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