Alaska Cruise 2014 travel blog

Downtown Skagway

Scene from the play: The Day's of '98

Notice the train just to the left of the Pearl

Train climbing the White Pass

Prospectors climbing the Trail of '98

The old Trail of '98 running parallel with the tracks

Glad we're not still using that wooden suspension bridge!


When you think of Alaska, what kind of transportation do you think of?

If you’re like me, dogsledding comes to mind instantly. The most famous example is the Iditarod race. This dogsledding race is 1000 miles long, through mountain ranges, frozen rivers, dense forest, and desolate tundra. The temperatures are often far below zero with high winds.

While planning our trip, I noticed that they offered several excursions related to dogsledding when we’re in port in Skagway.

Obviously, I’m never going to race in the Iditarod but wouldn’t it be something to drive a dogsled?

Upon further study, a realized that all but one of their trips involve what they call “summer sleds”. In the summer in the ports we’ll be visiting they don’t have any snow. To keep the Iditarod sled dogs in training, they have sleighs with wheels. That just isn’t real enough for me. I wanted to drive a real dogsled, even for just a short trip.

The only remaining trip out of all of their Skagway activities was one called “Dogsledding & Glacier Flightseeing by Helicopter”. This involved taking a 30-minute trip by helicopter out to a glacier and getting a chance to drive a dogsled.

According to their description: “Combine your helicopter flightseeing tour with Alaska’s favorite sport, dog sledding. A short drive brings you to the heliport where following a safety video, you’ll be outfitted with boots and vests and ready to board your helicopter. Once airborne you’ll soar over stunning glaciers and snow fields before landing at the Dog Camp on Denver Glacier. Here you’ll become acquainted with the world of mushing and dog sledding. You have the option to either stand on the sled and mush or relax in the sled and enjoy the breathtaking scenery. A truly authentic Alaskan adventure, this outing enables you to meet the professional Mushers and their friendly dogs that have made the Iditarod Dog Race famous.”

Yes! That’s the adventure I want!

I booked a reservation on the morning excursion. Kathy decided to pamper herself with a morning at the spa while I was gone.

The ship landed in Skagway a little before the scheduled arrival time of 7am. I was up already having my breakfast at the buffet. Like most any hotel breakfast buffet, they had usual scrambled egg, bacon, etc. I avoided that option, instead ordering a ham and mushroom omelet from one the three omelet chiefs at the buffet. It was delicious!

As usual, it had been fogging when we arrived but the morning fog was lifting. My excursion was not scheduled to leave until 8:15 but I was so excited that I couldn’t wait. I departed from the ship right after breakfast and watched several other excursion board their buses and leave. Around 7:45 the driver for my shuttle bus arrived.

When I signed in, he apologized that the trip might be cancelled due to the fog. He said it was up to the helicopter pilot whether or not we went. It seems that the pilots like to see where they’re going when flying near the mountains! Looking around, it was obvious that the ground fog was lifting. But, higher up, the fog was still covering the mountain tops.

When the scheduled departure time of 8:15 arrived, the decision came down to cancel the morning trip. Fortunately, the afternoon trip might not be full.

I immediately re-boarded the ship and headed to the excursion desk on deck 7. They had no problem crediting me for the cost of the cancelled trip. There was exactly one seat left for the 11:30 trip. I quickly booked that seat!

With time to kill, I disembarked again and wandered downtown for a while.

According to the U.S. census, Skagway has a population of only 920 residents. Today, there were four large cruise ships docked at the bay. That’s over 10,000 tourists! Ten tourists per resident! Skagway hosts about 900,000 visitors a year.

As a result, more than have of all downtown consists of jewelry stores. After visiting every one of the stores that wasn’t a jewelry store, I returned to the ship. I re-boarded for the third time today.

After an early lunch onboard the ship, I went to end of the pier to wait for my shuttle to the heliport.

The sky was not looking much better than it had earlier today. There had even been a few drops of rain. This wasn’t boding well!

This time, there were several of us waiting for the shuttle bus. We found the representative. Not surprisingly he said that this excursion was cancelled. This was the only other excursion with real dogsleds. Most people don’t realize that this part of Alaska is classified as a rain forest. It’s cloudy almost every day of the year. Sometimes too cloudy. Oh well. Not everything goes the way you planned.

I re-boarded the ship for the fourth time.

By now, Kathy had emerged from her morning of pampering at the spa. We decided to go downtown together. It didn’t take her very long to reach the same conclusion. There is nothing interesting in downtown Skagway. She quickly lost interested and took a shuttle back to the ship.

I was determined to do something in Skagway. Some actors were standing out in front of the town’s theater trying to lure the tourists inside. OK, sounds like fun.

No history of southeastern Alaska would be complete without mention of Soapy Smith of Skagway. He was the crime boss confidence man who operated the largest criminal empire in gold rush era Alaska.

In nearby Yukon, Canada, Gold was first discovered on August 16, 1896. When news of the discovery reached California, it triggered a stampede of prospectors. An estimated 100,000 prospectors headed north in what was called the Klondike Gold Rush. Of those, only about 30,000 reached the gold fields. Of those, about 4,000 found gold. About 300 because rich. Those that did find gold either went back to look for more or gambled away their money. Almost all of them died in poverty. No one knows how many removed wealthy. All of the sources that I could find say “very few”.

As the most common entryway into the Yukon, Skagway was the perfect home for Jefferson "Soapy" Smith, a con-man from Denver. For example, he perpetrated the first telegraph scam in Alaska. He and his gang of 300 men put up poles and wires, but they weren't actually connected to anything. When the prospectors thought they were sending cash home, it went to Soapy Smith.

This small theater in Skagway has only one show, called “The Day’s of 98”, a vaudeville style musical about the last days of Soapy Smith. Opened in 1923, this is their 91st season. The show was very lively and fun, particularly since I’d just finished studying the colorful past of the gold rush in Skagway.

After the show, I re-boarded the ship for the fifth time.

Our other excursion scheduled for Skagway was the “White Pass Scenic Railway”. This is the single most popular tourist activity in Skagway. It calls itself “The Scenic Railway of the World”. It’s a narrow gauge train the climbs to the summit of White Pass following the treacherous route taken by the gold prospectors in 1898. The train itself is a Registered National Historic Landmark and is part of the National Park Service.

Because the rail line it is so dependent on the cruise ship tourists, they’ve build a spur line to each of the ship piers. As we left the ship, the train cars were right there on the pier. The engines then shuttled to the various spur lines picking up all of the train cars for each of the piers to form one long train.

The rail lines follow the old Trail of ’98. That’s 1898 not 1998. So many prospectors traveled that route, that we could still see the trail multiple times when looking out from our train car.

After the train ride, I re-boarded the ship for the sixth and last time today!

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