SKAGWAY, Alaska – What a charming town full of history is Skagway – or Skagua, Skaqua, Cquque, Schkague, or any of a bunch of other historical spellings for the native Tlingit name that means something like “wind-rippled waters.”
By original custom, the Tlingit didn’t have a written language, so spellings were wildly improvised by English-speaking settlers who were bad spellers to begin with.
If Tuesday’s goosebump-raising winds were any indication, the place is appropriately named.
Three things worth doing, which I managed to cram into one busy day in Skagway from the time my cruise ship docked at 6 a.m. until its evening departure:
- Ride the gold-rush train. During the hottest fever of the 1898 Klondike gold rush, when each miner was breaking his back carrying a ton of supplies up Chilkoot Pass toward the Yukon, some enterprising folks built the narrow-gauge White Pass & Yukon Route railway as an easier way to get to the same place. Today it’s an excursion train that each year carries thousands of tourists from Skagway 20 miles up to 2,885-foot White Pass, on the Canadian border. I hopped aboard at 8 a.m., and as the restored train waggled and rocked along like a 90-year-old in need of a new hip, I heard rapturous praise from the seat behind me as massive snowy mountains
loomed above budding cottonwoods edging the Skagway River. “That is gorgeous, that is so pretty!” said Donna Pintner, a Star Princess passenger from Bloomington, Ind. “We did this ride about 11 years ago, but it’s just as awe-inspiring as it was then!” The train almost doubled back on itself in some hairpin turns, rocked through two tunnels, tiptoed along ledges a mountain-goat would love, and came so close to rock walls that snowmelt waterfalls splashed the roof. ($129 through the Princess excursion desk; $120 if you go ashore and get tickets on your own.)
- Have lunch at Skagway Brewing Co., Seventh Avenue and Broadway. An unfortunate part of unleashing thousands of tourists from multiple cruise ships on a town of 800 is that the famous watering hole or restaurant with special historical appeal — often because it was a former brothel — gets absolutely overwhelmed with business, such as the Red Onion in Skagway, or the Red Dog in Juneau. Skagway Brewing has two things going for it: (A) If you have a touch of cruise-ship burnout or just need to spend some time with the locals, it’s a good long walk from the water, at the upper end of town, so only the hardiest of your shipmates will make it that far. But you can walk there easily in 10 minutes. (B) It’ll be just enough exercise to build up a thirst for their Spruce Tip Blonde Ale, a creamy light quaff flavored with tender new-growth tips of Sitka spruce tree branches ($5.50 a pint). It adds a pleasantly spicy hint of the Alaska woods that complements their savory, ale-marinated pulled-pork sandwich ($13.95). May I say, plainspokenly: Yum.
- Tour the town with Ranger Jay. Jay Proetto is one of those 800 year-round Skagwegians (I love that term; it’s on par for oddity with “Seattleite”). In the visitor season he dons his Smokey Bear hat and leads walking tours as a ranger for Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park, the Skagway headquarters of the park that has a Seattle branch because Seattle is where the prospectors boarded northbound boats. He’s an old-timer who gets nods and waves all over town, and is fastidious with his facts. Ask him about his theory (backed up by research by “CSI Skagway,” he quips) that local hero Frank Reid was falsely credited with shooting notorious Skagway bad-boy Soapy Smith but took the blame because he was dying of a nasty groin shot suffered in the gun battle. (It’s Skagway’s biggest history yarn.) Tours are free, five times daily, May-September; pick up a reservation ticket at the visitor center, Second and Broadway.