The Inland Passage is many miles wide and , most of the time , we could only see the coast on the starboard side. However the day after we left Juneau, we entered Tracy Arm Fjord and we were able to see land on both sides. “Fjord” is a Norwegian term for a narrow inlet of the sea hemmed in by steep cliffs. I had thought that fjord was a term used only in Norway but I was mistaken. Tracy Arm Fjord , named for a Civil War General Benjamin Tracy, certainly fit the description. As we ventured futher and further into the fjord, the towering walls seemed to get closer and closer. Melting snow from the snow covered peaks formed into hundreds of waterfalls that coursed down the wooded sides and into the fjord. Even though it was early in the morning, crowds of passengers lined the railings on the upper decks near the bow. I’d not seen so many of them at one time , not even at the buffet ! Surprisingly, it was not cold at all , probably in the forties though the wind caused by our passage was a little bothersome. However, none of us paid it much mind as this was easily the most scenic ,the most memorable part of the cruise. Large as our ship was, it appeared insignificant compared to the looming cliffs and the vastness of the snow covered peaks. In such a setting, thoughts about the puniness of Man and the frailty of our existence come unbidden to the mind. I wish I could have been on top of the cliff looking down upon the liner as it picked its way up the fjord.It would only have reinforced those feelings.
Tracy Arm Fjord is about thirty miles deep and we must have ventured about 25 + miles in before turning back. As we went further into the fjord , we began to see chunks of ice that had broken off from the Sawyer Glacier up ahead. Some of these were small, others as large as a building and it was daunting to know that 8/9 ths of the iceberg was hidden below the surface. I’m sure every passenger must have remembered the Titanic and it’s fate. The bergs were in all different shapes and many of them had flat tops on which were female seals and their newly birthed pups. As our ship approached, the motherseal would slide off into the water followed reluctantly by the pup. On one berg, were splotches of blood which we thought had been caused by a predator attacking the seals but were told by the onboard naturalist that it was afterbirth of a seal that had delivered its pup there. The fjord is a sanctuary for seals because the floating sharp-edged icebergs deter their most dangerous predators, the orcas or killer whales.
The further we went into the fjord , the more chunks of floating ice we encountered until we could go no further. In the distance, about for or five miles away, we could see the Sawyer Glacier which appeared like the ruffled surface of a frosted cake. It was not anything like we’d imagined and we did not see sheets of ice collapsing into the sea to form icebergs. That aspect of it has been oversold by the Alaska tour companies but the journey through the fjord and it’s icebergs was wonderful and the thing we will most remember about Alaska.
Having approached as close as he could and having given us ample opportunity to take our photographs, the captain turned the ship around, in itself a most interesting maneuver, and we wended our way back down the fjord and on to our next stop, Skagway,which we reached early next morning.
Larger than Ketchikan and smaller than Juneau, Skagway I thought was the most interesting of our stops because of its history.When gold was discovered in the Klondike in 1897, Skagway was the gateway to the gold fields and in a single year its population exploded from a single homesteader to about 20,000 as prospective miners ‘stampeded ‘ north in search of riches. However, within a year, the rush was over since the early arrivals had staked out all the claims. As can be imagined, Skagway was utterly lawless, a haven for rogues of every sort , a “hell on earth” as one visitor put it. Gambling halls, saloons and bordellos competed to fleece the suckers of their money and life was cheap.
Today’s Skagway is a town of about a thousand residents , its population dwarfed by the 8,000 or more passengers from the cruise ships that dock there daily during the summer months. The town itself is a 10 -minute walk from the pier and before one gets there one has to run the gamut of booths selling land excursions by bus and rail. We opted for a combination rail-bus tour lasting 3 1/2 hours. It was a 27 mile journey on the White Pass and Yukon Rail Road to Frasier, B.C. during the course of which the train climbed almost 3,000 feet. The railroad is an engineering marvel in that it was built in just two years over some of the most rugged terrain in the world. Almost 20,000 laborers, most of them late arriving stampeders who were broke and needed the money to get home, worked on it in horrific conditions. Even in the dead of winter , they slept in tents on the mountain sides and inspite of their inexperience and the unavoidable accidents that are a part and parcel of construction work , only 35 of them died while the railroad was being constructed. There are some breathtaking views as the train crawls up the hillside : hundreds of little waterfalls , snowcapped peaks , deep gorges and steep hillsides.At some locations where the railroad winds back on itself you can get a glimpse of another train across the gorge and you can appreciate what a feat the building of this rairoad was. At the end of the line , by the shores of a lake, the train halts and everyone gets off to take a bus back to Skagway.The return journey by bus takes only 45 minutes. aconsidering the cost ( $118 per head) , I ‘d have to say that the excursion is not worth it. The scenery is nice but , after a while , it’s the same thing over and over again.
Fortunately for us , we reached Skagway in time to visit the Skagway Museum and Archives ( admission $ 2 ea. ) and join one of the two free walking tours conducted each day by the National Park Service. The museum is very interesting and informative and the walking tour simply excellent. The ranger who conducted the tour used old time photographs to give us a short but comprehensive history of Skagway during the Gold Rush days. He had a wry sense of humor and was a fount of information. Among the places we visited was an old time bar run by the notorious bunco artist , Soapy Smith, a GoldRush era hotel, the Mascot Saloon recreated with mannequins as customers , and the curiously painted Moore House . Soapy Smith , a confidence man and trickster, was for two years the de facto ruler of Skagway until he perished in a gunfight with Frank Reid. Though he posed as a philanthropist Soapy actually had a hand in every shady enterprise in Skagway. In the barbershop, for instance , when patrons had had a shave and their faces were covered by a hot towel, the list of prices hanging on the wall would be switched for one in which the prices were doubled or trebled. If a customer dared to protest, a couple of pluguglies was on hand to ‘persuade’ them to pay up. To add insult to injury, the customer was surreptitiously marked behind the ear so that other con artists would know he was an” easy mark”. ( That’s how the term came into being ). There are other walking tours of Skagway including a Bordello Tour led by girls dressed as 1890’s floozies but I highly recommend you take this one ; it’s excellent.Prior to embarking on the ship, we stopped for refreshments at a Bar and Grill at Broadway and 4th Street . I forget it’s name but it had several Alaskan beers on tap ( I had the Alaska White), scrumptious sweet potato fries and onion rings and , of course, fish ( halibut) and chips.
We left Skagway at 8 that evening and spent most of the next day at sea before reaching Victoria, B.C , our last stop , very picturesque town . We took a taxi , a 10 minute ride into town and strolled around the waterfront taking pictures of the Parliament building ( Victoria is the capital of British Columbia) and the period Empire Hotel. We wound up at the Bard and Banker, one of the bars on Main Street where I had a chance to sample one of the local beers, Lighthouse Lager, while watching the Lakers go up 1-0 on the Celtics.Got back on the ship and early next morning were back in Seattle.
Next: Part III…Shipboard Life