Alaska without the Cruise Ship Part 17: Some Final Thoughts

Alaska without the Cruise Ship is a 17-part series exploring the ease and advantages of touring Alaska on your own steam and at your own speed.

And so we come to the end of our Alaskan adventure: a tiny prop plane that would take me from Skagway to Juneau where I would catch a much larger plane back home to Los Angeles.

Unlike the other one million tourists who visit Alaska annually, my friends and I were part of the 600,000 non-cruise ship minority who decided to do it on our own. Alaska is, after all, a wild place where even tourists should be allowed to roam free and not be limited to the confines of a cruise ship and its tightly regulated itinerary.

For those of you who thought it impossible to visit this fine state without signing up for an expensive cruise, hopefully this series has shown that this is simply not the case. Of course, there is nothing wrong with cruise ships; they’re a very convenient and comfortable way to get around. Traveling without one, however, is just as easy, and in my opinion, far more rewarding for travelers seeking a deeper Alaskan experience.

Every town we visited, for example, seemed to undergo a substantial transformation when the last cruise ship left for the day. The crowds were gone, the restaurants less packed, and the locals more relaxed. It was like an intermission between shows at the theater.

Traveling on your own steam also allows you to stay longer in the places you enjoy rather than rushing back to catch your ship before it sets sail. When I discovered just how wonderful Skagway was, I did exactly that; my extra time in the local bars, restaurants and cafes were so very rewarding. Of course, we missed the all-you-can-eat cruise ship buffets, but nearly all the food we ate instead was freshly plucked from the Alaskan waters and fabulously delicious.

We were also able to take advantage of all the same onshore excursions offered up by the cruise lines, but often times at cheaper rates. And since so many of the outfitters rely on cruise ship passengers who are traveling without cars, nearly all of them provide free transport to their sites, be it kayaking, zip lining, bear watching, dog sledding, or any other adventure one could imagine.

Accommodations were also easy to organize thanks to a great selection of local hotels bursting with character. Be sure to book ahead, though! Hotels are small and fill up quickly. Ketchikan, Juneau, and Skagway all have Visitor Bureau sites listing hotels and contact numbers (click links above)

And then, there is the Alaska Marine Highway. This far-reaching system of ferries connects nearly every major port town on the coast which means no need to rent a car! How easy is that!

Alaska, truth be told, is easy. I had always pictured it as an exotic, far-flung destination that was difficult to get to and, unless traveling by cruise ship, difficult to manage once there. The reality is that Alaska is a state just like any other state in the union; locals speak English, ATMs dispense dollars, and cars drive on the right side of the street. If you’ve traveled in any of the other 49 states without a tour group or cruise ship, you can do so here as well. In fact, I would argue that Alaska is so geared towards tourism that it is actually much easier to travel here than any other state. Cruise ships are nice, but you can certainly do this one on your own.

However, if after all this, you’re still worried you can’t do Alaska on your own, then please, please get yourself on a cruise ship. Cruise ships are still wonderful in their own way and are still a great opportunity to visit this most amazing state. Because, as I discovered on my own trip, Alaska simply does not disappoint–whatever your level of travel comfort might be.

Yesterday: The Crazy Nightlife of Skagway

(Thanks go out to Kirstin for a wonderful edit job on this series)

Alaska without the Cruise Ship Part 16: The Crazy Nightlife of Skagway

Alaska without the Cruise Ship is a 17-part series exploring the ease and advantages of touring Alaska on your own steam and at your own speed.

Although Skagway was the smallest town we visited in Alaska, it had the most fascinating nightlife. I hadn’t expected this from a town of just 800 people, but apparently when there is nothing else to do, there is always the opportunity to drink.

Red Onion
The Red Onion is the natural place to booze it up in Skagway. This spacious, Wild West style bar began serving beer more than 100 years and it seems almost obligatory to continue the trend if you happen to be in town.

As mentioned in an earlier post, the Red Onion was initially a brothel when it was built in 1897 and the second floor has been preserved in its entirety as a museum.

Late one night, after a few too many Alaskan Ambers, the bartender decided to take us upstairs for an impromptu tour. We had been warned about going upstairs at nighttime due to the presence of a ghost by the name of Lydia. Skagway is full of ghost stories, and rightfully so. During its times as a rip-roaring gold rush town, a lot of bad things went down here and there are undoubtedly a lot of restless souls. In fact, nearly every local seemed to have a ghost story to tell us.

And so, we ventured upstairs to a place we weren’t supposed to go like a bunch of college students about to get horribly butchered in a slasher film. It was dark and spooky, but I’m sorry to report that Lydia failed to make an appearance. Perhaps if I had drank more Smoked Porter….

Moe’s isn’t exactly the type of bar that people visit after stepping off a cruise ship–for the most part, that’s reserved for the tourist friendly Red Onion just down the street. Instead, Moe’s is a place for the locals–and occasionally the random tourist as long as they don’t act too touristy.

Moe’s is, in fact, a dive bar. In retrospect, it turned out to be my favorite place to drink in all of Alaska. The first night we visited was at the recommendation of a local who told us that Wild Bill Simon was playing. Wild Bill is a bit of a legend who, with guitar and amp, entertains the townsfolk a few evenings a week with a selection of songs that range from tear-jerkers to just plain ridiculous.

The small dance floor would ebb and flow with each song as people began whooping it up, slow dancing, or returning to their seats to stare into their beers.

On another night, a group of rather motley fellows showed up. They didn’t look like they were locals from Skagway, but they sure weren’t tourists either.

Each was wearing a t-shirt with “UMF Chapter of Haines” written on it. Haines was the next town down the fjord and home to some rather rough fishermen. But what did UMF stand for? After a round of shots, one of the men stood up and we soon learned what it was all about. He walked up to the dance floor, stood around to face the crowd, and belted out a ditty pledging his allegiance to the UMF because he was indeed an Ugly Mother-******.

Ah ha! So, that’s what it stood for.

The local Haines chapter of single, self-proclaimed ugly men, had journeyed north to Skagway to drink and meet women–which they did when my friend Gwen walked over to chat with these interesting folk. That’s her looking slightly out of place in the photo above.

Truth be told, this was what my original image of Alaska was like: big hairy fisherman who drank hard, shot pool, and otherwise heaved their manhood about. Sure, this type of individual might actually exist in places like Haines or deep in the interior, but everyone we met in Ketchikan, Juneau, and Skagway were the same type of people you’d expect to come across in Boulder, Colorado, or Butte, Montana, or practically any ski resort in the off season.

Alaska, it seems, attracts the good-natured, outdoorsy folks who are easygoing, friendly, and just plain fun to be around. Sure, many of the people we met were seasonal workers who came to Alaska for the summertime, but even those we met who had lived here for the last twenty years were not the hard-core, fur-trapping Paul Bunyon types most people associate with Alaska. But that’s what travel does: it teaches you to throw away your stereotypes because they are almost always wrong–except for the ones about the men from Skagway: those are indeed some UMFs.

On my last night in Alaska, a day after all my friends had left, I crashed the local prom.

Actually, it wasn’t a proper prom, but rather a party thrown by the locals and held in the Red Onion. Everywhere I had gone during the day, I had heard the locals talking about it and so when evening rolled around, I marched up to the entrance and asked the woman taking tickets if I could crash the party. She stepped aside and waved me in.

Apparently, the Skagway Prom, now in its third year, has become an annual event. It is held towards the end of the summer when many of the seasonal workers are starting to pack up and go home. As a result, the Prom felt like it was the last night at summer camp; boozy friends hugging each other goodbye, couples hooking up in the corner as the last grasps of a fleeting summer romance are swept away by the approaching winds of Fall. I sat at the bar and watched the drunken festivities and smiled. Man, I love Alaska.

On the way back to my hotel, I came across this wonderful scene; the empty streets of Skagway. Cruise ships rarely stay the night in Skagway so when the last one takes off in the afternoon, the town reverts back to its original self; a quaint, quiet place where everyone knows each other and no one bothers locking up their bikes. This, my friends, is the true Alaska that one simply fails to see while on a cruise ship.

Yesterday: Eating Well in Skagway
Tomorrow: Some Final Thoughts

Alaska without the Cruise Ship Part 15: Eating Well in Skagway

Alaska without the Cruise Ship is a 17-part series exploring the ease and advantages of touring Alaska on your own steam and at your own speed.

Since Skagway is at the dead-end of a fjord, fishing is not a major industry here and, as a result, seafood is not as plentiful in local restaurants as it is throughout most of coastal Alaska.

This doesn’t mean there aren’t any good places to eat in Skagway, however.

This small town of merely 800 people has an array of surprisingly diverse eateries. And, let’s face it, after a week of eating salmon or halibut every day, it was nice to mix it up a little with some cuisine that wasn’t pulled from the ocean.

Olivia’s at the Skagway Inn
My favorite restaurant in Skagway is Olivia’s at the historic Skagway Inn. Like so many other buildings left over from the gold rush days, the 1897 Skagway Inn was initially built as a brothel. Today, this Victorian style treasure has been beautifully restored as a bed & breakfast and is proudly included on the National Register of Historic Places.

Just outside the inn is a wonderful little garden. Skagway is known as the “Garden City of Alaska” and local residents take great pride in growing their own food–as does Olivia’s. The Skagway Inn garden is the first stop of the restaurant’s Garden Gourmet tour. This is where we met Chef Wendell. With wicker basket under arm, he walked us through the garden picking lettuce, chives, rosemary, thyme, and even some edible flowers which I had no idea one could actually eat. We then followed him into the restaurant where the greens we just picked were transformed into a Garden City Salad topped with a savory homemade Shallot Garlic Vinaigrette.

The thyme and rosemary were saved for a cooking demonstration within the dining room itself–a classy, white-table cloth interior that was both charming and sophisticated. This is where Wendell lit up a small burner and walked us through the entire process of making Creamy Halibut Chowder–nearly the only seafood I would end up eating in Skagway. And what chowder it was! Wendell combined the thyme and rosemary with heavy cream, sweet Marsala wine, garlic, red bell pepper, halibut chunks, and a few other spices and vegetables to create a true delight. The chowder, which Wendell served right off the burner and onto our table, was unbelievably fresh, with individual flavors that popped and tingled and teased the tongue with its delicious creaminess. I’ve never been much of a chowder fan, but this chowder was outstanding.

The rest of the meal, like most restaurant meals, came through the kitchen door carried by a waitress. I was surprised to discover that Olivia’s specialty was tapas. These Spanish treats had made it all the way to Alaska where Chef Wendell treated them with the same culinary affection as he had lavished on our chowder. The tapas were a wild assortment of fish, meat, and vegetable and were all very delicious. Dessert was a return to the garden where stalks of rhubarb were magically transformed into a tasty Rhubarb Crisp.

Just as I hadn’t expected to find tapas in Skagway, I also didn’t expect to find a Thai restaurant. More truthfully, I hadn’t expected to find a good Thai restaurant.

On my last night, after my friends had flown home, one of the locals I met recommended Starfire on 4th and Spring (no website). I certainly had my reservations. Having previously spent a few months in Thailand, I have a very high standard for Thai food and only expected to be disappointed.

The menu featured the regular assortment of egg rolls, pad Thai, and curries. I opted for some Prik Pao: rockfish topped with tomatoes, bell peppers, mushrooms, onions, basil, tamarind, and fresh chilies.

The menu ranked the spiciness of a dish with 1-5 stars. Prik Pao only had three. The waiter, however, was concerned that it might be too hot and warned me about the spiciness. I almost laughed. Not only have I eaten traditional food in Thailand, but I live in Los Angeles where I regularly consume spicy Mexican food. Some Alaskan chef masquerading as a Thai cook wasn’t about to prepare anything too hot for my palate!

Man, was I wrong.

That Prik Pao packs an unbelievable punch, one that literally made my forehead bead with sweat. Two beers and one glass of water later, I was happy to head outside into the cool air and return my body back to its normal temperature.

Heat aside, the Prik Pao and its mélange of flavors was shockingly excellent. I’d recommend asking the cook to tone it down a bit, however, unless you plan on melting the rest of Alaska’s glaciers.

Red Onion
Like the Skagway Inn, the Red Onion is also a brothel-turned-restaurant. The Red Onion, however, is far more casual than the Skagway Inn and is, in fact, more of a saloon than a restuarant.

As a result, the food here is mostly of the bar type. Pizzas and sandwiches dominate the menu with a couple of salads thrown in for the healthy-minded. Appetizers included chips & salsa, nachos, hummus, and chicken wings. And, shockingly, there is not a single fish entrée on the menu!

The food is satisfying but seems secondary to the drinking. One comes here for the atmosphere of a wood-floored 19th century saloon that has seen its share of mankind over the last 100 years. The best way to enjoy it is hunched over a beer. When hunger strikes, however, the bar food is a nice fulfilling accompaniment and has the added bonus of being cheap. My three-cheese pizza ($9) was greasy in a drinking-friendly sort of way and was the perfect afternoon meal after tromping through the woods of Skagway.

Dejon Delights
This is not a restaurant but rather a tiny little shack on 5th Avenue where the fishermen of nearby Haines sell their smoked goods. Had a local not recommended it, I would never have poked my head into the small storefront which was just large enough for two refrigerated cases, a couple of shelves, and a counter.

Behind the counter sat a hirsute fisherman with a long gray beard and that old weathered look that only a person who has spent far too long on a boat can achieve. As if to add to this cliché, he was actually whittling when I walked in.

Dejon Delights specializes in fish which are cured, smoked, and packaged for the long flight home. I figured I should pick some up for friends and did so out of that sense of gift-giving obligation that strikes all travelers. The next time I return to Skagway, however, buying more fish will be a top priority. It was delicious. I bought a package of smoked salmon and one of smoked halibut and when I returned home and threw an Alaska slide show party, both were wolfed down almost immediately. The salmon was wonderfully smooth, smoky, and robust. But the halibut was the real crowd-pleaser. I has never tasted smoked halibut before; It was a little tougher than I expected but the smoky flavor was infused throughout the fish, imparting subtle tones of alder wood and brine.

Thankfully, I can now get my fix without actually having to travel all the way to Alaska. Dejon Delights delivers. It’s not cheap, but I’m thinking of trying out their “Ultimate Delight” This Red King Salmon cured with “herbs and spices and slowly cold-smoked over a blend of Alaskan cottonwood and birch” sounds sublime.

If you’d like to get a taste of it yourself, click here.

Glacier Smoothies
This little nook on 3rd Avenue is a simple, homey, wood-lined café serving up local Ravens Brew Coffee (from Ketchikan) and an assortment of tasty food. The breakfast menu is bagels and muffins, but the lunch menu includes some rather good and reasonably priced sandwiches in the $6 range. And, of course, there is a nice selection of refreshing smoothies.

Glacier Smoothies is the spot I gravitated towards any time I needed a short rest from exploring Skagway. I’d order some decaf, a slice of extremely rich Reese’s Peanut Butter Pie, and kick back with my journal or a book. Locals came and went and everyone seemed to know each other. As if this café couldn’t get any better, they also play an online radio station that is just so very perfect for the place, a mellow fusion of indie music that so perfectly encapsulated the down-to-earth atmosphere of Skagway. I loved it!

Yesterday: Touring the Glaciers of Skagway by Helicopter
Tomorrow: The Crazy Nightlife of Skagway Tomorrow

Alaska without the Cruise Ship Part 14: Touring the Glaciers of Skagway by Helicopter

Alaska without the Cruise Ship is a 17-part series exploring the ease and advantages of touring Alaska on your own steam and at your own speed.

We saved our very best Alaskan experience for the last day of our trip.

I had never been on a helicopter before and was quite disappointed when an earlier trip out of Juneau was cancelled due to weather. Weather happens, however, especially in Alaska and we hoped for the opportunity to try again.

So, early one morning we found ourselves at the Skagway heliport walking single file out to one of five helicopters lined up on the grass-covered landing strip. We had signed up for the Glacier Discovery by Helicopter tour with a company called Temsco. The 80-minute tour was a bit pricey at $249 but it turned out to be the best $249 I’ve ever spent. If you do just one excursion in Alaska, save your money for a helicopter glacier tour; you will not be disappointed!

The ride itself was especially exciting since it was my first time on a helicopter; it’s a very odd, yet exhilarating experience bobbing around in the air like a yo-yo without a string. When we moved forward it wasn’t too different than being in a small plane. However, going straight up, hovering, or banking sharply was a bizarre, breaking-the-laws-of-physics feeling that was unlike any aeronautical experience I’ve had before.

We took off and began slowly gaining altitude as we flew over the massive fjord which terminates at Skagway. Enormous mountains rose on either side of us and as we climbed higher, small plateaus and lakes began to come into view–wonderful scenic little pockets hidden from the rest of the world.

It wasn’t too long before our pilot banked to the left and started following an alluvial floodplain crisscrossed with interconnected streams and rivers and strewn with boulders carried down from the melting glaciers above. Shortly after, the glacier itself came into view, an enormous frozen river of ice that carved through the rugged mountains. This was the marvelous Meade Glacier.

Our pilot circled around, flying close to trickling waterfalls and fantastic ice formations before landing the helicopter on the glacier itself. Climbing out and into the foggy landscape of the icy, rock-strewn glacier was like stepping onto some distant moon.

Despite its reputation for rigidity, a glacier is a living, moving entity. Countless rivulets etched themselves into the ice, trickling away into cracks, pausing in frozen moments, or coming together to disappear into frightening, gaping holes that seemed to go on forever. It was rather unnerving to toss rocks into these holes and listen to them bounce off walls before disappearing in silence, probably somewhere in China.

We had the fortunate good luck to have a pilot who had studied geography in college and was therefore a walking encyclopedia of glacier knowledge. Our flight up was a 25 minute Glaciers 101 instructional course, crackling in from the speakers in our headphones.

One of the more interesting nuggets of information we learned was that glacier ice absorbs every color of the light spectrum except for blue, which it then radiates out. Even though we visited the glacier on a cloudy day, the shades of deep blue were mesmerizing in their beauty.

We spent about 30 minutes on the glacier hiking around, peering into various cracks and fissures, and otherwise soaking up this otherworldly place. We picked a great day. The fog added an element of mystique and wonder to an already spectacular location and I was sad to leave after such a short time on the ice. The solace and bliss found in such a desolate landscape was intoxicating and comforting at the same time.

Meade Glacier, like so many glaciers across the world, is receding. As we climbed back into our helicopter and flew away, the prospect of this glacier one day disappearing was a depressing thought which stuck with me in a mournful sort of way for the remainder of the day.

Yesterday: Boots, Boats and Trains in Skagway
Tomorrow: Eating Well in Skagway

Alaska without the Cruise Ship Part 13: Boots, Boats and Trains in Skagway

Alaska without the Cruise Ship is a 17-part series exploring the ease and advantages of touring Alaska on your own steam and at your own speed.

Skagway is bursting with wonderful outdoor opportunities and excursions. Part of what differentiates Skagway’s treasures from those found elsewhere in Alaska is the historical context which so thoroughly envelopes them.

One of the most rewarding reasons independent travelers make the journey to Skagway is to hike the legendary Chilkoot Trail.

The Chilkoot Trail played an important role when gold was discovered in Canada’s Yukon territory in 1896, and a rush of prospectors made their way by steamboat up to Skagway, the nearest deep water port, or to the nearby town of Dyea.

This initial foray was the easy part of their journey. From Dyea, prospectors then had to hike 33 miles along the Chilkoot Trail to the headwaters of the Yukon River where they would build boats and camp for the winter before tackling the remaining 550 miles to the gold fields. But that’s not all. Canadian law required that each person crossing the border into the Yukon had to have with them one ton of supplies–enough to keep the prospector alive for a year in the Yukon. To transport this much equipment, however, required that each prospector make the 33 mile journey over the steep pass 20-40 times.

Today, the first 17 miles of the trail–the portion falling on American soil–is part of the Klondike Gold Rush Historical National Park. “The world’s largest outdoor museum,” is a popular backpacking route peppered with ghost towns and littered with historical trash–mining gear and supplies dumped by prospectors unable to complete the journey. The trash is protected and increases in frequency as the trail gets tougher.

One day we joined Skagway Float Tours for a short day hike up the first two miles of the Chilkoot Trail. It was a pleasant, tree covered walk along a hillside overlooking the Taiya River. Bright green moss and hearty pine trees dominated the scenery for most of the way, blanketing the trail with an invigorating, peaceful ambiance.

The trail had some steep parts here and there but nothing too bad. Of course, I might have thought otherwise had I been hauling 200 pounds of mining equipment on my 14th trip. I was disappointed not to see any historical trash along the way but this did not come as a big surprise; anyone who gave up at this point would never have been tough enough to travel to Alaska in the first place.

Our hike was short and exhilarating and just far enough to get our hearts and legs pumping. I would love to come back one day and backpack the entire route, camping at old ghost towns and checking out the rusted remains of discarded mining gear–the dashed hopes of golden fortunes.

The prospectors of old would have been very disappointed with me and my freinds; we opted to take the easy way back by doing a little bit of river rafting. As part of their Hike and Float Tour ($85), Skagway Float Tours arranged to have a raft waiting for us at a point where the trail dropped down to the Taiya River.

The rafting was a mellow affair and was indeed a float; there weren’t any rapids to worry about, just a leisurely flowing river upon which we laid back and watched Alaska drift by. It was a very wonderful way to end a very nice hike.

The following day, we explored a secondary route to the gold fields of the Yukon.

The White Pass route, which departed from the deep-water port of Skagway itself, was 600 feet lower than the Chilkoot Pass (3,525 feet), but ten miles longer. Despite the additional length, this was the pass that soon grew more popular and helped build Skagway into a boomtown.

In May 1898, British investors started building a railroad to take advantage of the flow of prospectors heading north. By the time it was completed in July 1900, however, the gold rush was over.

Today, the White Pass Railroad exists only to serve tourists. Part of what makes riding this narrow gauge railroad such a pleasure is the rolling stock of passenger coaches that have been beautifully restored. Stepping into these brightly painted wooden carriages is like stepping back in time.

The locomotives are diesel-electric with the exception of No. 73 and No. 69–two amazing steam engines dating back to 1947 and 1907 respectively. Although the $98 Summit Excursion we boarded was not powered by one of these beauties, No. 73 blew past us at the Canadian border while we waited at a side track. I’ve never seen such a gorgeous, yet brutishly powerful piece of machinery before. Sitting in our antiquated carriage and watching it steam past was a transcendental moment, like something out of an old film noir movie.

Even more dramatic was the route itself. The White Pass Railroad begins at sea level and climbs 3,000 feet in just 20 miles. This engineering marvel required 450 tons of explosives to carve its way through the rugged, steep mountains and it shows. The tracks literally cling to the mountainside as the train climbs higher and higher into the pristine glory of Alaska, past amazing drop-off views, distant waterfalls, grazing mountain goats, and thick forests. Around every corner there was yet another tunnel or trestle bridge to cross.

I love train travel and this was one of the very best train journeys I’ve ever taken. I only wish that I had made plans to fly out of Canada. I would have taken the White Pass train to its very end, 76.5 miles away at the town of Carcross in the Yukon Territory and gone home from there. If you plan on enjoying Alaska without the Cruise Ship, I would highly recommend this route.

Yesterday: The Wonderful Wild West Town of Skagway
Tomorrow: Touring the Glaciers of Skagway by Helicopter