June 30, 2015

Skagway, Gateway to the Klondike

Skagway is perhaps the best-known town in the Inside Passage.  The town is tiny, but it is visited by just as many visitors as the larger towns of Juneau and Ketchikan.  Although I had been to Skagway on an earlier trip to Alaska, I wanted to return.  Tim and I had decided not to take the RV to Skagway, but to take a day trip from our base in Haines instead.  Getting to Skagway from Haines is easy – easy, that is, if you decide to travel on a Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday.  The schedule for the Haines-Skagway Fast Ferry (not a part of the Alaska State Marine Highway System) between the two towns is such that you can spend an entire day in Skagway on those three days.  The schedule, however, does not work out for a day trip on the other four days.

We had initially planned to take the ferry on Thursday, but our continuing work on the cataloging project kept us RV-bound.  When we finally finished with the project, we realized that we had missed our opportunity for an easy trip to Skagway.  Now it was time to get creative.  And that’s exactly what Tim did!

Tim was able to find a scheduled flight from Haines on a small plane at 8:05 am, but the return was more of a challenge.  There were no flights, or ferries, in the late afternoon.  He called Mountain Flying Service, a flightseeing company, and found that its plane would be in Skagway around 6:00 pm.  Paul, the owner and pilot, would be willing to take us back to Haines.  Score!  We had transportation, and the cost was not too much more than the cost for the ferry.  Plus, the chance to fly in a small plane in Alaska is an opportunity that I always enjoy.

Joyce, the wonderful owner of our campground, offered to take us to the airport on Saturday morning.  Our flight was delayed an hour because of fog in Juneau, but we were finally in the air for all of seven or eight minutes (fifteen minutes total including ground time).  That’s got to be one of the shortest flights I’ve ever taken.  The Skagway airport is so close-in that we were able to walk to town in less than ten minutes.

Approaching Skagway on a Foggy Morning

We had another stroke of luck when we discovered that Saturday was a one-boat day, as the local call it.  It’s often a four-boat day in Skagway, and we were so happy not to have to share the sidewalks with more than 10,000 cruise ship passengers.  At times, the town seemed almost empty!

Our first stop was the visitor center for Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park.  Yes, there is a national park unit in Skagway.  We joined a ranger-led walking tour of the Skagway Historic District and learned about the history of Skagway and its important role as the gateway to the Klondike.  When gold was discovered in northwestern Canada, the rush was on.  More than 100,000 people headed north, lured by the promise of adventure and quick wealth.

Welcome to the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park

The National Park Visitor Center Is Housed in the Former Depot

We visited several building that have been restored by the National Park Service, and I was surprised at the progress that had been made since my visit in the 1990s.  Buildings in the Skagway Historic District are owned by federal, state, city and private interests, but all entities seem to have worked together to faithfully restore the town to its 1890s appearance. 

The National Park Service Has Restored the Mascot Saloon

The Moore Homestead Is Another National Park Service Property

I do believe that it is the influence of the National Park Service that has led to the quality and integrity of the restoration efforts.  Skagway does not seem like a stage-set to me, unlike Tombstone, Arizona, Deadwood, South Dakota or a few of the former mining towns in Colorado that are now basically casinos.  The storefronts in Skagway are filled with restaurants and shops, albeit a ridiculous number of jewelry stores, just like Ketchikan.  Some people complain that too many historic towns are ruined by tee-shirt shops.  In Southeast Alaska, it seems that Caribbean jewelry stores are threatening to overwhelm the towns.

Quite an Impressive Setting

One of the Most-Photographed Buildings in Skagway

It's Easy to Get Around in Skagway

Although some people might consider a hike on the nearby Chilkoot Trail to be a highlight of a visit to Skagway, for me it was a ride on the White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad, often billed as the Scenic Railway of the World.  Constructed between 1898 and 1900, the railroad was intended to offer an easier route to the Klondike than the harrowing Chilkoot and White Pass Trails.  This narrow gauge railroad was constructed against all odds, but by the time it was completed, the gold rush was all but over. 

The White Pass and Yukon Route

Diesel-Electric Locomotives Have Replaced the Original Steam Locomotives

Tim and I took a three-hour round trip excursion to the White Pass summit on a route that climbed steep grades, made cliff-hugging turns and crossed deep gorges.  The views were stunning, and I found the ride thrilling.  I can only imagine what it took to construct this railroad through such challenging terrain.  

To try and capture a few good photographs, I hung out on the outside platform of the car and watched the scenery pass by.  The camera certainly got a good workout, and I filled the memory card.  Don’t worry, however, I’m just including a sampler here!  Glaciers, waterfalls, rivers, bridges and historic trestles all caught my attention.  It was especially eerie to be on the platform as we passed through two pitch-black tunnels.  Talk about disorienting! 

The Train No Longer Crosses this Bridge

The Steel Bridge Was the Tallest Cantilever Bridge in the World

I Wasn't the Only One on the Platform Taking Photographs

Getting Ready to Enter the First Tunnel

Part of the original White Pass Trail on which thousands of gold-seekers trudged was clearly visible from the train.  I tried to imagine the effort required to haul 2,000 pounds of supplies over such a route.  Most stampeders scaled this pass or the Chilkoot Pass between 30 and 40 times in order to shuttle the required one year’s worth of supplies north to the Canadian border.  Amazing!

The Original White Pass Trail Is Visible on the Right

The Clouds and Rain Add to the Atmosphere

Skagway and the Lynn Canal Are Visible in the Distance

Making Our Way Back Down through Meadows Covered with Fireweed

We finally made our way back down the mountain and soon headed for the airport.  We were the only two passengers on our flight.  The light was beautiful as we flew over the Lynn Canal, the longest and deepest fjord in North America, on the way back to Haines.  After we landed, we watched Paul haul the plane back into its own “garage” at the airport.  That was fun.

Flying Back to Haines Over the Lynn Canal

Pulling the Plane Back into its "Garage"

I definitely feel the trip to Skagway was worth the time and cost, and I think Tim agreed.  He seemed to think that visiting the town and taking the train ride were a great way to celebrate his birthday, even if it was a day early.

June 29, 2015

Hanging Out in Haines

The Lynn Canal is the longest and deepest fjord in North America, and that is the body of water that connects Juneau with Haines.  The ferry ride through the canal was beautiful, but I seemed to be preoccupied with talking to other passengers, not taking many photographs.  You’ll just have to take my word for how pretty the views were!

Sailing on the Lynn Canal

Passing by Haines - Fort Seward Is on the Left; Downtown Haines Is on the Right

The ferry docked just north of Haines, and Tim and I took the opportunity to stop at Chilkoot Lake State Recreation Area for a picnic before heading into town.  Chilkoot Lake is a prime location for salmon, although it was still too early in the season.  The lake itself is lovely, and we enjoyed the view.  There is a very nice campground without hookups at the lake, and this would be a great place to spend a few days, especially if you could get one of the sites with a view of the lake through the trees.  We needed internet access, however, so we made our way into Haines.

Chilkoot Lake

Another View of Chilkoot Lake

Before we checked in to our campground, we drove around Haines to see the town.  The downtown area has several interesting buildings, but my favorite area was Fort William H. Seward on the edge of town.  This remarkable collection of historic buildings surrounding a parade ground is unlike any other in Southeast Alaska. 

Fort Seward was built near the settlement of Haines in 1903 in response to a continuing boundary dispute with Canada.  This frontier outpost was so remote that Fort Seward was considered to be a foreign duty post for the soldiers stationed here.  Fort Seward was ultimately decommissioned after World War II when it was purchased by five veterans who had a dream of establishing a planned community at the fort. 

The buildings at Fort Seward now contain residences, hotels, shops and restaurants, as well as an arts and cultural center.  It was encouraging to see the restoration work underway on several of the buildings along Officers’ Row. 

Fort Seward As Seen from the Ferry

Officer's Row Faces the Parade Ground at Fort Seward

The Quarters of the Captain and Commanding Officer Now House a Hotel

Restoration Work Continues on the Buildings at Fort Seward

There are two campgrounds in Haines.  The larger one has nice, grassy sites with some separation, and it is located on the north end of town.  The other campground, Oceanside RV Park, is basically a grass and gravel lot with no separation between sites (you literally could pass the Grey Poupon to your neighbor, if you remember that commercial).  However, Oceanside has one important thing that sets it apart – it’s right on the water with gorgeous views of the Lynn Canal and the harbor.  That was the deciding factor for us in selecting Oceanside.  The campground is also a block away from the downtown area, which makes it so much easier for us to get around on foot.

The View from Our Campsite, Before We Had Neighbors On Each Side

As soon as we checked in, Joyce, who owns the campground, asked us how many crabs we wanted for the evening’s potluck.  Joyce is very friendly and personable, and she certainly looks after her guests.  She hosts a potluck every week with Dungeness crabs being the main attraction.  At only $10.00 per crab and someone else doing the cooking, we didn’t hesitate and placed our order.  The potluck was great fun, and the crabs were delicious.  We also enjoyed talking with our fellow campers.  Now that was a nice welcome to Haines!

Hosing Down the Crabs After Removing Them from the Pot of Boiling Water

Now That's a Beautiful Pot of Dungeness Crabs!

Our initial plan was to spend three nights in Haines.  We thought that would give us enough time to see the sites, take a day trip to Skagway and perhaps even sit back and enjoy our beautiful view.  It didn’t quite work out that way. 

Although we had wrapped up our cataloging project before we left Sitka, there was still a little bit of work we wanted to do.  We had promised to “clean up” the catalog database and make sure the entries were complete and consistent.  We started working on the database on the ferry rides to and from Juneau.  We also spent most of our time in Haines working, although we did take some time out to explore the sites in town.  We soon realized that we would need to extend out stay for another three days in order to wrap up the project.

We ended up working most of this past week and were so happy and relieved to send off the final version of the database, as well as the trip report, around noon on Friday.  Finally!  The cataloging project was complete!  Now we could relax and have fun.

We found Haines to be a creative and quirky town in a magnificent setting.  Do you know of any other town with a Hammer Museum?  We didn’t go in, but it was fun to walk by and see the large totem-like hammer in the front yard.  The town and surrounding valley are one of the best places to see wildlife, and the area is particularly known its large population of eagles.  Haines is also a quiet town and is less well-known than Skagway, its more famous neighbor.  

Haines - The Self-Proclaimed Adventure Capital of Alaska

We Skipped The Hammer Museum, But I Bet It Was Fun

Only one large cruise ship is scheduled to dock in Haines each week, so the town is not overrun with visitors.  On occasion, however, the tides and winds prevent ships from docking in Skagway, and Haines can become an alternate port.  This happened last Friday, and the folks in town had to scramble to put together tours and activities for the many passengers on board.  One downside to having any cruise ship in town is the overtaxing of the Verizon 3G signal.  We never seemed to have much of a signal on cruise ship days.

Haines is one of only two towns (Skagway is the other) in Southeast Alaska with road access to the interior of Alaska, British Columbia and the Yukon.  As a result, we ran into many more RVs here, and our campground was often full.  Many RVs were from the Lower 48, but just as many came from Canada and Alaska.  Haines is a popular getaway spot for nearby residents who want to spend time on the water.

We were able to make time for a day trip to Skagway.  I’ll explain how we arranged that and what we did there in the next post.

All in all, Tim and I really enjoyed our time in Haines.  I really like the town and would recommend a stop here, especially if you are looking for a more low-key and less touristy experience.

The Sky Treated Us to Different Moods Just Outside Our Door - Sometimes Sunny

Sometimes Cloudy and Foggy

But Always Dreamy

June 26, 2015

Wrapping Up Our Stay in Sitka

Sitka is one of the prettiest towns in one of the prettiest settings in Southeast Alaska, and we have enjoyed seeing the well-kept houses, some of which are historic, and the lovely gardens.  At one time Sitka was the busiest port on the entire west coast of North and South America, and today the port remains one of the busiest sea ports in the United States.  In fact, Sitka was ranked ninth largest by size and fifth largest by value of the seafood harvest.

Sitka Has Several Scenic Harbors

The Views on the Way to Work Have Been Gorgeous

What a Beautiful Setting!

Sitka is also the cultural center of Southeast Alaska, and we were surprised with the offerings for a town this size.  The Sitka Summer Music Festival brings an impressive line-up of classical musicians to the town for a month-long series of chamber music concerts.  Unfortunately, we just could not work one into our overloaded schedule. 

While we were in town, the Sitka Fine Arts Camp kicked off its summer season.  The camp offers classes in visual arts, music, theater, dance, writing and Alaskan Native arts to students from throughout Alaska and the United States, as well as a few foreign countries.  We met one of the Native instructors who explained to us a little bit about the camp and how popular, and important, it has become both to the town and to Alaska.

I Think It's Cool that Sitka Has Signs in English and Tlingit

Sitka National Historical Park, where Tim and I worked, also preserves the culture and traditions of Alaskan Native peoples.   This is Alaska’s oldest national park unit, and it has an interesting history of its own.  In 1905 Governor John Brady selected Sitka as a location to display a collection of totem poles that had been donated by villages throughout Southeast Alaska. 

These totem poles had been displayed at the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition, as well as the 1905 Lewis and Clark Centennial Exposition, and are now the highlight of what is often called Totem Park.  The totem poles are located along a two-mile loop trail that winds its way through a temperate rain forest.  Many are replicas of the earlier poles, but several original poles are on display in Totem Hall in the visitor center.

One of the Totem Poles
Original Poles in Totem Hall

The visitor center also houses the Southeast Alaska Indian Cultural Center, which offers demonstrations of traditional Alaskan Native arts.  Artists demonstrate their work here, and we were fortunate to see and talk with several artists during our three weeks at the park.

Roy Levine in the Carving Studio
Leota Bagby in the Regalia Studio

We also visited the Sheldon Jackson Museum, which is world-renowned for its rare collection of nineteenth century artifacts from all Native groups in Alaska.  These items were collected by the Reverend Dr. Sheldon Jackson, who was a Presbyterian missionary and educator.  Jackson recognized the importance of preserving historic, cultural and natural history items so that they could be studied and enjoyed by future generations.  The museum is the oldest in Alaska, and it still retains its old-fashioned flavor.  The objects displayed here are simply amazing and range from Eskimo masks and Aleut skin-covered watercraft to Athabascan baskets and Haida argillite carvings. 

The Sheldon Jackson Museum

Exhibits in the Sheldon Jackson Museum

An Amazing Collection of Artifacts

After witnessing dozens of bald eagles flying over Sitka, we decided to pay a visit to the Alaska Raptor Center, Alaska’s only full-service avian hospital and educational facility.  Although it was very cool to see the various raptors up-close, my favorite part was listening to the commentary of our tour guide, who spoke to most of the birds and described their unique personalities. 

Perhaps it was because we arrived very late in the day, but we were a bit disappointed with our experience at the Raptor Center and left wanting more.  When I had visited the center on an earlier trip to Alaska, I had been impressed with the gloved-bird program.  Maybe that is available only to groups.  Without that program, I didn’t feel the $12.00 entrance fee was a good value for us.  I’m glad we had an Alaska TourSaver two-for-one coupon to use here.  Our admission fee did go to a good cause, so we were ok with that.

Learning to Fly Again
Some Will Never Be Able to Fly

Majestic Birds

Tim and I also had an opportunity to reconnect with old friends while we were in Sitka.  One of Tim’s former colleagues at Rocky Mountain National Park has been working at Sitka National Historical Park for the last five or so years.  It was Becky who passed Tim’s name to Kelsey, the museum curator, which led to Tim’s contract at the park.  Becky and her husband Marcus invited us to their house for dinner, and we had a lovely evening with them.  As I’ve often said, visiting old friends in far-flung places is one of the benefits of this lifestyle.

Tim and Becky

During our three weeks in Sitka, Tim and I managed to check out many of the local restaurants.  One of our favorites was Ashmo’s, a food truck that is often parked by St. Michael’s Cathedral.  We especially enjoyed the black cod tips, a local specialty, as well as the smoked salmon mac ‘n’ cheese.  We also had tasty fish tacos at Larkspur CafĂ©, and good fish and chips at the Dock Shack and Fly-in-Fish Inn.

If you are willing to spend big bucks, there are two restaurants that we feel are worth the money.  An unexpected find was the Channel Club, which is located a few miles west of town.  I thought the white king salmon that I ordered was one of the best meals I’ve had since arriving in Alaska.  This fish is relatively rare and really was almost white.  The flavor is quite delicate and very different than red or pink salmon.  We finally made reservations for Ludwig’s Bistro where Tim took my cue and ordered ivory (a fancier name than white) king salmon.  His was also delicious.  Ludvig’s is known for its Wild Alaskan paella, which I ordered, but I’d probably select something different next time.  

The Ivory King Salmon at Ludvig's Bistro

I’m really glad it was Sitka where we ended up for a three-week stay.  Although we have enjoyed every town we’ve visited in Southeast Alaska, Sitka is one town that I’d return to again and again.

We finally left Sitka last Sunday afternoon and cruised to Juneau on the fast ferry.  Since the route was just the reverse of the route to Sitka, I didn’t feel compelled to take additional photographs, especially since day was overcast and the light was less-than-ideal.

We arrived back in Juneau without incident and headed directly to Mendenhall Campground where we had stayed previously.  This time we picked a site with no hookups, and what a site it was!  The site was bigger than huge, and it was located on the lake.  We even had a view of Mendenhall Glacier through the trees.  We only stayed for two nights, since our stop in Juneau was just to restock the RV, but this would have been a perfect place to spend a week.

A Tiny Portion of Site 45 at Mendenhall Campground

Bright and early (too early!) on Tuesday morning, we boarded another ferry for Haines – our last ferry ride of the summer.  I’ll cover our time in Haines in the next post.