Alaskan Cruising: Skagway

White Pass Trail
White Pass Trail

Although the mines have long since closed, the Gold-Rush flavor of Alaska’s early days are still present in Skagway. You can almost hear the cries of “gold in the Yukon” echoing as you wander along the streets that are lined with wooden boardwalks and restored buildings, appearing much as they did 100 years ago. It’s doubtful today that you will succumb to gold rush fever, but if there’s any place that could provoke the thrill of prospecting it’d have to be Skagway!

If you allow the frontier spirit to overtake you for an adventurous moment its worth trekking out into the Yukon Following the White Pass Trail. This can be accomplished either along Rail or by bus. I opted for the land version as this allowed me more stops along the way to take in the scenery and imagine what it may have been like for the nearly 100,000 prospectors that attempted this journey from 1896 to 1899. These stampeders entered Alaska through Skagway then crossed the steep and dangerous White Pass in an attempt to reach the gold rich Canadian Yukon. For the lucky prospectors that made it through the mountains, an even more rigorous test awaited them; a 600-mile trek across the Yukon’s frozen tundra to the Klondike gold fields. To add burden to their journey, officials in Canada required each prospector to carry 1 ton (2,000 lbs) of food and gear with them when entering Canada, to ensure they would not starve during the harsh winter. Many failed attempting to make such a treacherous journey, but for those who did the reward was great. It was documented that over $50 Million in gold was excavated from the Yukon in only 4 years.

Gold Rush Cemetery
Gold Rush Cemetery

But where there’s gold there’s greed, and Skagway was no different. Many stories linger in the barrooms and brothels that line these streets today.  So much that Skagway’s most notorious citizen is a Criminal and Villain, Jefferson Randolph Smith (AKA Soapy Smith). He acquired his nickname from conning towns throughout the West into buying his lucky soap at $5 a piece in hopes that a few were wrapped with $100 bills. It was in 1897 when he found himself in the rugged frontier town of Skagway where his craft had peaked. A town with little regard for laws he had built himself a gang of over 300 men. But the local frontiersmen grew angry with Soapy’s antics as they tried to establish a more upstanding community. On July 8, 1898, he confronted a crowd rising in opposition along the docks, and specifically a surveyor named Frank Reid. The two exchanged harsh words and eventually bullets killing Soapy on the spot. He and many of his outlaw friends’ graves can now be found just outside the city limits in the Gold Rush Cemetery.

Downtown Skagway
Downtown Skagway

If you’re staying within the city limits you’ll easily be overcame with excitement of yesteryear complete with saloons and barroom pianos. The two most iconic establishments are the Red Onion Saloon and the Artic Brotherhood Hall. The Red Onion Saloon was the classiest dance hall and saloon in town. A weary miner could wander into the Red Onion for a taste of “liquid courage” and a dance or two with a beautiful lady. When the time came to cure his thirst for some love and affection he could choose a lady and one of the ten elaborately decorated ‘crib’s’ upstairs. Conveniently, or not, located only two doors down is the most photographed building in all of Alaska, the Artic Brotherhood Hall. This was a fraternal hall hosting the local chapter of the Brotherhood which first meet here in 1899. What makes the hall so spectacular is its facade. Lodge members foraged the shores of the Bay of Skagway to collect 8,883 driftwood sticks that they then nailed to the front of the Hall. The A.B. Hall of 1899 has been said to be the most beautiful example of Rustic Architecture. There’s no doubt that the gold rush boomtown past lives on in Skagway!

Alaskan Cruising: Ketchikan

Alaska’s first city was Ketchikan. Located on the southernmost tip of Alaska’s panhandle is a sleepy little town with a very

Ketchikan
Ketchikan

dramatic title. Like most villages along the Inside Passage, Ketchikan is squeezed between mountain and sea and makes it hard to imagine how it got its Tlingit name which means “Thundering Wings of an Eagle.” However, if you are adventurous enough to climb to the top of these impassable mountains you will quickly see that the town, which was once a Tlingit summer fishing camp, sprawls out in the shape of an Eagle in fight.

Ketchikan is also without road or rail connections to the rest of North America, so everything must come in by air or sea. Yet, the town is Alaska’s gateway to the south. So, although it may be quaint, scenic and rustic it can become quite busy as an industrial hub.

Canned Salmon Capital
Canned Salmon Capital

It was in fact the plethora of natural resources that shaped Ketchikan’s industries. It’s seemingly endless supply of salmon and timber became its two leading exports and there are many attractions today that highlight each. Coined the “Canned Salmon Capital of the World,” a stop at Salmon Etc. is a must; even if it is just to try a free sample. Although I don’t believe anyone could walk out empty handed.

Only a few steps from port, you can grab a seat at the best show in town, The Great Alaskan Lumberjack show! Here they bring to life Alaska’s timber history through a good ole fashioned logging competition among burly lumberjacks. They play out the ongoing feud between the incoming Americans and the established Canadian logging companies as the crowd is split in half and fights for their side to win the day! The show is very entertaining and surprisingly quite informative. They do a great job explaining each event and its purpose within the industry while the show itself is action packed and the loggers are good for a laugh!

Lumberjack Log Roll
Lumberjack Log Roll

Leaving the loggers behind, it’s time to explore part of Ketchikan’s Tlingit past at the Saxman Native Village. Ketchikan is home to the largest collection of totem poles in the world, including some of the oldest ones still in existence. The purpose of the Totems was to show wealth and identification. Each totem pole represented the clan of both the husband and wife. Totems are read from the top downward, and once erected, the totems were never disturbed. On the top is the tribe of the husband and the bottom is the wife’s. The middle is filled with heroics of ancestors, and they would have used either tribe depending on whichever was better known through native myths.

Saxman Totem Village
Saxman Totem Village

There were six types of totems carved by the Alaskan natives. Those include the House Pole, used to support the ceiling of the home; a Memorial Pole, used as a tombstone; a Mortuary Pole, which held ashes of the deceased; a Ridicule Pole, which was a plain pole with one top figure of the person to scorn; a Potlatch Pole, which was a symbol of celebration and status; and finally, a Heraldic Pole, which lined the door opening into the home. In addition, there are six characters that reappear among these totems which are the Eagle, Raven, Frog, Beaver, Bear and Wolf. To view the best totems and gain the most knowledge you should visit one of the beautiful parks like Saxman, but you can see many them scattered all throughout town.

But, no trip to Ketchikan is complete without a stroll down the notorious Creek Street! Channeling odes to its fishing village past,

Creek Street
Creek Street

Creek Street is a boardwalk mounted on stilts that runs past shops and houses along Ketchikan creek. Today it is tranquil, strolling along the rushing creek wandering from shop to shop picking up souvenirs and salmon, but this community has a history too. You may find yourself at Dolly’s House, a former “house of ill repute” that takes you back to the Creek’s days as a red-light district where the “ladies of negotiable affection” entertained the miners, fishermen, hand loggers and other frisky frontiersmen. And if you are lucky, there may still be a lady of the night waiting to lure you inside!

Alaskan Cruising: Juneau

Whale Watching Tour
Whale Watching Tour

Juneau was a WHALE of a day-quite literally. A day that began with heartache when my dogsledding adventure was cancelled, followed by several hours of trying to reschedule and book additional tours ended with what had to be one of the best days of my trip! But it wasn’t from any lack of effort…

Alaska’s capital, and first truly American city, is nestled deep within the reaches of the infamous Inside Passage. Founded just 13 years after the purchase of Alaska, it was Juneau that helped establish purpose for what most Americans, at the time, believed to have been a worthless purchase. It was the discovery of gold that brought popularity to Juneau, but today it counts its riches in abundant wildlife and pristine scenery. Juneau sits at the base of Mt. Juneau where the Mendenhall Glacier presses the city to the sea and creates some magnificent fjords.

Juneau Ice Fields
Juneau Ice Fields

If you are visiting Alaska you must go dogsledding, its only here you can experience a traditional ride with Alaskan Huskies, and Juneau has some of the best camps! As I mentioned, I had booked an 8 AM excursion to do this and when I exited the boat to board the bus I was informed it had been cancelled due to weather. Devastated, they offered me an afternoon departure in hopes that it would change but with no guarantee. I immediately started bartering with all the tour providers that lined the dock but had little luck, no one was flying on top of the glaciers to the dog camps. Not wanting to miss out on the biggest cruise stop either, I found, who I would later realize would become the savior of my day, James Gunn with Juneau Tours and Whale Watch. He convinced me that Juneau was the best place to see whales and guaranteed a spotting; even though I had a whale watch tour booked later in the trip I thought what the heck, I needed to hedge my bets. He booked me a tour at noon and was able to contact ERA Helicopters for another chance at the dogsledding later in the afternoon.

With Captain Jason
With Captain Jason

I can’t say enough good things about Juneau Tours and Whale Watch. From the time we left the pier we started spotting Whale Tails! I was lucky enough to be on a full boat, so by chance, I scored a seat with the best captain in the Auke Bay-Jason! Now the best seat in the house didn’t come without its responsibilities, it was my job to help our expert captain spot the Whales. They are several tour boats out at the same time, but we took our chances and steered our own course, and it more than paid off! We were so lucky to have spotted the sought-after matriarch of the bays humpback whales, Flame. Being the only boat viewing her she gave us quite the show, diving all around our boat. We were literally 100 feet from her at times! Jason and his crew were phenomenal, very knowledgeable and entertaining!

Whale Tails
Whale Tails

But it was only by good fortune, or James hard work, that when we returned downtown we had a helicopter waiting to take us up on the glaciers and high enough to reach the dog camps. Lifting off from Douglas Island and across the channel from Juneau you will get a bird’s eye view of downtown before approaching the mountains. Interestingly enough, there are no roads connecting Juneau to the rest of Alaska, the surrounding terrain is extremely rugged so all goods have to come in either by plane or ship. However, it’s this unbearable terrain that make the helicopter ride so spectacular, as soon as you cap the peaks the glaciers are seemingly within arm’s reach. You see glacier-carved mountains and the glaciers themselves which can be as deep as 4,500 feet and even see their awe-inspiring blue crevasses.

Alaskan Huskies
Alaskan Huskies

The helicopter lands at a camp on the scenic middle branch of Norris Glacier, where veterans of the legendary Iditarod Trail and Yukon Quest dog sled races are ready to lend their expertise to the next leg of your trip. Our group of 6 were split into smaller groups and my husband and I ended up with a private ride with a musher and most of his own huskies! You feel the excitement as the team of 10-12 dogs are hooked up and you are off on your first mushing adventure. We stopped several times throughout our ride to take turns to command the team as we stood on the runners, take a few photos and of course just enjoy the ride in our secluded sled as you scamper across the ancient snowfields nestled among the peaks of the vast Juneau Icefield. As your tour concludes you have plenty of time to meet the team as you give each dog a quick cuddle the mushers are on hand to take pictures and answer any questions you may have about their dogs, the camp or the races they compete in each year. The lure of the surroundings and the thrill of driving a team of Alaskan Huskies is truly a once in a lifetime experience!