Editor’s Note: Sherri Fries is an i Love Dogs Ambassador who has agreed to share with our readers her family’s summer adventure traveling from Virginia to the Northwest. Previous posts took us through Canada to Fairbanks, where she competed with border collie teammates Cleo and Wiki Wiki in AKC agility trials, and then on to the Kenai Peninsula, the Katmai National Park, and Valdez . This post takes us to gold country.
Gold! We’re in Skagway, Alaska, the “Gateway to the Klondike.” In 1989, more than 30,000 gold seekers trudged up the snowy, steep Chilkoot Trail. The route links tidewater Alaska to the Yukon River’s Canadian headwaters and the water route to the Klondike gold fields. Few hit it rich. The quarter-mile climb that gains 1,000 vertical feet, known as the “Golden Stairs,” is the last obstacle of the Chilkoot. This is the scene depicted on the Alaskan license plate.
It took three months to walk the Chilkoot and the longer White Pass Trail across the steep, snowy, rocky mountains to the interior. The Canadian Mounties required stampeders to carry a year’s supply of food and materials, which meant multiple trips up and down the trails carrying supplies on their back, on sleds, or sometimes by dog. Stampeders stole other stampeders’ dogs. This dog thievery was the basis of Jack London’s “White Fang.”
Most stampeders sat out the winter in tents by frozen lakes some 550 miles from the gold fields. They built boats and when the ice melted in the spring made their way through rapids and winding water to Dawson City, Yukon, and the gold fields. Along with the prospectors came swindlers and former convicts that turned Skagway into a lawless city. The most successful among them was “Soapy” Smith who anointed himself king of Skagway. He owned a saloon where he and his gang swindled many miners out of their gold. But he liked dogs, and forced everyone to give money to save homeless dogs. “Soapy” was killed in 1989 by a vigilante.
Skagway’s modern gold rush comes from the cruise ship tourists that flood the old wooden sidewalks lined with stores, saloons, and the historic buildings of the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park. When the ships pull out in late afternoon the town’s again quiet. The shops and park offices close mid-September when the last cruise ship leaves. About 600 people live here year-round. In winter some take trips to visit relatives in the lower 48 states. Others make the snowy, steep drive up to Whitehorse, Yukon, to do bulk grocery shopping.
Today’s tourists have a much easier way to reach the Yukon – the scenic White Pass Railway. It’s one of the world’s great train rides. The tracks follow the Skagway River then wind upwards through granite hills past waterfalls and over trellis bridges, clinging to the side of the steep mountains. There are great views all along the way. It was definitely the highlight of our trip to Skagway.
And by the way, Skagway is the first place we’ve seen darkness and stars since arriving in Alaska mid-June. Our last few days have covered a lot of miles. A few days ago in Valdez, we took a 9-hour boat tour of Prince William Sound. The highlight was the icebergs. They are huge and sometimes so numerous they close down the shipping lane used by oil tankers coming from oil pipe line. The icebergs are white, blue, and sometimes black from dirt the glacier ground up as the glacier slid down the slope. Some icebergs carry large rocks. The boat captain said an iceberg’s base is about five times the size of the top. The top of some of the icebergs was 30-50’ long. One of the prettiest icebergs we saw had flipped over when the top became larger than the base. The ice was clear and shone like a huge blue diamond.
The icebergs come from the massive Columbia Glacier which is 7-8 miles long. Unfortunately it was a rainy day with low visibility so we could only see the edge of the Columbia’s icefield from the boat, but it was huge and impressive. The glacier is receding. In contrast, the other spot we visited, the Meares Glacier, is growing. Harbor seals floated on ice chunks in front of the glacier. We saw a few chunks of ice calve off with booms and cracks.
In the sound we saw otter floats. Groups of otters hang out in the water together. One group had about 20 otters, some with pups on their stomachs. They definitely have warm fur to survive in the freezing water and air. We also saw puffins, Dall Porpoises, bald eagles, a humpback whale and a very large colony of noisy Stellar Sea Lions that had hauled out on the rocky coast of an island.
From Valdez we drove back up Thompson Pass and along some very bumpy roads going past St. Elias-Wrangell National Park. The park has huge 10,000-plus foot mountains formed along the ring of fire. Frost heaves make the road quite bumpy and rough. It feels like bad airline turbulence tossing you up and down. By late morning we made it through Tok Junction – the first and last highway intersection we hit in Alaska. There were huge forest fires all around so it was quite smoky.
From Tok we drove through the taiga for est of spruce trees. Taiga is a Russian word for little sticks. It’s fitting for the skinny trees that grow in the permafrost. The ground’s either wet or frozen, making it hard for trees or anything else to grow. Trees that are just a few inches in diameter might be hundreds of years old. This taiga forest covers the Tetlin National Wildlife Refuge near the Alaska-Canada border. Here we saw a number of trumpeter swan pairs in the many ponds or lakes.
After crossing the border it’s a long drive with very few people or gas stops to Whitehorse – capital of the Yukon. The very bumpy road passes through the taiga and later fur forests. It was dinner time when we reached Destruction Bay and Kluane National Park. From here it was another two hours to Whitehorse, capital of the Yukon, where we spent the night. We were in Whitehorse for Canada Day. This time we took a train trolley ride along the river, visited a museum with history of the area and gold rush, and panned for gold. We found gold!…but alas, no big nuggets to pay for the trip.
After spending the day in Whitehorse we drove along parts of the Chilkoot Trail and down White Pass. It’s a gorgeous drive that passes blue-green lakes, fast flowing rivers, glacial carved valleys, and tall mountains. We saw three black bears eating berries near the roadside as they prepare for the upcoming winter. White Pass and Chilkoot Pass mark the U.S.-Canadian border. Driving down to Skagway, we were impressed that people had actually walked this route.