Catch it if you can

We spent our time on the Pacific hopping around to every function that the ship had to offer. Salsa dance class. A Wii bowling tournament. Big band concerts, large-screen showings of Star Trek and some Jennifer Aniston flick that looks like all the rest she’s made. Lots of time staring at the water, looking for whales. Many, many mohitos served on the Sun Deck. At some point our lower limbs acclimated to the water movement and we didn’t look like drunken sailors during fleet week anymore.

Getting off the ship and into port, however, was exciting for us. So it was with much anticipating that we drew into our berth at Skagway, a once-was gold mining town further up the Alaskan coast from Juneau. Skagway has a winter population of 700 and this doubles in size during the summer months, when the cruise lines bring their business. It was here that I first started noticing the signs, hung over a small portion of the shop entrances, that read “locally owned and operated.” What does that mean, I wondered. Why wouldn’t it be locally owned? Starbucks, maybe, would want to cart all of their supplies up here, but I was sure I wasn’t going to run into a Bloomingdale’s or Red Robin. As it turns out, the cruise lines have bought up most of the storefronts, which is why we saw so many jewelry outfits along the way. I don’t suppose they do much for the local communities, which in Alaska, don’t have a lot of sales or property tax income, most of the state revenue coming from the oil industry. So some of our native shopkeepers had a little chip on their shoulder, and if I were them, I might, too.

restored White Pass train

restored White Pass train

We had signed up earlier to take the White Pass train up from Skagway to the summit of the mountains, just over the border into Canada. This was the route that the gold miners had blasted out to make exploration easier. As we chugged our way up the 18 miles of rocky landscape, I took note of the near-vertical terrain. And then it hit me. These guys were crazy. I can’t imagine the desperation they must have felt to put up with what must have been absolutely horrendous conditions—white out blizzards, frostbite, inaccessible or absent supplies, inaccurate or nonexistent maps, hyper-competitive people. That surviving through years of this place seemed like a good idea was almost beyond my comprehension. I can’t even think of a metaphor for who these people are today, other than daredevils who jump off of city buildings or people who decide living in a broken down bus in the middle of nowhere is the life for them, but they’re not trying to make money out of those endeavors, it seems.

After we drew haltingly toward the summit, we passed the US Customs building, which was 6 miles away from the border. The border itself is barren of everything except rocks, the obelisk marking the actual crossover point, and the few green weeds that can handle the climate here. The Mounties are no more hardy; their customs office is 7 miles north of the marker. I suppose we’re two trusting nations. One person on the train with us remarked that we probably would put up with the elements if the neighboring country were Mexico. Wow, so much for the glory of the Yukon—we travelers today are jaded and cynical.

our train heading up to white pass

our train heading up to white pass

Up at the summit, we saw a quiet and pristine wilderness. It had taken two and a quarter hours to traverse 18 miles. A small creek snuck by the rails on the right, giving way to yellow and purple wildflowers. Maybe this site was a brute in winter, but it was a gentle lamb today. I wished we could have stayed a while, but as we were in Canada, nobody who wasn’t an employee was allowed off the train.

We could, however, go stand on the caboose. We’d climbed into the first car when we set out, but the engineers removed the engine and drove it down to the rear of the train for our return down the mountain. So now we could stand at the end and watch the world go by us, which we did. Wow, was that worth the $200 for our tickets. We gasped the first third of the trip back down.

The next day, we were in Ketchikan, known as the salmon capitol of the world. Come on, I thought. Everyone says they’re the capitol of something, but what does that really mean? Lots more tourist traps, I thought, and I might have gagged if Ketchikan were a place that sold 3,200 versions of jade jewlerly carved into whale tails. I had really seen enough of those.

Ketchikan harbor

Ketchikan harbor

They weren’t kidding, though. Ketchikan had every salmon in the world, fighting through its ocean inlet and streams. More gawking ensued. It was hard to appreciate the natural resource with 9,000 other ship passengers attempting to do the same, but we found some quiet corners that morning. Seeing these tiny pieces of Alaska only made me want to return. Maybe the gold rush is over, but it really had a lot of other riches that a person could get into.

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