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Expedition Log: July 26, 2001

Pamela Wight

Skagway

The Clipper Odyssey docked at Skagway at 6:00 a.m. Thursday 26th July 2001, with the weather being low clouds. A pilot boat assisted us to edge into a space between two huge cruise ships. At the dock we were met by Skagway's Director of Tourism. This was an unusual event, since Skagway has so many visitors in summer that a personal greeting is typically impossible. Today, five large ships are to be in port -- the maximum number possible on any one day. "Buckwheat" told us there are 825 year round residents of Skagway, who together with seasonal workers, total 1,800 as a summer population. The consequence of this seasonal bulge is a severe housing shortage.

On our dock (one of three) we also noticed a row of six telephone kiosks at the end of the dock -- located there to serve the huge foreign crews who want to phone back home, and indeed, we observed many other kiosks all in the vicinity of the docks -- all occupied by crew. We heard that Skagway residents have a good relationship with the cruise and other tourism industry personnel, and try to jointly solve problems brought by increased visitors.

Port side passengers boarded a local bus, to drive to the top of White Pass, while Starboard side passengers went directly to the White Pass & Yukon Railroad (WP&YR), for a train ride to the summit. The quality of interpretation by the various tour guides in our groups ranged from corny humor to insightful commentary. We were shown some of the churches and saloons which are now roughly equal in number (five each), whereas at the height of the Gold Rush, there were 75 saloons and one church.

Skagway docks

The expedition ship is dwarfed by giant cruise liners docked at Skagway. (Photo by National Ocean Service, NOAA).
Click image for a larger view.

We stopped at the old Skagway graveyard, one of 130 registered National Park Service sites in Skagway, where there is a lone Chinese grave marker -- indicating one of the Chinese people who had worked on the WP&YR. This graveyard has hundreds of visitors a day from May to September, and is the most visited National Park sites in Alaska. Our tour bus company alone has 8-9 buses visiting the graveyard per day, plus there are the vehicles of other companies also touring there. We had the chance to view the vista of Skagway from a lookout on the road up the White Pass, however, the weather quickly socked us in, and we drove surrounded by a white blanket of clouds reminiscent of the pictures of Gold Rush climbers over the pass.

Once over the pass at Fraser, British Columbia, Canada, we exchanged vehicles, and climbed aboard the train. It is a narrow gauge railway -- the tracks are three feet apart requiring a bed only 10 feet wide, instead of the normal 15 feet. This means less blasting required in construction, and lower costs, as well as a smaller turning radius, which is better for negotiating the tight curves of the White Pass. The first four cars were filled with groups touring Alaska, the Yukon and beyond; then there were over 100 passengers touring inland, and departing Skagway by cruise; and there were 75 passengers who drove motor homes and RVs and were doing a round trip. With the Harriman Retraced Expedition participants, this made for quite a varied trainload. Each seat had a colour brochure -- "All Aboard!". This described the flora of the region, as well as the story of the Gold Rush, and the story of the building of this unique railroad, which is one of only 34 engineering feats in the world to have been declared an International Historic Civil Engineering Landmark. Half of the booklet was devoted to those who wished for physical souvenirs of the WP&YR, and described clothing, food and other items available either on board or at the main offices.

Many of our party did wildflower watching from the train window. The conductor lives in Skagway, and felt that residents appreciate the visitors, but the town was not large enough to handle all the tourists. The weather was socked in at the start of the train ride home, but opened up increasingly as we descended, affording tantalizing views and glimpses of the high peaks on either side of the railroad. When we disembarked, the U.S. Customs officer found that none in our party had picture ID, and held us until these could be fetched from the ship to confirm our identities.

Oiling steam engine

This old steam locomotive requires constant oiling to stay functional. (Photo by National Ocean Service, NOAA).
Click image for a larger view.

The Park Service has a daily interpretive program at their Visitor Center and share a Trail Center with Parks Canada, who are relatively strict about the rules and regulations which apply. The Tourism Director indicated that Skagway has a good relationship with the cruise industry, and that they have particularly strong mutual communications to resolve such problems as aircraft flightpaths, or the length/number/route of buses, so commercial traffic/noise is reduced. It was interesting to note, for example, that the helipads have been moved to the end of the pier, so that the flight paths might reduce the noise of aircraft which increasingly disturbs other tourist communities. Similarly, the cruise industry responds to needs of residents, for example by providing scholarships for schoolchildren, or contributing to the construction of a local trail system.

Skagway attracts approximately 500,000 cruise visitors per year, and in addition, there are an additional 200,000 visitors who come by road. Also, a considerable portion of the cruise crew always go ashore in Skagway for an average of 4-6 hours each, since most ships spend a full day there, although their presence is relatively invisible. The crew's activities are somewhat different from other visitors. They usually have eight month contracts, followed by nine weeks off, and making contact back home is very important to them all. While they frequent the bars and souvenir shops, they spend considerable time phoning, mailing and emailing, and sending money back home. We discovered an Internet café which had been established last year by a couple who had themselves previously been crew on a cruise ship, so knew crew needs very well. Within the space of a year, there are three Internet cafés in Skagway. These are packed with such facilities as 18 to 24 computer or laptop stations, with opportunities to send email postcards or messages. Users buy a block of email time in 15 minute and longer blocks, with a visual timer on the screen. The price decreases as the time increases, and repeat users (regular crew) get a discounted price. We observed that over the course of some hours, the stores were bustling and every computer station and phone was occupied.

Some of these crew-oriented facilities offered packages of foreign foods. In addition, the email cafés have large numbers of telephone outlets and jacks, often both inside and outside the buildings, and may have fax facilities, copiers, or anything related to communications. One of these facilities has taken the trouble to provide ongoing research about which phone card provides the best price value for which country, pinning up a long list of countries six sheets long. Thus the columns read: the country; the best phone card; and the number of minutes for a $10 purchase. We observed that the best rate was to the US Virgin Islands (327 minutes); the UK was in the middle (150 min.); the Philippines only had 51 minutes (important for the largely Philippino crew); and Vanuatu was lowest (3 minutes).

We observed many forms of transportation, catering to older than average, or less physically active cruise visitors. Thus there were 1930s touring cars (reconditioned originals from Yellowstone National Park), horse and buggies, trolley buses, helicopters, flightseeing, or bus/train excursions, providing soft activity opportunities.

The town and the shops of Skagway are colorful and quaint, and our group wondered if the buildings were in such good repair in 1899. However, they seem a perfect match for the expectations of visitors who are mainly from the large cruise ships, looking for a definite Gold Rush atmosphere, as well as strong opportunities to shop and buy souvenirs. We observed a number of stores with authentic Alaskan crafts, clothing, furs, and foods. Others had foreign-made representations of these goods, or imported some of their items from the southern states.

Besides the shopping opportunities, which are a large focus of this town, there are some opportunities to take day or overnight trips outside the town. The most famous is hiking the Chilcoot Trail. This Trail goes into Canada, and like the original Klondikers, there is a need for current-day hikers to conform to Canadian regulations, for safety and cultural/ environmental protection reasons. In the Parks Canada office shared with the National Park Service, we observed a number of reminders about the need for briefings, equipment, appropriate food storage, group size and frequency, designated campgrounds, and appropriate on-trail activities. In addition, we were impressed by the instructions not to move rocks or relics, since they all tell a story by their placement, and the value of an artifact might be its context in the landscape.

With our interviews of officials and retailers complete, we made our way back to the Clipper Odyssey for 16:30. At 17:15, Pam Wight gave a lecture on the Harriman Expedition then and now, related to economic development, tourism and conservation. The ship sailed at 18:00, and at 18:30 Richard Nelson gave an illustrated lecture on his home community, entitled "Coming Home to Sitka."

(View the day's photos)


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