Holland travels the old water routes of southeast Alaska in a four part series of essays @ WorldHum. Skagway in winter is eerily quiet. On Broadway the store windows are papered over, and the wooden boardwalks, frozen solid, creak and crack and pop under the rare pedestrian’s weight. The bright painted facades of the town’s historic buildings—one-time saloons and brothels, now seasonal shops hawking T-shirts, fudge and jewelry to cruise ship tourists—are so cartoonish, so Ye Olde, that you could imagine you’ve shrunk down to Lilliputian size and wandered into a child’s toy Wild West Towne, left out in the yard and abandoned, after the first snow, until spring. This tiny Alaskan port on the northern end of the Inside Passage draws crowds of summer visitors by selling itself as a historic boom town, but it never feels more like a relic than when the winter settles in.I arrived in town from my home in Whitehorse, in Canada’s Yukon Territory, tracing in reverse the famous Gold Rush route—from Skagway over the mountains to the Yukon River and the Klondike gold fields. I’d driven south past road crews clearing the debris from avalanches earlier in the week. I’d cleared the summit of White Pass, its highest point marking the international boundary, and coasted the few icy miles down from summit to sea level in second gear. Now I walked Skagway’s tidy, empty streets, past the neatly maintained yards and bright painted houses of its 800 or so residents. American flags flapped on flagpoles, and homemade signs propped up in windows cheered on the local high school sports teams. Vibe-wise, it was more an idyllic Anytown, U.S.A. than a rough-and-ready Last Frontier.
I was due on the 2:30 p.m. ferry to Juneau the next day. I was planning to spend 10 days exploring the ports and waterways of Southeast Alaska, using only the state’s public passenger ferries to get around.Months earlier, in the Whitehorse Public Library, I’d spotted a copy of the WPA guide to Alaska. It was first published in 1939, before the Alaska Highway was built, and when I flipped through it I was struck by the changes the highway had wrought. For travelers to the interior, the road from northern B.C. to Fairbanks had completely altered the Alaskan experience. River steamers and railroads had been replaced by blacktop; historic travelers’ waypoints had been abandoned, and new ones built up. The standard, beaten-path routes described in the book—the journey down the Yukon River by steamer, for instance—were long gone.
But for the traveler to the panhandle, little had changed. The classic sea routes were unaltered since the WPA guide’s era—largely unaltered, in fact, since the 19th century, or even earlier. Visitors today traveled the same channels, past the same mountain views, and docked in the same ports, that they had for the last 100 years. The ships that carried them had evolved, sure, as had the ports where they docked, but it seemed to me that in a fundamental way the trip remained unchanged. There was something essential, I thought, about seeing Southeast Alaska by water.
I had decided to go in January, when the waterways were uncluttered with summer kayakers, yachties, cruise ships and fishing fleets, and the ferries were stocked with locals. I’d gathered up a handful of Alaskan travel guides and travelogues to get a feel for the experience over the years, and arranged for a media pass with my contact at the Alaska Marine Highway System. Skagway was the logical starting point—the northernmost panhandle port, and the only one, besides Haines, where the road to the rest of the world intersected with the old sea routes.