Skagway, Alaska

Article from i2Mag 01/08/21

Under more normal circumstances, you were most likely to visit Skagway, Alaska on an Inside Passage cruise boat from Vancouver or Seattle. The cruise industry is currently in pause mode but many cruise lines are accepting bookings for 2022. The response has been enthusiastic so if an Inside Passage cruise is on your ‘to-do list’, now is a good time to look at your options.

Skagway is one of the towns visited by all Inside Passage cruises. The population today is one thousand but during the Klondike Gold Rush in the 1890s, it was one of the largest cities on the North American West Coast. As there were few laws there at the time, the city had a rough reputation. Not anymore. Now it has become a tourist hotspot visited by 1.5 million people each ‘normal’ year.

With streets lined with wooden boardwalks, restored buildings that look just as they did 100 years ago, entertainment venues, and a vintage train, Skagway meets the expectations of most visitors. It exceeded mine.

Cruise boats berth close to the city so it is easy to walk to most attractions. One of the first thing you are likely to see is the Snow and Ice Cutting Train that sits at the end of Broadway. There is no better indicator that White Pass receives a lot of snow in winter.

A good place to start any tour of Skagway is adjacent to this in the former White Pass and Yukon Railroad Depot. This massive, colourful structure, built in 1898, is now the National Park Service Visitor Center, where visitors can enjoy movies, walking tours and other activities during the summer. Most of the downtown district forms part of the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park.

Further information is available from the Skagway Convention & Visitors Bureau which operates from the Arctic Brotherhood Hall building. This is claimed to be the most photographed building in Alaska due to the 8,883 pieces of driftwood nailed to the front of the building.

The fraternal organization was formed in 1899 by a group of gold prospectors who arrived here to set off for the Klondike gold fields seeking fortune. The club was a place for miners to connect and look out for each other.

You can’t go to Skagway without at least popping your head into the Red Onion Saloon. Built in 1897, it was operated as one of the more high-class bordellos in town. Now they serve up cocktails, wine, and beer and some good bar food. Buxom Madams in appropriate costumes overlook the scene from their perches, while waitresses in corsets and petticoats serve food and drinks. It is all good fun. A tour of the historic brothel is offered by one of the madams on the hour for $10.00. It’s well worth the peek upstairs.

Skagway’s unique history as a vital transportation corridor and gateway to interior Alaska and the Yukon is portrayed in the City Museum located in the town’s impressive City Hall. This was the first stone building in Alaska and it displays a Tlingit canoe, a Portland Cutter sleigh, Bering Sea kayaks, a WP&YR locomotive and caboose, a 1931 Ford AA truck, and other things.

The early history of Skagway is also seen in the nearby Moore Cabin and Cottage. In 1887, Captain William Moore visited this area, predicted that there would be a major gold find and foresaw the importance of this valley as a gateway to the interior gold fields. He and his son Ben cleared some land and built a wharf and sawmill to support their homestead claim and began opening the White Pass Trail. Their 1887 log cabin remains the oldest structure in town.

In 1897 Ben and wife Minnie built a new one-and-a-half storey wood-frame house next to their original cabin and this has been restored and is open to the public today.

Most visitors want to see White Pass and the most popular way is by a vintage train on the White Pass and Yukon Route Railway. Built in 1898 during the Klondike Gold Rush, this is a marvel of engineering with tunnels and long trestles constructed despite the harsh weather and challenging geography. On the trip to the top of White Pass you see a panorama of mountains, glaciers, gorges and waterfalls. Trips are expected to resume September 1 2021.

An alternative that delivers a superb combination of scenery and wildlife opportunities is a bus trip from Skagway into Canada’s Yukon Territory. You go up and over the White Pass summit and enter Canada’s British Columbia and then Yukon Territory. It’s not uncommon to see moose, caribou, sheep or bears along the remote Klondike Highway. This is available as a half or full-day tour.

There are also plenty of opportunities for adventure seekers with glacier discovery helicopter tours where you land and walk on a glacier, or a mountaineering adventure where you climb to the summit of an 1800 metre peak using ropes, crampons, and ice axes depending on conditions.

Back in town, the Days of ’98 Show promises ‘one hour of non-stop fun’. The show has been running since 1923 and even Covid19 has not been able to stop it completely. After all that, there is still time for eating and shopping and Skagway has options in abundance. It is a place well worth visiting.

Words: Len Rutledge   Images: Phensri Rutledge

The lure of the Kenai Peninsula

Imagine a breathtaking land shaped by glaciers, an ancestral home for Native Americans, pristine wilderness with abundant wildlife and some scenic towns ideal for those seeking meaningful connections with nature. That, in a nutshell, is the Kenai Peninsula, Alaska, one of the last U.S. frontiers.The Kenai peninsula extends approximately 150 miles southwest from the Chugach Mountains, south of Anchorage, and is bordered on the west by Cook Inlet and on the east by Prince William Sound. The glacier-covered Kenai Mountains, rising nearly 7000 feet, run along the southeast spine.

There are several cities and towns in this region, including Seward on the Gulf of Alaska Coast and Homer on Kachemak Bay. One of the most visited tourist areas in Alaska, this area is especially popular with anglers of all ages lured by its excellent salmon and halibut fishing, so visitor facilities are excellent and there are tour opportunities galore.

Alaska is often seen as a young person’s outdoor adventure area and it certainly is that, but I found it is also excellent for seniors, as hundreds of thousands of cruise passengers who visit each year can confirm.

Seeking sealife in Seward

A nice catch in Seward on the Kenai Peninsula

Seward, a town of around 3000 permanent residences, is at the end of the Inside Passage cruise boat route from Seattle and Vancouver, and is about two hours by road south of Anchorage, Alaska’s largest city. The area is a photographer’s paradise with glaciers on land and porpoise, whales and sea lions in the water.

The long summer days are perfect for enjoying world-class fishing, tours of Kenai Fjords National Park, walks along the waterfront, learning about local history and culture, and enjoying the town’s restaurants, bakeries, shops and galleries.

Seward is home to some of Alaska’s finest year-round sport fishing. Anglers can fish for giant Pacific halibut, fight an acrobatic silver salmon or catch a trophy lingcod. Thirty fishing charters offer half-day or all-day excursions.

A highlight in Seward is a visit to the Alaska Sealife Center, which is designed as a research, rehabilitation and education facility. It has 15 aquariums and a huge netted space showcasing 150 different animals from the Gulf of Alaska, including birds, seals, sea lions, octopus and invertebrates. Allow several hours for a visit.

The Sealife Center in Seward

A sightseeing tour into the Kenai Fjords National Park offers the chance to see calving glaciers, humpback whales, orcas, otters, sea lions, eagles, puffins and other birds. One such trip includes lunch on exclusive Fox Island, where orcas come right up on the beach to rub against the rocky shore.

Seward’s Exit Glacier is one of the most accessible in Alaska. The wheelchair-accessible Glacier View Loop Trail meanders through a cottonwood forest before arriving at a panoramic viewpoint. The Glacier Overlook Trail is an additional 0.7‑miles full of jaw-dropping sights. Tours offer the chance to walk on the ice and those with a sense of adventure can try ice climbing.

Angling the Russian River

Russian River drift fishing on the Kenai Peninsula

Forty-five miles north of Seward is where you find the gin-clear Russian River. This is one of the few streams in North America where sockeye salmon are easily caught on artificial flies. There are two contrasting zones: the infamous crowds of the ‘combat zone’ and the much quieter area near Russian River Falls, where you can see leaping salmon. The upper river is an area where you are more likely to see a bear than another angler.

In both areas, an angler fishing from the bank can catch trophy-size rainbow trout and Arctic char, but odds of catching good fish increase dramatically if you are able to float the river in a drift boat. Fortunately, experienced drift boat guides are available. All offer-full-day charters while a few also offer two-day trips.

Apart from fishing, this area of the Kenai Peninsula has one of the most extensive systems of maintained hiking trails in Alaska. You are likely to see eagles, mountain goats and Dall sheep. Brown and black bear, moose, wolf and caribou are also in the area.

Homer: The end of the road on the Kenai Peninsula

Shops on the Homer Spit on the Kenai Peninsula

This charming, colorful town is literally at the end of the road if you have driven up from the Lower 48 states. The town is surrounded by an incredible panorama of mountains, white peaks, glaciers, and the famous Homer Spit, a four-mile-long strip of land that stretches into beautiful, deep blue Kachemak Bay.

The Spit is a hub of bustling activity during the summer. There are throngs of tourists, people camping on the beach, charter boats heading out to catch halibut, beachcombers, and birders amazed at how many bald eagles they can spot. King salmon can be caught here from mid-May to the end of June, while silver salmon run in August.

Some of the most colorful and attractive shops, restaurants and food stalls you can imagine line the spit road. Many are built on stilts over the water and are accessed by boardwalks. Scattered among them are bars, charter operators, art galleries, and grocery and liquor outlets. It may be a town planners’ nightmare, but the public loves it.

Back on dry land, there are plenty of lodging choices, more shops, some interesting museums, a botanic garden, a farmer’s market on Wednesday and Saturday, and waterfront walks. Festivals include Winter Carnival in February, the King Salmon Tournament in March, the Shorebird Festival in May, and the Writer’s Conference in June.

On the other side of the bay is Kachemak Bay State Wilderness Park, a 350,000-acre paradise of glaciers, mountains, protected coves for paddling, and an extensive trail system to explore on foot.

What’s appealing to the over-50 luxury traveler?

  • The laid-back vibe throughout the Kenai Peninsula encourages visitors to take their time and enjoy all there is to see and do.
  • If offers unique opportunities to see wildlife both on land and water. You are likely to see seals, sea otters, porpoises, whales and numerous species of sea birds while out on the water, and moose, black or brown bear, eagles, sandhill cranes, and perhaps rabbits, fox or porcupines on land.
  • Bear viewing is popular because people can see these wild animals up close in their natural surroundings, in relative safety and comfort. Well-equipped lodges and experienced guides make this popular with all ages.

Take note

  • This area gets very cold and has short days in winter, so it is not ideal for sightseeing at that time. Some shops, tour operators, and lodgings close but you will escape the crowds.
  • May to September is the popular time for most visitors. Days are long and everything is open. Lodging and restaurant prices can be higher than in the Lower-48 because the season is relatively short, and some pre-booking of accommodation is recommended.

All photo credits (except lead photo): Phensri Rutledge