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October 17, 2006 > Skagway, and Glacier Bay - 8th wonder of the world

Skagway, and Glacier Bay - 8th wonder of the world

by Arnie Becker

Yesterday, we landed in Skagway, gateway to the gold rush of 1898 in the Klondike and Yukon territories. At the height of the gold rush, this city was Alaska's largest boasting 20,000 residents but now Skagway has 864 permanent residents, and swells to 1,800 during summer tourist season.

Skagway is so small that it does not have a hospital or resident doctor. If you need a doctor, you either travel by air for 45 minutes or drive for three hours to the nearest facility. This true outpost of civilization requires hardy souls to survive the cold, dark long winters. However, it does have a community recreation hall with indoor sports that receives heavy usage, particularly in the winter, when human companionship is critical and the tourists have left.

Our first tour out of Skagway was a trip on the narrow gauge White Pass and Yukon Route railroad. This is a one and a half hour trip up the mountains to Fraser, British Columbia, Canada, entry point to the Yukon gold fields. Construction began on the railroad May 28, 1898 and was completed July 28, 1900. This was one of the most difficult rail lines in the world to build. Temperatures fell to minus 60 degrees and the route climbs from sea level to almost 3,000 in just 20 miles. At the time of its completion, it was the northernmost railroad in the Western Hemisphere. Today most of the cars have been refurbished to their original condition and are warm and comfortable for the short ride.

The train chugs up the mountainside at a snail's pace due to the sharp curves and steep incline, but it provides a chance to photograph the beautiful scenery. Peaked mountains covered in a perpetual glaze of snow and ice, waterfalls, glaciers sliding down the mountainsides, wildflowers in bloom, and clear blue sky, awaits visitors. According to our guide and bus driver, Melissa, this was only the 19th day of clear weather since May.

It is very difficult to imagine miners coming up on the train, or walking up the Yukon Trail carrying 2,000 pounds of supplies. This was a requirement that the Canadian government had to ensure that they had enough food, tents, tools, and clothing to see them through at least the first winter. For many this meant multiple trips from Skagway to Fraser and beyond. Death through disease and accidents were common, but for the most part, there was little lawlessness.

After our return from Fraser, we lunched at a lovely bed and breakfast that had been restored to its 1898 splendor. The National Park Service owns most of Skagway and they are responsible for maintaining buildings in their original state but updates them with modern pluming and heating and services like phones and Internet access. The upstairs bedrooms in the bed and breakfast are much the way they were originally however. No telephones or television, and bathrooms down the hall giving visitors a sense of how people lived here 100 years ago.

That evening we set sail for Glacier Bay, one of the natural wonders of the world. Craggy mountains, deep valleys filled with glaciers, deep blue sky, and snow covered peaks, ice chunks floating by the side of the ship, and classical music playing on the ship's sound system awaited us when we woke up the next day. Although the day started out foggy, cold, and dark, by 8:00 a.m. the sky was clear blue, the water dead calm, and the sun blazed off the snow and ice.

Although many of the glaciers remain unnamed they were all being observed by the United States Geological Service that was doing research on the movement of glaciers and how they are filling in the open waterways with silt at an alarming rate preventing small fishing boats access to the open sea.

Next week Arnie continues his trip with Russia, Japan and China.

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