkoot Trail over Chilkoot Pass and White Pass. Over 30,000 pack animals dies on the trail, earning the route its nickname of Dead Horse Trail. Skagway, in its current state, is decidedly dependent on tourism brought to its shores by cruise ships.
In any case, that morning the sun was shinning. I found a real coffee shop with delicious espresso. From a window side seat, I watched the elderly cruise ship passengers swooping through the one street town. Really, all of Skagway is easily traversed in an afternoon.
I spent the late morning visiting yet more very nicely planned and maintained museums. One had a remarkable scrimshaw collection detailing the history of Alaska.
Also, if you don’t know the story of Togo, I suggest you Google it now.
Yes, and then there was the Sarah Palin Store. Sarah Palin hats, books, ornaments, signs, shirts, greeting cards, bumper stickers, mugs… and my personal favorite, Sarah Palin Beer Cozy. The woman behind the counter looked pained as she pursed her lips and scoffed at my intermittent snickers.
Another museum focused on the town’s Gold Rush history and natural history of the area. I was more impressed by this massive grizzly.
I went to the Gold Rush Cemetery outside of town, which actually felt like a bad Halloween set. Who ever is in charge of the upkeep of that site has no issues with liberally interpreting history. Too many of the old headstones were newly remade to look “authentically” aged with white washed boards and bad calligraphy. I did manage to go on a hike though, taking in the beautiful rain forest not that unlike those found in Washington. Devils Club abounds and it’s difficult not to fun into them if once goes slightly off the trail.
One thing I did not do in Skagway was take the round trip train ride up to White Pass and back down again. It was simply too much money. The train coming through and leaving town was quite a sight to behold, however.
Haines is a hop skip and a jump from Skagway, on the other arm off of Lynn Canal. I left Skagway the next morning after having another uncomfortable hostel adventure and arrived in Haines a few hours later. My friend Kim, who lived in Fairbanks for many years, recommended a stop in this little town that most cruise ships pass right on by. On the ferry, a passenger I had met on another leg of my journey mentioned that Haines was a great place to see wild bears. He told me to check out the Chilkoot Lake area and watch for two sets of sows with cubs. When the ferry arrived at the terminal, I put in a call to a local cab company. In Alaska, cab companies are people’s personal cars with removable magnets on the doors. I asked the driver if he could recommend anyone to take me out to the Lake to see the bears. This was his response: “Sure! My wife can take you! How does 40 bucks sound?” So that is how I arranged to go wild bear watching in Alaska. Before my 1:30pm bear watching appointment, I had plenty of time to wander around the town and take in the sights and historical points of interest. The Sheldon Museum and Cultural Center was perhaps one of the favorite museums I visited while in Alaska. Though small, it housed an amazing array of Native artifacts as well as early pioneer antiques and personal items.
At 1:30, it was time to go and see if the bears were out at the lake. This whole story could be an entirely new entry but I’m going to keep it short and sweet. The woman was a New Age Diva, sweet but not very bear savvy. I feared for my life in a couple of instances, but we sure got to see the bears! We saw two sets of moms and cubs. The first set weren’t nearly as close as the second set featured in the photos below. This sow had three yearlings, one of them a beautiful cinnamon color. We followed them from the lake where they raided a fisherman’s cooler of fileted salmon down the river, until we actually came to a bridge and where the foursome passed underneath us, a mere 15 feet below. Since the bears were satiated on fish, they hardly paid any attention to us at all. It was a magical experience, one that left me unable to keep my hands from shaking as I quietly snapped photographs with my point and shoot.
At the end of the drive, the woman took me up to a beautiful vista overlooking the town and the fjord. I stayed at a quaint bed & breakfast that night before taking the ferry back to Juneau the next morning to pick up my bike and do some much needed laundry at the hostel.
In the next installment: Sitka and the ferry ride home!