Dispatch, Alaska: The time machine drops us off

Alaska Dispatch series

Johanna in AlaskaCruise Editor Johanna Jainchill has embarked on a land-cruise tour of Alaska and the Yukon territory. She is filing dispatches detailing her adventures there.

Dispatch 3, Skagway, Alaska: This trip can be described as planes, trains and automobiles -- and boats.

In five days, our group traveled more than 900 miles, mostly on a motorcoach, but also on the Yukon Queen riverboat and the White Pass & Yukon Route railroad from Fraser, British Columbia, to Skagway, Alaska.

Most of our group then boarded a Holland America ship bound for Vancouver, while a few of us got on a nine-person plane for a 40-minute flight to Juneau. (Most people on these trips do a combined land-cruise tour, but a few couples booked directly through Gray Line of Alaska, the company that runs the land portion for Holland America.) While close in distance, it is impossible to drive from Skagway to Juneau, the only U.S. state capital inaccessible by road.

Traveling in Alaska means understanding time and distance in a different way. The next town over, Haines, is only 35 minutes from Skagway by fast ferry, but it is a 720-mile drive.

In covering as much distance as this tour has, the group appreciated the different kinds of transportation. Many cited the train to Skagway as a highlight of the tour. The railway was built in 1898 during the Klondike Gold Rush, and the restored train climbs almost 3,000 feet over 20 miles, through tunnels blasted in the mountains and along bridges and steep cliffs. The route begins in moonscape-like alpine tundra and becomes greener and more mountainous as the train crosses from Canada back into the U.S.

Skagway is a crossroads between two kinds of travel in this region. It is the beginning of the gold rush route that continues north, through the Yukon and into Fairbanks. Skagway is the port where most of the tens of thousands of men and women in search of gold began their arduous trek that for the vast majority ended in failure.

Places like the former saloon and brothel, the Red Onion (now only a saloon) are vestiges of that time. Built in 1897, the staircase by the bar and restaurant on the first level leads up to the former brothel area, now a museum that tells how women who participated in the futile search for gold ended up having to make a living. AlaskaDawsonStreet

Going north or south from here offers breathtaking scenery and chance for wildlife viewing but the Yukon is clearly the history buff's Alaska. The one full day spent in a town along the Yukon route was in Dawson City, a place that one member of our bus group described as feeling about 150 years behind the rest of the world. The roads aren't paved, the sidewalks are made of wood planks and Diamond Tooth Gertie's Gambling Hall is the nexus of the nightlife.

Dawson's charming buildings were mostly built during the gold rush and still retain their original look. Many of us felt as if we had walked onto the set of an old western film.  

The much more popular coastal sightseeing destinations -- Juneau, Glacier Bay and Ketchikan -- lie south of Skagway. These places are famous for glaciers, whale watching and a lot of rain and are where a majority of cruises spend most of their time. This is where someone most interested in nature and scenery would be better off.

I will be able to experience both. Tomorrow, I board a Cruise West ship, the Spirit of Endeavor, for a seven-day trip through Alaska's Inside Passage.

To contact reporter Johanna Jainchill, send e-mail to [email protected].


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