Not your average travel blog
The ride south to Skagway and back into Alaska takes you over the Alaska Range. A little over a century ago, stampeders hiked from the fjords of Skagway and Dyea, up over the White Pass to seek their fortunes further north. It took them at least three days. We drove further from Carcross in Canada, to Skagway on the U.S. coast in less than two hours.
Following the road, we casually cruised through many miles of now vegetated, volcanic flow. Dramatic scenery high up in the peeks descends drastically into the canyons and towards the sea. Skagway is the city at the end of the road and from here, we will board a ship to eventually leave the USA.
Skagway was built upon the gold rush and when the train line was installed to carry passengers up over the White Pass to Lake Bennet, it became the first stop for every stampeder to alight from a steam ship. This was the quickest route to Whitehorse, the Yukon, and the gold from the west coast of America, yet it wasn’t without its treachery.
Following the rail road, Skagway was the newest, and fastest growing city of the gold rush in 1898. So much so, that it had electricity installed a whole year before New York. It was renowned for being a lecherous and dirty place, a hell hole on the gold rush route. With it being so far away from modern American civilisation, it quickly became somewhat of a lawless town, full of con artists, skullduggery, light fingered residents and plenty of houses of ill repute. Unlike the rather vibrant but tame Whitehorse to the north, Skagway was soaked with liquor, whores, gambling halls, and every which way for any mildly wealthy gent to be coerced and almost forced into spending (or “losing”) his fortune. It sounds wickedly splendid, but for many in Skagway or on nearby treacherous trails, most gold rush dreams ended here.
The neighbouring city of Dyea now sits beneath the forest floor after being swallowed by nature. Dyea grew even quicker and was bigger than Skagway at its peak. It’s where the trail began to hike up to Lake Bennet, where all manner of boats were thrown together in order to sail north towards the gold. Once Skagway had their rail track, Dyea died a rapid death in the arms of Mother Nature. You can still see the raised mossy mounds under the forest pines where downtown boardwalks once were, but there is nothing left except the stories of locals and tour guides keep it alive.
Dyea means “to pack” to the local Tlingit tribe and that’s exactly what they helped stampeders do before heading out on the trail. However I found a few other variables, including “to conduct illegal theft while travelling”. We’ll have to rely on a true Tlingit to decipher how Dyea acquired its name… The chilkoot trail is one of gold rush legend and you can still hike the three day trek up to Lake Bennett. The Tlingit were extremely territorial over their trade route and originally used it to trade with interior-based Athabascans. After heated exchanges, they agreed to allow the Russian, Boston and Hudson Bay Trading Company’s miners to use it to access the Yukon. They still restricted it’s use and charged a fee for aided passage. Now closed after September for avalanches and dangerous conditions, it is still moderately challenging for the experienced trekker, but with touristy, pay-per-campsites and restrictions to only hike one way (you have to pay for the train back) it’s popular for those seeking a historical walk. Gold rushers trekked year round, and although winter was dangerous, it seemed safer than in spring – avalanche season. Ignoring the advice of white packers and the Tlingit, on Palm Sunday 3rd April 1898 many people lost their lives in the deadliest event in Klondike gold rush history. Multiple snow slides killed over sixty five stampeders after eager rushers naively hiked to their doom up the Chilkoot. The news of the disaster was reported on across the continent and was the biggest story in America since the announcement of the Klondike gold-rich discovery. Gold seeking was not for the faint hearted.
Every tour guide and local has slightly different tales, but it isn’t hard to understand why. There are plenty of loose facts around town and even in the library, confusion and myth is thrown into the mix with dozens of books and newspapers detailing often exaggerations from over zealous first hand accounts. It does however make for wonderful tales and romanticised notions of everything that happened here. Many facts are indisputable and often you don’t need to go beyond the gist to be entertained and fascinated.
Even though evidence of Dyea barely exists in the trees, it’s location on the sandy flats which stretch out towards the ocean, is still full of life. The salmon spawn here annually and riding a horse along the edges of the crystal clear streams, I see dozens of tired chum, bigger than my forearm, gasp their last breaths every minute. In a few weeks the run will be over and there will be no more fish. One of nature’s monumental and toughest survival-migrations, each fish lives four or five years, and some return from as far as the Japanese and Russian coasts. Tired in the streams with their eggs often floating in the rich flow, they see their fellow journeymen simply roll over and die in the shallows, accepting that they will soon follow them. Birds loiter and peck at their easy remains and the struggles of life are never more evident than in a fish’s last gasp and gill flap. I’ve heard (but I’m reluctant to believe) that the salmon are so abundant, that when the bears join the party they only suck their faces for the most nutrient rich morsels. Although I know from experience that the eyes and brains are tasty, juicy options, I need to ask a bear.
The salt waters are diluted with fresh water mineral silts from the glaciers and the heavy rains that fall here. As glaciers retreat, the land rises at almost an inch a year and as a result, pristine new forests have been born in the fjords. To steep for elk, deer, moose and caribou; the mountainous valleys home eagles, wild dall sheep, (apparently mountain goats), and bears of all flavours. It’s a concentrated wilderness so close to the longest and deepest fjord in North America (some 2000ft below sea level!) and in the waters? Harbour seals, sea otters, occasional dolphins all enjoy a sultan’s sanctuary away from crafty orca. Dyea and Skagway are historical gems shrouded in mysteries and truthful myths (and oxymorons). They are surrounded by wilderness as wild as the stories they harbour. Fascinating and crude, debauched and sordid, they still stand as very different living museums for all their cruise ship visitors.