Tag Archives: tourist traps


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.

“Into The Brewery”

Fairbanks Transit 142

A member of our Frozen Four-some is in Alaska, so I ventured down the Parks Hwy to Denali to meet up with them. I picked them up from Glitter Gulch and drove us all back to Healy and the 49th State Brewery. “Trust me, the brewery is far more Alaskan than the tourist traps of Glitter Gulch.”

The brewery acquired the “Into the Wild” bus from the overrated film. It’s not the original bus, but a prop from the movie. There’s been a lot of talk of hauling the bus out from the Stampede Trail, since the wanna-be’s keep getting themselves in trouble, but as of now, the famed relic still sits out on the tundra.

The 49th State Brew Company is pure Interior Alaska, in the best eclectic sense. It was more of a hangout for the locals and workers around The Park, although there were a few tourists. Being 10 miles north of The Park, and the vast majority of tourists at Glitter Gulch not having vehicles, there’s a natural buffer from the usual tourist insanity. The food was very good and the beer excellent. My only complaint was in the price for the growlers. I kept asking the girl, “What’s the price for Alaska residents?” You can rip off the tourists all you want, but overcharging the residents is just wrong. She was a young girl from Europe, who kept responding, “I don’t understand these things you say!” That’s why she was there, she was too nice to get mad at about the prices, and she seemed to only understand “Twenty-five dollars”.

Still, the place was so quirky, we all loved it.

There was a wedding reception going on when we were there, with everyone dressed up in their best baseball caps, fleece and Carhartts. It was quite the tender moment.
Fire pits were roaring outside, in spite of the rain, and I spotted several people from Fairbanks that I knew.

Well worth the stop, but if you want to leave with beer, expect to shell out for it. Luckily, Fairbanks doesn’t lack for quality beer, either.

How did I miss this one?

Holland America had a Vampire Cruise to Alaska this past summer! They docked in Skagway in late June. There was a Vampire Ball, a Vampire Film Fest, as well as a “Vamp’s Got Talent” contest, which I hear made the 2012 All-Cruise Highlight Reel. Dacre Stoker, the great-grandnephew of Bram Stoker was aboard to give the whole event an air of legitimacy.

Sadly, Holland America officials admitted sheepishly & off camera, that many of the passengers refused to come out of their coffins upon landing in Alaska due to the extended daylight hours in late June. “It seemed like such a great idea in Seattle last January.” said Holland America Promotion Specialist Marv Haglebarger. “Of all the luck; we couldn’t even get a cloudy day for them to see the bears.”

Remembering Binkymania

A headline today caught my eye: A New York man was hospitalized after he was mauled by a tiger. Even Alaska doesn’t get Tiger Maulings, so I had to investigate. It seems that a 25 year old from Mahopac, jumped off the Wild Asia Monorail ride at the Bronx Zoo, then leapt over an electric fence and into the tiger den. Rumor has it, the young man was doing a research paper on whether cats really do play with their food. Turns out that they do.

The story brought back fond memories of Binky. Binky was an orphaned polar bear cub rescued off Cape Beaufort and then sent to live at The Alaska Zoo in Anchorage. He immediately became the zoo’s most popular attraction.

Cue the tourists:

Back in 1994, when I was still a young Cheechako, a 19 year old Binky made headline news. A tourist from Australia climbed over two protective fences to get right up to the bars of Binky’s enclosure to get a prime photograph of the bear. Instead, Binky quickly grabbed himself some prime photographer. The mauling was caught on tape, and I believe it is still available on youtube. The woman was eventually pulled away from the polar bear, although Binky was able to grab her shoe off her foot. He kept it for three days

Less than two months later, two teenagers (allegedly) went into the zoo after hours and decided to end a night of partying with a swim in the bears’ pool. They were stripping off their clothes near the bears’ enclosure, when one of the boys was grabbed by one of the bears. The second boy was able to pull his friend away from the bars, but not before he suffered severe lacerations to his legs. Although zoo officials said that they couldn’t be sure if it was Binky or Nuka, his mate, that mauled the 19 year old, Binky was the only bear with blood on its face.

Binky, already well regarded in Alaska, instantly became a Cult Hero. T-shirts, mugs and bumper stickers popped up everywhere, usually with the image of the bear & his trophy tennis shoe and the words: “Send more tourists— This one got away”. The entire state came out in defense of the Ornery Bear. There was sympathy towards the wounded, of course, but if you’re going to do something that stupid around a polar bear — well, you kind of got off lucky. The Fairbanks Firefighters Association, whose logo was a polar bear, even changed their logo to a polar bear holding a bloody shoe in its mouth, in order to show solidarity with the bear in Anchorage. They sold t-shirts with the new & improved logo for ten bucks.

Damn, I really wish I still had my Binky t-shirt.

Photo by Rob Layman

Cheechako Makes Arrival

I was going to call this “Turistas Cuatro”, but I think we actually have a new resident instead. My apologies for automatically thinking this was a tourist.

Whittier, Alaska
A man drove off the MV Kennicott of the Alaska Marine Highway system upon docking in Whittier. For some reason, he felt the overwhelming need to use his GPS… in Whittier… population 200. It would seem that the GPS unit told the man to make an immediate right, which took him down the small boat ramp, and into the harbor at high tide. The Subaru was submerged to the antenna. A former Marine, witnessing the event, jumped into the water, broke a window with a needle-nosed pliers, and rescued the man and his two dogs. Unfortunately, the cat did not make it out of the car.

Whittier is… quirky. In fact, it has been called “The strangest town in Alaska”, which is really saying a lot. Almost the entire population of the town lives in a single, WWII era “high-rise” built by the U.S. Army.
For the longest time, the only way into Whittier was from Prince William Sound, or by the Alaska Railroad which has a spur rail line running through a 2-1/2 mile tunnel under the mountain. A road now runs alongside the track for the tourists to explore the town, which takes roughly ten minutes. Although the setting is absolutely beautiful. There is no doubt about that.

The Cheechako is to be stationed at Elmendorf/Ft Richardson in Anchorage.

Mount Marathon

Every Fourth of July since 1915, the small, sea town of Seward, Alaska holds a race from its downtown to the summit of Mount Marathon and back. It’s a grueling run up to the 3022 foot summit, which at times has the entrants using their hands as much as their feet to climb the steep slope. Downhill is another story: It’s a mad, free for all at insane speed down the rocky, mountain side. Most racers cross the finish line covered in mud & blood. The record time was set in 1981 by Bill Spencer in an amazing 43 mins 21 secs.
Alaskans truly love this race and it shows with the populace of Seward growing from 3000 to as many as 40000 for the July 4th celebrations.

This year, a 66 year old participant from Anchorage has vanished from the mountain. He was last seen by race volunteers 200 feet from the summit. There has been no trace of him since. Alaska State Troopers have called off their search, but the Seward Fire Department and other volunteers continue to search Mount Marathon.

Tragically, in another accident, an elite racing veteran lost his footing on descent near the base of the mountain and suffered a broken skull, broken leg and other injuries. “To bound downhill, just on the edge of out-of-control, is what elite racers shoot for. We make these decisions, to run as fast as we can. To choose that mountain race. To go fast on the downhill. Ninety-nine percent of the time, we’re rewarded for it.” — Alaska Mountain Runners president Brad Precosky

As of today, Michael LeMaitre is still missing and Matthew Kenney is still in a coma.



Chitina, Alaska.
Population as of the 2000 census: 123.

The Dipnetting Capital of Alaska, Chitina sits along the Copper River where it meets the Chitina River.

Salmon Rules.

Hannibal, MO

An honest recollection of the 1200 mile trip across Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Missouri and back to Iowa again, could not possibly be complete without mentioning the Great Hannibal Snow-Globe Hunt of 2011.

Larry had been on the lookout for a snow-globe the entire trip, but it remained an elusive quarry. Upon arriving in Hannibal, MO Saturday night, Tom and I realized that the finding of The Globe was paramount, so we hit up every likely supplier that we came across, but to no avail.
We ventured off to Mark Twain State Park defeated. There was no snow-globe, no firewood, and no beer. Things looked pretty damn bleak. Luckily, a Casey’s supplied the beer and I was able to scrounge some firewood without going Black Op. There was light at the end of the tunnel… at least for Tom & I.

After paying our respects to Mr. Clemens and visiting the metropolis of Florida, Missouri, we made a run at Hannibal once again. Gift shop after gift shop turned us away. The Show-Me-State was showing us nothing but disappointment. Barges floated by on the Mississippi, probably loaded with snow-globes, but they might as well have been in China. We traveled deeper into Hannibal. Tom, being stressed out by the hunt, left us for a coffee house, but Larry & I trudged on.

Even I have no idea how many shoppes we went into, how many license plates, spoons, shot glasses and thimbles we had to look at, in the hope that one tiny snow-globe would be hidden among the trinkets.

We had reached the end of the street.

There was one more shoppe to go: A Book Store/Gift Shop. Larry and I glanced at each other, took a deep breath and opened the old wooden door. The door creaked with apathy for our plight. We asked, “Do you happen to stock any snow-globes?” The elderly woman sighed deeply. She made excuses about her suppliers, that most of her order was still on a barge somewhere, but that she might have one still unpacked… one with a river boat. Larry gasped & instinctively went for his wallet, shouting “I’ll take it”! The woman reached into a box that had been sitting on the floor at her feet. Would it, could it, possibly contain The Globe?

She asked for patience, so we waited with frayed nerves. Finally, with a wonderful grace, she brought out a river boat snow-globe with “Hannibal, Missouri” written on the base in beautiful golden script. There was a sigh of relief and then pandemonium. That little store had not seen such a celebration in many a decade.

I will never take the unheralded snow-globe for granted again.


I took the Old ’66 down Route 66 to Oatman. Much of the “Mother Road” has been butchered by the interstates, but this is a section well worthy of the nostalgia. It’s a great section of road ( I refrained from posting another picture of my viewpoint over the spare tire ) with the road twisting & turning, following the contours of the Earth into the Black Mountains. I had a blast.

Oatman lies in some incredibly beautiful country. The desert was greening up and the Black Mountains are an area that I need to come back to explore again. Oatman is an old mining town that had enough in 1939 to draw Carole Lombard & Clark Gable for their honeymoon, but today the wild burros are the stars. They wander about town, looking cute so that you’ll buy a bag of “Burro Food” for $1.
A pair greeted me right away, one Mother Burro & one Baby Burro. The youngster ran right up to me. At first I thought it just wanted a handout, but quickly realized that it was seeking protection from a small, screaming girl who wanted desperately to “ride the pony”. I scratched the burro behind its ear and scared the girl away with a scowl.
I wandered through town, got acquainted with the other local burros, and checked out the phenominal work done by some of the local artists. There were also the typical tourists shops, which I avoided except for buying three postcards. The townfolk were all extremely friendly, the tourists were all over the place, and I spotted two young burros with a sticker placed on their foreheads with the words: STOP Please Do Not Feed Me Anymore
I stopped to sit on a bench to write out my cards. After finishing the first, I noticed that same little girl harrassing my favorite burro. This time she was trying to punch the cute little guy in the nose! When Ma Burro placed herself in between child & burrito, the child went around Mama. At this point, I cringed… the girl went behind Ma Burro and I thought she was a goner. I guess burros do a bluff kick just like grizzlys do a bluff charge, because the little girl kept her head attached. I’m looking around for the parents, and see that the father has noticed my grimace. He tells me that “she’s fine”, and I tell him “If you’re looking to sue the town, I’ll testify against you.” At this point the father grabs his little angel and wanders away saying something under his breath that I did not quite make out.
When I had feasted on all things Oatman, I walked back down to The Rover, and heard running behind me. It was my favorite, little burro at a trot, followed by Ma Burro at a walk. The burrito stopped at the truck’s left wing. It must have known that I had one last carrot.