Skagway, Alaska – Big hopes and merciless disappointments during gold rush

Cruise ships stop every day in Skagway. This city depends on the ship tourists much more than Haines does and has appropriate souvenir shops – jewellery, and Indian clothing and art. The berth is in the end of the main road, and so it looks like the luxury cruisers lay in the middle of the city. The fronts of the old wooden houses were restored or exchanged in a manner true to the original so that we get the impression to stroll though a town a hundred years ago. The old-timer bus drivers who wait in front of the quay for clients willing to make an excursion are dressed up true to the original style, as well as the rangers who offer complimentary guided tours. In the visitor centre a lot of information about the Klondike gold rush is available; also a movie that shows much of the hopes, strain and the chaos of those days.

Since most of the stampeders couldn’t afford the expensive transportation Pacific-Yukon by water they only took the ship until Skagway or the vanished neighbour town Dyea and walked on foot further to Lake Bennett from where they shipped the Yukon with self-made boats to the Klondike gold fields. One hundred thousand people from all over the world, even from Australia, set off naively and unsuspectingly just before the turn of the century. They all hoped to make the deal of their life. Some even believed that gold nuggets grow in bushes. They had no idea which deprivations the trail would demand from them. Most of the soldiers of fortune choose the route from Dyea over the Chilkoot Trail that was shorter but steeper and could be managed only on foot. The North West Mounted Police that was later agglomerated with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police tidied things up then and required from the stamperders to carry along annual stocks of food as well as 180 kg equipments and clothes. Among others flower, rice, beans, salt, sugar, coffee, tee, and bacon belonged to the 520 kg food. It took around three winter months to transport the legendary Ton of Goods piece by piece the 53 km long trail uphill and walk down empty or even slide down in the snow on their seat of trousers. 2000 km accumulated easily that had to be covered in deepest winter and in unimaginable cold to make the boats at the lake, and to start when the ice broke. In early summer they wanted to reach the claims to start prospecting when the ground thawed.

The alternative from Skagway over the White Pass was longer and less steep so that pack-animals could be used. More than 3000 horses and mules shall be perished, most of them died of exposure. Despite the merciless harshness of the venture most men – and women – arrived in Dawson City alive – just to realize the vain endeavour. Right after discovering the gold all claims were already allocated and the stampeders had either to head back or enter poorly paid service at the gold fields. But there were success stories as well like the ones of Diamond Tooth Gertie and other nightclub hostesses or more serious ones: One woman became rich with baking apple pie; later on she managed the largest gold mine at the Klondike.

From Skagway we ascend steeply to White Pass. Just behind the crash barrier a young Alaska brown bear is eating dandelion. There is nothing to disturb him, not even me, working on the camera two metres away. As a precaution I do not get out of the truck. But this is just to not make the bear used to humans…

One more time we are passing the border to Canada. White Pass is situated in the midst of landscape of divine beauty. Tiny Christmas trees grow between scattered rocks covered with pastel yellow moss. There are numerous ponds; many of them show a somehow misplaced appearing Caribbean blue. But instead of palm tree islands with sandy beaches rocky islands with furs raise from the water. Mystic clouds and wafts of mist are hovering above everything. Somehow I am expecting some elf or a fairy flying around the corner and I am preparing my three wishes.

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