Dawson City, Yukon Territory – Heart of the 1898 Klondike Gold Rush

At the end of August in 2001, I boarded a flight to Salt Lake City and on to Anchorage, Alaska. Upon arriving in Anchorage, I picked up a rental car, and I was pleasantly surprised when Hertz handed me the keys to a new Mercury Mountaineer SUV. That night I checked into a beautiful corner suite in the Captain Cook Hotel downtown, my favorite place to stay in Anchorage.

Anchorage – View from Captain Cook Hotel
Anchorage – View of the Alaska Range across Cook Inlet

The next morning, as skies were clearing, I enjoyed a huge seafood omelet at the Downtown Deli. (shrimp, crab, halibut, salmon) After breakfast, I headed north out of town on the Alaska Highway toward Glennallen. A few hours later, as I approached the town, there was fresh snow on the mountains and gorgeous, brilliant fall colors everywhere – yellow, red, and gold! On the edge of town, there was an historical monument honoring Colonel Allen, who first surveyed an overland route from the Copper River to the Yukon River, and eventually all the way down the river to the Bering Sea, a distance of over 2000 miles! North of Glennallen, I spotted several moose on the edge of a lake near Tok Junction. When I got to the small town, I stopped at “Fast Eddie’s” for a great halibut burger, and then fueled up at the old Tok Lodge for the 250 mile drive to the Yukon border. At Tetlin Junction, I turned off the Alaska Highway and on to the Taylor Highway for the journey to Dawson City.

Anchorage to Dawson City

A couple of hours later I came to the tiny isolated village of Chicken, Alaska, and I couldn’t pass up the chance to take a photo of beautiful, downtown Chicken – all three buildings! (Chicken Mercantile, Chicken Saloon, Chicken Café) Just as I was about to leave town, I spotted two chickens in a cage in front of the café. But the name of the village actually originates from the fact that the word “chicken” is the common name for the Alaskan Ptarmigan!

Chicken – Downtown
Chicken Post Office

It wasn’t long before I came to the Yukon border and Canadian Customs Post. Shortly after passing through customs, I began the 100 mile drive on the “Top of the World Highway” that followed the summit of the Ogilvie Mountains, through great expanses of brilliantly colored alpine tundra for as far as the eye could see.

Yukon Territory Border
Yukon – Top of the World Highway Map

Just west of Dawson City, the highway descended steeply down to the mighty Yukon River. Here I crossed the river on a small ferry operated by the Yukon Territorial Government. By now the weather had changed considerably and a light rain had begun to fall. As I drove into the old gold rush town, I started noticing a lot of “No Vacancy” signs at all the hotels and motels – not a good sign! (especially since the next nearest town to Dawson City was Pelly Crossing, almost 200 miles south!) I stopped at several of the hotels and motels, and the story was always the same – the whole town was fully booked, being the last long weekend of the season, and the finals of the Territorial Softball Tournament! And to make matters worse, no one could recommend anywhere else to stay.

Dawson City – Downtown

Suddenly I spotted a sign in the window of the Westminster Hotel Bar – “Rooms Available”! But as I walked into the lounge, it was most definitely a very seedy place. So I checked a couple other places in town, in vain, before reluctantly heading back to the Westminster Hotel, resigning myself to being given the last dirty room directly above the noisy bar where a local rock band was setting up for the night. I almost felt “relieved” when I was told there were no more rooms available, contrary to the sign in the bar window! But, before preparing myself to sleep in the SUV, I took another drive south of town and spotted the “Bonanza Gold Rush Motel and RV Park”. But of course, they had no rooms, having given away their last room 15 minutes before! The woman at the front desk felt sorry for me and called two more places in a last, desperate attempt. One was a youth hostel on the far side of the Yukon River that had one bed left in a dormitory – however, by this time, the ferry had already stopped service for the night! The only other option was a “rustic” cabin 30 km south of town, with no electricity or running water! (by this time, I was pretty much out of options and facing a long, cold night in the SUV) When I didn’t “jump” at either of those final options, she went quiet for a moment, and then called “John”. When John stepped into the office, she said “do you think we should put him in the back of the trailer?” (his parents lived in the front of the trailer) I counted my blessings when John said “yes”! As it turned out, the one room was small, but it had a bed and a shower. Cases of empty wine and liquor bottles were piled high outside the trailer, but at that point, I didn’t mind) As we entered the trailer, John handed me a towel, bar of soap, a roll of toilet paper and then said, “good night”. Having finally found accommodation for the night, I headed downtown for dinner and enjoyed a fabulous plate of fresh, pan fried Arctic Char at “Klondike Kate’s”, along with a couple of “Chilkoot Lagers” from the Yukon Brewing Company in Whitehorse. After dinner, as I retired for the night in my small trailer room, the rain was falling softly on the tin roof – very peaceful!

The next morning, I woke up to find steady light rain falling outside and a heavy, cold overcast sky. After taking a shower in the tiny bathroom, I decided to drive south of town to Dempster Junction, the beginning of the Dempster Highway, a gravel road that winds its way north through the arctic tundra to the small native village of Inuvik, on the coast of the Arctic Ocean – a distance of 735km (nearly 500 miles). I decided to drive about 30 km up the road, just to say I had driven the Dempster. By the time I returned to the Klondike Highway junction, the SUV was covered in a thick layer of yellow mud, that would become something of a “badge of honor” when I got back to Dawson City. By this time, the rain had turned the unpaved streets of town into muddy trails. Wooden boardwalks gave pedestrians a chance to avoid slogging their way through the mud, except when having to cross the street. As I walked around downtown Dawson City, in the mud and rain, I speculated that it must have been much the same for the thousands of gold seekers during the Klondike Gold Rush of 1898.

Dawson City – Main Street
Dawson City from the past

Around noon, the judging began for the “International Outhouse Race”, followed a short time later with the start of the race. Teams of five people from Canada, USA, and Sweden competed, pulling their outhouses on wheels through the muddy streets. Rules of the race required one person from each team to “ride” in the outhouse during the race. As part of the course, the teams had to stop at designated places along the route to search for specific items to collect in their outhouse – sort of like a scavenger hunt! By the end of the race, no one was recognizable, having been totally covered in thick, gray mud – but they all had a great time!

Dawson City – Outhouse Race Judging
Dawson City – Outhouse Race Start
Dawson City – Outhouse Race down Main Street

After the award ceremony, I walked over to the Dawson City Museum, which was the old Territorial Administration Building – Dawson was the capitol of the territory until 1950, when the capitol moved to Whitehorse. The museum had many interesting displays and exhibits, with lots of fascinating history from the gold rush era. There was also a great exhibit of three small steam locomotives that once operated on the old Klondyke Mining Railroad, which ran from Dawson City up Bonanza Creek to the mining community of Grand Forks.

Dawson City Museum – Steam Locomotive

At the height of the gold rush, Grand Forks had a population of more than 10,000 – now it’s a ghost town. The same was true for Sulphur Springs, now just a name on the map today. In the afternoon, the rain tapered off, so I drove up to “Midnight Dome”, a steep mountain rising a thousand feet above town. From the summit I had a spectacular view of the confluence of the Klondyke River and the mighty Yukon River. Far below, Dawson City lay perched on the only small patch of flat land for miles around.

Dawson City – View from Midnight Dome

Meanwhile, light showers played tag with the sunshine. To the east and south of Dawson, along the banks of the Klondyke River, lay huge ribbons of mine tailings that resembled giant caterpillars – the remnants of massive gold dredging operations, which continued until the early 1960’s! During the gold rush of ’98, and for many years after, millions of dollars of gold and silver were mined every year. Even today, there are still active mines throughout the region. Later, I drove up the old road along Bonanza Creek to see the site where gold was first discovered in 1897. The massive old gold dredge #4 was still sitting in the creek bed where it had last mined gold in the late 1950’s. It has now become a National Park Historic Site.

Klondike River – Gold Dredge #4

On the way back to town, I visited the historic cabins of the famous writers Robert Service (“The Cremation of Sam Magee”) and Jack London (“The Call of the Wild”). Both cabins are now National Park Historic Sites.

Dawson City – Robert Service Cabin

Back in Dawson City, I took a long walk atop the huge dike that now protects the town from flooding in the spring. Nearby was the historic old river sternwheeler “Keno”, now in permanent dry dock on the shore of the river. She operated on the Yukon River from 1922 until 1960, carrying both passengers and freight – one of the last sternwheelers on the river.

Dawson City – “Keno” Sternwheel Riverboat

Downtown I discovered a monument to honor the memory of the 100 people from Dawson City who lost their lives in 1918, when the Canadian steamship “Princess Sophia” sank during a violent storm north of Juneau, Alaska. (no one aboard survived) Not far from the memorial, rather ironically, was the “Lowe’s Mortuary Museum”, in an old log building that served as a funeral parlor during the days of the gold rush, and well into the turn of the century. As I peered through the dusty windows, I saw a room filled with old implements and products used by morticians of the era – rather gory, gruesome and primitive! (an old empty casket sat in the back of the room, perhaps awaiting its next guest) A couple of blocks down the street was the “Downtown Hotel” and the “Jack London Grill”, where I had a superb dinner of fresh pan seared Arctic Char and fresh steamed vegetables – the Arctic Char is essentially a fresh water Salmon and a fabulous fish to eat. The cold glass of Chilkoot Lager went exceptionally well with dinner. My server insisted that I must finish dinner with a slice of fresh homemade pie, made with local bumbleberries and rhubarb, and it was exceptional! But the restaurant was out of ice cream, the main ingredient for over half of the desserts on the menu. After dinner, I walked next door to the “Sourdough Saloon” where a tour group was engaged in the ritual of doing “Sourtoe Cocktails” – some foul tasting liquor in a small glass, in which an old human toe was placed. The instructions from the bartender went like this: “you can drink it fast or you can drink it slow, but the toe must touch your lips”! (he also cautioned not to swallow it) Afterwards, everyone who was successful was awarded membership in the “club”, which certainly must be a prestigious award anywhere in the world! The Sourtoe Cocktails were very popular among the tourists – not so among the locals. Meanwhile, a song on the old jukebox caught my ear, “That wedding ring is as ugly to me as your husband is to you” – surely a top hit on the country charts. Not long after the last Sourtoe Cocktail had been downed, I walked outside, into the dark night and muddy streets of Dawson City, much like the old sourdoughs must have done a hundred years ago. And just before I headed for bed, I looked up to see a patch of clear sky, filled with the stars of the Big Dipper, shining brightly.

But the next morning, heavy low clouds, fog, and drizzle had returned to Dawson City. As I checked out of the Bonanza Gold Rush Motel, the manager couldn’t remember if she had told me a price for the first night in the back of the trailer, so she said “how about $50?”, and I said “that sounds good to me”. (especially being that it was only $35 USD) Then I filled up with gas, bought a large coffee, and headed to the ferry across the Yukon River. On the other side, I began a long, slow, steep climb up the mountainside to the “Top of the World Highway”. For the first half hour, I was driving through dense fog (aka heavy low clouds), but when I reached the summit of the mountains, 3000 feet above the river, I broke free of the fog/clouds and a beautiful vista of mountains lay before me, as far as the eye could see. The deep, narrow valleys below were filled with heavy, dark grey clouds – at that point, I was truly “above the clouds”!

Yukon – Top of the World Highway
Yukon – Top of the World Highway
Yukon – Top of the World Highway

For more than a hundred miles, the highway skipped along the high, rounded peaks of the Ogilvie Mountains, occasionally dipping into the narrow valleys filled with clouds. And all around me were the brilliant yellow, orange, and red fall colors of the alpine tundra, shining beautifully like a massive carpet across the Yukon Territory! About three hours later I came to the Alaskan Border Customs Station and a new time zone, but the landscape barely changed.

Alaska Border Post

Further west the road began a slow, steady descent into the Fortymile River Basin, a land of extensive mining activity. In the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, there were many small American mining towns that were actually located in the Yukon but lived by US laws. It remained the case until the 1920’s, which helps explain the close relationship between Alaska and the Yukon today. The highway rapidly deteriorated into a rough gravel road, with lots of hairpin turns as it meandered in and out of numerous deep valleys. The miles continued to pass by as I gazed upon the gorgeous autumn colors that unfolded before me, around every turn in the road.

FortyMile River Basin
Autumn Colors in Alaska

Eventually I came to the metropolis of Chicken and then the junction with the road to Eagle, before coming to Tetlin Junction and the vast expanse of the Tanana River Basin. A few hours later I reached Tok Junction, a place where everyone driving into or out of Alaska “must” pass on their way, either east, west, north, or south! As I fueled up and grabbed a sandwich at the historic old Tok Lodge, the sun was finally breaking through the clouds in full force, brilliantly highlighting the lovely fall colors of the forest and tundra. On the way to Glennallen, I rarely passed another vehicle for over three hours – it almost felt as if I had the highway entirely to myself! West of Glennallen, on the highway to Anchorage, there were many incredible views of the rugged Chugach Range, the peaks covered in a coat of fresh snow. The massive Tazlina and Nelchina Glaciers were shining brilliantly under the sunshine.

Chugach Range
Chugach Range
Tazlina and Nelchina Glaciers
Matanuska Valley – Eureka Summit

There was a noticeable absence of Moose and Caribou in sight, it being the start of the hunting season! As evening fell upon the Matanuska Valley, I arrived in Anchorage and checked into a nice room at the “Millennium Hotel”, located on the shore of Lake Hood, the world’s busiest float plane base. That evening I sat in the “Fancy Moose Bar”, overlooking Lake Hood, with a cold pint of Alaskan Amber, and watched the float planes taking off and landing.

Anchorage – Lake Hood

Later, as the sun was setting across the lake, I enjoyed a fabulous dinner of char-grilled fresh Halibut, topped with Mango chutney. And to finish off dinner, I had a huge piece of “Mary’s Bread Pudding”, filled with generous portions of dried wild cherries and pecans, and topped with Yukon Jack hard sauce! As I relaxed in the bar after dinner, I reflected upon the amazing experience of Dawson City and the Yukon Territory – historical, colorful, and definitely unique! A place I know I will return to someday, hopefully when there’s a vacancy!

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California to Alaska by Land, Sea, and Air (part 3 of 3)

After having left Skagway and crossed the White Pass summit, I came to the Canadian Customs post, where the agent was particularly curious about why I was “driving” to Anchorage, more than 850 miles away, and not taking a much faster route by plane. So I just said simply that I wanted to see the beauty of the Yukon on the ground. That resonated with her and as she handed back my passport, she wished me a pleasant journey and said that I should be on the lookout for Mountain Goats on the steep cliffs as I approached Tutshi Lake, some 20 miles down the road. The drive through the orange and red tundra alongside Lake Bennett was gorgeous under clear sunny skies. The brilliant yellow and orange fall colors of Aspen, mixed with the deep green Spruce forest amid the steel grey rocks and alpine lakes, was simply an amazing display of nature.

Lake Bennett – White Pass summit
Lake Bennett

Later, just like the Customs agent had said, as I looked up at the steep rocky cliffs along the shore of Tutshi Lake, I spotted a white “speck” that appeared to move. And sure enough, my binoculars confirmed that indeed it was a Mountain Goat, so I took out my telephoto lens and snapped several photos as it slowly picked its way among the rocky cliffs. Meanwhile, the passengers of a tour bus parked nearby were oblivious to the presence of the goat directly above them.

Mountain Goat on the cliffs above Tutshi Lake
Tutshi Lake
Fall colors of the forest – Yukon Territory

Further down the road, I had to stop while workers hung huge metal screens from the top of the rocky cliffs to deflect falling rocks from the roadway. For almost an hour I watched them working, as they dangled hundreds of feet above the road. Just then I noticed a little chipmunk dash across the road and under a large truck to get a handout from the flagman! When traffic finally resumed, I passed through the small town of Carcross, which derives its name from being near a traditional “Caribou crossing” just on the edge of town.

Carcross, Yukon Territory

A couple of hours later I arrived in Whitehorse, the Territorial Capitol of the Yukon, and home of the historic steam powered sternwheel riverboat named “Klondike”.

Steam Sternwheel River Boat “Klondike”

It transported passengers and freight on the mighty Yukon River from the late 1800’s up until 1955! Beginning in 1866, the first steam powered boats began travelling on the lower Yukon River from the village of St Michael on the Bering Sea coast upriver to Nenana and Fairbanks. By the time of the 1898 gold rush, over 300 riverboats were operating and had reached both Dawson City and Whitehorse. For over 45 years, they were the only means of commercial transportation for both freight and passengers into the interior of Alaska and the Yukon. Most of the steamers were built in Seattle or San Francisco, and either sailed up to the Bering Sea or were shipped overland in pieces over White Pass to Lake Bennett to be assembled in Whitehorse. But with the completion of the White Pass and Yukon Railroad in 1900, and the US Government Railroad (now known as the Alaska Railroad) from Anchorage to Fairbanks in 1923, the steamboats suffered a rapid decline in service on the river. However, at the peak of riverboat traffic, they served over 2,000 miles of the Yukon River and its major tributaries. The last two steamboats in regular service were the “Nenana” in Fairbanks and the “Klondike” in Whitehorse. Both vessels were retired in the 1950’s and put on display in their respective cities, but their place in history has lived on for many decades.

Just as I was leaving Whitehorse, I spotted the Yukon Brewing Company, so I had to check it out. I was just in time to join a tasting session and ended up buying a six-pack of “Lead Dog Lager”. Nearby were some of the original tracks of the White Pass and Yukon Railroad, long since abandoned. The railroad now terminates in Fraser, BC, on the shore of Lake Bennett, where thousands of 1898 stampeders ended their arduous trek over the Chilkoot Pass and began the 300 mile journey down the Yukon River on boats and rafts they had to build to reach Dawson City. The route west from Whitehorse took me to Haines Junction and afforded me lovely views of Kluane Lake at the foot of the 18,000 foot high St Elias Range, which was covered in a thick blanket of fresh snow. There were even a few remnants of snow alongside the road.

Kluane Lake
Sunset near Burwash Landing

Several hours later I was rewarded with a gorgeous sunset over the mountains as I passed the small village of Burwash Landing. I stopped to get some coffee at the one and only store/café, and as I went to pay for it, the clerk said it was no charge, since they were about to throw it out anyway! So I just had to ask the question “is it that bad?” (no, it was fine) Leaving Burwash Landing the road became very rough, due to a lot “frost heaving” from the previous Spring Breakup. (that’s the time of year when the winter snow and ice begin to melt during the day and then freeze again overnight) In 1979, when Marion and I drove from Seattle to Anchorage, most of the highway in Canada was unpaved and without any frost heaves. Paving the road with asphalt has exacerbated the frost heave problem significantly.

Alaska Highway – Yukon Territory

As night fell, I was still over 50 miles from Beaver Creek, Yukon – the most westerly community in Canada, and I had passed the last gas station over 100 miles back. I pulled into town just as the “empty” light came on, and then discovered that the Westmark Inn had closed for the season. The only other choice for lodging was “Ida’s Motel”, and fortunately, I walked into the office just as it was closing for the night. An elderly Indian Sikh man took pity on me and gave me the key to the last available room. Then he recommended “Buckshot Betty’s Café” across the road for dinner. (of course, it was the only place that was still open!) I ordered a huge buffalo burger, fries, and a cold LaBatts beer – a welcome sight after 12 hours on the road. Meanwhile, the same vacuum infomercial played continuously on the one and only TV, and at the same time, the radio station played rap and hip hop music – weird! After dinner, I walked back across the road in the light rain and snow to my room, took a couple of beers from the SUV, and turned on the TV. It wasn’t long before I discovered there were only 4 channels – 99 (no signal), 93 (no signal), VID (blank screen) and channel 3 (CTV). So it was pretty obvious that I had only one choice – channel 3, and I was resigned to watching the 11pm national news on CTV (Canadian Broadcasting Network), followed by the “local news” from Vancouver, BC – over 1000 miles south of Beaver Creek!

Approaching Beaver Creek, Yukon

The next morning, I woke up to find light rain and snow with the temperature hovering around 33 degrees. I headed across the road to Buckshot Betty’s for a huge ham and cheese omelet, served with an enormous side of fried potatoes and sourdough toast. The entire place, including reception, serving, cooking and cleaning was handled by one woman! After my coffee cup was refilled a half dozen times, I packed up my gear and headed west to the US Customs post on the Alaska border. A couple of inches of snow remained on the road from the storm, but even under the heavy overcast skies, the brilliant orange and red fall colors of the tundra literally “shined”. A few hours later, as I approached Northway Junction, the skies began to clear and hundreds of lakes in the Tetlin National Wildlife Refuge sparkled under the bright sunshine, for as far as the eye could see.

Tetlin National Wildlife Refuge
Tetlin National Wildlife Refuge

And in the distance, the 18,000 foot high peaks of the mighty Wrangell Mountains, covered in a heavy coat of new snow, began to peek through the clouds. By the time I reached Tok Junction, the road had become an unpredictable combination of perfectly smooth pavement, intermingled with long stretches of rough gravel. Arriving in Tok Junction, I was disappointed to find the old Tok Lodge, a classic log structure, had been demolished and replaced by a new “Mini-Mart”. (at least the coffee was still free)

Alaska Highway – on the way to Glennallen

On my way to Glennallen, the only town for the next 60 miles, I suddenly came upon an elderly native man sitting in a wheelchair by the side of the highway at the turn-off to Gakona Village. He obviously needed a ride, so I stopped, helped him into the SUV, and loaded his wheelchair into the back of the vehicle. His name was David Gene and he was on his way to an appointment at the hospital in Glennallen. During the next 45 miles to Glennallen, he told me his life story, that included drugs, alcohol, throwing his wife out of the house for using drugs, a sister dying of liver cancer in the Anchorage hospital, and on top of that, his left foot was amputated the previous January due to complications from frostbite! David was a very nice guy who had no money and hadn’t eaten in three days. (he was waiting for his welfare check at the end of the month) When we arrived in Glennallen, he asked me to drop him off at the new IGA grocery store. As I helped him into his wheelchair, I reached into my pocket and gave him a $20 bill, for he most certainly needed it far more than me, though he had never asked me for money. He thanked me and said “the wheelchair won’t do me any good in the winter snow”. Then he laughed and I bade him goodbye. As I left, I had no idea how he would get back to his village, but surely another kind stranger would take pity on him. Leaving Glennallen, now bound for Anchorage, I reflected back on my encounter with David, and how he spoke of his life and the challenges he had faced, all rather matter of fact, as if it was his destiny. Although he was only 52 years old, he looked well over 80. And though his body odor was particularly strong, I really had to admire him for taking the “straight road”, as he put it. I hope he survives long enough to pass along his native culture to the younger generation in his village. As we had parted company at the IGA store, David repeated his name and invited me to his home in Gakona Village. His parting words to me were “I’m in the phone book”. And as I drove to Anchorage, I considered it a privilege to have met David, and who knows, maybe someday I’ll see him again! A few hours later, at Eagle Summit, there were incredible views of the rugged Chugach Mountains and several glaciers, including the enormous Tazlina Glacier.

Chugach Mountains
Tazlina Glacier

Further on was the rustic Sheep Mountain Lodge, and as I scanned the steep, rocky cliffs with my binoculars, I spotted a dozen Dall Sheep slowly making their way across the mountain single file. So there’s an obvious reason why it’s called Sheep Mountain.

Sheep Mountain
Dall Sheep
Matanuska Glacier

Later, just outside of Anchorage, I saw a sign for Reflection Lake State Park, so I stopped briefly to take some photos of the jagged snow covered peaks reflected beautifully in the still water. It was a little gem to discover just a few hundred feet from the busy 4-lane Glenn Highway.

Reflection Lake
Reflection Lake
Reflection Lake

Once I arrived in Anchorage, I checked into the Captain Cook Hotel, and then walked over to the Snow Goose Brewery for a cold Pale Ale. Later the bartender offered me a taste of their latest brew, a seasonal “Pumpkin Spice Ale”, with a distinct taste of blackstrap molasses and pumpkin pie spices. It would be delicious with a chocolate dessert. Then it was over to the Glacier Brewhouse for a fantastic dinner of fresh halibut baked in Thai chili sauce, served over garlic mashed potatoes with kale sautéed in bacon. The next morning was cold, wet, and cloudy – a very typical day in Anchorage. The huge Dungeness crab omelet with sourdough toast and huckleberry jam was a perfect start to the day, which I spent visiting familiar sights around the city.

Anchorage, Alaska
Westchester Lagoon, Anchorage

That evening I joined Marion and Michael for a delicious dinner at a new restaurant named Kinley’s. Dinner began with a superb calamari steak in a mild chili sauce, followed by a fantastic crispy duck breast. The main dish of pistachio crusted, baked Alaskan Black Cod, served with tomato risotto, a mix of sautéed local vegetables and wild Alaskan mushrooms was superb! During dinner, we had a great conversation about the twin boys, Ben and Sam, as well as Michael’s new position as the general manager of the Snow Goose Brewery and Restaurant, and Marion’s new job managing the Bridge Restaurant. Both Marion and Michael were excited about attending Sam’s graduation from basic training at Fort Sill, Oklahoma the following week. From Fort Sill, Sam will be assigned to Fort Huachuca, Arizona for advanced training in military intelligence. Before we left the restaurant, Michael told us about the weird history and design of the Snow Goose building, which has five levels, was once the Elks Club, and had a bowling alley on the ground level. A fascinating bit of history that few people were aware of, but a very difficult challenge for remodeling.

Talkeetna Mountains

The next morning, I drove north of Anchorage to Hatcher Pass in the Talkeetna Mountains, under sunny skies. As I passed through the Matanuska Valley, there were lovely views of farms and snow-capped peaks beyond. The road followed the Little Susitna River up some steep inclines until finally reaching the pass.

Trail to Independence Mine State Historical Park

Just beyond was the trail to the Independence Mine State Historical Park. As I hiked among the old buildings, the State Park had placed some very interesting interpretive signs detailing the history of the mine, the mill, and the small town that grew up around it. The mine yielded over 150,000 ounces of gold between the time it opened in 1938 until it closed in 1951. Since it had been established relatively recently, most of the buildings were pretty modern , well maintained, and with all the amenities of the period. At the height of mining activity, it was home to over 800 people and had a post office, church, general store, and a school. The State Park did a great job of preserving the history of a gold mining region in the heart of the Talkeetna Mountains, just two hours north of Anchorage.

Independence Mine State Historical Park
Independence Mine State Historical Park
Independence Mine State Historical Park

The first mining activity in the region dates back to 1897, but the serious operations began in 1934, and at the peak of production, the area was the second largest hard-rock gold mining operation in the state. The Wasilla Mining Company built a substantial work camp (town) consisting of wood frame buildings, originally connected by sheltered wooden “tunnels”, due to the very heavy winter snow that could bury many of the buildings. Since the mine operated until 1951, the structures remain in excellent condition, with the exception of the mill, where most of the heavy machinery was salvaged and removed. Alaska State Parks has done an outstanding job of maintaining the town (work camp) and establishing many interpretive signs and exhibits explaining the history of the area. It was a fascinating and educational experience walking around the old town.

Independence Mine State Historical Park
Independence Mine State Historical Park

The landscape surrounding the mine was well above timberline and the fall colors of the tundra were gorgeous, especially with the rugged mountains covered in fresh snow. At one point, I noticed a young couple being photographed for their wedding – a most unique and beautiful location for the event.

Later in the afternoon, I hiked down to the Hatcher Pass Lodge for lunch and enjoyed a delicious grilled black forest ham and Tillamook cheddar cheese sandwich, along with a cold Alaska Pale Ale. As I sat in the old log building, savoring the sandwich, I had a spectacular view of the Matanuska Valley 3000 feet below and the rugged Chugach Range beyond. On the way back to Anchorage, I made a short detour to Eklutna Lake in Chugach State Park. There were lovely views of the brilliant fall foliage reflected in the steel blue glacial water.

Eklutna lake
Fall colors of the tundra

Back in the city, I checked into the Millennium Alaska Hotel on the shore of Lake Hood, so as to be close to the airport for my departure early the next morning. After walking around the lake taking photos of the seaplanes taking off and landing, I ended up in the Fancy Moose Bar for a fantastic dinner of fresh halibut and chips, along with a cold pint of Alaskan Pale Ale. (note: Lake Hood is the largest and busiest seaplane base in the world)

Seaplane taking off from Lake Hood – Anchorage

Meanwhile, a young man played some great music on his guitar in one corner of the bar, but unfortunately, no one else seemed to notice. Later in the evening, as I headed to my room, I passed a large group in the hotel lobby with heavy loads of luggage and equipment. My first thought was it must be some sort of expedition. Early the next morning, I dropped off the rental car at the airport and checked in for the Alaska Airlines flight to Seattle and on to LA. The departure was pretty bumpy as we passed through the heavy layer of clouds, but once above 15,000 feet there were incredible views of rugged mountains and glaciers peeking above the clouds. Further on, as we passed over Prince William Sound, the view of massive tidewater glaciers, some larger than the state of Rhode Island, was nothing short of astounding!

Columbia Glacier – Prince William Sound

Later, as the cloud cover returned, I watched the new movie “Inception” on the personal digi-player. The film was incredibly complicated, being about dreams within dreams, within dreams – but it was certainly fascinating. During the short layover in Seattle, I had a pint of Goose Island IPA at the Marketplace Bar, as a very crowded Japan Airlines flight to Tokyo boarded nearby. On the flight to LA I ordered a gin and tonic with a lime from an elderly male flight attendant who said, “sir, a gin and tonic without a lime is not a proper gin and tonic”! As the sun set over the Pacific Ocean, we landed in LA and I took the express bus to Union Station where I boarded the train to San Bernardino. During the ride home that evening, I looked back on my trip and knew that I had been richly rewarded with tons of amazing stories and hundreds of beautiful photographs that are memories I will carry with me forever. Alaska will always remain a special place in my heart!

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California to Alaska by Land, Sea, and Air (part 2 of 3)

After checking in to SGT Preston’s Lodge, I spent a couple of hours walking around the small town of Skagway, taking photos of the beautifully restored old Victorian buildings, many of which form part of the Klondike National Historic Park managed by the National Park Service. (another part of the park is in the Pioneer Square Historic District in Seattle, where the vast majority of gold seekers began their journey north to the gold fields of Alaska and the Yukon)

Main Street in Skagway, Alaska
Old Newspaper Building from 1898

One of the most fascinating historical restorations in Skagway was the “Mascot Saloon”, which was a very realistic re-creation of a typical bar scene from the gold rush days of 1898, complete with lifelike models and sound effects. It could easily “fool” passersby into thinking it was a real-life saloon. However, once inside it was very clear that the men standing at the bar, as well as the bartender, were not real. Throughout the saloon were lots of historical exhibits and old photos, as well as information about the saloon and its place in the colorful history of Skagway.

Inside the Mascot Saloon

Later I visited the White Pass and Yukon Railroad depot to buy a ticket on the excursion train the next morning, but I found the doors were locked. As I walked around to the front of the building, I came upon two men talking, so I asked the older man if he worked for the railroad, to which he replied “I used to run the railroad, but now I’m the mayor of Skagway – is there any way I can help you?” He directed me to the depot entrance and introduced me to a very nice lady at the ticket window, who sold me a ticket for tomorrow’s train. I thought I would be one of a very few passengers on the train, but lo and behold, she said two large cruise ships were due in port tonight and had fully booked one of the trains. Apparently these two cruise ships were the last ones of the season, which explained the preponderance of signs posted around town announcing the closure of most businesses for the season on Thursday!

White Pass & Yukon Railroad Depot

Next door, the National Park Service Visitor Center had a fantastic display of exhibits and information, including a film, about the 1898 Klondike Gold Rush that put Skagway on the map. Over 100,000 people “stampeded” to the Klondike, and amazingly, over 30,000 of them actually made it all the way to Dawson City in the heart of the Yukon Territory.

Klondike National Historical Park Visitor Center
Exhibit of the supplies each gold seeker had to carry to Dawson City

After spending a couple of hours in the Visitor Center learning a great deal of fascinating history, I headed for the infamous “Red Onion Saloon”. (reputed to be Skagway’s favorite watering hole, then and now) However, I found that it didn’t open until 4pm, so I walked down to the dock to take a photo of the Alaska Ferry MV Malaspina as it left port for Sitka and points south to Bellingham. As I approached the dock, the smell of delicious food wafted past me, being prepared in a small restaurant called “Harbor House”. The lovely smells invited me into the restaurant and I discovered a neat little place with only 3 booths and a couple of tables, all of which had a beautiful view of the harbor.

Skagway harbor and MV Malaspina ferry

Josh, the owner, welcomed me and highly recommended the fresh, local Rockfish in a tempura fry, served with a delicious pineapple-mango salsa, black bean chipotle sauce, and basmati rice. It was superb, and a most unexpected surprise for such a small, remote town! The warm, crusty sourdough bread and butter to start with was very tasty and went quite well with the cold pint of Alaskan IPA. As I savored dinner, I watched the MV Malaspina depart from the dock. Meanwhile, a young Italian couple at the next table were having some difficulty understanding Josh’s heavy Brooklyn accent, so I did my best to translate for them! After the fabulous dinner, I walked back to the Red Onion Saloon, and as I approached the historic old structure, a little girl in a bright pink dress said hello and walked in. Once inside, as I looked around the classic old bar, I was struck by the view of a long row of old “bedpans”, of every conceivable size and shape, nailed to the wall on one side of the room. On the opposite wall, above the ornate, old fashioned carved wooden bar, hung the painted portraits of Skagway’s most notorious “Ladies of the Night”! (the upper floor of the old bar was a brothel during the heydays of the gold rush) At first, as I sat down at the long bar, I was only one of three people in the whole place. Then suddenly, a very large group of young people invaded the bar, and soon I found myself surrounded and outnumbered. It was clear that they all knew the bar staff and the bar staff knew them. In no time, there was a lot of beer flowing and food being consumed. Then suddenly, a bell was rung and shots of Jameson Irish whiskey were poured for everyone in the bar, at which point, we were all told to stand up and “salute” our shot! One of the girls climbed on to a bar stool next to me and proceeded to take a photo of the group. I asked her what was the occasion and she replied “it’s the “Skagway Brewing Company” staff party. That explained the sign I had seen earlier on the front door of the brewery announcing it was “Closed for Staff Party”, which I had assumed was being held in the brewery. Ironically, the Red Onion Saloon did not have a single beer from the Skagway Brewing Company on tap. Meanwhile, old 60’s and 70’s tunes played on an old jukebox in the corner. Around 7:30pm, a local band by the name of “The Windy Valley Boys” began to play and soon, the old bar began to fill up with local families and small children. As I looked around the bar, it was hard to imagine what it might be like when two huge cruise ships dock in port tomorrow. The Windy Valley Boys played some great Irish and Cajun music, and it wasn’t long before people began dancing, especially the young kids. One cute little blond boy kept racing around between the tables while his young mother ran after him, trying in vain to catch him. And the whole time he was laughing and having lots of fun. Later in the evening, as the band took a break, I talked with their leader and bought a copy of their one and only CD titled “Alaskagway”. Before I left the saloon that night, I asked the tall blonde bartender what the place was like when cruise ships were in town. She told me that she and all the waitresses dressed up in tight corsets and 1890’s dance hall dresses! Then she showed me a copy of the saloon’s new 2014 calendar with classic “pin-up” photos of her and the waitresses – they were gorgeous girls, but like night and day from their “everyday” look!

Red Onion Saloon
The “Windy Valley Boys”

The next morning I was up early to catch the 8:15am train to White Pass summit, and as I turned the corner on the Broadway, I encountered hoards of people on the street, where the previous day I might have seen only 2 or 3 people! (it was a bit of a shock) Alongside the depot was a long train already filled with cruise ship passengers and ready to depart for Fraser, BC and a transfer by bus to Whitehorse in the Yukon Territory. A short time later, a smaller train of antique coaches pulled into the station for the 8:15am departure. As we boarded the train , we were greeted by two vivacious young ladies named Erin and Kylie, our tour guides. The journey would take us up to the White Pass summit at over 3,000 feet elevation in a short and steep 20 miles. The first half of the trip followed a narrow valley along the banks of the Skagway River, as the fog and clouds began to lift and the skies cleared. It wasn’t long before the route began the steep climb up the slope of the canyon, which gave us spectacular views of the other train as it climbed up the very steep, rocky mountain on the opposite side of the canyon over 1,000 feet above us. We could see several wooden bridges and trestles “clinging” to the rocky ledges – an amazing sight!

Route of the railroad up to White Pass
Climbing up the mountain

And hundreds of feet below us were the rails on which we had just come up earlier. As our train rounded the steep mountain, heading north again, we had spectacular views down the valley, all the way to ocean – the huge cruise ships looked like tiny white “boxes” on the edge of town! Soon the train approached the first tunnel, and then past an enormous, old wooden trestle bridge, long since abandoned and replaced with a steel girder bridge.

Old wooden trestle bridge from 1898

As we neared the summit of White Pass, the landscape abruptly changed from alpine forest into tundra, with low brush scattered among the rocky ground and alpine lakes. As I looked to the side of the rails I could see the remaining traces of the original and infamous “Trail of 98”, where thousands of “stampeders” spent weeks hauling heavy loads of supplies up the steep trail to White Pass. From there they had another 50 miles to go to the shores of Lake Bennett where they needed to build a boat or raft for the 300 mile journey down the Yukon River to the gold fields of Dawson City. As I gazed at the unforgiving, desolate, and remote landscape, I could not imagine how those stampeders had managed to even reach the summit in the dead of winter when the depth of snow could be over 20 feet, let alone survive the hazardous trip down the mighty Yukon River where dangerous rapids awaited them. The trek from Skagway to Dawson City, a distance of 450 miles, would have been a serious challenge for experienced explorers, let alone young office clerks and salesmen who left everything in 1898 to strike it rich in the Yukon! Even today, with our modern outdoor gear and technology, it still remains a challenge.

Nearing the summit of White Pass

As the train crossed the Canadian border, there was a replica of a Northwest Mounted Police checkpoint where every stampeder had to show he had supplies for a year before being allowed to proceed. (it could take 15 – 20 trips up the 3,000 foot steep trail from Skagway to White Pass summit in order to transport the thousands of pounds of supplies required by the mounties) As the locomotives unhooked and moved to the rear of the train for the return journey to Skagway, there was an announcement by Kylie that this was Erin’s last trip of her first season, and as tradition goes, she would take the “plunge” into the freezing waters of Summit Lake on the edge of the tracks. Most of us were a bit skeptical, thinking it must be a “stunt” for the tourists. But then, as we all were poised with our cameras, she stepped off the train, with the conductor, and approached the water’s edge. And to our amazement, she dove into the icy lake! The whole train applauded and cheered as she quickly climbed back on shore. Then Kylie came on the PA system and announced that today was also her last day for her first season, so she would be taking the “plunge” in the afternoon! (we all wished her good luck)

Replica of Northwest Mounted Police station on the Canadian border

As our train slowly made its way back to Skagway, descending the steep slopes, we could see the other train on the opposite side of the narrow valley, over a thousand feet below us – a spectacular sight. Back in Skagway, I walked over to a small outdoor café for a delicious lunch of fresh halibut and chips while sitting under brilliant, sunny skies. An elderly couple seated nearby struck up an interesting conversation about the experience on board their cruise ship versus my trip on the Alaska Ferry. Later in the afternoon I hiked along the old railroad line to the historic “Gold Rush Cemetery” on the north edge of town, and along the way I discovered an old, rusting steam locomotive sitting on a short spur – weeds growing up through the big drive wheels. As I walked up to it I could almost hear the history of the old iron horse echoing softly through the surrounding forest. I could only imagine its glory days as a part of the 1898 gold rush. Nearby was another silent resting place of gold rush history and some of the colorful characters who left their mark on Skagway.

Old steam locomotive
Graves in the Gold Rush Cemetery

A short trail weaved its way among the old graves to Lower Reid Falls, named in honor of Frank Reid who shot and killed the notorious gang leader “Soapy Smith”. Soapy was killed outright, but unfortunately, Frank died 12 agonizing days later from a gunshot in the groin. As I looked at Frank’s headstone, I recalled that earlier in the day, aboard the train, the way Kylie had put it, Frank lost his golden nuggets! The falls were gorgeous, dropping over 300 feet in a very steep, narrow, rocky gorge. As I left the cemetery, I saw a small grave that marked the site of a baby who was born on July 21, 1899 and died July 22, 1899. I couldn’t help feeling rather sad at that moment, even though it happened over 100 years ago. Just then, a large group of tourists arrived in a classic old antique National Park Service tour bus. On my way back to town I spotted the remains of another old steam locomotive, but there was an unusual aspect about it. Of the six large drive wheels, the two in the middle were smooth, without the usual “flange” to keep the wheels on the rails. Not far away was the “Gold Rush Brewery”, which unfortunately was closed for the season, but I had an opportunity to take photos of an old gold dredge that was left at the last place where the gold had finally run out many decades ago. In a way, it marked the spot like that of a headstone on a grave. Eventually I reached downtown and stopped at the Skagway Brewing Company for a cold pint of their “Chilkoot Trail IPA”. At first there was only a handful of people in the bar, but soon the cruise ships invaded the place, and among the crowd were a significant number of Aussies who added a lot fun and cheer! Later in the evening, I walked down to the cruise ship dock and took photos of the two enormous ships as the alpenglow of the sunset reflected beautifully on the rugged mountains rising thousands of feet above them. (“Zuiderdam” of the Holland-America Line and “Sapphire Princess” of Princess Cruise Lines) As I looked north up Main Street, a steady stream of people were headed toward the ships, as they would soon be departing for Glacier Bay. And soon the town would be deserted once again!

Cruise ships in Skagway port
Fishing boats in Skagway harbor

As the sun slowly set and stars began to appear, I looked for a place to have dinner. Suddenly I spotted a tiny restaurant by the name “The Curry Bowl”, on a small side street. As I entered the little place, I quickly realized that I was the only customer. The restaurant had a limited menu, but my favorite Indian dish was on it – Chicken Tikka Masala! As I enjoyed the spicy food, several Bollywood musicals played on the TV in the corner. A short time later, an elderly Indian couple came in, and immediately the owner and his wife greeted them as old friends. Then they all began a lively conversation in Hindi. (that’s when I knew this was an authentic Indian restaurant – the last thing I had expected to find in Skagway, Alaska!) By the time I finished dinner, night had fallen and the streets were virtually deserted. I walked over to the Skagway Brewing Company once more, and it was packed with locals celebrating the end of the tourist season. Luckily there was one empty seat at the bar, and the bartender recognized me from the previous night. He suggested that I try the specialty of the house, a cold pint of “Spruce Tip Blonde Ale”. It definitely had a most unusual taste – that of spruce, fir, and pine trees! It was an interesting tasting experience, but I preferred the Chilkoot Trail IPA. As the evening progressed, it became a wild celebration, with several rounds for the whole bar. I managed to make my exit before midnight and walked back to SGT Preston’s Lodge, along the dark, silent streets, as a light rain began to fall.

Early the next morning, under wet, cloudy skies, I walked over to the Avis Car Rental office and picked up a new Ford Explorer that would take me to Anchorage. But before leaving Skagway, I drove to the nearby Dyea National Historical Site and the start of the famous Chilkoot Trail. The town of Dyea sprang up almost overnight at the start of the Klondike Gold Rush in 1898, when it became a port for unloading supplies being shipped from Seattle and San Francisco. It was also a point of departure for prospectors seeking their fortune in the gold fields of Alaska and the Yukon. Dyea was the nearest port to the beginning of the Chilkoot Trail, an old native route over the mountains to the interior, that rapidly became a major route for gold seekers on their 500 mile journey. The Chilkoot Trail rises steeply over 3000 feet to Chilkoot Pass and the Canadian border. In the winter of 1898, men spent weeks hauling heavy loads on their backs up and over the pass to a staging area on the shore of Lake Bennett. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police required each man to have a minimum of 2000 pounds (1 ton) of supplies at the border before they were allowed to proceed to the lake. The most famous image of the Klondike Gold Rush remains a photograph of the Chilkoot Trail where hundreds of men with heavy packs on their back, were lined up, one behind the other on the steep snow covered slope up to the pass. (the image also became imprinted on the Alaska state license plate for many years)

Stampeders climbing the trail up to Chilkoot Pass – winter 1898

By the summer of 1899, the trail was eclipsed by the opening of the White Pass and Yukon Railroad in Skagway, a much shorter and more efficient route. Today the Chilkoot Trail is a popular hiking adventure during the summer months, and a fascinating historical journey back in time.

From the old townsite of Dyea, I began the long drive up the steep Klondike Highway to White Pass summit, on my way to Whitehorse. Along the way were spectacular views of Skagway far below, and upon reaching the summit, the views of the rugged Coast Mountains in British Columbia were equally spectacular. Then it was on to the Canadian border crossing and into the Yukon Territory. (stay tuned for part 3)

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