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Alaska - The Last Frontier

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Part 6 - Skagway

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Part 6 - Skagway
 

At the time of the Gold Rush, Skagway was the gateway for many fortune hunters. When the news of the discovery of gold spread, anything seaworthy arrived here – even the most decrepit barge was used to get to Skagway. Once there, the gold seekers had to face the eerie ordeal of taking the White Pass - or Chilkoot Pass Trail – to reach the alleged gold fields in the Yukon Territory.

Initially just a small mountain path, the White Pass Trail was first expanded into a cart path and later formed the base for the narrow gauge railway, which was put into operation in 1898 and made it easier to transport men and equipment over the almost 900 m (2,900 ft.) high pass. Today, the White Pass & Yukon Railway is a popular attraction for cruise tourists. Trains are already waiting at the pier to take on the hundreds of modern-day “fortune hunters”.

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We had decided beforehand that we’d rent a car and take the Klondike Highway, which runs parallel to the rail track, to drive the 70 miles to Emerald Lake, which is already on Canadian territory. We much liked the offer of “Green Jeep Tours”. It’s a family-run business renting out green Wrangler Jeeps. The icebox in the boot provides you with drinks and energy bars, and the mother of the owner family Goebel lends her voice to the CD which acts as your tour guide as you drive along.

Mother Goebel picked us up from the ship and drove us to the downtown popcorn shop, which is also run by the family and which hosts the car rental.

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We already found the email exchange prior to our trip very pleasant and friendly, and the same kindness was extended to us by one of the daughters when we picked up our Jeep. A few formalities were dealt with in no time before she took us to the nearby parking lot, where some of the green jeeps were parked in a row.

A staff member showed us how to use the car. In addition, he handed us a small, laminated and illustrated flipchart listing attractions and scenic points as they’d appear during our drive. Everything seemed a little home-made and not commercial, which made it so charming and fun. And so we set off.

From the CD player, the voice of mother Goebel told us about the interesting history of Skagway, the famous rascal Soapy Smith and about the incredibly difficult pass crossings at the time of the Gold Rush. We felt like we had gone right back in time.

From some viewpoints we were able to spot one of the White Pass trains every now and again, which slowly climbed the mountain by the minute.

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Not far from the spot where these pictures were taken, our flipchart showed us beautiful waterfalls, interesting bridges and landscapes – it’s just that we couldn’t see them... The White Pass was true to its name and covered itself in thick, white fog. At times it was so bad that all we could see was the hood of our car while crawling along. The US border sign was only visible to us when it was right next to our car door. The fog only rose shortly before the Canadian border and revealed a slightly spooky landscape.

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At the Canadian border we were asked the usual questions on origin and purpose of our trip, and then we were allowed to pass.

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We reached the Yukon Territory through a rugged landscape of mountains and lakes.

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Right after the Yukon sign the fog disappeared and the sun came out.

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After a little while we reached the “huge” city of Carcross – it has about 200 inhabitants. Carcross is also the terminus of the railroad.

Its location at the beautiful Bennet and Nares Lake called for a quick photo stop.

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After a few more miles we reached our destination: Emerald Lake. It was clear how its color had given the lake its name.

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By the way, this was our trusted ride - matching the color of the lake.

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Now it was time not only to take in this beautiful view but also to get some energy from our cereal bars in the icebox, before making our way back. Between Emerald Lake and Carcross we came across Carcross Desert, “the smallest desert in the world”. Actually, it’s not really a desert but sand dunes caused by melting glaciers and barren lakes.

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The closer we came to the White Pass on our way back, the more the sky turned grey again.

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While slowly plunging into the mist, Birgit had a little nap in the passenger seat. I woke her a bit abruptly when breaking for a full stop on the gravel-covered side of the road. While I was fishing my camera from the back seat, she asked slightly startled “What happened?!” All I calmly replied was “Bear”, which woke her up completely.

Below the street, at the foot of a small slope on the other side of the road and separated by a brook, a handsome black bear was walking through the meadows. As we were watching him from above, he looked up at us as if thinking “Oh no, tourists again...”

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Separated by the ditch and the slope, we could quietly watch him as we were sitting still on the guardrail. A SUV stopped, and the driver asked, whether there was anything to see, before she and her passengers quietly joined us. Meanwhile, Master Bruin wobbled undisturbed and indifferently through fields and meadows, jumped fearlessly over a raging river and shyly smelled and licked the flowers.

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Unfortunately, another family car stopped. A lady got out to see what we were looking at and shouted something toward the rest of the family. Apparently this was the command to attack, as all passengers of the vehicle, armed with cameras, suddenly ran screeching and chattering to our front row seat on the guardrail. Even our furry friend thought this was too much... and, sadly, disappeared into the woods.

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We set out again and crossed the pass, again in the fog. This time it lifted shortly before the American border.

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Crossing the border was just as easy and quick as at the Canadian border.

Shortly before we reached Skagway, we turned right towards Dyea. At the time, Dyea was the departure point for the Chilkoot Pass. A gravel road leads to the scanty remains of the town and a cemetery from the days of the Gold Rush. From a viewpoint at the junction we had a nice view of Skagway and the ships.

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We followed the gravel road along some beautiful bays.

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In one of the bays we noticed the spout of a whale fishing for krill close to the shore. Nearer to us, a few seals were swimming in the water.

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Since we weren’t sure how long it would take to drive to Dyea, we decided to return to Skagway and have a look around town. After we had filled up the car and left it at the parking lot, we walked through the streets of Skagway, whose houses still radiate a certain Gold Rush atmosphere.

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On our way back to the ship we passed the snow blower which kept the White Pass free in the 19th century.

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The rock walls next to the pier are painted with logos of various vessels which had docked in Skagway.

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Thanks to the explanations on our CD in the Jeep we knew what this was all about. At the time of the Gold Rush, when countless ships docked here and brought prospectors to the Klondike, the logo of a ship was painted on the wall and next to it a pole was driven in the ground, where they’d hang the post for that vessel. Since 1928, this has been revived as a kind of art form.

In front of this wall, our Radiance was waiting for us.

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Back on board, I wasn’t really hungry but wanted to get a quick lemonade from the Windjammer Cafe. Somehow I didn’t manage to not try a hot dog from the Dog House...

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That day, the evening sun offered us some beautiful moments on our balcony.

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As we’d be cruising towards and in front of the Hubbard Glacier the next day, we hoped for the weather to hold.

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