Alaska without the Cruise Ship Part 12: The Wonderful Wild West Town 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.

The town of Skagway is a quaint little place of 800 residents tucked into a river valley at the very end of a dramatic fjord.

To get there from Juneau, my friends and I each paid $48 and jumped aboard a 235-foot catamaran ferry that was part of the Alaska Marine Highway. I’ve taken many ferries in my life, but this one was cleaner, better smelling, and far more comfortable than any I’ve ridden before. In addition, the views from the back deck surpassed all others except, perhaps, those I’ve seen off the coast of Norway.

I immediately fell in love with Skagway the moment I stepped off the boat. Walking down the main street was like traveling back in time to the gold rush days. 19th century buildings with turn-of-the-century accoutrements and wooden sidewalks lined both sides of a wide street down the middle of which a railroad once ran (below). Many of the original buildings remain standing today and are protected as part of the Klondike Gold Rush National Historic Park.

Skagway was once the quintessential gold rush town. It began as a simple 160-acre homestead by a single man, Captain William Moore, who just happened to be off traveling when gold was discovered in the nearby Klondike in 1897. When he returned, he found his cabin had been physically picked up and relocated while thousands of gold diggers had made themselves at home on his land. The gold fields were still 500 miles away, but the homestead that would soon become Skagway had a mountain pass that led to the Yukon and also had the only deepwater port in the area. As a result, Skagway grew to a town of 20,000 people in less than a year.

Along with the gold diggers came the businessmen and working women who wanted to separate the diggers from their gold. More than 70 saloons and dozens of brothels popped up to do just that. Modern-day Skagway has not forgotten its dubious heritage and now embraces it as a means of separating tourists from their money.

One afternoon we joined the Ghosts and Goodtime Girls Walking Tour. Led by a local madam dolled up in a red dress, the tour took us past a number of old brothels which are still standing today but are now mostly private homes. We weren’t able to go inside any of them with the exception, fortuitously, of the most famous.

The Red Onion Saloon is a bright red building on Broadway Street, the main boulevard passing through the center of town. It was built in 1897 and is now protected as a National Historic Building.

The downstairs is an operating bar and restaurant while the upstairs is where all the action once occurred. Our tour guide explained that customers would sit at the bar and order their women based upon a set of ten toy dolls resting behind the bar. The dolls represented the working girls and informed the customers what was available. If a blonde doll was sitting on the shelf, it meant a blonde woman was upstairs ready to go. Or perhaps the Asian doll was more your thing… If the doll was lying on her back, however, so was her real-world counterpart and customers would just have to wait.

The bartender managed the dolls thanks to a series of copper tubes which ran from the rooms upstairs down to the cash register. Each time $5 in coins would come rolling down a pipe, the bartender would adjust the corresponding doll back to a sitting position. Today, a couple of dolls still sit rather eerily behind the bar staring blankly ahead.

Nearly all of the upstairs has been maintained in its original state. The decorations are pretty much what you would expect from a turn-of-the-century brothel, including original furniture, paintings, and wallpaper. The wallpaper is something I wouldn’t normally notice, but our guide pointed out that the working girls were able to choose their own wallpaper when first getting hired. As a result, each room had different wallpaper reflecting the personality and taste of the woman who worked in it. In many of the rooms, the wallpaper was peeling, revealing many layers underneath like a vertical stratum of prostitutes.

To get a sense of what Wild West Skagway was all about, we stopped by one evening to check out a campy little musical called The Days of ’98 Show. I was surprised to see an actual theater and stage in such a small town, but this was no ordinary production. The Days of ’98 first took to the stage in 1925 as a fundraiser for the local hockey team and has been running ever since. The dialogue, music, and lyrics have changed over the years, but the basic story is still the same.

The Days of ’98 tells the true story of Skagway con man Soapy Smith and how he ruled the criminal underbelly of the town up until July 1898 when he was shot and killed by a local vigilante angry over the crime and corruption Soapy had brought to town.

The production is held in the Fraternal Order of the Eagles hall, a turn-of-the-century building that is just as old and dusty as some of the jokes in the play itself. The acting was great and it was certainly entertaining, but the material was obviously written for middle-aged cruise ship passengers likely to hoot and chuckle over obvious innuendos, tired jokes, and easy punch lines. It was still very fun, albeit, in a campy sort of way. The play is an entertaining, nicely produced piece of work that is very much worth the $16 admission.

With its numerous historical buildings and Wild West flavor, it’s almost impossible to escape turn-of-the-century Skagway–even when you’re sleeping. There are no major hotels in the city, but there are a handful of Bed & Breakfasts scattered about and most of them are in historic buildings.

We stayed at the White House, a beautiful 1902 fully restored B&B with just ten rooms and plenty of antique furniture and fine woodwork to make you feel as though you’ve traveled back in time. I slept better here than at any of our other hotels, dropping into deep slumber atop a comfy down bed. I was never awake in time for breakfast, however, but I did make sure to always grab a cookie from the cookie jar before leaving in the morning.

Yesterday: The Joys of Filling your Stomach in Juneau
Tomorrow: Boots, Boats and Trains in Skagway

Alaska without the Cruise Ship Part 11: The Joys of Filling your Stomach in Juneau

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.

Juneau and the area which surrounds it is a feast for the senses, especially my two favorites: sight and taste.

Towards the end of every day, after cramming our heads with beautiful scenery and sights of amazing wildlife, we would turn our focus towards making our stomachs just as satiated–a very easy and rewarding task in Juneau.

The Hangar on the Wharf
The city has a number of casual places to eat. The Hangar on the Wharf, for example, is the perfect place for a tasty halibut Cajun sandwich, a side of fries, or a handful of other pasta, seafood, burger and sandwich items. The restaurant, as implied by the name, has an aviation theme and is decorated with propellers, model planes, old photographs of local pilots, and other aviation knickknacks, including menu items such as Plane Caesar Salad and the Bi-Pane Special. The atmosphere is light and airy and the food is basic and simple but also very delicious. The best thing about The Hangar, however, is that it is located right on the dock and is the ideal location to sit and watch the cruise ships pull in to Juneau. It was a bit foggy the day we visited, but that made it all the more alluring as enormous vessels suddenly appeared out of the fog and pulled up to dock.

Silver Bow Bakery
A few blocks away, tucked into a side street, is quaint little Silver Bow Bakery. This mellow little café sees far less tourists and is the perfect place to hole up with a good book and a cup of Joe. The breakfasts (waffles, bagels, fresh baked breads) and “hearty sandwich” lunches are cheap here and the desserts phenomenal. The back room of the café also doubles as a movie house, with art films and other favorites projected onto an eleven-foot screen. This is where the local writers and artists tend to congregate–at least the day I visited. A handful of people were sitting around scribbling in notebooks or tapping away on their laptops, a steaming mug of coffee at their side.

The Twisted Fish
At the other end of the spectrum, the most expensive and upscale restaurant in Juneau is the Twisted Fish. This dockside restaurant located near the tramway has the regular litany of steak and seafood options with a few surprises thrown in. The salmon in filo pastry dough, for example, turned out to be a unique variation on all the fish steaks I’d eaten already. It was the first time I ate salmon in Alaska–halibut had been my fish of choice up until visiting the Twisted Fish–and it was delicious.

The warm wooden interior, was rather noisy, and full of tourists, but was still a very enjoyable location to dine away the evening and sample from southeast Alaska’s largest wine selection. With the exception of some rather lackluster desserts, the Twisted Fish served up the best food we had in Juneau.

Gold Creek Salmon Bake
Perhaps the most touristy place to eat in all of Juneau is the Gold Creek Salmon Bake. I doubt any locals actually visit the place, but nonetheless, I still highly recommend it.

The Salmon Bake is an all-you-can-eat affair. For those of us traveling Alaska without a cruise ship buffet at our disposal, this was our only chance to really stuff ourselves silly. And we did a great job of it.

The Salmon Bake is just a few miles outside of town and easily accessible by a large bus that picks up diners from the dock and whisks them into the forest to be stuffed and gorged. And when I say forest, I do mean forest.

The Salmon Bake is located outdoors, alongside a meandering stream and sheltered by a thick canopy of trees. Wooden picnic tables and old pieces of mining equipment from the gold rush days decorate the eating area–which is much more of a campground than a restaurant–while gentle, forested hills on either side block the outside world from penetrating into this peaceful sanctuary.

Just past the entrance is a barbeque pit manned by two cooks busily tending to an array of salmon steaks sizzling away. The alder wood smoke and subtle hint of cooked salmon floats gently through the air, permeating the already pleasant atmosphere with a sense of homey comfort.

In addition to the fresh salmon, the $34 entrance fee also includes all-you-can-eat barbecued chicken, tasty ribs, rice pilaf, baked beans, a couple of different types of salad, and corn bread. Lemonade is also provided but wine and beer are extra. What makes this all so wonderful, however, is that after the meal, diners can grab some marshmallows and roast them over a campfire as the perfect conclusion to such an amazing place.

Overall, the food is quite good. It wasn’t the best we had during our stay in Alaska, but combined with the great atmosphere, cool setting, and marshmallow roasting, the Salmon Bake was a great experience well worth our time. Sure, you could get a better tasting meal elsewhere for about the same cost, but as they say in the MasterCard commercials, the experience itself is priceless.

Alaskan Brewing Company
One of the greatest rewards of traveling is when an experience exceeds your expectations. This happened one dreary morning when a heavy storm blew in and instead of flying to an island to go bear watching, we ended up touring the Alaskan Brewing Company.

I’ve been on a handful of brewery tours before and have rather lost my enthusiasm for them. Once you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all; only the free post-tour drink varies.

And so, I wandered into the brewery with arms crossed and a surly attitude for finding myself there instead of face to face with a bear out in the wilderness. And then Gordon started to speak. Gordon was our guide for the tour. This middle-aged Juneau local bore a striking resemblance to comedian George Carlin in both looks and personality. While this is certainly a plus for any tour guide, what really made Gordon pop was the passion he so clearly has for his job. This man loves his beer. And loves explaining how Mother Nature, along with some help from science, is able to transform simple hops and barley into a golden elixir of life. Indeed, Gordon gets positively animated explaining the reproduction of yeast as though it were the miracle of birth itself.

I had initially been quite surprised to learn that beer was brewed in Alaska and naturally assumed it must not be very good. I was completely wrong. Although the Alaskan Brewing Company is the only brewer in all of Alaska, it has won so many awards–such as “Best Beer in the Nation” in 1988–that I can’t believe that other crazy loons aren’t brewing beer up here as well.

I was able to learn just how good the beer is at the conclusion of the tour. Now, every brewery tour I’ve ever been on provides one, maybe two samples at the most with the $5-10 entrance fee. The Alaskan Brewing Company, on the other hand, was free to tour and had virtually unlimited samples to enjoy. And, they were tasty!

The samples were arragned like a wine tasting, from lightest to darkest. My favorite was the Alaskan Summer Ale, one of the lighter varieties, that was smooth and crisp and quickly became a staple with our meals the remainder of the trip.

The last beer we tasted, the darkest, was surprisingly funky. Alaskan Smoked Porter is a muddy brew that’s dark as night and just as disorienting. This utterly unique beer is smoked with alder wood–the same wood that is used to smoke salmon.

The result is a culinary disconnect; I’m drinking beer but it smells like fish. It didn’t actually taste like fish, but it was almost impossible for me to separate that hint of alder wood from all the smoked salmon I’ve had in the past. I gave it my best shot, however. I tried a number of sips, letting the beer roll around on my tongue and really trying to get into the spirit of it, but at the end of the day, I had to admit I simply didn’t like it.

I do recommend giving it a try, however; I can’t say I’ve ever had a beer as utterly unique as that Smoked Porter.

Yesterday: Salmon Fishing and Whale Watching in Juneau
Tomorrow: The Wonderful Wild West Town of Skagway

Alaska without the Cruise Ship Part 10: Salmon Fishing and Whale Watching in Juneau

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.

It’s practically sacrilegious to visit Alaska and not go whale watching or salmon fishing. One rainy afternoon in Juneau, we did both.

Despite the bad weather we’d been experiencing, we tracked down a boat captain and convinced him to take us out. We were hoping to get lucky and we did. Not only did the weather clear up shortly after pulling away from Juneau, but the boat trip we took turned out to be one of the highlights of our trip.

The boat was captained by Harv and Marv (above), two buddies who run Harv and Marv’s Outback Alaska. Those aren’t their real names. Their nicknames go back to some inside joke they shared when they first met in the fifth grade. They’ve been best friends ever since; today, no one calls them anything other than Harv and Marv.

This lifelong friendship was immediately apparent even before stepping onto their boat. Although the two of them rarely captain a boat together anymore (each captains his own), this was one of the rare times they were working together and as a result, they thoroughly enjoyed themselves in an infectious, fun-filled way that only best friends can engender. Over the years, I’ve hired a number of boat captains and tour guides but none have been as friendly, genuine, and just plain down-to-earth as Harv and Marv. They were great. I’d have been happy to just sit in a bar with these guys and hang out.

It’s this personal approach that makes their trips so worthwhile. For starters, I was pleased to discover that they never took more than six people at a time on their tours. I’ve been on enormous whale watching boats before, as well as large fishing boats and, let me tell you, it was nice just hanging with friends and not fighting for rail space or fishing poles with drunken strangers. In addition, the 26 foot Hewescraft was just the perfect size and offered plenty of inside space when the winds picked up and it got a bit chilly.

The truly personal touch however, came when Marv motored us past his home and out came his son and daughter in a small outboard motor with fresh baked chocolate chip cookies.

Incidentally, Marv has a side business as well: giving tours of his family’s off-the-grid, sustainable living homestead located on Shelter Island in the middle of Stephens Passage. The island has no roads, electricity or phone lines. The kids are home-schooled and the cabin is powered by solar and wind power.

Marv’s home is not so far from a popular whale feeding area. In fact, it’s practically just down the block. This hometown advantage explains why he confidently offers a $50 guarantee that his passengers will see whales on their whale watching trips. I was a bit skeptical at first, but once we arrived at the location I immediately changed my mind. We ended up bobbing in the water for more than an hour watching numerous whales surface and dive, their enormous tails flicking straight up into the air as though waving to us before slipping deep into the waters.

Boats are not allowed to pull up close to a whale, but if the whale decides to wander over to the boat, not much can be done about it. Harv told us how one time a whale actually surfaced underneath his boat, gently lifting it in a playful manner before moving on. Naturally this got us all a little concerned and every time the boat rocked a bit, there was a brief fearful moment that Moby Dick was screwing with us.

The whales do come rather close to the boat but not dangerously so. Their graceful surfacing, aquatic gymnastics, and geyser-bursting blow holes kept us engaged for more than an hour before the excitement wore off and we started up the engines and went in search of more palatable fish.

Marv sold each of us a one-day fishing license and then began setting up the rods. The back of the boat had four places for rods and Marv had a great system to ensure that everyone caught a fish. Initially, each of us had a specific rod. The rule was that as soon as someone caught a fish, the rod was recast and turned over to a person who hadn’t caught one yet. As the afternoon progressed, a person might end up with dibs on 3-4 rods until one of them hit.

The fishing was actually slower than I had imagined. I had heard for many years how very easy it is to toss a rod into the Alaskan waters and pull out salmon as though bobbing for apples at the country fair. We weren’t as lucky, however. Harv had to circle the boat through a handful of fishing areas and make careful use of his fish sonar before we all managed to reel in one salmon each.

It was an exciting feeling. My ten-pound coho salmon was the largest fish I’ve ever caught. It put up a pretty good battle but, as you can see in the photo above, man once again triumphs over nature.

Of course, my fish was nothing like the monster Jessica reeled in. Yikes!

Since most of us were a few thousand miles from home, and a few days from actually returning, we turned our fish over to the Alaskan Seafood Company to take care of shipping it home for us. The company can either process the fish into lox, smoke it, can it, or vacuum pack and flash freeze it.

I opted for the flash freeze option despite the surprisingly expensive cost to vacuum pack it and FedEx it to my home in Los Angeles. My little ten-pounder ended up costing $63 by the time I got it a few weeks later. But, it was all worth it when I invited my family over for an Alaska slide show and salmon feast which I barbequed atop an alder wood plank. Mmmm…. I must say, it was extraordinarily delicious! Thanks Harv and Marv!

Yesterday: Adventuring in the Wilds of Juneau
Tomorrow: The Joys of Filling your Stomach in Juneau

Alaska without the Cruise Ship Part 9: Adventuring in the Wilds of Juneau

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 rain prevented us from viewing Mendenhall Glacier up close in a helicopter, it did not prevent us from other outdoor activities we had lined up in Juneau-two of which departed from the Eaglecrest Ski Area

The first was a zip line course. We had done some zip-lining a few days earlier in Ketchikan, but since the zips were incorporated into a climbing confidence course, they were neither long nor scary. Alaska Zipline Adventures, on the other hand, is not for the weak of heart. This zip line course rips through a rainforest canopy 80 feet above the ground. If something goes wrong here, there’d be serious problems.

The location couldn’t have been prettier. The rainforest was awash in majestic, old-growth pine trees bursting with color and primordial glory. Six steel cables, some up to 650 feet long, zigzagged between the trees, connecting them like a procession of mountain climbers tied together, while far below a stream gurgled through a thick bed of incredibly green and overwhelmingly beautiful foliage.

Each of the trees had a platform attached to it where a friendly staff member hooked our safety harness onto the cable and gave us a reassuring pat on the back before we launched ourselves into the wide open expanse.

The first jump was certainly the most unnerving. There I was standing in a tree 80 feet above the forest floor about to step out into nothing. When I finally did, the zip line immediately made a whirring noise and I whisked suddenly away. The forest was a blur, but the tree I was flying towards at the end of the line remained fixed straight ahead and growing larger by the second. I knew that the slack in the line would slow me down as I got closer, but I was still moving at a pretty good clip when I suddenly began to twist in my harness until my back was facing the oncoming tree. The thought of slamming into it backwards was a little unsettling. I began to wildly flail my arms and managed to turn myself around just in time to realize another mounting challenge; the platform I was rapidly approaching wasn’t built for a 6’4″ person. Shorter people had only to lift up their legs a little and they would land safely on a wooden ramp built into the side of the tree. I, on the other hand had to clutch my knees up to my chest otherwise my shins would have crashed painfully into the platform.

I managed to do so and landed safely with a loud whoop! My first ride was a success. The next five rides were easier and grew increasingly more enjoyable as our guides taught us fun little moves to perform, like hanging upside-down, or grabbing an ankle and jerking arrhythmically like Napoleon Dynamite. My personal favorite was Superman, body parallel to the ground and arms outstretched as I flew over planet earth. Wheee!!!

We here having so much fun we completely forgot it was raining. The thick forest canopy kept out much of the wet stuff and the waterproof jackets provided by our guides kept out the rest. Only my face and hands were a bit cold. By the time we reached the last zip line, a thermos of hot apple cider appeared out of one of the guide’s daypacks and we toasted to our flying adventure before launching off one final time.

The following day we returned to Eaglecrest Ski Area for another bit of outdoor fun: a Cycle Alaska “Sky to Sea” bike ride which promised to do just that.

Like so many tour outfitters in the state, the bulk of Cycle Alaska’s clients are cruise ship passengers. The good news for solo travelers is that cruise ship passengers never have a car, so most outfitters provide a free shuttle service that picks up clients from the docks or their hotel. It therefore came as no surprise when the Cycle Alaska van which picked us up in front of the Prospector Hotel with five cruise ship passengers who had signed up for the bike ride as well. During the 30 minute drive to the top of Eaglecrest Ski Area they regaled us with stories of all-you-can-eat buffets and swinging couples at the onboard nightclubs.

The bike ride seemed a pleasant escape from all of this.

The ride turned out to be about ten miles, most all of which were downhill. Thankfully the rain was very light and wasn’t too much of a bother (like every other outfitter in Juneau, Cycle Alaska also provided us with waterproof jackets and a helmet).

The bikes were very nice mountain bikes with comfortable gel seats and nice shocks. Every few miles we pulled over to the side of the road and walked down a trail or along a stream. We had three guides with us and another which followed behind in a support van. The guides would point out various shrubbery and edible plants and then we’d be back on our bikes coasting along.

Eventually we hit flat ground and the watery shores where we ran across another group of travelers braving the weather with kayaks. Rain is a constant presence in Juneau; life simply does not stop when the clouds burst. Nor for that matter, do the adventure outfitters.

Yesterday: Juneau’s Mendenhall Glacier
Tomorrow: Salmon Fishing and Whale Watching in Juneau

Alaska without the Cruise Ship Part 8: Juneau’s Mendenhall Glacier

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.

It rains a lot in Juneau and when it does, outdoor adventures are rarely canceled-unless they happen to involve planes or helicopters.

Unfortunately, our plans involved both.

One morning we waited for three hours at the airport for the cloud layer to lift only to drive away disappointed. We had intended to fly to Icy Straight Point to explore the Tlingit village of Hoonah and then go hiking in the woods on a guided bear tour. On another day, we had also waited for the weather to clear so that we could join a helicopter tour of Mendenhall Glacier. This too was canceled.

We did manage to visit the glacier, however, and quickly understood why it is Juneau’s most popular tourist destination. The glacier is located just 12 miles from downtown and is easily reached by car or bus (but not, apparently, by helicopter). As you can see by the photo above, the very same weather which prevented us from flying to the glacier also prevented us from witnessing it in all its grandeur. It was painful to sit in the Visitors Center and watch a short film shot on a clear sunny day that truly illustrated the vibrant colors normally radiating from this beautiful place.

To give you a better idea of what we missed, I’ve included a Flickr photo shot by Michelle Kroll who managed to show up on a much nicer day than we had. (Incidentally, you can check out a live web cam here to see what visibility is like before making the drive out).

Mendenhall Glacier is still one of the best deals in Alaska, however. The Visitors Center is only $3 and the trails which slither up and around the glacier are absolutely free. I would have loved to spend a day hiking on the glacier and along the iceberg filled lake, or to have spent the money to explore it in helicopter, or within a kayak or boat. But instead, we spent the afternoon learning about the glacier from the dry environs of the Visitors Center.

This is where we discovered that this mammoth river of frozen ice is 13 ½ miles long, 1 ½ miles wide at its widest point, and up to 1,800 feet thick. Like so many other glaciers around the world, Mendenhall is also retreating. Every year 100-150 feet calves off and falls into Mendenhall Lake. It was actually quite alarming to see photos from just a few decades ago which show the glacier extended to where the Visitors Center sits and beyond. Today the glacier is nearly two miles away as the crow flies. One day, not too far in the future, the center itself will have to be moved or renamed.

Yesterday: Exploring Juneau
Tomorrow: Adventuring in the Wilds of Juneau