Thursday, September 2, 2010

Skagway: Renewal and Reassurance

Taiya River, north of Dyea, Alaska
I was feeling burned out from juggling two jobs here in Skagway, Alaska, fretting about lack of hours, a chronic problem. Too, I’m so far from home and a prevailing sense of isolation and loneliness was taking its toll. But then last week Chilkat Float Tours treated everyone at Alaska Excursions to a ride down Taiya River.

Can a day be lovelier? A lazy river, salmon spawning, eagles soaring, sun looping through a cerulean sky, hang gliders adding color to a glacier glinting off the horizon. Everywhere I looked the raw wilderness spread forever, untouched and pristine as the day God made it, gently lifting me into a place of peace.

“Hey! Anyone lose $10?” Our guide pointed to a ten-dollar bill floating on the river’s surface.

Rest. Renewal. Reassurance. Someday I'll go home, but I'll take with me this moment of time and abundance.

Hang Glider Above Nelson Glacier

Steve and Hunter


End of the Float...

Skagway: Flies, Faces, and Friendship

There is a woman in Skagway. Maybe sixty. Maybe seventy. It’s Alaska...maybe fifty. I got a chance to introduce myself one day when she came out to Jewell Gardens where I work. She’d just taken a picture of a fly on our blue bench.

Her face is lined like the rich patina of an ancient cup. When she speaks, one side of her mouth lifts into a thing of sweetness. But the lines deepen and sharpen, and I fear a fragility in her that might break into too many pieces for me to gather and put back together.

I sat on the bench beside her and admired her fly.

We say “hey” now all the time, friends. For her fly was lovely; and from her eyes I see beauty in flies, faces, and friendship.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Jewell Gardens Tour, Part II

Bridge Into Garden
So you’re standing in Henry Clark’s historic rhubarb farm. It’s a 112 years later, and we're going to head across the bridge into Jewell Gardens," I tell my tour guests, "where I’ll catch you up on how Charlotte Jewell came into the land. Watch your toes. A troll lives in the garden. We never know what bridge he might be hiding under. Also, as you cross, take note of our creek. We’re the only dry creek in the world with fish.

Happy Fish
Dry Creek
“How many have ever heard of Dale Chihuly?” I ask, as we head in, everyone following me like so many ducklings. Many have.

Hands go up. “The pink sleeve, yes, you, what is your name?”


“Ethel, it’s nice to meet you. So who’s Dale Chihuly?”

She fills everyone in. A renowned glass artist who integrates glass with gardens. Now people perk up, recognizing him. They tell me about the sculpture they’ve seen. Personally, I've seen his work in Leavenworth, Washington, and Phoenix, Arizona. I tell them we’ve embraced his vision, only we focus more on the whimsical.
I also tell them to keep a watch for all the other glass we have in the garden. “We have two glass blowing studios. And, yes, you’ll have some time afterward to watch our artists make everything you see here—as well as the glassware in the gift shop.”

Blue Glass w/Conservatory in the Background
Pink Margarites Surrounding Green Glass

Henry Clark's Rhubard, Aug 31st
By now they’ve spotted the Henry Clark rhubarb against the fence. First of August it towers over me. End of August it's done and dying back. I stop to explain that we've let it go to seed not because we’re lazy but because, like Henry Clark, we know how to fleece the miners. "I mean tourists." Sometimes I get a laugh. "The seeds," I point out, "are being harvested, and we have them in the gift shop."

"Is it true the leave are poisonous?" someone invariably asks. Which is a good thing.

"Yes. And so are the roots. And so is the stalk...for two years. After that, the stalk is good. Although you might not want to eat as much as I did when  I was a kid," I caution. "Someone gave my family two big bags of it and for once in my life my mother let me eat my heart's content. I think I ate both bags. I liked nothing better than to read a good book with either saltines and butter or rhubarb with sugar. I ate so much of that rhubarb I actually burnt the taste buds rights off my tongue. True story." And then someone notices the train—a G4 model of Skagway’s White Pass  and Yukon Railroad.

The White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad.
The raised bed sits almost center of the garden.

Train and Model Farmhouse
The Famous Yellow Engine
The model narrow-gauge train winds in and out of a fence that splits the garden in half—horticulture from agriculture, and people begin to set up their tripods, fascinated at the find. I explain why the train. “Two brutal trails to the Yukon gold led out of this area. The White Pass out of Skagway and Chilkoot Pass out of Dyea, about ten miles north-northwest of here. One miner is quoted to have said, ‘It doesn’t matter which trail you take, you’ll wish you took the other.’ And so we have the gold rush train. How many have taken the White Pass and Yukon train up to the summit and back?” 

Hands go up. Others pipe in, “We’re going this afternoon!”  Personally, I've been on  it twice and will go again.

“The train,” I tell them, “was a collaborative effort between the Americans, Canadians, and British and today is regarded as one of the world’s most spectacular engineering feats, right up there with the Eiffel Tower and the Great Wall of China. The terrain, the weather, the grade—all had to be conquered.

Looking Down From the Train
"It took them two years,  two months, and two days to complete. But by then  the gold was gone. Skagway, like Dyea, would have turned into a ghost town, but there was more mining to be done. Skagway therefore became a railroad town, portal between the Interior’s iron and silver and the rest of the world. Some of you may have even come in on the Ore Dock this morning.”

I step backwards into a giant leaf bed, forcing my group to turn around and face me and the conservatory behind me. “Let’s fast forward to 1942. What in the world was going on?” Hands go up. “Charlie?”

“World War II.”

“In particular, Japanese occupation of the Aleutian Islands. The Canadians and Americans both so feared a northern invasion that they decided to quit talking about a road through the Yukon into Alaska and built  it. Handily enough, we had the railroad.

“So Henry Clark retired a wealthy man and the army moved in—11,000 soldiers. And this land—” I stomp my feet between the angled rows of bird’s nest spruce that mark the veins of the giant broad leaf I’m standing in. “—became a tank farm. The army brought in hundreds of container tanks to store diesel fuel, necessary to man the trains. And our gift shop—” I point. “—used to be one of their pump houses."

Gift Shop and Old Pump House
"From the gift shop they'd pump diesel fuel from container to container to container, all the way over to the tracks, where they sent up anywhere from twelve to eighteen trains a day, carrying men, picks and shovels, dynamite, and bull dozers. It took the two countries all of 8 months to build the road and that is how I arrived. The AlCan Highway if you’re American, the Alaskan Highway if you’re Canadian.

“Well, when the war was won, the army went home and everyone in Skagway came out to a) dig up some of Henry Clark’s rhubarb and b) tear down the container tanks. The transplanted rhubarb now grows all over town like a weed. You can’t help but trip over it, and if you all don’t mind picking a stalk or two on your way back to the ship? That would be good. Everyone in town will be forever grateful. It grows like California zucchini up here.”

Ha, ha.

“Charlie, where were we? Never mind, I remember.

"So everyone in Skagway showed up to get some rhubarb and to tear down the container tanks. They hosed out the oil and dismantled them, sold it all for scrap. Anyone know where I’m going with this?”

A lady in red sticks up her hand.

 I go over, shake her hand. “What’s your name?”


“Serena, I am happy to meet you. Where am I going with all this?”

“I think you’re going to tell us something about the oil going into the ground.”

“You're right. But not yet." I give her a smile. She smiles back. "Right now I'm going to tell you about Charlotte Jewell, owner and mastermind behind everything you see, and how this came to be.

"The land reverted to farm use after the war—and in 1996 Charlotte Jewell leased six acres of Henry Clark's original forty from the city and began her garden. Three years into it, though, the Skagway River flooded. We’re actually standing below sea level. This is the lowest point in the valley and so when the river flooded, the water table rose and now, Serena, what came up with the water?”

“The oil and diesel fuel.”

“Yes. Charlotte says she came out to the deck, off the conservatory, and was overwhelmed by the reek.
From Where Charlotte Stood
And when she looked out over her lovely garden? A sheen of oil—and it wasn’t Texas oil. Nothing to make anyone rich. The EPA was called in. They dug up eight to fifteen feet of soil, hauled it all off, cleaned it up, and brought it that fence."

"On the other side they left a big gaping hole. Anyone from Washington  State?” A few hands go up. 

“Tell me your names.”

“Ruth and Ben.”

“Where in Washington, Ruth and Ben?"


“Really? I’m from Bellingham, we’re neighbors. But, hey, I expect you thought you were coming to Alaska, didn’t you? Well, so did I! Yet once we cross the fence back there? We’re right back home! And the rest of you?” I say, “get a free side trip to the Pacific Northwest. Because after four years of litigation the EPA was ordered by the courts to fill that monster hole. Only they didn’t bring back Charlotte’s lovely Alaskan glacial silt, no, no, no. They barged in dirt from Skagit County, Washington. No worries, though. I’ll get you all back to Alaska before we’re through, okay? Okay, Charlie?”

"Okay," he says.

Once one of my Charlies said, “But what if I don't want to go home? What if I want to hang out in Washington with you?”

His wife promptly smacked him, he dodged, they both laughed. The rest of us couldn’t help but laugh. It was funny.

“Anyway...” I say. “In way of compensation, the city gave Charlotte half the land. Guess which half.”

They all know.

Leaf Bed with Bird's Nest Spruce
"But, hey, every cloud has a silver lining. The lining here is that Charlotte got to start her garden all over in 2002 and I'm standing in a her major redesign. If you were a bird, you'd see I'm in a leaf.  It's attached  to the boardwalk, a stem, and if you follow the stem all the way up to the south side, you'll come onto the two large flower heads. One is our Alaskan bed--and if you can tell me why we name it that, a free ticket for you next year. The other is our Edible bed--which is obvious, but I think you'll be surprised by all that can eat.

Pat Walking Through the Alaskan Bed
Black Boar Kale, Chives, Campanula, Tulips, etc. of the Edible Bed
Ron and I Eating Chive Flowers in front of the Sunbed
“Now, Charlotte’s philosophy,” I continue, as I inch my way over to the stem, “is that this is your backyard while you’re here. You’re encouraged to walk on the grass, to touch the flowers, to enjoy in your own way. It’s your tour, your holiday, your dime. If you experience things better without someone going blah, blah, blah in your ear, my feelings won’t be hurt if you wander off. If, however, you want to learn more about our growing season up here, I’m headed over to that birch tree. Come on,” I encourage, “step on the grass. There you go, you can do it. Ruth, Serena. Ben. Ah, and your name,  Ma'am?"


"Congratulations, Shirley, you've just taken your first step into total revelry." Shirleys are always old. "Can I talk you into taking your shoes off, Shirley?" Most old ladies blush,  some poo-poo me, all lap up the attention. "Oh!" I holler. "For those of you heading out on your own? You’ll want to find me in forty-five minutes because I’m the one who will escort you into the conservatory for tea.”

Delphinium, Shasta Daisy, Snapdragons
In Front of Conservatory / July
I jab my thumb toward the delphinium and peony bed, to the conservatory and tea house behind it, to where another tour is just finishing up lunch. Then I hit them with the zinger.

“But if you come with me? I’ll have you eating things you never thought you’d ever eat.

“And you’ll like it!”
Nona Not So Sure

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Skagway: Jewell Gardens Tour, Part 1

Jewell Gardens
The Historic Henry Clark Farm
“Welcome to Jewell Gardens, showcase of Alaska’s Garden City!” I’ve just jumped aboard a huge tour bus. I’ve exchanged “hello” and “how are you today?” with the driver. To the tourists I say, “My name is Brenda; I’ll be your tour guide this afternoon. I understand you’ve been up to the Yukon already today? Yes? See any bears? Well, my goal in Alaska this summer is to not see a bear.”  

Ha ha.

“FYI, I used to be a college composition instructor; and a student once summarized his experience with me as being a bit like sitting on a tour bus. Over here on the right—” I point to the parking lot.“—you’ll see a lovely one-inch margin. While over here on the left—” I point to the Gift Shop.
Gift Shop
 “—is an equally divine one-inch margin. And, straight ahead—” And here I swivel so everyone can see the double gates. “—are twenty-two rows of immaculate double-spacing."

Ha ha. Ha ha.

“And you thought you were on a holiday, didn’t you?”

Ha ha, ha ha, ha ha.
Double Gates and Entryway
“So now that you’ve realized that you’ve just fallen into your worst nightmare—back in English 101—I’ll have you follow me off the bus and through the double-spacing, I mean double gates, where we’ll meet at the blue interpretive wall just inside.”
One of two "O" Garden Beds
Honest to God, I have yet to experience a tourist come through the double gates who did not slow down and jam the entryway, agog, amazed by all they see and smell—an assault of the senses that lifts a person into another world altogether. It is a bit like stepping into Oz. The color, the Eden. The glass. The air laden with the perfume of lilacs and scent of sage oil. I have to encourage my guests to move over to the interpretive wall where Charlotte Jewell, owner and creative mastermind, has pictures of the first garden ever planted on this site more than a century ago.
I leap up onto a log bench, gain my balance, it wobbles a bit, and I begin my spiel.

“Very quickly, let me give you the lay of the land so you know where you and what we’ll be doing. To my left you’ll see a lovely 1” margin— No? Sorry. To my left are the restrooms, just past our conservatory there, where we’ll be feeding you in just a bit. Be careful, though. Rumor is that Colonel Mustard did it  in the conservatory with the lead pipe.”
If I’m lucky a smart ass will pipe up, “I think it was Mrs. White with the knife!”

“You,” I say, pointing to the smart ass. “What is your name?”


“Yeah, you!” I hop off the bench, go over, shake his or her hand, exchange names. “Okay, Charlie,” I say, hopping back up on my perch, “I see that I’m going to have to keep my eye on you,” and he becomes, just like that, my handy sidekick, handy because sidekicks always pull the group together and transform strangers into friends. This is a good thing.
Conservatory and Bridge
“Okay, where were we?” I give a thumbs up to Charlie, who laughs. “Oh, yes, lay of the land. Restrooms over there, conservatory next. We’ll be entering the flower side of our garden just in front of the conservatory, via that wee bridge right over there, but again be careful because we have a troll who lives in our garden. We never know which bridge he might be hiding under, this one or the other down at the other end. So watch your toes and turn right. We’ll circle into the flower side of the garden clockwise.
Hoop House
"Half way around, we’ll pass through the fence right behind you and move into our produce section, come up alongside the Hoop House just off your shoulder there...
Eric in the Glass Blowing Studio
"...the glass blowing studios to my right, and, after tea, when it’s time to go...
Gift Shop Exit
"...we’ll exit through the Gift Shop. Are you ready?


“Okay then. Let me begin by pointing out the Double O beds directly behind me, filled with Pink Marguerites, Dusty Miller, Nenesia, some Halo Dogwood shrubbery.
One of Two "O" Beds
The flowers bursting off the fence are Radar Love Clematis.
Radar Love Clematis
"Over by the Gift Shop you’ll find Artic Beauty Kiwi—a fruit that holds 20x the Vitamin C as an orange. 

"As I move into the history here—this place, this land, this bit of earth underneath our feet—some of you may like to mill and take a closer look at what Charlotte Jewell has planted here in the courtyard. You’ll notice right away that her philosophy is to let random seeds bloom where they land.” I point out the lavender poppy rising out of the Pink Margurites. “It’s actually not a bad metaphor for life,” I add.

Two poppies flirted--lavender and red fringe.
The pink with the lavender center is one of their offspring.
Some begin to mill, others stand tight.

“So let’s talk about this place, this land, this bit of earth under our feet,” I say. “Look down, stomp a bit. Go for it, it’ll feel good.” I stomp my feet a little; we are standing on courtyard stone. 

Courtyard and Interpretive Wall
Two "O" beds flank the walk.
“This land was never settled by the native Chilkoot Tlingits. Too windy. Worse than Chicago. Skagway is actually a native term that requires an entire paragraph to translate, but the essence is “wind.” And after living here a bit, I can see why they avoided the place. The first person to actually settle here in Skagway Valley was a Canadian by the name of Captain William Moore. 

Captain William Moore in Tlingit Clothing
"For about twenty years before the big Gold Rush in 1897, pockets of gold were being found up in the Yukon, and the Canadians were getting a bit nervous, not wanting a repeat of lawless Americans storming into British territory. So they sent out a bunch of surveyors to mark the international boundary line—pretty much the continental divide,” and I point up the ridges of our mountains to the east. “They hired Captain William Moore, a man who’d made and lost many a fortune on the frontier, to find a way through the Coastal Mountains here.

Skookum Jim
in White Man's Clothing
“His Indian guide, Skookum Jim, took him through a rarely used and torturous, at times narrow trail due north.” I point. “The Canadian surveyors planted their stakes atop the summit—which they named White Pass after some mucky-muck Canadian no one’s ever heard of, and made plans to send up the Mounties. Moore, however, turned back and staked 160 acres at the beach, right where you all came in. He so believed in the eventual big Gold Rush, that he, like Kevin Costner, believed that if he “built it, they would...”

“Come,” chorus the tourists on cue.

“That’s right, and the safest way to get rich, he figured, was not to fetch it himself, but to fleece it off the minors foolish enough to do all the hard work. They’d need boots and biscuits, and booze. Who better to meet the demand with supply? And so he began widening his White Pass Trail, commenced building a 60-foot wharf right where many of you disembarked, and sat back and waited.

"And waited.

"Ten years he waited. But then, out of the blue on July 29, 1898, his ship came in, literally. Two hundred miners came tumbling of the steamship Queen with news that was electrifying the world. Gold! The richest gold strike in history!

"How many Americans in the group? Does anyone recognize the name William Howard Taft? Charlie,” I ask. “Do you know who he is?”

Someone usually does.

I say, “Whether our 27th president made his fortune on gold, we don’t know. We do know, though, that somewhere along the line, he made enough to finance a presidential campaign 10 years later.

“So what about this land? This patch of earth under our feet? We’ve got Captain Moore down at the beach. Between there and here a tent city of 10,000 sprang up almost overnight. But here? Where we stand? Untouched earth since the beginning of time?

“Well, not long after President Taft made his appearance and stepped into history, a fellow by the name of Henry Clark stepped off some boat, gold fever in his brain and, unusually enough, a packet of rhubarb seeds in his poke. He had been a dairy and truck farmer from Wisconsin who, like 100,000 others, had abandoned home and hearth to strike it rich.

Dead Horse Trail, White Pass, Alaska, 1898
“However, Captain Moore’s White Pass was proving to be a death trap for horses and brought out the worst of humanity. It quickly became known as the Dead Horse Trail, some 3,000 of them, and who knew how many dead dogs and men. Henry Clark decided at some point along the way up the trail that this was not his cup of tea. He also noticed that many of the returning miners were suffering from scurvy. This, too, was not his cup of tea. So he turned around and headed back and was coming down into the valley, when he said that the whole valley opened up to him. He had those rhubarb seeds, rich in—can you guess?”

“Yes, Vitamin C. Like Captain Moore, he realized a fortune could be made by mining the miners. So he purchased 40 acres, right here, where we stand. In all of history, then, it was Henry Clark who was the first to put down roots, literally, in this place. And we are standing on 6 acres of Henry Clark’s 40-acre historic farm.

“Charlie, where are you?”

An arm goes up. “I need you to pull that middle picture off the wall and hold it high. Can you handle that?”

Henry Clark
Whoever my Charlie is, he or she is happy to do it. And while he or she does this, I continue. “In this picture you’ll see Skagway’s King of Rhubarb.” I look around for a short person. “You in the yellow jacket, what is your name?”


“Well, Florence,” I say. “By August, Henry Clark’s rhubarb will be taller than you and me.

“True, I say. Can you see that he has to stand on a box? It was Henry Clark who discovered that Alaska’s short growing season—only 120 days—can nonetheless produce some startling produce. Who would have thunk?”

I ask Charlie for the picture. I hold it in front of me. “Take a look at these two mountain ridges behind him,” I say. “Now look up. Do you see the same two ridges?”

Bursts of amazement come forth.

“We are all standing right where his rhubarb once grew.”

I leap off my bench, put the picture back. I start for the wee bridge. “If you’ll follow me,” I tell them, “I’ll take you into the garden now. Take note, as we come to the fence right there, you’ll find one of our Henry Clark rhubarbs. Yes, we still grow it. And, yes, we’ll be feeding it to you today.”

With this I lead the way over the wee bridge, and with this a wave of gratitude for this place never fails to wash over me. It’s beautiful, serene, full of life, and I am always excited to take strangers into this 6 acres of wonder.
Alaskan Bed

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Skagway: 4th of July

A Canadian by birth and loyalty, an American by circumstance and choice, July 4 has always been a mixed holiday for me. My patriotism kicks in on the 1st—Canada Day—but then despite myself it diminishes slowly but surely into polite acknowledgment of the 4th—Independence Day—a sort of courtesy nod I guess to my American destiny. For some reason, I’ve never been able to get worked up over a national anthem spawned by war…“rockets red glare, bombs bursting in air…” However, I do get a thrill when I hear “Oh, Caaaaa-na-da, gloooor-i-ous and freeee!” There, do you see? The Mounties’ bugles snap into place, brass flashes, and now the swelling, majestic music mounts and expands and surrounds and bursts. “Oh, Caaa-na-da, we stand on guaaaard for thee!” The bugles hold the note, a note that, if I tip my ear, I can always hear. But this year? This year I am in Skagway, Alaska, and for the first time ever I felt a sense of pride at being an American.

The buzz of the day began long before the 4th arrived, everyone in this tiny town pairing up for the egg toss, practicing the sack race. My son Blake, bus driver for HollandAmerica-Princess Lines, decided to enter one of their HAPA buses in the parade.

 Blake Kent

The other drivers jumped right in, decorating, getting candy, costuming themselves. The idea was for Blake to drive the bus while the majority of them pretended to be tourists, cameras around their neck, and getting in his way, forcing him to hit the brakes with just inches to spare, and to emerge from the bus in an enraged fit of frustration. This would leave a handful of the drivers to act as stow-a-ways and Ethan—super hero Chock Man—the star of the show.

Ethan Lowe

This is how it worked. Every time Blake hit the brakes and came hurtling out of the bus to chew out the surprised and very innocent tourists, super hero Chock Man would leap out, too, snap open the luggage compartment, grab his chocks, and, but but— who are these stow-a-ways leaping out and running around and around the bus?
Jared and Jo

Mayhem reigned as Chock Man chased the stow-aways, gave up, and tried to chock little kids, big kids, even two token Mounties (US National Parks Department guides dressed up for the part), a sort of courtesy nod I suppose to the Canadian gold that built Skagway.

 The Mounties aren't cooperating!

And during all this Tony and I were throwing candy out the windows.

It was fun. I tried to toss to the little kids...

...but then friends ran alongside the bus. “Hey, Brenda! Gimme!” I tossed, they caught, and other friends came running, hands in the air. Others just waved. Some, like Linda, my Parks Department friend, threw me a hug.

Linda Coldiron

The parade route was only seven blocks long, so we were scheduled to circle and come back through town. Circle we did, but this time Jared, House Manager, started grabbing friends off the street and shoving them into the bus with Tony and me. “Get on the bus!” “You’ll miss your ship! Get on the bus!” he hollered.

Strangers started jumping aboard.

“Hey, Brenda!”

Zell, a glass-blowing tour guide at Jewell Garden. “Can I get on the bus?”

“Get on!” I yelled. Up she popped, standing room only; soon, not even that.

We pulled to a stop at the judging intersection and were announced parade winners. Blake was handed $100 cash and back at the parade start we all tumbled off the bus, congratulating ourselves on a job well done.

HAPA Drivers and Me

The rest of the day blew around like blustery gusts as small-town America unfurled on this chilly, overcast day: sack races, egg toss...

Katy and Eric

Natalie, Amanda, and Jess
 Ethan and Blake

Caught it!

the fire department dump tank...

Dinner at Bev and Kerry’s—my shipping boss at the Gardens.

Maybe ten of us crowded into their small downtown apartment before heading for the fireworks. By the time we reached the docks, it was just Zell and me. The crowds had swallowed everyone else. She and I pushed through to the end of the Broadway Dock in the half dark of an Alaskan night, as fireworks shot up from the far side of a ship and others competed from off a nearby barge. We must have stood half an hour before turning back and heading home.

I climbed wearily but happily into my sleeping bag, cardboard in place at the window to block the light, and I was just drifting off when the day’s niggling thoughts and emotions flitted into consciousness. A day of everything new in a very old way, and surrounded by strangers who’d become friends, we had one thing in common—we were Americans.

I was an American.

O! say can you see by the dawn's early light,
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight's last gleaming,
Whose broad stripes and bright stars...