Friday, October 5, 2018

What DO People Do In Winter?

(reposted from January 1, 2013)
You Say Tomato in Skagway AK, Winter
You Say Tomato, Skagway's health food store, across the street from my studio
Skagway in the winter is an interesting place to be, and I’ve been here since Thanksgiving—the idea being that it’s just as easy to look for nonexistent work in Alaska as it is in the Lower 48. Which I’ve been doing pretty much since my neighbor/friend/boss replaced me with a twenty-year-old kid just out of community college.

I still think it was a despicable thing to do, but I sure as heck am glad she did it. My son introduced me to Skagway and seasonal work, driving motor coaches full of tourists into the highways and byways of Alaska and the Canadian Yukon. A much better lifestyle and I have the blood pressure to prove it.

Anyway, so here I am after three seasons, trying out Skagway in the wintertime. I’m keeping myself busy working on my book Skagway and the Dead Horse Trail and applying for everything from park ranger to police dispatcher to bank teller—and the usual office administrator and web design positions. All the while, I’m immersing myself in the history of the 1897 Gold Rush, reading, writing, drawing, my creative nature for the first time in years surging forth. I wake up each morning in the dark, wind howling outside; go to bed at night in the dark, wind howling outside. (They were not exaggerating when referencing this wind!) Rarely have I been happier. And it’s occurred to me that Skagway’s one million summer tourists every summer might be interested in what this place is like in the frozen dark months. What the heck do people do in the wintertime? How do they get through the day with a smile on their faces?

One of the things they do is socialize.

Brenda Wilbee's car buried in snow, Skagway AK
Arizona Lunchbox, a long way from home
I arrived on Thanksgiving. The room I’d rented at Windy Valley Lodge (a once-upon-a-time motel remodeled into apartments across the street from You Say—actually, You Say Tomato; I’m giving you the local lingo here) was not available as expected. Not for a few days anyway. What to do? Did I say they weren’t kidding about the wind here? Temperatures below zero, snow everywhere, wind punching down off the pass. I sat shivering in my car, my faux-fur-lined jacket meaningless, watching the boughs of Sitka spruce whip and snap. Mitty! I could call my buddy Mitty. I’d met Tim Saulter while working for Alaska Excursions the summer of 2010. He’s a year-round resident. With shaking, numb fingers I poked at his name in my cell phone. “Sure, come on over!” he boomed out, talking tightly around his ever-present cigar.

I was once sick while driving for HollandAmerica-Princess…could hardly talk for the barbed-wire ball lodged in my throat. “Mitty,” I’d texted, “Can you go buy me some throat lozenges?” Half-hour later he showed up at my hotel room (HollandAmerica housed us in the old Westmark, two to a room, kitchen and free laundry down the hall for a measly $196 a month—love, love, love that company) with a grocery bag full of stuff that he tumbled onto my bed. Throat lozenges, EmergenC, ginger root, fruit popsicles, mixed nuts. “What do I owe you?” I mouthed.


In the biting cold, I drove over to the corner of State and 15th. This is how we identify residences here. No street numbers, no mail delivery. “I live across from You Say.” “I live on the corner of State and 15th.” “I live behind the Molly Walsh Park.”

Tight quarters at Mitty’s. In winter, he cooks lunch three times a week for the senior citizens. His living room is a storage room for a winter’s worth of canned peaches, boxes of pasta, sacks of flour and rice. Floor to ceiling. This is where you'd head should World War III break out. It’s also the place to be when you have no place else to go. But Mitty barely had time to buzz my cheek with a kiss and mumble around his cigar “make yourself at home” before flying out the door to Thanksgiving dinner. Like I said, everyone socializes. Being Thanksgiving, all my friends were over at someone else’s house. Lonely, but not lonely, I poked around and opened up a can of Mitty's tomato soup.

So this is Skagway. This is where you never go homeless, where you never go hungry, where friends move over and let you have their bed. Even it means they have to sleep on a camping cot next to a bicycle next to a crate next to a freezer. They socialize up here, but I do have my boundaries.

Tim Saulter Fixing Food For Senior Lunch, Skagway AK
Mitty cooking for the senior citizens.

Curling In Dawson City, Yukon, Canada

(reposted from February 13, 2013)
I Give It A Go!

If tourists used to ask me what people in Skagway did during the winter, they certainly asked the question of Dawsonites in Dawson City, Yukon, some 400 miles even farther north. It seemed inconceivable to visitors that anyone would actually live way up there. "What do they do?"

Less than a minute out of the Westmark Hotel Breezeway, motor coach full of the curious, I'd answer. “Do you see the green building to your right? Well, that’s the curling rink. They curl.”

And this is what I intend to try, I’d think to myself. Lucky me, last week I did just that.

Bonspiel Score Board

First of all, scoring is complicated. The easy part is that you play the ice first one way, a team of four going with eight rocks (40-pound circular stones with a handle on the top) and then playing the ice the other way. Each is considered an “end” and the game is over after eight ends—or unless the losing team loses heart and quits. And this does happen. Too far behind to catch up, people give up.

Curling rink in Dawson City, Yukon

I first watched four games at Dawson City’s 114th International Bonspiel, fascinated by the skill, strategies, and scoring, perfect strangers happy to answer my questions and teach me the finer points of what was going on. I could hardly wait until Thursday night—when I could try it for myself.

It’s harder than I thought. I’m not strong, and you’ve got to figure out how to push off, keep yourself balanced, and get enough oomph to spin the rock down the ice far enough to “get in the house.”

Brenda Wilbee tries to curl
I played with a friend I was staying with, two strangers, and a Swiss woman I’d made friends with during the bonspiel. All were patient and helped me along, which was all part of the fun.

I actually got off two good shots, and when we played girls against boys, the girls won. Meet the winners: Myrta, Me, and Larissa.

So curling is one thing at least that people do in Dawson during the winter.

Friday, September 21, 2018

Skagway Gets A Facelift: Gold Rush to Tourism

(reposted and updated)
Brenda Wilbee's sketch of Sixth Ave, Skagway, AK, 1898
Sixth Avenue: Looking west from Broadway
Today Hotel Mondomin sits kitty-corner, today's Eagles Bldg
Skagway began as a gold rush town with mud-sticky streets and a rash of tents and shacks: A “scrap heap” one early tourist described her at the turn of the last century. But once her mud-and-puddle youth was over and early adolescence in full swing, the inevitable "teenage" self-consciousness forced a sprucing up. And her get-rich-quick psyche matured into a more realistic psychology of economic sustainability: Tourism.
Brenda Wilbee's sketch of Paradise Alley, Skagway, AK, 1898
Paradise Alley
In 1907 she rooted out many of the old gold rush shacks, and business­ owners moved the better buildings to Broadway, relocating them along the railroad track. Shops and saloons, restaurants, hotels, and sundry offices from Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Avenues were shifted ninety degrees and then reset to face the main thorough­fare, their Victorian false storefronts aligned to make a tidy wall. Curlicues, bright paint, some recessed doorways, elaborate lathing, these ornate facades anchored signs that swung over Broadway to announce the various establish­ments, often displaying decorations like boots and horseshoes, clocks and barber poles to distinguish one from the other. Fire towers and churches were left on the cross streets. Brewery chimneys—amidst the hodgepodge of cigar shops, saloons, and cribs (tiny shacks where the lower class prostitutes plied their trade)—were confined to the alleyways with names like Hiroshima, French, and Paradise, an altogether shady business in the shadows, brisk and uninterrupted. But out of sight.

By 1910 the town’s once heady population of 10- to 20,000 (depending on who you listened to) had dribbled to 872. But if the Skagway Commercial Club is to be believed,  she was coming into her own as a port of tourism, editorializing that she was “the natural headquarters for tourists and sightseers..., richer than the imagination can paint, greater in majesty and beauty than the far-famed Switzerland, and unsurpassed in loveliness of nature.” Nested between mountains at the mouth of a glacial river, approachable only by ship, and her only road out a narrow-gauge train track snaking up from the narrow valley floor to the fabled White Pass, she was a gem in the wilderness.

Brenda Wilbee's sketch of the Rapuzzi family, Skagway, AK, 1898
The Rapuzzi Family
Outside Their Washington Grocery Store
Yet there was still a cluttered and disorderly feel about town: mismatched boardwalks, too many seedy alleyways, empty lots vacated by yesterday’s hordes. In an online book published by the Parks Department, Robert Spude wrote that in order to walk down Broadway the pedestrian’s path would meander around the fruit crates at Rapuzzi’s store, by the sandwich sign at the Alaska Steamship Office, under the canvas awnings—some with signs on them—and through a host of space defined by the overflow and overhangs, openings and closing, of each narrow building.

Not the polished look a tourist-flirting Skagway was after.

She evened out her boardwalks, consolidated the red light district to just Paradise Alley between Sixth and Seventh Streets and closed the gap between the beach and Third Avenue by plucking two- and three-story buildings from other parts of town. When in 1914 the Red Onion Saloon and Brothel was hauled by a single horse from Sixth and State to its present location on the corner of Second and Broadway, Skagway found herself a mature, pretty little town with Victorian false storefronts corseted in tidy rank, flanking the railroad tracks and with the blush of youth and health in her face.

Broadway, Skagway 1908
The wear of time began taking its toll, however;  the sting of winter winds chafing her cheeks, peeling her paint, gravity sagging her storefronts and slanting her floors. The Depression years all but did her in and Skagway’s Chamber of Commerce began talking of a face lift. Not until June 1976, though, did a congressional bill establish the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park, a necessary first step if Skagway was to undergo not only a much needed face lift but reconstruction as well. A decade passed. Finally, when she was 86 years old (her downtown core absorbed by the park and well past her prime) she got the first of her reconstructive surgeries in a ongoing historic preservation project that makes today’s Skagway “one of the best preserved examples of the turn-of-the-last-century architecture.” This is the Skagway we see today.

Notice. No franchises. No golden arches, no Walmart, no Kentucky Fried. Not even a theater. Nothing to disrupt the illusion of yesteryear. Well, one disruption—Radio Shack down on Fourth, better known to the locals as the tanning salon, single booth in the back. Okay, one other disruption. But not in the historic district. The Harley Davidson shop up on 8th and Broadway falls into a block that simply has to “look” historical. Besides, it's not really a Harley Davison. It only sells T-shirts. And there is one other teensy-weensy exception. On the window right across the street from the old train depot you’ll see a Starbuck’s logo. Don’t let it fool you. This is just another place to shop where Mr. Star and Mr. Buck, I hear, are still selling their latt├ęs and espresso. The rumor going around town is that when they landed in Skagway in 1897 they discovered their entire ton of goods to be nothing but 2,000 pounds of coffee. They’re still trying to get rid of them. But leave these three exceptions out of it—Radio Shack, Harley Davidson, and Starbucks—the rest of the town is  authentic, which makes walking down Broadway and some of the city’s side streets a step back in time. You can tromp the wooden boardwalks and touch the walls of living history. What do they tell?

They tell a lot. Echoes beckon, linger, and whisper in every doorway, up the stairs, and all around. 

Picture of Skagway AK, 2016
“a gem in the wilderness”

If you're interested in more on Skagway, you can purchase my book Skagway: It's All About The Gold. Click on the cover image in the left sidebar.

Monday, September 17, 2018

Destination: Skagway, Alaska

(reposted from May 2010)
Delphiniums at Jewel Gardens, Skagway AK
Jewell Gardens,  Skagway, AK

small images of a cruise ship and downtown Skagway AK
My son, Blake, insisted I apply for a summer job in Skagway, AK, as a tour guide at Jewell Gardens. He was up there last summer and is up there again this summer driving tour buses. He got it into his head that I’d love it, do well, and probably make some pretty good money in tips. "For someone your age," he tells me, "you look hot." Do I feel insulted? or not? More importantly, he felt it would do my unemployment streak a world of good. It could even be fun. So I applied. Long story short, I’m headed for Alaska this Thursday morning.

Here’s the truth. I’m scared to death. I have to pay my own transportation and it ain’t cheap. Too, there is no housing. Apparently people just land and “stuff” works out.

“You  remember I’m pushing sixty, right?" I tell Blake. "I can’t do the camping thing. I can’t do cats and dogs if someone does take me in.” 

"Yeah, yeah, yeah," he says.

Here’s the kicker. There is no doctor, no pharmacy in town. I have to take up five months worth of medication.

He arranged for free housing with the preacher, at least for May. Okay, a compromise. A place to lay my head for a couple of weeks. So I’ll go and see if “stuff” happens. If not? I’ll just come back and consider the adventure one thing I can scratch off my Bucket List. I’ve always wanted to get up there.

Charlotte Jewell of Jewell Gardens
Charlotte Jewell
My job at Jewell Gardens will be to take tourists through the gardens, a glass-blowing factory housed in the gardens, and help serve my specific group at the tea house, also housed in the gardens. All of which I can handily do, and which I will enjoy.

A forty-hour week, I'll have time to explore, hike, maybe take a train out to some gold-rush sight, and probably write. Write lot. I always do.

To get there, I’ll be driving the AlCan highway. The 2,000-mile route will put me in beautiful landscapes and my son Phil has lent me his camera to I can capture the wildlife. I am to begin in Bellingham WA.

Map of car trip Bellingham WA to Skagway AK
My first day will be up through the Fraser Canyon to my sister's house in Quesnel. A night or two to catch up, it'll then be into the mountains to Hudson's Hope and my cousin Carolyn’s house. Then a long haul through wilderness where I’ve been told the wildlife is unbelievable to Liard Hot Springs on the B.C./Yukon border. For $19 I can soak in the hot springs and pitch my tent with the bears. Last leg to Skagway takes me to Whitehorse where Blake tells me I need to stock up on food. I’ll arrive Sunday night at the preacher’s home/hostel. 

I am now officially jazzed.

So, see ya in Skagway!

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Skagway's First Frame House

Skagway AK's first cabin
Ben Moore Home, 1897
(Fifth Avenue, east of Broadway on north side)
Ben Moore, built first frame house in Skagway AKBen Moore began building Skagway’s first frame house about the time his father arrived in mid-May of 1897—a simple structure. One and a half stories tall, rectangular, clapboard siding—set directly in front of the cabin. At some point it was absorbed into the house but eventually shifted fifty yards westward to create a backyard. And as Ben’s family grew so did the house—a porch, a kitchen to the east, a parlor to the west. When he and Minnie left Skagway in 1907, Herman and Hazel Kirmse first rented then purchased the home.

Sadly, Ben and Minnie Moore’s marriage was an unhappy one. What began as a pretty love story ended badly. They’d met at a potlatch in March , 1890, near present-day Haines. Ben was twenty, Klinget-sai-yet, fourteen. “She saw me at the same time I saw her,” Ben later wrote. A pretty girl with a delicate appearance and long black hair, “refined and modest,” “a way above any of her class.” She turned out to be Chief George Shotridge’s daughter, to whose home Ben had been invited after the potlatch. He writes of this princess:
"…a bed was made up for me in one corner of the room. I lay there thinking of this meek and modest little native maiden in the next room. No warning whisper came to me to flee and dismiss this child of nature from my mind. Thoughts of home in Victoria and of another girl down there came to mind but were chased away. I was in faraway Alaska, living in the present… Thus it was with me, and thus it was that lifelong unhappiness was brought about for her and for me, and which one’s fault was it? Surely not hers, but mine."
They were happy at first, and in his journal Ben often referred to her as his “little girl bride.” They settled mostly in Juneau, Ben working the canneries and sawmills, transporting freight, occasionally foraying up to Moorseville to continue improvements on the homestead. When they moved up permanently in April, 1896, Benny was four years old, Edith Gertrude four months, and they were happy. Not until after they’d moved into the house, a third baby on the way, that life together began to sour. Some credit Ben’s temper. Others Captain Moore’s prejudice. Certainly Skagway was to blame.

Minnie Moore and children
Benny, Francis, Minnie, Edith Gertrude
Isolated from her family and culture, Minnie endured the lonely, not-so-subtle ostracizing of Skagway’s incoming “Muffin and Crumpet” ladies—who, try as they might, couldn’t welcome a “Siwash Squaw” into their very “proper” Victorian circle. There were exceptions, of course, and Minnie entertained these more gracious folks in her cozy, lovely Victorian home. However, her children were taunted at school, and by 1906 Minnie’s unhappiness ran deep. To escape the terrible unkindness, she and Ben moved to Juneau. To no avail. Plagued by depression and alcoholism, her unhappiness deepened. She and Ben finally divorced three years later. In 1910, she remarried—a plumber from Victoria—and while she may have known some happy years, by 1917 she knew only unhappiness and sadly took her own life.To stand in the walls of this home one can hear laughter and joy—not all was sorrow. But ultimately, the sorrow sighs—both Minnie’s and Ben’s.

Today the Ben Moore home has been restored to its 1904 appearance, the interior reflecting what it would have been like to visit the Moores in those early days. Too bad pretty Minnie, “refined and modest,” “a way above any of her class,” was not good enough for Skagway’s pioneer women. We might have had a different story whispered from these walls.
Skagway: It's All About The Gold for sale in right side bar