Monday, December 5, 2011

Going to Skagway and Beyond

After getting advice from experienced Alaska travelers and studying the map, we decided to take the quick route from Haines to Skagway, travel by ferry. For our 47 ft. van and Airstream combo plus 2 passengers, the fare was $186, winter rate.  We booked passage for Monday, October 10th on the Malaspina, a vessel large enough to carry up to 88 vehicles and 500 passengers.

A. Haines, Alaska
B. Skagway, Alaska

Though our departure time was 3:00 PM, it is required to check in early. Since we had to be out of our RV park space by noon, we arrived at the ferry terminal extra early. They told us to pull to the front of lane eleven. There was plenty of time to make lunch and watch the other lanes fill up with cars. The Malaspina arrived and unloaded at 2:00. Reloading began at once. We were the first because of our size.

Moonshadow's first ferry trip.

Lots of space as Spike parks our 47 foot rig...

...20 minutes later, packed in like sardines.

We retreat to the upper deck.

We cruised across the wide Chilkoot inlet, then turned north up Taiya inlet. The wind grew fierce and icy. We sought the comfort of an indoor lounge with cushiony seats and big glass windows. After 30 minutes we could make out the buildings of Skagway lit up by sunshine. We were soon pulling up to the dock.

First on, last off. After all other vehicles exited the ship, Spike was directed to back straight up into the bow. He had plenty of help from the ship's crew. As soon as he could, he made a hard left to exit the same door we entered.

As we left the ferry terminal we headed directly to the Visitor Center a few blocks away on Broadway. It was immediately evident, by the empty streets, that Skagway had shut down for the winter. It appears to be mostly a shopping stop-over for cruise ships. Cruising season was over. Though Skagway's quaint, historical charm has been preserved, the touristy aspect did not appeal to us.

Because the coming winter necessitates turning off outside water, no RV parks remained open, but the host at the Visitor Center suggested one park where the proprietor might let us stay without hook-ups. We did make a deal for free parking in amongst the falling autumn leaves. We were alone there and cozy for two nights.

The one thing we found interesting in Skagway was its history as the gateway to the Klondike gold fields No gold was ever found in Skagway Valley. The gold fields were 600 miles to the north near Dawson City, in the Yukon Territory of Canada, but Skagway's harbor made it an attractive starting point for those sailing in from Seattle, then continuing on foot.

An informative walking tour map can be picked up at the Visitor Center. Pictured here is the Arctic Brotherhood Hall, a fraternal hall with this amazing facade created in 1900. A battalion of lodge members collected some 8,883 driftwood sticks on the shores of Skagway Bay and nailed them up in an elaborate design. In 2004-2005 all 8,883 pieces of wood were removed. Forty percent had rotted and were replaced. Sixty percent were preserved and returned to their original position.

Among the few attractions still open in October was the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park. The park lands encompass all of the Chilkoot Trail area but the visitor center and museum are housed in Skagway. It's a small museum containing many fascinating gold rush era artifacts and photos with explanatory text panels. 

The photo above is Chilkoot Pass, circa 1898. This hellish ¼ mile long staircase of ice was at the start of the 33 mile Chilkoot Trail linking this coastal part of Alaska to the Yukon River in Canada where gold seekers could then travel by boat on to the Klondike gold fields. Originally the Chilkoot Trail was a traditional Tlingit Nation trade route with its trail head in the Tlingit village of Dyea (pronounced die-ee.) The gold stampede brought over 30,000 gold seekers through Dyea between 1897 and 1900. When the rush was over, Dyea was gradually abandoned.

In summer months hardy hikers can still walk the Chilkoot Trail. Not advisable in October. We took the 7 mile scenic drive from Skagway to the old Dyea town site. Bridge construction prevented us from going all the way but we saw harbor seals and harlequin ducks in the cove and investigated the nice National Park campground. Free camping after September 15.

There was a reason they called it a “stampede.” The population of Skagway and Dyea exploded almost overnight. John Muir wrote “it looked like anthills someone stirred up with a stick.”  Each stampeder was required, by the Canadian government, to carry a ton of goods – a year's supply of such things as flour, bacon, beans and sugar, tools, utensils, clothing, guns and ammo. It took most prospectors three months and 20 to 40 trips up the ¼ mile of steep steps to shuttle all their goods to the top.

Life in Skagway, 1897-1899. Living on a diet of beans, bacon and bread with no fresh produce, scurvy was common due to lack of vitamin C.

Panorama overlook. Skagway is a small town only four blocks wide and 22 blocks long. It has an airport runway up the north side and a big harbor welcoming cruise ships and ferry boats. In October the tourist shops were closed. Still open were shops catering to locals like the grocery store, a natural foods store, a hardware store, a small bookshop, a yarn and quilter's shop, a few bars, one gas station, the library and visitors centers.  There has been effort to promote Skagway as a winter destination but we don't know where one would stay or what you'd find to do except ski and hang out at the bars.

A. Haines, Alaska
B. Skagway, Alaska
C. Night on the road to Boya Lake
D. Boya Lake, B.C., Canada

We departed Skagway on yet another overcast day but the drive still provided great scenery. Eleven miles north we crossed the Moore Bridge, an interesting 110 ft. cantilevered suspension bridge with only the south end anchored to rock while the north end merely rests on the opposite side. Since the bridge spans a geologic fault area, this design allows movement and prevents any fault shifting from destroying the bridge. This is one of only about a dozen such bridges in the world.

We encounter the first light snow flurries of our trip as we cross into Canada again.

Fellow travelers we met in Haines recommended a stop at Boya Lake along the Cassiar-Stewart Hwy in B.C., Canada. We arrived there at noon on the second day, after one night boondocking on the road. We had the entire campground to ourselves so we picked the best site with this scenic view.

Bare aspen and birch trees warn us winter is right on our tail. Earlier that morning there were tense moments when we encountered icy roads.

The afternoon brought sunshine. Sue took a short walk along the lake shore to enjoy the peaceful quiet and beauty of this turquoise lake.

Boya Lake's water is crystal clear. The color is caused by light reflecting off the perfectly white bottom which is coated with a mixture of silt and shell fragments.

The sun sets on our campsite.
The next day we continued south on the Cassiar-Stewart Hwy.


  1. Looks like a wonderful and productive trip. Thanks for sharing, and welcome home.
    Love, Kalika

  2. Cantilevered Bridge is one of the most intelligent engineering solutions I've seen.
    That walk of Sue's produced one of your best images with the rig nestled into the corner.

  3. Great trip & lovely shots across the lake.


  4. What great information and photos. Thanks for sharing. Really enjoyed reading and seeing where you have been.

    Sherrie Hansen

  5. We too loved the Alaskan Ferry system and concur with you on your appraisal of Skagway. However, the Chilkoot Trail story is pretty amazing. I am such you two are happy you are searching for grand views with an airstream rather than searching for gold with a canvas tent and beans. Arlene B

  6. A-M-A-Z-I-N-G journey, and outstanding photos. You made me feel as if I travelled along in your back pocket. Thank you for sharing!

    - Lynda