Friday, October 27, 2017

Alaska: Land Ho! Skagway

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We were so happy to finally get off the ship. We weren't seasick or anything, just happy to be able to roam freely (without human obstacles blocking us in narrow corridors) and experience food that actually had flavor.

Today's Skagway mostly exists to give tourists like us something to see other than ice and nature. The entire town is one shop after another - similar to a Disney Park Main Street. But unlike Disney's version, Skagway's downtown is filled with real turn-of-the-20th-century architecture and charm. As an added bonus, the town is also a National Park (Klondike Gold Rush NP).

In the late 1800's Skagway developed to serve prospectors adventuring to seek gold in Alaska and Canada. The city has a seedy history with booze, gambling, and hookers running rampant. Per Wikipedia, "Between 1897 and 1898, Skagway was a lawless town, described by one member of the North-West Mounted Police as "little better than a hell on earth." Fights, prostitutes and liquor were ever-present on Skagway's streets, and con man "Soapy" Smith, who had risen to considerable power, did little to stop it. Smith was a sophisticated swindler who liked to think of himself as a kind and generous benefactor to the needy. He was gracious to some, giving money to widows and halting lynchings, while simultaneously operating a ring of thieves who swindled prospectors with cards, dice, and the shell game." So this was our kind of place: old-timey charm with a few dank bars thrown into the mix.

Fortunately we had a 12 hour stop in town. Our kayaking/train excursion would start around 11:30 giving us about three hours to explore Broadway. We toured the National Park Visitor Center, browsed many shops, looked at the White Pass train display, and followed the historic trail showcasing original (or replica) structures from the late-1800's. The Red Onion Saloon opened at 10am - giving us a chance to enjoy sitting at the historic bar without all the crowds of cruisers that would be in the place at more respectable hours.

At 11:30 we boarded our assigned motorcoach and took a 45 minute ride up to Lake Bernard in British Columbia, Canada. We barely crossed the U.S./Canadian border to get to our destination. The dozen in our group were greeted by our guides and shown to our ruddered kayaks. We were given splash bibs to keep our legs and bodies dry from paddling. After orientation, and deciding on who would steer our kayak (Holly), we were launched into the gorgeous little mountain lake.

The paddling portion of our trip took about an hour. With some of the currents (lake was fed by a river) the last portion of the tour became quite a challenge. This excursion was a little out-of-the-box for us but we figured we would never go to Canada to kayak on our own. After kayaking our tour guides treated us to some light snacks inside a warm platform tent before walking us over to our private White Pass train car reserved for Packer Expedition guests. As an added bonus it was the train's caboose. The slow trip down very steep grades was filled with views of rivers, forests, gorges, waterfalls, and rock formations. We traveled over very high (and old) train bridges. The entire trip was narrated by a guide pointing out sites along the way. One odd sighting we had was two plastic Oswald dolls in a tree. No clue how anyone could have gotten there to place them.
Really cool house en-route to Distillery

Our ride ended around 5pm. We raced over to the Skagway Brewing Company for a proper late-lunch and beer. As expected it was crowded but we lucked into bar seats as a couple was leaving. We had some incredible halibut fish and chips here - the kind you dream about. While at the bar the owner of the brand new Skagway Spirits Distillery came in to talk to the bar about carrying his product. We had plenty of time left so we took a few block walk outside the tourist zone over to his business. We encountered the owner again and met his wife. At the time we were the only customers and spent some time getting their life stories over our cocktails. Many of the items in the lounge were relics from former businesses in town. We had a great time in there.

We wanted to hit one of the shops on the way back to pick up a carved otter. Surprise! The stores were closed while the ship was still in port. We thought they'd be open as long as the ship was around. Nope! We spent too much time in future ports trying to find a suitable substitute for that otter. Pro Tip: buy it when you see it. With limited things left to do in town we made the rookie mistake of getting back on the ship an hour before we were to weigh anchor. Surely we could have squeezed our way into the Red Onion or spent more time talking with the folks in the distillery.

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