Friday, July 6, 2007
WHITEHORSE, YK— The squawk of the alarm clock woke us this morning; for the first time in many weeks we had a deadline to meet. We booked a combination bus and train day trip to Skagway, Alaska to give Val a break from driving and so we could see the White Pass, one of two used by Gold Rush stampeders, from a unique perspective.
Our tour bus came right to the campground to get us and we headed down the south Klondike Highway toward Fraser, where we would board the train.
Our route took us through a number of mountain ranges, many of them striped with white fingers of snow. We passed mountain streams and lakes of an incredible green. We stopped for a short time at Carcross, a small Aboriginal settlement where caribou still cross the narrowed stream at regular times of year. When it became a village, it was known as Caribou Crossing, but the minister who served the community became annoyed when his mail kept getting diverted to a town of the same name in NWT. So he wrote to the government to see about shortening the name to Carcross. They agreed.
We stepped into Watson’s General Store, intrigued by the eclectic window displays of old washboards, snowshoes, and chamber pots. It was just as jumbled inside, with shelves of dusty bottles and tins with labels from the 20s high on the walls, while newer goods were displayed for sale at the lower levels. Just as we were about to head out the exit door, next to the T-shirt racks and beaded moccasins, I spotted the cardboard Mountie cutout of my friend Kevin Fahey, saluting us in his Red Serge! Nice to see a friendly face in a strange place.
We passed into British Columbia not long afterward, and soon arrived at Fraser, to board the White Pass train. The cars had large clean windows, allowing us to snap pictures of the breathtaking scenery right from our seats. The train traveled very slowly, so we were able to get a good look at everything. We were amazed to see many patches of snow right by the tracks, some areas as big as our front yard. It was pock-marked and a bit dirty at the edges, so obviously not freshly-fallen. But snow in July nevertheless.
The altitude at its highest point was more than 2800 feet, and deep gorges dropped down from the tracks in places. It was hard to imagine the effort it must have taken to build the tracks in such high and precipitous places, some of it in the dead of winter. We passed through a couple of tunnels that plunged us into inky darkness for several seconds; not my favourite sensation, but mercifully brief.
We gradually descended from the heights toward the town of Skagway, that got its name from the Aboriginal phrase that means “place where the North Wind blows”. And blow it did — sending my Tilley Hat into the street at one point! Time to deploy the chin strap; better to look like a dork than run out into the traffic again.
The lady who sold us our tickets for this trip had recommended the Fish Company, near the cruise ships, for its fish and chips, so we headed straight for it and beat the rush. I don’t think I will ever order fish and chips again; no-one could possibly produce a meal more delicious than the one we were served! Tender, succulent morsels of halibut came wrapped in the lightest golden crust of batter, accompanied by tasty French fries, cole slaw, tartar sauce and a wedge of lemon. What a meal!
Thus fortified, we headed toward the town with its wild west wooden buildings and boardwalks. Skagway boasts dozens of purveyors of precious stones, with their windows sparkling with jewels of every colour of the rainbow. The Red Onion Saloon is a famous watering hole, with the original wooden bar from the Gold Rush days. Upstairs is the brothel where five dollars will buy you 15 minutes just like in the old days — except it’s a tour you get nowadays, complete with a black-lace-trimmed red satin garter as a souvenir.
Before we knew it, it was time to find our bus (which had continued from Fraser by road to meet us there) and head back to Whitehorse. Our bright-eyed driver, Doug, spotted bear by the side of the road in three different places and slowed down so we could look and snap photos. One was a sow with two adorable cubs, right by the roadside! No grizzlies yet; these were all black bears.
Our wildlife count could not include the two white mountain goats we spotted on a rocky mountainside — by coincidence, they happened to be behind the property of the local taxidermist, and they seemed to be standing quite still! Maybe another day.