Thursday, July 23, 2015

North to Alaska: Part 5: Whitehorse to Skagway

It was a pity we didn't have more time in Whitehorse. No time to see the famous fish ladder (more about this in Part 7)

We were back on the bus early in the morning for the trip along the South Alaska/Klondike Highway from Dawson City to Whitehorse. A 9-hour journey, fortunately with many stops and even lunch served by a First Nations family. There was a ton of unbelievable scenery. We couldn't stop taking photos!

Lunch was served here

Looking over the Tintina Trench

The Tintina Trench is a geological divide that slashes the Yukon Territory diagonally in half. It outlines a fault line that stretches from the southeast to the northwest and into Alaska. 

More "bottlebrush" trees on this slope

Eventually we arrived in Carcross, a small place that was geared for busloads of tourists, with not only stores, but interesting displays of native culture. We grabbed an ice cream cone, Don stamped his passport and we shopped. Happy to spend our Canadian dollars in the Yukon and support the local economy. What did we buy? A small hummingbird sculpted from metal to hang at the cottage and some t-shirts and sweatshirts. Can always use those!

We soon arrived at the train station in Fraser, B.C. where we boarded the White Pass and Yukon Railway for a scenic trip to Skagway. We neglected to photograph the train until after we arrived in Skagway. Here it is, viewed from our stateroom veranda on the Volendam. The graffiti on the wall? "I've been here" signs painted by various cruise ship crews over the years. The oldest one I could see was from the 1980's.

Interestingly, this railway is presently owned by Clublink (think golf), but it dates from the Gold Rush era, when an alternative way of getting into the interior of the Yukon instead of the treacherous Chilkoot Pass was needed. Construction started in May 1898 and unbelievably soon, considering the scale of it, service started on August 1, 1900, by which time gold rush fever was starting to wind down.

The railway is narrow gauge and the cars are vintage parlor cars, the oldest four built in 1881 and four newer ones dating from 2007, provided with wheelchair lifts, but designed to look historical. The only people now using the train are tourists, mainly from the cruise ships arriving and departing in Skagway, Alaska. We had to go through customs on the train, but it was pretty cursory, especially considering what country we were entering!

Most of the trains are hauled by diesel locomotives, but there remains one steam engine still in operation. 

"WhitePass 73 01" by niv├ęK woods - Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

The scenery at the beginning of the ride was mostly barren rock with occasional late season snow drifts and ice floating here and there in the river.

We went by this old miner's hut.

Eventually we came to the border, but the custom's man didn't board until we reached Skagway and then he just walked quickly through the car making sure we resembled our passport photos. No questions.

The track ran, for the most part, alongside a cliff. Below is a shot looking down into the Skagway River.

See the colour of that water? Water of similar colours are found throughout Alaska and the Yukon and of course it's hard not to be reminded of the Bow River and Lake Louise and other mountain lakes in Alberta. The cause of the colour is diatomaceous earth, finely ground silt and organisms that a glacier leaves behind. 

One interesting fact about the White Pass Railroad is that it is one of the only, if not the only, trains, left in North America that can be flagged down. Hikers needing a way out can stand anywhere that makes sense and wave at the engineer if they would like to board the train. In fact, we stopped ourselves partway along the route to pick up some hikers.

There were 2 tunnels and numerous bridges and trestles. Below is the rear of our train emerging from a tunnel.

This steel cantilever bridge was the tallest of its kind in the world when it was finished in 1901. We're just rounding a bend here before crossing it.

Pretty soon we could see Skagway 17 miles in the distance at the end of the Lynn Canal

Still a ways to go. These 2 short videos show what the second half of the trip was like.

Finally we arrived in the bustling town of Skagway. It was full of jewelry shops, T-shirt/souvenir shops and looming over all were the cruise ships in the harbour.

The view from our hotel room window

We were in Skagway for 2 nights, so on the day we had free we took a 12-hour excursion via catamaran to Juneau. On the way we saw a ton of eagles, harbour seals, Stellar sea lions and were looking for whales, but didn't spot one until we were on the way back at the end of the day, and then just very briefly.

See the eagle?

Of 40,000 eagles estimated to inhabit Alaska, 13,000 live in Southeast Alaska where the fishing is good. In the interior, where fish are not so plentiful, there are fewer bald eagles, but more golden eagles which prefer to eat small mammals and carrion. On this trip we certainly had lots of eagle sightings, each as exciting as the last.

Harbour seals

The catamaran put us ashore a little ways away from Juneau, but we were met by a bus and dropped off at the city centre.

As the bus dropped us off we noticed that the ship we would be boarding the next day, the Volendam, was also visiting Juneau.

We had lunch at the Red Dog Saloon. The decor was interesting and the floors were covered with sawdust, a period detail. Apparently the prospectors used to live large after they struck gold and having sawdust on the floor helped with clean-up after their inebriations.

We enjoyed our walk around Juneau in spite of the plethora of jewelry stores and t-shirt shops. The town is built on a hill and if you want to walk up to your house, you are faced with a climb like this.

There was a nice view from the bar.

We came across the public library, a serene oasis on the top floor of this parking garage. It had friendly staff, free WiFi and wonderful harbour views through those large windows. 

In case anyone was wondering which way to go, there was this signpost.

After 3 hours of getting to know Juneau it was time to get back on the bus for the ride to see the Mendenhall Glacier. As we were driving off, we noticed some of the crew members of Volendam having a friendly tug of war.

After a short drive we were dropped off near the Visitor Center for the Mendenhall Glacier.The rangers there did a good job of explaining the features and mechanics of glaciers and we appreciated the beauty of this one.

Following our glacier visit we hopped back on the bus for the ride back to our catamaran. We visited some Stellar sea lions and spotted a humpback whale at a distance. Very exciting. The captain backed the boat right up to the sea lions so we could get a good shot. They were quite noisy.


 We saw more glaciers from the boat. They all have names of course, but who can remember now which was which.


We passed by this iconic lighthouse on a small island. Eldred Rock Lighthouse is an historic octagonal lighthouse dating from 1906. Still in operation, it is the last of the manned lighthouses in Alaska.

Since our excursion went over the dinner hour, passengers were served some delicious clam chowder partway back. Free tea and coffee had been available all day and after we set off in the morning there were muffins for breakfast. The tourist business knows how to keep people happy!

We stopped in Haines to let some people off.

We got back to Skagway at 9:30 pm. Of course there was still daylight and it was only a short walk back to our hotel. 

Next: The Cruise