I suppose the port areas that the typical cruise ship passengers see are about as “Alaskan” as the Caribbean cruise ports are “Caribbean.” It’s possible to find actual native art, handcrafts and souvenirs, but you have to really look. My impression of Skagway is that it might be a little more “Alaskan” than some of the other places we visited, but that is only my impression. There were still the usual “Ship Recommended” stores, but based on my research those weren’t the places you were going to get the real deal.
We started our day with a ride aboard the White Pass & Yukon Railroad. A 110-mile railroad line originally constructed in 1898 during the Klondike Gold Rush, it is now operated as a scenic railway constructed along the original gold rush route. Our tour covered only the first 20 miles of the route, to a turnaround point at the US-Canada border. It was a very interesting 20 miles, however, as the WP&YR climbs almost 3000 feet in just 20 miles and features steep grades of up to 3.9%, cliff-hanging turns of 16 degrees, two tunnels and numerous bridges and trestles. The steel cantilever bridge was the tallest of its kind in the world when it was constructed in 1901.
Since we were early in the season I knew that we would see snow, but I was not prepared for just how much snow we would see! In some places near the White Pass Summit the snow was as high as the train cars. They told us that the railroad owns a rotary snow plow – which we later saw in town – that had been restored as a showpiece but that had been put into service this winter to keep the tracks cleared. That snow will mostly be gone by mid summer, but they’ll start seeing snow again in early September. Short summer!
The scenery is simply breathtaking along the way, and if you don’t mind standing on one of the outside platforms of the train you can get some pretty good photos. Since the train is moving and doesn’t have the smoothest ride, you need to be a little careful with shutter speed, and you have to be a little strategic with timing since there is really only one good spot on each end of the car, and the side to be on varies on which side of the mountain the train is on. Since we had done this tour on our first visit and were lucky enough to have the last car on that tour, with unobstructed views from the back of the train, I mostly stayed inside and enjoyed the view from where it was warm, except for a few spots where I knew the views were good. I also spent a good bit of time outside at the summit while they swapped the engine from one end of train to the other. Best to have the engine in front on the downhill run!
Since we didn’t have far to travel from our previous stop in Juneau, and didn’t have far to sail to our next destination in Glacier Bay, we were essentially in Skagway from 7:00AM until 10:00PM. That gave us plenty of time to explore after our train ride, but we only needed a few hours before we felt like we had pretty much seen Skagway. Go figure! We did make time to have a very good lunch and some locally brewed beer at the Skagway Brewing Company. It was a good spot, a little pricey but worth every dollar. There aren’t too many places where you can get an authentic Alaskan Salmon sandwich for lunch!
We had been to Skagway on a previous cruise, but didn’t see any of the town on that trip because we ended up booking two tours, and since we barely had time between the two of them for lunch, we didn’t have any chance to explore. We took a much slower pace on this trip and were glad to get a chance to see the town. The focus on tourism is very apparent, as the storefronts are all very attractive and inviting. A lot of it is very kitschey, like the brothel tours “10 for 10 minutes, we call it The Quickie,” Glacier Ice Cream (really?) and the usual T-shirt outlets, but there were a number of shops with some really nice, locally made merchandise, such as a lot of jewelry, carvings and paintings. You could find diamonds and tanzanite too, but I’d be willing to bet that most of those proceeds would not be staying in Alaska. Many of the business had signs touting their native-ness, proclaiming “Alaskan-owned since 19XX” or “Alaskan Homeowners since 19XX.” So there is a little bit of contentiousness between the natives, the seasonal business people and the permanent transplants. I suppose that is the same everywhere.
One of the interesting features of Skagway that I have only seen in a few other ports, is that the rock cliff by the pier is covered with paintings commemorating ships that have visited. As I understand it, each time a ship makes its first call in Skagway, it is traditional for the crew to paint a spot on the rock wall with the name of the ship, the date and the name of the captain.
We really enjoyed our visit to Skagway and are very glad that we took the time to visit the town.