In 1898 thousands of hopeful adventurers set out for the Klondyke. The Gold Rush was on and the word Gold was enough to fire their spirits and send them stampeding North unfound and unfitted but with a fever to make the long hazardous journey to the rich Klondyke gold fields.
100 years later, the only gold you’ll find is the silence and solitude of one of the most beautiful corners of the world. The journey to Skagway is no longer arduous or dangerous, but taken on a small-ship cruise it’s an Alaskan experience.
We flew from Seattle to Juneau, and after a nightcap at the Red Dog Saloon we had an early night in anticipation of our adventure aboard the “Spirit of ‘98”. We followed their trail from Skagway on the White Pass and Yukon Railroad. For 20 miles we forged steadily upward through canyons and cliffs, over gorges and through tunnels blasted in the rock face, the evidence of thousands of gold-crazed stampeders and their weary pack animals lying abandoned along the escarpments.
After lunch we sailed into Haines, the traditional area of the Chilkat Tlingits, one of the most powerful tribes in the Gold Rush times. Today Haines is famous for its thousands of Bald Eagles – a dramatic sight in autumn when 4,000 eagles gather along a 5 mile stretch of the Chilkat River attracted by the last of the salmon runs.
The next day we arrived in Sitka, Russian America’s capital city. There are still some traces of Russian occupation – the beautiful Orthodox Cathedral and its golden domes is the most famous. Alexander Baronhof could not get on with the native Tlingits and the diminishing fur trade of sea otters and beavers led to the sale of Alaska to the United States in 1867.
Most of all, I enjoyed the visit to the Raptor (Birds of Prey) centre in Sitka. This rehabilitation centre provides medical treatment and research for Alaska’s wildlife, mainly Bald Eagles who are injured by vehicles, structures or even traps. The birds are nurtured back to health and released back to the wild.Everything is paid for by charitable donations, bequests and gifts.
For the next 2 days we sailed the Inside Passage. I got to settle down in my comfortable cabin and found time to make friends and enjoy the relaxing atmosphere on board. Small ships have Big advantages; we sailed to Tracy Arm looking for the Hump Back Whales, negotiated through icebergs and took a really close look at the Tom Sawyer Glaciers. The captain turned off the engine so we could hear the cracking of the glacier ice. On another evening dinner was delayed as we watched a family of bears romp by a creek.
The next afternoon we dodged some porpoises who, I swear were having a game with us! Life was unwinding, there was plenty of time to soak up the atmosphere and feast your senses on this untouched piece of the earth. The bears wore no watches, and the porpoises had no other pressing appointments!
Before arriving in Ketchikan we cruised Misty Fjords. Waterfalls cascade down the sheer granite cliffs and the mist caught up in this magical place gave it its name. Ketchikan, Alaska’s “First City” was a hive of activity after our peace and quiet. It was a beautiful day, but I’m told this “Rain Capital of Alaska” has nearly 13 feet of rain a year! Here the old brothels and saloons in Creek Street have been renovated to become a quaint historical district for visitors. Ketchikan Creek itself comes alive with salmon returning from the ocean to spawn in the streams behind the town. Ketchikan boasts the most Totem Poles in Alaska and the Totem Heritage Centre contains original poles hundreds of years old.
We were nearing the end of our journey. Now feeling quite at home we relaxed along the stunning coastline of Canada’s British Columbia in the sheltered waters of Vancouver Island. After many early nights and early mornings we stayed up late enjoying a nostalgic sing-song around the piano in the bar – we slept late and enjoyed a leisurely breakfast and soon the outskirts of that seething metropolis, Seattle, slowly came into view.
It was a wonderful journey – with amazing sights and sounds, close encounters with the wild animals, and Nature at her most awesome. I have been instilled with a respect for this planet and a fever (Gold or otherwise) infectious from my visit to the 49th State.