Another Ferry Adventure



            July 17 – We had to catch a 7am ferry from Juneau up to Skagway.  The posted check in time was 5am.  Dave had dutifully set the alarm clock for 4:03 to give us enough time to finish breaking down camp.  Dave awoke at 4:55am to discover that he had set the clock for 4:03 pm.  We then proceeded to break all speed records for camp break down – we were in the truck ready to go in under 20 minutes (granted Stacie still had to do her hair).  At 5:25 we were at the dock and the ferry hadn’t even arrived yet.  At the ferry office and were given our loading card for the truck and told to wait in lane 8.  We were the only vehicle in lane 8.  The ferry arrived at 5:45 and was unloaded by 6:05.  Rather than start loading the ferry after it was emptied, the crew disappeared and didn’t return to start loading until 6:40.  At 6:55 we were still sitting in lane 8.  The loading process was going slowly, especially since they would keep stopping the flow of vehicles to let a forklift get by to take dumpsters off the ferry.  At 7:00 the large truck next to us in lane 9 was signaled to go on.  We took this as a good sign since that left about 20 cars, 2 more trucks and a tour bus.  Well, the truck pulled on to the ferry and then turned so that it was blocking the ramp.  The forklift then started unloading the entire truck – it was the supply truck for the cafeteria.  The truck pulled off the ferry ten minutes later and the crew quickly sent the bus on, followed by all of the remaining cars.  We were parked behind the bus and there were several cars behind us.  The ferry departed 25 minutes late. 

            The next stop was Haines, about 4 hours away.  On the way we sighted a few whales (one humpback and two orcas), a sea lion on a buoy and Dave saw some porpoises.  We were also treated to two lighthouses – Sentinel Island (left) and then Eldred Rock (below).  There were a lot of hikers on the boat and there was a line for showers so Dave decided to wait until we were docked in Haines to take his shower.  We actually arrived in Haines on time and Dave headed for the showers as the Purser made the “you may go to you cars” announcement.  The Purser also made an announcement to tell the nine drivers of vehicles that were loaded as stand-bys to go to their vehicles as they had to be moved.  As Dave started shaving the Purser again made an announcement telling drivers who were told that they would have to move their vehicles in Haines to immediately go to the car deck.  Two minutes later the Purser described a vehicle and ordered the driver to report to the car deck, “You’re holding up the unloading process”.  A minute later the Purser described another car, then another, then another (in the background you could here someone on the radio saying, “oh, here’s another one”).  Finally the Purser gave up and announced that all drivers of all vehicles had to report to the car deck.  Earlier in the voyage Stacie had bought an ‘I drove the Alaska Marine Highway’ pin and Dave had joked that he was going to make her drive the truck off the ferry so that she could honestly say she had driven (Dave has always drove the truck on and off because there’s a lot of maneuvering and you have to back off the ferry).  Dave considered ignoring the announcement and forcing Stacie to be the driver, but neither one of us knew what the other was going to do so we both went down.  When Dave arrived at the truck, he found Stacie there explaining to the deck hand that no one had told us we had to move.  The deckhand responded, “oh, that explains this mess”.  Dave got in the truck and 5 minutes later was backing off the ferry, along with 17 other cars and one truck who were all sent to purgatory in lane 6.  As it turns out, in their rush to get everyone on when loading, someone failed to notice that the tour bus was bound for Haines, not Skagway and they buried the bus in the middle of the Skagway section.  After the bus finished all of its maneuvering they started loading from lane one.  Forty five minutes after pulling off, Dave got back on the ferry and headed for the shower.  While showering Dave felt the ferry lurch a few times and figured we were on our way.  He was quite surprised when he found the boat still at the dock as he emerged from the bathroom.  It was now Stacie’s turn to shower, so Dave stayed with our stuff and Stacie went down to cleanse herself.  While waiting, Dave watched the chaos at the loading ramp.  There had only been a few cars and RV’s left when he loaded the truck, so they should have been finished.  It appeared that the only vehicle left was a massive RV (tour bus sized) and it was towing a jeep on a trailer.  It pulled down the ramp and then stopped halfway on the ferry.  After a few minutes it backed off the ferry (quite a feat since it had a trailer).  The driver got out and huddled with several ferry people and then unloaded the jeep from the trailer and unhooked the trailer from the RV.  He then drove the liberated RV onto the ferry and ran back up the ramp to hook his jeep and up to its trailer and drive them on.  We then were able to depart, fifty five minutes late (Stacie returned from her shower just after cast off).  Apparently no one had the foresight to leave enough room for this RV even though they had virtually cleared the car deck in their efforts to get the bus off.  We had an uneventful sailing and arrived in Skagway just over an hour later and still quite behind schedule (lucky for the ferry this was the end of the line and it didn’t have to leave for several hours).

            Finally in Skagway, we drove through town and looked at the RV parks in horror – all four of them were wall to wall RV’s with nary a tree in sight.  We were planning on using a campground outside of town, but these places were out back up plan in case they campground was full.  Luckily, there were plenty of sites available in the campground and we were able to find an isolated one about 75 feet away from the drive (although due to the terrain we had to roll the cabinets over 400 feet to get there).  After we were done setting up, there was still time before it got dark (actually there’s always time ‘til it gets dark) so we got the bikes out and rode over to the Dyea townsite, next to the campground. 

            We had no idea what Dyea was (other than the name of our campground), but we got quite an education at the townsite (or at least what was left of it).  Most people it seems have heard of Skagway, the home of the White Pass & Yukon Route railroad, the place where the great gold rush of 1897-8 started, the start of the famous White Pass trail that all the stampeders took, but no one has heard of Dyea, a town that was bigger than Skagway and had another route to Yukon gold – the Chilkoot trail.  Today Skagway has around 700 full time residents and a plethora of seasonal residents to serve the tourist trade and Dyea, only three miles away is nothing but forest and a few foundations.  While Dyea had the easier route (shorter and less elevation) to the Yukon, it was Skagway that ultimately succeeded as a town (Dyea only lasted about 5 years).  We biked along the trails through the old townsite and also visited the Slide Cemetery where most of the victims of an avalanche that killed over 70 people on the Chilkoot Trail are buried.  We wanted to learn more about Dyea and decided that we would go a ranger guided hike of the townsite while we were in the area.


            July 18 – Once again we were looking at excellent weather.  It was clear and the forecasters were expecting temperatures near 70.  Even better there was only on ship scheduled to be in town.  We arrived in town and easily found a parking spot near the train station.  Our first stop was a giant rotary snow plow that was on display near the station.  Built over 100 years ago, the plow can cut through drifts 12 feet high and it is still used each spring to clear the tracks.  Next we went to the Park Service’s visitor’s center and signed up for a walking tour of the town.  We met ranger Ken for the tour which ambled up the main street of town stopping along the way for some history and some stories.  Afterwards we saw a film on the evolution of Skagway.

            As we mentioned earlier, gold rushers had a choice between the two trails and hence Skagway and Dyea developed at the foot of each trail.  Each city was in competition with the other to lure the miners (and their money).  While the trail out of Skagway was longer and higher, it was served by a deep water (over 500 feet deep) port and it was much easier to dock ships there than at Dyea where there were 2 miles of tidal flats to be crossed to get to deep water (miner’s goods were usually dropped off at low tide onto the mud flats and then the miners had to scramble to move it all before the tide came in).  Skagway was also the older town, founded a few years before the gold rush by Captain William Moore who had the foresight to realize that someday there would be a need for a route into Canada and that he could profit from creating a town at the head of the trail (Dyea was a seasonal Indian settlement at the time).  Preparing for the day that people would come to his town Moore built a sawmill, a large dock to accommodate ships and a small log cabin for himself.  Dyea had the advantage that its trail was a long established Indian trading route that was fairly well known by explorers.  Initially Dyea was the more successful of the towns, overcoming the harbor problem by building a 2 mile long dock out over the mud flats to make unloading easier.  There is a famous picture from the gold rush showing hundreds of climbers one after another on a stairway carved into the ice – this was the ‘golden staircase’ on the Chilkoot (Dyea’s) Trail.  On April 3, 1898 there was the massive avalanche elsewhere on the trail that killed over 70 stampeders.  Many people say that the next day everyone waiting to take the Chilkoot Trail left Dyea and went to Skagway to use the “safe” trail.  Dyea’s death had begun and within a few years it was abandoned.

            After we finished at the Park Service visitor’s center we walked the town on our own, stopping at the city museum which had a nice collection of gold rush era items and some more history of the town, including its importance during World War II.  The museum was originally a women’s college and was the first granite building in the state.  We had heard that the town’s semi-famous Gold Rush Cemetery was nearby so we decided to walk over.  It was a nice walk that took us out of town and past the railroad’s maintenance shops (which Dave loved), but it was not nearby.  Two miles later we reached the cemetery and its two famous graves. 

            Along with the thousands of stampeders, con men and swindlers also made the trip Dyea and Skagway to separate the men from their money.  People were selling everything from gold seeking groundhogs to tickets on hot air balloons to float over the mountains.  The most famous of the bandits was Jefferson “Soapy” Smith who virtually ruled Skagway – even the local Marshall was in his gang.  While Soapy’s men robbed and cheated the citizens of Skagway, Soapy would go around making humanitarian gestures (often giving a few dollars to the widow of  someone his men killed the night before) as if he was unrelated to the violence.  He even started a charity to feed and care for the stray dogs in town.  The townspeople were fed up with Soapy and his gang and formed a group to figure out how to stop him.  One evening after a miner had been robbed of all his gold dust the group had a meeting on one of the town docks.  To keep Soapy and his men out, they stationed the town surveyor, Frank Reid at the entrance to the dock.  Soapy heard of this meeting and went down to the dock to try to break it up.  A gunfight ensued and Frank had been shot, as one guide put it, “where no man wants to be shot”, and Soapy had been shot through the heart.  Soapy died instantly, Frank Reid suffered for 12 days.  Both men are buried in the Gold Rush Cemetery.  Soapy has a wooden headstone and Frank has a granite obelisk inscribed, “He gave his life for the honor of Skagway”.

            After such a long walk we rewarded ourselves with some ice cream and found one of the two internet places and sent in some pages that we had written on the ferry the day before.