Riding the Rails from Skagway to White Summit Pass

October 7, 2007

Day 5 of my Alaska trip found us in Skagway. We took a train trip on “The Railway Built of Gold.” Why is it called that? Well, a brief history lesson…

The discovery of gold in 1896 in the Klondike triggered a stampede of people hoping to get rich. Some thought the gold nuggets lay on the ground, ready to be picked up. An estimated 100,000 headed for the Klondike in such haste they earned the name, “The Stampeders.”

To reach the Klondike, Stampeders had two choices, the steeper Chilkoot Trail, or the longer, but less steep White Pass. (Trust me, the “less steep” part is relative!)

Many chose White Pass thinking pack animals could be used and make the trip easier. They were wrong. The trip was too arduous and the horses were generally in the hands of inexperienced owners. Before it was over 3,000 horses died. (Watch the slideshow for one of Dead Horse Gulch.)

In this era of railroading, it was natural to think of building a railroad over the pass, but it was a daunting task. Blasting through granite, plus dealing with the steep slopes and deep snow, made it almost impossible.

But they did it.

Because of the tight turns, a narrow gauge railway was built. The rails are just 3’ apart on a 10’ wide road bed, which also helped lower construction costs. Over 450 tons of explosives were used, mostly black powder.

The ten million dollar project was the product of British financing, American engineering and Canadian contracting. Tens of thousands of men worked, sometimes in shifts as short as an hour due to the extreme cold, to complete 110 miles of track with cliff hanging turns of 16 degrees, with two tunnels and numerous bridges and trestles.

The railway climbs from sea level at Skagway to almost 3,000 feet at the summit in just 20 miles and has grades of almost 3.9%. This is the northernmost railroad in the Western Hemisphere.

The White Pass & Yukon Route was designated an international Historic Civil Engineering Landmark in 1994. This honor is shared by only 36 civil engineering creations, such as the Eiffel Tower, Statue of Liberty and the Panama Canal.

That’s the highlights of this railway’s rich history. It’s interesting to read about, and thrilling to ride. You can’t really relate to just how steep the railway is until you’re riding along and looking waaaaayyyyyyy down. A 10’ roadbed doesn’t seem very wide when a fall would be so far!

The scenery is dazzling, with evergreens, mountains, snow and rivers. Bridal Veil Falls tumbles down a mountain far way, the bridges and trestles are awesome, and there’s even visible remnants of the trail used by the Stampeders.

At the top, a little building is still there that was used by the mounted police. They turned back any Stampeder that didn’t have a ton of supplies, the amount deemed necessary to keep a man going for a year.

There was just a lot to see and learn about. It was a thrilling ride!

Whale And Wildlife Watching Quest

October 6, 2007

Probably the best day on our ramble through Alaska was the shore excursion to watch whales. Okay, it seems a little strange to call it a shore excursion when we went right back out to sea, but we did switch modes of transportation and got off the big ship and onto a much smaller waterjet-powered catamaran.

We started by disembarking at Juneau, and boarding a bus to head for Auke Bay. Our bus driver was chatty and full of all kinds of information about Alaska. He would have made a good advocate for the Chamber of Commerce. When he talked about the climate, which isn’t the glacial cold you’d expect due to the fact it’s a temperate rainforest along the shoreline, it made the area sound like a great place to live.

He mentioned the money every citizen gets each year from the revenue off the oil fields in Alaska. He mentioned all the wildlife to be found. He had good things to say about the area… until he mentioned some of the costs of living. Aye yi yi! So much is so expensive because it has to be shipped – housing, food, gas… the prices are exorbitant! Guess I’ll stay in the south instead of moving to the far north.

The catamaran we traveled on had two decks. The bottom and part of the top were enclosed, but for the really good pictures, you needed to be out on the open deck. Of course, it was COLD out there. I said it doesn’t get as cold as you’d expect, but that doesn’t mean it’s not downright chilly out on the water in September!

I went inside from time to time to check on Dad and get warm, but most of the time I was out there taking pictures of the wildlife and scenery. And such sights!

The flash slideshow software doesn’t leave a lot of room for captions, so I had to be quite succinct in my descriptions of the pictures!

We had barely left the dock until we had Orca Whales on both sides of the boat. The guide said it’s not as common to see them, so I guess we got lucky. Further out we saw lots of humpback whales, sometimes half a dozen at a time. It was AMAZING.

The only thing that could have made it better would have been a whale or two breaching, and even “more better” would have been getting a picture of it!

We also saw a lot of seals and eagles and other birds. And the scenery was breathtaking almost everywhere you looked.

Oh, and I also took a mini-movie of the Stellar Seals, just to have an idea of all the NOISE they were making.

I’m not an experienced movie maker, but that should at least give you an idea!

If you’re ever in Alaska, take every chance you get to check out the wildlife, and of course, the scenery too. It’s positively awe-inspiring.

I’d head north again today if I could!

Cruising the Inside Passage

October 4, 2007
Trip to Alaska – Days 3 and 4 (September 17 & 18)

I guess this is a little confusing, because while these were days 3 and 4 of my trip, it was actually only the first couple of full days we were on the ship.

We made it to Juneau, Alaska, on the 18th, a Tuesday. We had our first shore excursion there, worthy of a slideshow all by itself… coming next from Alaska, Whale & Wildlife Watching Excursion!

Rambling through Seattle, Then Heading For Alaska!

September 30, 2007
Trip to Alaska – Day 2 (September 16th)
Here we are, another day’s worth of pictures from the trip to Alaska. I visited the Space Needle and the Science Fiction Museum, then walked down to Pier 66 to board the Norwegian Pearl.

It takes a while to sort through pictures and make a slideshow, so continue to bear with me!

Working my way through my recent ramblings…

September 28, 2007
Trip to Alaska – Day 1 (September 15th)

I’m working my way through the pictures I took on my trip to Alaska. I’ve been slowed down by a “filled-up” hard drive, and having to take time to clear some space. I think it’s time for a memory upgrade for the computer – too bad I can’t get one too!

Here’s some more pictures from my flight out to Seattle, Washington. The pictures aren’t as clear as I’d like, but remember, they were taken through two panes of glass in the airplane’s window!

Stay tuned … I’ll get more pictures up as I have time!