Friday, August 13, 2010

Skagway to Haines

The area around Skagway reminds me of the saying..."Location, location, location."  It's an incredible piece of real estate. With a population of less than 1000 during most of the year, there are some 800,000 tourists and adventure seekers who set foot in this company-government town during the summer that's found at the northernmost point of the Inside Passage. A mere 100 miles by air to Juneau, capital of Alaska, it's 112 scenic miles by road to Whitehorse, capital of the Yukon. Signs, books, and an endless stream of literature remind us that it's the gateway to the Klondike. I looked at the maps and tried to figure out what I would do if I had been one of those eager, adventurous, crazed gold seekers. Of the 100,000 people who tried, less than one percent found the yellow stuff, at least enough to turn a profit. That's less than 1000 dreamers who dared to follow the yellow brick road to wealth. Yikes!

One of many cruise ships that reach Skagway by the marine highway.

Would I have been so tempted? Well ... when I retired I stuck a fair amount of money into the stock market and experienced three great declines that wiped out a good deal of our capital. So who made all that money in the great USA during the past 20 years? It wasn't
the gold seekers like it was the same types who prospered during the Klondike days. You know! The ones who supplied the shovels, the tents, the gold pans, the boats, the women, the food...but now in the ongoing modern "gold rush" we call them stockbrokers, option traders, hedge fund managers, bankers, corporate CEO's of multinational corporations, the people of Wall Street. It's a bit chilling to learn that about one percent of the US population currently owns 90 percent of its resources in this day and age. that just made up?

The ferry crossing to Haines from Skagway.

I suspect that the Klondikers were as confused and despondent from the 1893 stock market crash and following economic depression as many are today from the housing debacle of 2008 and the possible crash that looks more and more likely in 2012 regardless who is in office. Fewer than 3000 people took the "all-water" route from Seattle to St Michael, Alaska and then up the Yukon River to Dawson.  Frankly that's the route I would have selected. But most people didn't have the funds to pay for ship passage.  And, on reflection, my wife and I opted out of the marine highway route ourselves because of the cost... about $1500 for us and our beloved motor home, "Dorothy." That meant we had to go overland, a trip that took us nearly two weeks due to our comfortable, slow paced speed of 50 miles per hour to soak it all in, search for wildlife, and dilly dally along the way to kayak lakes, rivers and streams. We could have made it in three or four days or so by combining ship and road to Whitehorse.

So similar decisions must have plagued the early travelers to Skagway and Dawson as we recently experienced.  About 2000 prospectors went the all-land route by way of Edmonton, as described in the excellent novel, "The Journey" by James Michener. Most, however, chose a combination of getting to Skagway, then hiking the challenging Chilkoot Pass or White Pass and eventually floating down the Yukon River. It was that one ton of goods to carry 40 or so times over the passes that would have made me think and rethink the whole idea of seeking wealth in the Klondike at all.  What was that magical driving force that led men and women into such an impossible undertaking?

Gloomy weather, seagulls, and a handful of residents welcomed us to Haines, Alaska

As we crossed the waterway by ferry to Haines from Skagway for a cost of $151, I thought about Skagway and Dyea. We had only been there for three days and two nights, yet it had made an incredible impression upon us, much like the first time I read Jack London's, "Call of the Wild" when I was about ten years old. What is this myth of Alaska? Who are these people? Where is this land? Fortunately, there are a number of people and buildings that house relics from the past that answer many of these questions along the way, such as the Sheldon Museum of Haines.

The Sheldon Museum and Cultural Center

The present day Sheldon Museum occupies the land that originally served as a Presbyterian mission to the Tlingit Indians.  It houses a variety of local Native artifacts as well as goods from the days of the miners and missionaries. Across the street is the unique Hammer Museum that includes over 1500 hammers and related tools. And beyond that is a small natural history museum called the American Bald Eagle Foundation that displays over 200 specimens of local fish and wildlife. For me, I mostly spent time hiking the streets, poking into bakeries, restaurants, and stores in addition to spending time in the small but comfortable library. Haines is a small, unassuming, sleepy village that gives a taste of coastal Alaska.

The Hammer Museum that houses over 1500 different hammers from all over the world.
The Bear Den is one of three bakeries in town.
I haven't found a town yet in Alaska or northern B.C. that didn't have a bakery. I am not embarrassed to say that I love bakeries. Sometimes I wander in just for a cup of coffee, the delicious smell of fresh bakery products, and meet some of the regulars who hang out there. Other times I succumb to temptation and get a Danish or a doughnut.  But the thing to buy in Alaska is fresh Rhubarb pie a la mode. That is an Alaskan specialty and in May and June it's rhubarb season. I have taken on the research project of checking out the bakeries of Alaska. So far, I have found that most bakery regulars come from someplace else, including the owners.  The husband-wife team who own the attractive Chilkat Bakery come from Portland, Oregon and spend the summers in Haines. They had a thriving business of combining a restaurant and bakery together that attracted tourists as well as locals.

The Chilkat Bakery in Haines