In spite of relaxed border crossing restrictions between Alaska and Canada, the White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad announced last week that they would not cross the border. Since the White Pass is the largest tour operator in Skagway, the news was a blow to many.
The train will run to the top of White Pass, and then return to Skagway for 2022, unless restrictions are reduced further.
I have ridden the White Pass and Yukon Route twice: Once, after hiking the Chilkoot Trail, I returned to Skagway on the old steam locomotive #73 from Bennett Lake. One really has to plan the trip to get on board the 73, since at that time, it ran only once a month. The second time was a last minute decision to ride the route on their diesel locomotive round-trip out of Skagway to Carcross. The route runs through some beautiful country, and I know several tour operators that rely on The White Pass for their services. Whether it be B&B’s or bike tours along the Klondike Highway, all are disappointed in the decision.
An interesting map, showing the two routes into the “Klondyke” Gold Fields of “British America” and the “40 Mile” Region in Alaska. One could go overland via the Chilkoot Trail, or by water using the “Youkon” River.
The only established community marked on the map along the Yukon River within Interior Alaska was Fort Yukon, which started as a trading post under the Hudson Bay Company.
Circle City was a mining town that popped up with the discovery of gold in Birch Creek, which is a great float, by the way. Circle, was so named, because the miners thought they were on the Arctic Circle, but they were actually about 50 miles south. Circle City was a major jumping off point for both miners and supplies that had come up the Yukon and were heading out to the gold camps.
Intriguing that Dyea makes the map, but Skagway is left off. Dyea was the start of the Chilkoot Trail, and at the time of the Klondike Gold Rush, was a thriving community with a large wharf. Today, only a few pilings are left of the wharf, and minimal signs of any structures, although it is home to the “Slide Cemetery”. Regardless, “Soapy” Smith would not be impressed with Skagway being MIA. Stampeders would hike the trail over the pass into Canada from Dyea to Lake Bennett. Most would then build boats to carry them to the famed Lake Lebarge and finally the Yukon River. All for the lure of gold.
It may seem like an odd time to think of the fire season here in Alaska. After all, we officially had 29 inches of snowpack at the end of March, and have been adding to that steadily during this first week of April.
In a state that boasts some of the finest summers on this planet, one thing that can ruin a summer in a hurry is a bad wildfire year. Alaska has been trending upward in acres burned over the past 60 years. From 1.6% of the state seeing wildfires during the decade of 1961-1970, to 3.1% of the state going up in smoke in the most recent decade.
2004 was the worst year on record with 6.6 million acres burned. It was a nasty summer here in the Interior. I had hiked the Chilkoot Trail at the end of June, and had made it back to Skagway in time for July 4th, only to find out the embers had really hit the fan. Wildfires were everywhere between Fairbanks and Whitehorse in the Yukon. In Skagway, I called my Dad to tell him not to visit in a few days, because the smoke was so bad, but he came up anyway. We sat on my deck one evening and watched lightning start a fire a couple of valleys over. The next morning air tankers were dumping water over the fresh fire. We climbed to the ridge top in the evening to see a wall of flame across the valley floor.
I couldn’t count the number of dry thunderstorms we saw that summer. I remember standing out on my deck at 2am one morning, lightning was flashing down on the hills all around me, but all I could see was an eerie glow in the thick smoke, followed by the thunder crashing down, rolling across the land. If a fire had started close by, I would never know until the flames were roaring upon the cabin. The smoke was so thick that visibility was down to mere feet.
It appears that the “Happiness Engineers” here at wordpress have figured out which behind the scenes gremlin has been messing with life between The Circles. This site is not exactly fixed, but the offending “plug in” has been deactivated, and I hope that action does not cause any unforeseen issues. We shall see. For the moment, at least, the site has returned to it’s somewhat normal state.
Due to the hiatus, I am no longer in the habit of collecting post ideas, let alone building posts, so we will go the easy route and bring you bears. After all, with every movie out of Hollywood on Alaska, they always throw in a bear, whether it fits the story line or not. Here between The Circles, we are going all out by bringing you top of the line, Katmai bears.
The application deadline for permits to head to McNeil River to view the Katmai bears was yesterday. I’m late in relaying this information, but it does increase my odds at getting a permit. Camping within the Last Frontier also appears to be loosening up for 2021, as several National Parks and State Parks are either open for reservations, or are about to open. That is good news for most of us in-state.
Due to Canada continuing the ban on cruise ships larger than 250 capacity, there looks to be no cruise ship visits to Alaska until 2022. Cruise ships below that 250 passenger mark will be visiting both Alaska and Canadian ports. This would be a great year to visit Skagway, assuming Canada allows us to drive through Haines Junction.
As promised in the headline, explore.org, the fine folks that bring the Katmai Bear Cam to the world, has a 2020 Bear Close Up video for your bruin viewing pleasure:
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 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. 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.
The Slide Cemetery
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.
A photo of Bobby Sheldon crossing a river, probably on his 1913 trek from Fairbanks to Valdez. Sheldon was an interesting character, even by Alaska standards. He was the first civilian to drive an automobile the length of the Old Valdez – Fairbanks trail. It took Sheldon 4 days to travel the 360 miles in a Model T.
He also built the very first car in Alaska in 1905. In fact, it remains the only vehicle, on record, ever manufactured in the state. When Sheldon built the car in Skagway, he had never seen a car first hand. It was built by pictures and diagrams.
As a Skagway newspaper boy in 1898, a young Bobby Sheldon witnessed the death of the notorious Jefferson “Soapy” Smith in a gunfight with Frank Reid. Smith died there on the Juneau wharf, Reid died of his wounds 12 days later.
Sheldon on what he saw: “He (Smith) was sprawled out with his Stetson lying there, but nobody dared put his feet together or place his hands over his heart. They didn’t dare show sympathy for fear somebody would pull out a gun.”
Sheldon brought up the first Model T Fords for his “auto stage” which ran between Fairbanks in the interior and Valdez on the coast. Eventually he included Pope Toledos and Studebakers entered service in the 1920’s.
Sheldon went on to become an Alaska road commissioner, a Fairbanks postmaster, he served in the Alaska Territorial Legislature as well as the first State Legislature when Alaska was granted statehood. Bobby Sheldon died in 1983 at the age of 99.