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Expedition Log: July 26, 2001

Allison Sayer, Young Explorers Team

Skagway

Most of the ship "slept in" until around seven this morning, when we docked in Skagway. After breakfast, we boarded buses to take us to the White Pass & Yukon Railroad train depot. Our driver assured us we would recognize her when we got off the train through a purple sign, her appearance, and our bus number, and then left to drive up the highway and pick us up when the train arrived at Frazer, B.C. On the train, we found magazines on our seats which were "ours to keep." The bulk of the magazine was a catalogue, including baby overalls with trains on them, authentic switch lights, railroad tie bookends, and 4 oz. boxes of smoked salmon that cost about $15.00 ($60.00 per pound).

Several trains go up the single narrow-gauge track to the pass every day. One of the first things the train passed was a small tent-and-trailer city in which many summer workers lived. We also passed an airport, with a turn of the century dancing girl flashing her girdle painted on the tailfins of one air company's fleet. Once in the mountains, there was not much of a view from the train due to the fog. There were definitely some "oohs" and "aahs" on the narrow bridges with apparently nothing below, but I think they were from fright. Most photographs taken by our group were of the train itself. The conductor tried to tell us about the different flowers and trees, but passengers not already familiar with them had difficulty picking them out as they whipped by. The conductor also gave us a running commentary on the gold rush, the construction of the railroad, and historic spots along the way.

When we arrived in Fraser, Conrad took advantage of the late-arriving buses to introduce us to some of the plants that grew by a small lake. Some passengers were also curious about whether anybody lived in Fraser. We were told "Yes, eleven customs officers." When the buses arrived, we dutifully re-boarded and headed back towards Skagway. Along the way, photo stops included waterfalls and a "Welcome to Alaska" sign surrounded by fog. At one of the falls, there was a pipe running down the mountain. This pipe ran to a hydroelectric power generator that powered both Skagway and Haines. Chris gave a very brief roadside geology lesson at one of our short stops.


Steam locomotive

An old steam engine, in working order, helps visitors get a feel for Skagway's colorful past. (Photo by National Ocean Service, NOAA).
Click image for a larger view.

Guides told tall tales of the early settlers, criminals, prospectors, storekeepers, and prostitutes before we reached the graveyard where many of these people were buried. They kept the tone light and full of good humor. Bill Cronon had given a powerful lecture the day before that had fewer colorful characters, and much darker content. However, he was speaking as a historian and not as someone trying to help visitors have a good time and possibly receive a tip at the end.

Some of our guests did not arrive back at lunch because a U.S. Customs official had boarded their train and temporarily detained anyone who did not have photo identification. Some of us thought at first this was a joke, as buses had frequently taken spontaneous detours during our travels thus far, and besides we are a pretty good-humored group, but this time it was true. Every expedition member had left their passports with the purser when we boarded in Prince Rupert, and many of us commonly left our wallets on board when we disembarked. Many people had no identification and were not permitted to continue into the United States without it! Our fearless expedition leader raced off with the passports and soon a slightly addled group joined us. After lunch, a Skagway performer sang songs about the gold rush on board. One song was enjoyed by some, but thought by others to contain racist lyrics. A discussion amongst the scholars followed, and an apology made to Rosita Worl on behalf of Smith College.

We had an afternoon at leisure. Some of us rested or caught up on work on board, and some walked through the theme town to shop or meet costumed colorful characters. There were saloons, gold rush artifacts, and plenty of post card shops in town. Some who had ridden the train through the fog bought postcards of what the view would have looked like had we ridden on a clear day.

I wonder whether other Alaskans appreciate Skagway the way I appreciated the Empire State Building and other sites growing up in New York. Rarely were crowds streaming down my boring block because there were places set up specifically to be interesting or exciting to visitors. The crowds at the places I did enjoy were mitigated by dilution of visitors between shared sites (like museums) and tourist-only type attractions. Skagway is an ideal place for those visitors who want to be entertained and to have motorized transportation, shops, food, bars, solicitous service, etc nearby and geared towards them. Maybe Skagway's accommodating general attitude can help it to be a sink for tourists with these demands and leave other places to develop a different style of service or no services at all, and set their goal for numbers of visitors accordingly.

The strongest impression I brought back from Skagway is how eerie it would be to stay on longer than the half day or day long cycle of one tour, and watch the same exact day unfold over and over until the five month season ended.

The Clipper Odyssey weighed anchor and motored on in the evening. Pam Wight delivered a lecture on tourism, economics, and the environment. After and during cocktail service, Richard Nelson delivered a lecture about Sitka.

(View the day's photos)



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