Monthly Archives: January 2014

65 Years of Slug Bug

New & Old Beetle
An original Beetle with the 2014 Model

The Volkswagen Beetle hit U.S. shores 65 years ago this month. It was January of 1949 when the original Type 1 took to American roads. By the end of the 1960’s, over 400,000 Bugs were being sold per year, which is ten times what the model sells today.
The last of the iconic Type 1 was produced in Mexico in 2003.

Photo courtesy of Volkswagen


Nuggets Pluto
Comic courtesy of ‘Nuggets’


Skagway

Flashback Episode Part III

Skagway Main Street
Skagway, Alaska

After hiking the Chilkoot Trail, I stayed at a B&B in Dyea and explored the Skagway area for a few days and took in the July 4th celebrations.
Skagway is a peculiar, little town. In many ways, it is two towns in one. The downtown, historic Skagway is now mainly tourists shops all owned by the large tour companies like Princess and Holland-America. The old buildings still stand, but for the most part, they no longer house the businesses they were intended for. Call me sentimental, but I’d rather see hardware sold in the old hardware store, instead of knick-knacks and t-shirts with a picture of a giant mosquito and the words “Alaska’s State Bird”.
Just outside of the core town, the legitimate businesses lie. By that, I respectfully mean, the ones that the locals use in their daily lives. I’m sure some swing by the Red Onion for a beer and a meal from time to time, and I am also sure there are a few other worthwhile businesses that escaped my tour, but for the most part I don’t see the locals buying too many made in China, Alaskan license plates with their name stamped on it.
Skagway made me think of the old company town, that had another town grow up right next door… one that supplied all the items that the company town couldn’t or wouldn’t supply. I started to think of Alaska Skagway and Tourist Skagway as modern day versions of what Kennecott and McCarthy might have been like back in the day.

Skagway Early 1900's
Broadway Street, Skagway – Early 1900’s

As I walked around Skagway, I ran into the Crazy Eights doing laundry at the laundromat. We agreed to meet up at a bar/restaurant right in the middle of Tourist Central. At the time, the town was pretty quiet, and getting around was rather easy.
When we were eating and drinking, the bartender came up to us and asked if there was anything else we needed ASAP. He explained that the cruise ship was due to dock soon, and the place would be so busy that it would be best to get any order in now. We saw the logic in this and doubled down on the beers.
I had never seen anything like the sight after the cruise ship docked. A tsunami of people came upon the town. It really was a wall of people coming up the main street. Suddenly, there wasn’t any available space in the bar, and true to his word, we only caught a glimpse here and there of the bartender. It was pure mayhem.

Skagway Mainstreet and Cruise Ship

A few hours later, the crowds disappeared just as fast as they arrived. A couple of toots of the ship’s horn, and the town was eerily silent. Crazy to deal with that on a regular basis.

Skagway Snow Plow Train
The White Pass snow plow train in Skagway

I ventured out to the Skagway Gold Rush Cemetery just a little ways outside of town. The notorious Soapy Smith is buried out there, as well as Frank Reid. Both men were fatally wounded in a shootout on Juneau Wharf in Skagway. I spotted Soapy’s grave first, then followed the trails that weave throughout the cemetery. At one point, I ran into a group of tourists who had not been able to find Smith’s grave. I found that odd, because they had just passed it, but I directed them anyway. One woman argued with me, because none of the graves had the name of “Soapy”. I explained that his first name was Jefferson, and the woman actually called me “daft”. “Everyone knows his name was Soapy,” she exclaimed to what was probably her husband. I mean seriously, outside of Hollywood, who would name their child Soapy?

Soapy Smith Grave
The grave site of Jefferson Smith.

Interestingly, Soapy Smith has had five grave markers since his death in 1898. The first one was believed to have been stolen soon after 1901, and has not been seen since. The second, placed around 1908 was the victim of endless graffiti. It seems to have been in place at the time of the 1919 flood, which carried Jefferson Smith’s corpse out to sea. The second marker was taken to a Skagway museum until 1947, then handed down within the museum owner’s family, eventually auctioned off, and is currently in the possession of Jeff Davis, Soapy’s great grandson. The third marker, a marble headstone, was put up in 1927. Due to vandalism and gun practice, it was eventually encased in a wire cage. It was finally blown up with dynamite in the 1950’s. The forth marker seems to have simply passed on from old age. The fifth marker, installed in 1997, is a reproduction of the second marker, and still stands at the psuedo grave site.

As I was driving back towards Whitehorse, I saw the Crazy Eights one last time. They had stopped alongside the highway to take pictures, and I pulled up alongside in the ’74 Bronco. They were quite vocal on my driving such an old vehicle, and could not get over the fact that it had canvas doors. I reminded them that I had also installed the rear heater out of a Suburban, but that did nothing to quell the histeria. We shook hands one last time, and I left them to their sightseeing, as I traveled into an increasingly smokey countryside.


Weather Update

Mushers in Denali
Pulling a sled in this weather is hot work

It was 52 degrees in Denali National Park today. Moose were seen rolling in overflow to cool off.
The amazing thing is that 52 degrees wasn’t even close to being the Alaska high temperature for the day. These temps are not great for mushing dogs, and I’m sure with the start of the Yukon Quest looming, mushers would prefer a bit of a cool down in Interior Alaska and the Yukon.

Valdez Avalanche

Valdez Avalanche 2014
The road to Valdez — Photo courtesy of Alyeska Pipeline

An avalanche swept down upon the Richardson Highway outside of Valdez, Alaska on both Friday and Saturday, leaving as much as 40 feet of snow on top of the highway. A 50 mile section of the road is closed for at least a week, cutting Valdez off from any road traffic. The ‘Rich’ is the only highway serving Valdez.

The city’s airport and Alaska Marine Highway terminal remain open. Highway closures to Valdez are not unusual during the winter, as the town receives, on average, 297 inches of snowfall each year. Valdez is the snowiest community in the United States.

Avalanche Debris
Photo courtesy of Alyeska Pipeline


Hiking The Chilkoot

Flashback Episode Part II

chilkoot_trail_elevation
The Chilkoot Trail – Miles and elevation

I had already booked my trip, but I went into the Park Service office in Skagway to pick up my permit the day before I was to start the hike. The ranger looked at my itinerary and agreed to make some changes since I was now doing the hike solo. I changed it so that I would be doing the 33 mile hike in 4 days instead of the original five. In the Park Service office, there was a group of four guys who were waiting to get their permits. I had run into them earlier in the day at the Red Onion Saloon. The Red Onion was a gold rush era brothel that is now a restaurant/bar/brothel museum.

After setting up the new intinerary, I went over to the White Pass Railway office to get my rail pass. The plan was to hike the trail, then catch the train at Lake Bennett in the Yukon, and ride the White Pass back to Skagway. If one plans the hike right, you can catch a ride on the old White Pass 73 steam engine, which runs one day a week. The remainder of the week the train is pulled by diesel engines.

Golden Staircase
Stampeders climbing the “Golden Staircase” – 1898

The discovery of gold in the Klondike converted the Tlingit Indian trade route into a major thoroughfare that would be known throughout the world, as stampeders rushed into the Klondike to find their fortune. The Chilkoot Trail, out of Dyea, was the most direct and shortest route to the gold fields, but it was also the more difficult. The White Pass route out of Skagway was longer, but less strenuous.

Chilkoot Pass 1898
Packing gear up the Chilkoot Pass – 1898

The Canadian Mounties would not allow any prospector to enter Canada with less than 1 Ton of supplies. “The Scales” were set up near the summit, and the prospectors had to ferry the gear up and over the pass, usually in 100 pound loads.

On The Chilkoot
Crossing beaver ponds on the Chilkoot. Photo courtesy of NPS

My pack weighed slightly less than 50 pounds at the start, and I had to only hike the trail once, instead of returning again and again for another load. The trail starts in a rain forest, and the vegetation is thick. Bear sign was evident early and throughout the hike, although I only saw one bruin over the four days. The first day was in this forest, and it was a relatively easy day of hiking in preparation of the summit climb. The first day was also the only day it rained, but I reached Sheep Camp thrilled to be on the trail.

On the hike to Sheep Camp, I met a couple at Canyon City who were on their honeymoon. They had taken on a different kind of Klondike Fever. In order to commemorate the Trail properly, they had kayaked all the way from Seattle to Skagway. When I met them, they were “portaging” kayaks and gear over the pass. Like the old prospectors, they were ferrying gear and caching it, then going back for the next load. Upon reaching Lake Bennett, the plan was to return to the kayaks, and float their way down the entire Yukon River. They expected to hit its mouth by October. I was impressed, and wished them the best of luck. I have often wondered how the rest of their honeymoon went, and if they survived it as a couple.

At camp, I picked my tent site, then went off somewhere away from the other campers to write a bit in the journal. By the time I returned, everyone else had eaten, which was sort of the plan. I was off by myself, not feeling any need to join a group, and feeling quite content to be the observer off on the edge. As luck would have it, the four guys I ran into several times in Skagway would have nothing to do with my observer status. Three of them were from Ohio, and the fourth was from Michigan. They called themselves the Crazy Eights, since they were aged 78, 48, 38 and 18. They quickly adopted the token Alaskan on the trail, and we have been friends ever since. But I am getting ahead of myself.

The ranger had warned us to start the hike up the summit very early in the morning, in order to be across the snow fields that await after the pass, before the day’s heat made the trekking more difficult and possibly dangerous. I was the last one to leave the camp, and I was on the trail by 5am or so. I must have been in great shape in 2004, because I passed everyone long before we hit The Scales, and it was a trend that would annoy at least one other hiker.
The climb up the summit was a challenge. Unlike the prospectors in all the historic photos, we didn’t have any snow at this elevation, and the hike was more like bouldering. Almost three miles of verticle clamboring over huge rocks, slick from thousands of boot soles. And it was a beautiful climb.
There are a lot of artifacts scattered about, as prospectors abandoned items in order not to pack them. From coffee pots, to a cache of leather boots, or several prefabricated canvas boats rotting away in the high alpine. At one point I spotted a cast iron cookstove.
There was a little ranger hut just past the summit, but no one was home to weigh our gear, so I ventured on across a quickly decaying snow field. In a lot of ways, the trek across the snow was more tiring, since the sun’s heat was softening the snow, and my boots seemed to sink deeper with every step. I was quite warm by now, even though I was in shorts and a t-shirt.

The Chilkoot - YT
After the Pass – Yukon Territory

I was the first to arrive at Happy Camp, and I picked out the best campsite, which sat a little higher up, and had a beautiful view of the valley and flowing stream. After resting for a bit, I went out to explore the area, and by the time I returned the rest of my hiking party had arrived. Almost everyone ate right away and turned in for the night by 5pm. I was too wound up to do that, as was Eliot, the 18 year old Crazy Eighter, so we stayed up shooting the breeze until well past sunset. I’m not exactly shy when it comes to telling tales of Alaska, especially when I have a willing audience. Unfortunately, it often doesn’t occur to me that bear stories have a different effect on different people, until it is too late. Since Eliot seemed to enjoy them, I kept telling more. I found out later that the next day, he expected a bear to be around every corner of the trail, and he no longer wanted to be the lead dog in their group.

The next day was beautiful, as the trail dips down into a boreal forest. It was also a hot day, and it finally dawned on me that I had not felt, seen, or heard a mosquito since Sheep Camp, due to the tinder dry conditions. It was also on this stretch of trail that we started to catch the scent of wildfires that were raging throughout Interior Alaska and the Yukon. Once again, I was the last to leave camp, but the first to arrive at Bare Loon Lake. The first thing I did when I dropped my backpack, and tried to shake the lingering “pack-walk”, was to jump in the lake and go swimming. I grabbed the best site, looking out over the lake, with a rock ledge running parallel to the lake shore. It was the perfect back rest as I relaxed, wrote, and welcomed the incoming hikers. Two girls who also had the same itinerary stopped by my camp to swim and then share a flask of some liquid gold. As more hikers went swimming, I noticed the lake had the largest leeches I have ever seen in my life. At one point, we could see several of them in the clear water following a fellow hiker as he swam out deeper. Oddly enough, no one went swimming after that.

It was the final day, and I had absolutely no need to rush. The end was coming too quickly, and the hike from Bare Loon to Lake Bennett would be an easy one. I left camp last, once again, and passed Eliot and the rest of the Crazy Eighters an hour or so later. Within 15 minutes, I heard someone behind me, and there was Eliot pushing to catch up to me. I guess he had had enough of me passing him on the Trail, so he was going to show the “older Alaskan” what a young buck from Michigan could do. We hiked the rest of the way to Bennett together, and I eventually apologized for all the bear stories. Eliot shrugged it off, saying that he barely remembered them.

Lake_Bennett_boats
Boat building along Lake Bennett – Klondike Gold Rush

During the gold rush, Lake Bennett was the staging point for the final push to the gold fields. Here the stampeders waited for the ice to go out, camped along its shore, building boats that would take them down the lake and eventually onto the Yukon River and fame and fortune.

I poked around Lake Bennett and the station there waiting for the train to pull in. When it arrived, we hikers were all put on the last rail car. Eventually, I had to ask why we were limited to the one car, and the conductor bluntly told me that it was, “because of the smell”. My confused look brought an even blunter response: “After days on the Trail, you hikers smell terrible. We don’t want you mixing with the ‘other’ tourists”. I had to admit, it was sound logic.

White Pass 73
The White Pass 73 Locomotive


6am AST

At 6am on Friday, I saw that the temperature here was 41 degs. I was dubious, so I opened the door, and all I heard was the sound of running water from the melting snow. A quick check revealed that Minneapolis was 17 degs and San Antonio was 27 degs.

How warm was it in Fairbanks? It was so warm, the school district cancelled classes for the day.

Say what?

I’m not kidding. 41 degrees, and classes are cancelled because the roads may be icey. Fifty or sixty degrees below zero? No problem. Classes as usual. 40 degrees above zero? Damn, this is foreign territory, everybody better stay at home.

Insanity.


Dyea, Alaska

Flashback Episode:

Back in 2004, I drove down to Skagway to hike the historic Chilkoot Trail. A buddy of mine was suppose to join me, but the day before we were to hit the road, he backed out due to romantic issues of some sort. I was somewhat disgusted, but I loaded my backpack into the truck anyway, and drove to Skagway. It’s a 700 mile trip from Fairbanks, and I still had the 1974 Bronco at the time. I’m sure this was its last long trip. The Bronco was a great truck, but by ’04 the Interior Winters had taken its toll: The original doors had disintegrated by then, and I was running with a set of canvas doors by this point.

2004 was a record year for wildfires in Alaska. Over 6.6 million acres had burned that summer, and the woods were tinder dry. I don’t think Fairbanks had more than a handful of clear days that summer, as we were surrounded by fires.

The Chilkoot Trail starts near the old Ghost Town of Dyea, which sat less than 10 miles from Skagway. Dyea had a very shallow port, so the wharfs stretched well out into the inlet. Some of the pilings are still visible today, protruding up from the water.

Dyea, AK 1898
Dyea during its gold rush peak.

There is very little left of the gold rush town today. A few old store fronts are propped up, the lumber from an old warehouse is well on its way to returning to the Earth, and one can still see the outlines of the town layout among the trees.

Dyea Store Front today
Dyea store front today. Great specials in the back.

Prior to hiking the Chilkoot, I spent a couple of days exploring the area. One of the more fascinating things was the Slide Cemetery. On 3 April 1898, five snow slides took place between Sheep Camp and The Scales on the trail. At least 65 stampeders died in the avalanches, although many believe the number was closer to 100.
The Slide Cemetery, with the same date, “April 3 1898” etched into all of the grave markers, is an eerie place. Many of the markers have no name, only an “Unknown” and the date. I remember one that said something like: “He Was From Minnesota, April 3 1898”. I was taking photos of the cemetery with an old Kodak Autographic camera, that was loaded with 120 B&W. Even the camera came a good 20-25 years after the disaster, but I felt it was somehow appropriate. After going through a roll, and loading up a second, I was looking down into the viewfinder, when a massive gust of wind swept through the stand of trees, and a large branch creaked from above and then fell to the ground. I jumped out of the way, and the branch landed right where I had been standing.
I decided to take the hint and left the cemetery.

Slide Cemetery
The Slide Cemetery

View from Stonehouse
The photo below shows the view from the Stone House in 1898 – the approximate location of the Palm Sunday Avalanche is at the lowest part of the valley.