July 2, 2013

Alaska Cruise: Skagway -- Western Movie Set, Great Glacier Walk

This isn't my photo. I was too busy charging around town trying to find a computer (http://bit.ly/17Pxt76). But it captures my impression of the town: a movie set for a Hollywood Western.

We docked in Skagway on Sunday, the only ship in port, and a small ship at that. Most shops and restaurants were closed. A DESERTED movie set.

Jack London came here in 1897. The ship's newsletter included these comments:
Oddly enough, London didn't describe this trip in any of the dozens of stories based on his northern experiences; perhaps it was simply too peaceful.
Or boring.

But during the Klondike Gold Rush of the late 19th century, gold miners flooded the area hoping to strike it rich.

Today, tourists have replaced the miners, making the town less interesting. The seven-block downtown district is known as Klondike Gold Rush National Historic Park.

A large stone marks the spot where two people were murdered in one day several years ago: an historic event in Skagway. If we did that in DC, the place would be filled with these stone markers.

Tours Are Much More Exciting than Town
I had a hard time deciding which tour to choose here.

I could have selected the three-hour ride on the White Pass & Yukon Railroad through mountain scenery from Skagway to the Yukon, Canada border.

Built in 1898 during the Klondike Gold Rush, this narrow gauge railroad is an International Historic Civil Engineering Landmark, a designation it shares with the Panama Canal, the Eiffel Tower and the Statute of Liberty.

The WP & YR climbs almost 3,000 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. Today the train operates on the first 67 miles (Skagway to Carcross, Yukon) of the original 110-mile line. It's Alaska's most popular shore excursion and carries over 450,000 visitors during the May-September season.

I choose instead the helicopter ride with a glacier landing -- which was sensational -- but I wish time had allowed me to do both excursions.

Skagway Glaciers by Helicopter
We lift off from the heliport near Skagway:

and get glorious views, looking back at the harbor:

We head into the region of rugged mountains and glaciers:


Our helicopter lands on the glacier:

Parkinson's and a bad back create balance problems for me, so I was a bit concerned about getting out for a walking tour of the glacier. But the mountaineering crampons over my shoes and the trekking poles gave me a greater sense of security than I have walking around my own house.

We spent about 30 minutes walking around, as our excellent pilot/guide taught us a lot about glaciers.

It was a great tour and another gorgeous day. Tomorrow, it's on to my favorite port city: Sitka.

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