We woke up this morning docked in Skagway, Alaska, a tiny little settlement that was once a town but probably no longer qualifies for the title. (Seriously. It’s less than a thousand people.) Mom had booked a wildlife tour for us, which would hopefully allow us to see eagles and bears and all sorts of creatures gallivanting about in beautiful natural settings. But first, we had to get to the tour, which departs from another tiny hamlet called Haines that is located across the Lynn Canal from Skagway. That means we got off of one boat and onto another.
The ride across the Lynn Canal was pretty awesome and restored my faith in water travel. As the boat chugged across the water, we could see whales swimming in the distance. Well, what we really saw were the puffs of water they produced from their blowhole – the animals themselves were too far away to make out. A guide told us about the history of the two towns as we rode. Skagway was one of the boom towns during the Klondike Gold Rush, and even now the spirit of the day permeates the town. (At least, the tourist sections are quite old-timey Western.) One of the more colorful individuals to live in the town was Soapy Smith, a crook who came up with a particularly clever and cruel scheme. He would greet new greenhorns as they came into town and offer to take them to his telegraph office so they could let their loved ones know they’d safely arrived in Alaska. It was $5 to send a message; for another $5 the greenhorn could get a response. The poor men never knew that the telegraph wire protruding from the building led nowhere, and the entire operation was a scam. It’s a terrible thing to take advantage of lonely miners like that, but I can’t help but admire the clean creativity of the scheme.
Haines began as a Presbyterian mission, near a Tlingit village. Our tour guide claimed it was co-founded by John Muir, who had come up to Alaska to examine the glaciers and see if they supported his theory that Yosemite Valley had been carved by glacial movement. Supposedly, Muir impressed the local Natives with his beautiful words and obvious reverence for nature, smoothing the way for the missionaries to build a church in the area. John Muir is one of my great heroes, but I had no idea he’d been so active in Alaska. I’ll have to look up some of his Alaska writings when I get home. Haines is also home to Fort William H. Seward, the last of the military outposts built to protect Alaska from the Russians in the 19th century. It’s named for a Secretary of State who served President Lincoln during the Civil War and who under President Johnson helped engineer the purchase of Alaska. The layout of the fort is pretty similar to San Francisco’s Presidio.
Our tour van
The Haines Hammer Museum.
So anyway, we get to Haines and get off the boat and meet our tour guide for the wildlife adventure. He’s got a telescope set up so that we can see a juvenile bald eagle perched under a pier. It’s a crazy lookin’ thing with feathers all over the place, none of which are white. When all the cruise guests arrive, we pile into a van and drive off to see if we can find some animals. As we drive, the guide hands out binoculars and tells everyone to watch out for “golf balls” in the trees. If you see a small white spot near the top, odds are pretty good that it’ll be a bald eagle. He was right – it seemed like I was spotting one every few minutes.
One of the salmon counting stations run by the state. In a few weeks, some bloke will sit there all day long counting fish as they swim by.
A perfect mirror lake.
Spot the eagle.
As we drove around the outskirts of the town, we would pull over to the side of the road every few minutes. The guide would set up a telescope and try to spot animals for everyone to gawk at. He did a fair job of it, although we never managed to spot any bears or salmon. (Darn!) We had arrived a few weeks too early for that particular treat. But we did see eagles and other random water fowl, mountain goats, and little squirrels and suchlike. After three or four such stops, we were taken along a short trail to look around in the forest for more critters.
A little boy, about three or four, who was with his parents latched onto me during the hike. I don’t know why! One minute I’m walking along, minding my own business, and the next minute this kid reaches out and takes my hand and proceeds to chatter at me for the rest of the trip. You’d think his parents would worry about their son wandering off with a strange lady, but they never once came over to introduce themselves or even halted their conversation long enough to check on where their boy was! It was very weird.
My random new buddy.
When the tour was over, we floated back across the water in our boat and headed over the “historic” downtown Skagway to do some souvenir shopping. The buildings retained that old-fashioned Western boomtown feel, but inside the shops there was nothing but tourist t-shirts, socks, plastic toys, snowglobes – every tchotchke you can think of, made in China and packaged to sell to cruise people. It was vaguely depressing to see the exact same items in every single store. I did manage to find a couple of interesting things here and there. In one store, they were selling jars of spruce tip jelly – supposedly, it tastes a bit like how pine smells – and the shop owner told me that around fourth grade, every elementary school student does a project where he or she goes out and picks spruce tips to make their own jelly. I got one for my brother, since he likes to eat weird food.
Visitors to Skagway usually ride a train to the top of a mountain, but Mom didn’t want to so we missed the big attraction.
Seriously, what do pirates have to do with Alaska?
An advertisement for the store above, painted on the side of an otherwise lovely mountain.
On the cliff facing the place where cruise ships dock, different crews have painted the dates of their voyage onto the rock. This bothered me a lot – way to ruin nature’s beauty by tagging the sides of the mountain! – but there’s a neat historical aspect to it. In one section, you could see three or four different paintings captained by the same man as he headed different ships in the Princess fleet. There last series of dates celebrated his retirement. But it just seemed so ugly and tacky the more I looked at it.
We returned to the ship around 4. Dinner was nice – we actually had some very pleasant companions and we ended up staying late, chatting for hours. There was only one minor snafu. One lady leaned over and asked Mom if I was her granddaughter. Mom tried to hide it but she was put out. She sniffed, “No, that’s my daughter. She doesn’t look it but she’s twenty-eight.” Of course, the innocent questioner was nearly falling all over herself apologizing. Much later, when we were back in the room, Mom pouted, “Why don’t they ever mistake us for sisters? That happens to [her co-worker and her daughter] all the time.” Poor Mom, there’s just too much of an age gap between us for that to ever happen! ‘Tis a consequence of having a daughter in your late thirties instead of your early twenties.