Skating into Skagway
Not Just Another Pretty Name
Yes, people ride their bikes through Alaska, but preferably in the summer months. Even the polar bears know it's time to take a long siesta during the winter. This rider/writer has visited several Alaskan cities, towns, campsites, fishing holes, watering holes and such, but Skagway has to be one of his favorites. Just the name itself has a certain odd magic to it. While not the most pleasant sounding, it should not be associated with the derogatory term as in, "Gees, did you see the skag Benny was dating?" Skagway is, well, beautiful, sexy, historical, and a gateway literally to gold.
While it's basically frozen into a snowball and deserted nearly seven months of the year, during the five-month "season" of May 1-September 25, the southeastern Alaskan town literally blooms after emerging from its own form of hibernation. In fact, the 100-year old municipality has earned the title of "Garden City of Alaska" by dint of its exceptional flora and foliage. Yes, it's the Land of the Giant Cabbage and probably where the Killer Tomatoes first popped out of the rich soil bathed by nearly 24 hours of sunlight.
Entering its "Land of the Midnight Sun" phase after a winter of midday nights, Skagway's boardwalk streets throng with visitors from virtually every country in the world. Most of them walk or wobble ashore from the luxury cruise ships that tie-up in the Taiya Inlet where a modern wharf was built specifically to accommodate the leviathans plying the famed Inland Passage. In fact any one of the new generation of mega-cruisers dwarfing the town itself usually carries at least three times as many people as call themselves residents of Skagway. During the "sunny months," the town boasts 811 souls as of last count, that number dwindling to something around a hardcore 300 the rest of the year.
Visitors come to Skagway by car, camper and motorcycle, and some by private plane as the historic town has got quite a nice airport that sends aircraft zooming off in the direction of the wharf and the mountainous liners gleaming white as the snow capped peaks ringing the shore. Adjacent to the wharf a heliport whisks passengers literally from the gangplanks of their ships up into the crystalline blue sky and over to the nearby glaciers for a literally breathtaking "flightseeing" adventure that can include a landing on the millennia old ice itself. Unless you have a Jawa with steel-studded tires, riding on the glaciers is not recommended.
But beyond the allure of slowly creeping ice sheets and the jagged Coast Mountains, the town of Skagway has a lot to offer. Trolling around on a motorcycle is about the best way to see the sites as its not exactly a vast metropolis, but if you want give the bike a rest and let someone else do the driving, I recommend one of the bright yellow 1927 Skagway Tour Car beautifully restored by Los Angeles-based master car builder Boyd Coddington and is a treat in itself.
On board you're regaled with the lusty history of Skagway, including the origin of the tour bus company itself. It seems a German immigrant by the name of Martin Itjen who in 1923 happened to operate a fleet of coal trucks as well as a mortuary learned that President Warren G. Harding would be paying a visit. Being a consummate entrepreneur Mr. Itjen painted one of his coal trucks yellow and had it waiting at the dock when the President disembarked. So taken with the appearance of the "tour bus" the President and his entire entourage climbed aboard and set off with Itjen at the wheel, but not before he collected a quarter from everyone, including the President. The tour included a visit to a huge golden boulder tethered to the ground by a chain, and billed as the largest gold nugget on earth by Itjen who happened to be an unbridled practical joker and had access to a lot of gold paint. Itjen then offered to drive the presidential party back to their ship, but added it would cost them another twenty-five cents. About this he wasn't kidding, and the President paid up. Back then a quarter could almost buy you a condominium so Itjen began raking in the dough.
Skagway itself was founded in 1888 by Captain William Moore, a perceptive and hardy adventurer who at age 65 took one look at the nearby White Pass and knew that it was destined to be fast the lane through the mountains to the gold fields beyond. His vision held true, Skagway became known as the "Gateway to the Klondike" and attracted a number of enterprising characters like Moore and Itjen. It prospered as the jumping off spot for would be treasure seekers who flocked there during the 1897-98 Klondike gold rush, at one time swelling the city census to 20,000. Rather quickly the gold petered out and so did the population, but a few hearty souls remained. The next Gold Rush came in the form of tourist dollars in a poetic reversal of fortunes.
Traditional stopping off points in Skagway include the original Arctic Brotherhood Hall located on Broadway, the building decorated with over 10,000 pieces of driftwood. Hey, when you don't have photos of J. Lo and Britney, you gotta go with the flow so it was driftwood washing up on shore. The ABC was the first of many such homegrown theaters that burgeoned around Alaska and were dedicated to bringing culture to the isolated communities. That tradition is carried on at a newer Arctic Brotherhood Hall located just down the street where you can hear history and song delivered by talented cast members who also swear you in as official, card carrying members of the Arctic Brotherhood.
Make sure you stop in and say hello to Linda Plock at the National Parks Service Visitors Center. A trained archaeologist, and a plucky veteran of six seasons in Skagway, she knows all the nitty-gritty and can point you in all the right directions.
Also make sure your putt on over to Skagway's "Gold Rush Cemetery" where lies the tale of the notorious Soapy Smith. Now Soapy was a particularly slippery fellow who through various scams bilked miners out of their hard-earned gold dust. One day, it all caught up with him in a blazing gun battle between the con man and one of Skagway's reputable citizens, the town's engineer, a Frank Reid. Firing their guns almost simultaneously, Soapy was dead before he hit the ground, poor Frank taking several days to pass. A handful saw Soapy off at his funeral while 2,000 paid their respects to Reid who had rid the town of the scourge. Some time later, the story took a twist as it was learned that Reid had apparently originally fled to Alaska to avoid his own arrest. Meanwhile Soapy was more or less "rehabilitated" thanks to the "Days of '98 Show with Soapy Smith," a musical review that has been in production for more than 70 years. Complete with can-can girls, it's regularly staged at the Eagle's Hall at Broadway and 6th Avenue. It you "can," make sure you see the show.
If you want to get out of Skagway to see some of the higher altitude countryside, about the best way is the White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad that takes you on a three-hour, 40-mile round trip chug through both scenery and history. It's truly mind boggling that men, with the most rudimentary tools circa 1898, carved and hacked their way through solid rock and precipitous mountains to make it all possible. Even the kids will like it as the trip's narrators keep up a spirited story telling.
For those so-called off the beaten track Skagway attractions, ask one of the locals to point out the house where you'll find the "Discarded Lawnmower Museum" or the front yard of a local residence that sports a ceramic duck dressed daily in different clothes. Don't forget to ask about the notorious "duck bikini bathing suit" escapade. Well, things do get a bit dull during the darker months and people find unusual ways of expressing themselves in Skagway. To learn the facts behind these stories and to really see how the locals express themselves, buy a copy of the "Best of the Skagway, Alaska Police Blotter" compiled by Jeff Brady and Mike Sica and available at the Skagway News Depot and Books located on Broadway. While there get a replica copy of their vintage newspaper as well as the current Skagway News that's printed every two weeks. Yeah, news stays fresh longer in Skagway.
For more information about Skagway call the Convention and Visitor's Bureau at 907-983-2854. Oh, about that name Skagway. Its origins are traced to the native Tlingit name "Skagua" meaning "home of the north wind," because it can get pretty blustery. But others say it stems from "Sch-kawai" meaning "end of salt water." In any case, the 1890's gold rushers called it Skaugway, but the U.S. post office had the last word. They wanted something less "foreign" looking and so changed the spelling to Skagway. Go figure.