Traveling to Alaska, the Al-Can Highway, and the Yukon
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 by Frank Shortt
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        Discovery of gold in the Klondike in 1896 caused at least 100,000 men to become displaced in Alaska and the Yukon. In order to ‘get to the gold’, one had to traverse to Alaska, namely to Skagway, then across the Chilkoot Pass, into the Yukon Territory, which was virtually unseen by very few Americans at that time.
        Lust for gold causes men to do unheard of things in order to obtain it. After a long voyage, usually from San Francisco, some men arrived in Skagway, with nothing but the shirts on their backs, hoping for a grubstake to be able to go to the gold fields of the Yukon. Men went across on foot, on horseback, trying to push wheelbarrows, facing chilling winds that froze them to the bone. The trail across Chilkoot was littered with remnants of men’s hopes and dreams. There were, of course, brave women who tried to compete with strong men and usually ended up tying in with male companions, whether good or bad.
        Two of the men who chronicled the rush for gold then were Jack London and Rex Beach. Their books are still available in libraries across America and the world. Their stories, whether fiction or real, gave an idea of the confusion, deaths by freezing, the conflicts of the participants, and especially the geography of this still wild region. Some men who became famous, whether by good deeds or bad, still are sometimes mentioned. William Seward was responsible for the purchase of Alaska in 1867 while serving as Secretary of State under Andrew Johnson.. At the time Alaska became known as Seward’s Folly, but later was known as one of the greatest investments that America has ever made. On the other hand, one of the greatest scoundrels who ever graced the shores of Alaska, was known as Soapy Smith. He was a con-man of the highest degree, swindling unwary pilgrims out of their last dime by many and nefarious ways. He was able to buy off mayors and politicians and continued until he was shot on the wharf at Skagway.
        Two of the greatest industries to emerge from the gold rush were the whale and salmon industries. The two species mentioned were almost depleted until government officials realized what would occur if this happened. Rape of the Arctic has taken its toll by each treasure seeker overdoing the activity in which he was involved. Whether it was gold miners, hunters overkilling the animal population, or fishermen overfishing the virgin waters, the beautiful land known as Alaska, has suffered greatly by greed and corruption.
        A few years ago, my wife Sharon, and I decided to take a cruise up to Skagway, cross over the Chilkoot Pass, and take the Al-Can highway up through the Yukon and on to Fairbanks, with a side trip to Denali Park. The Yukon is so rich in fauna and flora, especially at springtime, that it kept us busy guessing what we could possibly see across the next hill. The cruise to Skagway was uneventful except for a chance meeting of an official of the World Bank. I learned a lot about the part they play in the finances of world affairs. The food was excellent, there was plenty of it, and the nights were always filled with shows put on by performers hired for this very purpose. We could choose to participate or not.
        Skagway was not anything to brag about, appearing to be poverty-stricken, although I did buy a carving of an eagle to be made later into a bolo tie. Its distinguishing feature was that it was carved from fossil ivory, which is becoming not too common as stores are depleted. The carver was from a well-known family of the Sitka tribe in the Skagway region. From Skagway we traveled up over the Chilkoot Pass on the narrow-gauge railroad, into the Yukon, where we were taken by tour bus up the Al-Can Highway. The old, original highway, of which there are few remnants, was built by the Corps of Engineers of the U.S. Army at the time of the Second World War. The Japanese had encroached upon Alaska via the Aleutian Islands, namely Attu and Kiska, creating the need for a way to transport military supplies from the American mainland up to the scene of the invasion.
        Making stops along the way, as we saw unusual flora or fauna, became our source of entertainment for several days. We saw our first Grizzly bear, our first eagle in flight, saw our first wild moose, saw reindeer, better known as Caribou, visited Santa land, and stopped once at Lake Kulani to skip rocks, a must for anyone going that way. I must say, not bragging of course, that I won out as best ‘rock skipper’ as my nice flat sandstone rock did 14 skips on the smooth waters. I did not tell the other travelers that this was one of our favorite pastimes while being raised in Virginia. Our arms sore, as well as our backs, we reentered the bus for the next phase of the journey, entertained by a video, which most of us slept through.
        At Beaver Creek, we caught our first glimpse of an original Mountie, the police force of the Yukon. We were entertained there to the tune of a melodrama, which featured the Mountie and how ‘they always get their man’! Many stories and poems have been written about the brave deeds of the Mounties. Zane Grey, famous as a western writer, wrote books, and even a comic strip entitled, King, of the Royal Mounted. Movies and television have chronicled both the fictional and real Mounties as being stalwart keepers of the peace in the Yukon Territory.
        Our last stop, after traveling through the Yukon, was to Fairbanks, Alaska. We had expected a more modern city than what we were introduced to. There are still many buildings from the days of the gold rush and the fishing industry. There is, of course, a more modern section which is in stark contrast to the rundown sections we saw. The harsh winters there make it very difficult to maintain any sense of order.
        Entraining to Denali National Park the next day, we were shown the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, completed in 1977, to carry North Slope Oil to the Port of Valdez. This has been recognized by many as a landmark of engineering and was built through frozen wastelands facing many hazards. Alaskan families are happy to receive a yearly check of $900 as a result of the, now famous, pipeline. As we toured the Park, we spotted Grizzly bears, Moose, many small mammals, and were given our first glimpse of the beautiful Dall sheep.
        Our last great outing was when we proceeded to Anchorage and a Catamaran trip along the Kenai Peninsula. The mammals that may be seen along this trip are: Beluga Whales, Harbor Seals, Humpback Whales, Killer Whales, Porpoises, Dolphins, and Sea Otters. Our guide was gracious enough to point out all the scenery of main interest. One of the outstanding memories of the trip was that we constantly viewed Bald Eagles on each promontory projecting out into the waters. Sharon turned to me and declared, “I would love to see an eagle dive down off his aerie and grab a fish in the waters ahead!” No more had she gotten the words out of her mouth, when just in front of our boat a mighty eagle soared gracefully off one of the promontories, diving suddenly downward, grasping a huge fish in his talons, probably Salmon, and raised upward with his catch toward his home with the fish thrashing profusely knowing his fate. Talk about ‘nature in the raw’, this was a sight to behold! The next great event, as we traversed the frigid waters, was when, suddenly, great schools of Humpback whales began surfacing right in front of our boat. Waves, created by their diving and resurfacing, rocked the catamaran to such an extent that we had to hold on to the handrails.
        We went within half a mile of huge Hughes glacier. The captain told us that he dared not go closer as this glacier had been having ‘calving’ activities recently. We sat there for a while as he related to us the story of the glacier, when all of a sudden, an apartment sized chunk of the glacier fell into the waters, right before our very eyes. If we thought the catamaran rocked with the whale activities, we had never felt rocking before. It seemed that the earthquake-like event would swamp the little boat. Sharon began to cry out, “Frank, what is happening?” I tried to remain as calm as possible under the circumstances but I too was a little startled that such turbulence could be created by the ‘calving’ of a glacier a half mile away. We were none too glad when all had cooled down and we began our return trip to Anchorage.
        Flying from the Anchorage airport, we arrived back to San Francisco, two very happy campers, thankful that the unstable land of Alaska was now a pleasant, sometimes unpleasant, memory of the past. Would I go again? Maybe I would take the cruise phase and go a little further north! Quien sabe?