Thursday, 20 May 2010

Striking gold

The next adventure was different in tone, but no less enjoyable. I headed back to the ferry and motored down the Lynn Canal - on another gloriously sunny day; I've been very lucky with the weather - to the gold-mining town of Skagway. In between watching snow-capped mountains slide by, I fell into conversation with another Alaska character: a young man named Mark who had clearly taken far too much LSD and methamphetamine in his life. Hard to say if he was on something then or if he's just permanently addled, but he considers himself to be a prophet and a man of God, so we had a pretty good chat about spirituality. He also prayed to God to relieve me of my cough; I can't say it worked any better than the antibiotics, but his heart was in the right place.

He'd certainly have fit in to the original town of Skagway, which welcomed dreamers of any stripe when it sprang up during the Klondike gold rush in 1898. Today, the whole town has been preserved as a national park, and the buildings along Broadway have been maintained (or restored) in their original gold rush style. It had everything you expect from a Wild West (or Wild North) town: saloons, gambling, ladies of doubtful virtue and a criminal gang headed by one "Soapy" Smith, who was eventually killed in a shootout with the town's marshal.

Sadly for the thousands who flocked to Skagway and nearby Dyea in order to cross the mountains into Canada and the Klondike gold fields, the rush itself was short-lived. By the time they'd waited out the winter - when the passes are, well, impassable - and been bilked of most of their savings by the likes of "Soapy" Smith, all the productive claims had been staked by Canadians nearer at hand. It was enough to put Skagway on the map, however, particularly when they built the White Pass & Yukon Route railway to facilitate travel for the prospectors.

Today it's a tourist trap, but a very beautiful one. I trod the wooden boards of the sidewalk; visited a restored saloon; and took in the sights of the town (a brisk 10-minute walk end to end). I also went over the pass on the railway, where the snow was still lying 10 feet deep and the walls of the tunnels (blasted by those original prospectors 100 years ago) were solid with ice. My plans may have changed while I've been on the road, but I did get to Canada after all! And by a historical route to boot - though happily not carrying 40lbs of supplies on my back...

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