Thursday, December 6, 2018

So WHY Are You Going To Skagway In The Wintertime?

Sled dogs
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Bedford Fall - Brenda Wilbee's Christmas Display
IT'S CHRISTMAS 2018, and my normal outlay of decorations are conspicuously absent. No cedar boughs on the patio rail, only a bare-bones light string, a mix-match at that, with no attempt at artistry but embarrassingly tacky. Indoors, I have but one tree, the tiny one. Bubble lights on the mantel, the standard creche. No Bedford Falls village with its street lights and pond where Harry nearly drowned, and icicles hanging off the roof of Bailey Building and Loan. I find it all so understated that the Christmas mood of 2018 evades. Ah, but into the vacuum rushes a thrill far more exciting. I'm going to Skagway three days after Christmas! There is simply no time to take down all my decorations and pack. And I'm sure as heck not going to take it all down in March when I get back. Hence the stripped-down attempt at holiday cheer in favor of the adventure ahead.

"So why do you think Skagway in the winter is a good idea?" friends ask.

"AMiss" Bea Lingle, the last Gold Rush baby
Miss Bea and Be (me)
at her summer cabin in Carcros, YK
Well, coffee with the gang down at the Station. Knitwits every Saturday at Grandma Ginny's for another. Good music from "Jess and J-Dot" and "One-Juan Stand." Miss Bea, of course, the last gold rush baby. If I remember right, the story goes that her father was a gambler in the Gold Rush of 1898. At some point he gambled away the house. Miss Bea's mother left the guy and moved to Juneau. Some years later, Miss Bea's father made good and got either his old house back or made enough to buy a new one. He sent word to Juneau and Miss Bea's mother hopped the ferry and came back. Guess what? Miss Bea was born--circa 1920s--the very last of the gold rush babies.

Alice the Ghost's room at Skagway Inn
Alice's room: the front upstairs room
 with all the windows
I'm anxious, too, to see if the ghost who lives (or used to live) in the bedroom above the Skagway Inn's dining room is sound asleep in the great big bed between the floor mirror and bed stand, with a diary from 1898 on top of it. Or whether she truly did "get on with her death" like I suggested she do. She did follow me out of the Inn the summer of 2011, but abandoned me the minute I crossed the street and told her that my boss (yes, I called my boss, not knowing what else to do with her) suggested I invite her to down to the HAP office. Whoosh. She was gone just like that. And in all the summers that followed, I haven't found her. If she's still there, maybe she and I can have a nightcap of Jack Daniels and toast the mysteries of the past.

Lynn Canal - Jaime Goebel, copyright 2018
Lynn Canal, Skagway AK
copyright Jaime Goebel 2018
Owner AK Green Jeeps
and Southeast Tours
Used by permission.
I want to tromp out to Smuggler's Cove, too, to see if the eagles are out. To see the sun glance of Lynn Canal in the afternoon light. To see if I can find a fox trail.

I want borrow a four-wheel jeep and go out to the once-upon-a-time Dyea Gold Rush town, where 20,000 people prepared for the ridiculously steep Chilkoot Trail and gold beyond, now just one propped up wall of a real estate office. My understanding is that the National Parks Service has cleared a few of the hemlock and Sitka Spruce from the natural forest reclamation of the last 120 years to expose the old grid of streets so one might get a better sense of history. To snowshoe in the shadows is a number one adventure to be had. 

Tim Saulter
Of course I want to catch Senior Lunch at the "White" church every other day, where Tim Saulter cooks up enough food to take some home. A guy who describes himself as a hairy Pillsbury Doughboy, Tim is a self-confessed admirer. But while I'm highly amused by him and can at times take advantage of his generosity and find his friendship one I'd be loath to lose, I don't share the same ardor. I try to tell him not to take it personally: I find most men unappealing. In 66 years, my heart has gone thumpity-thump but twice--both men finding someone else to marry. "Mitty" takes my apathy with good humor, and lunch at the white church is something I look forward to. It's where all the cool "old" people hang out and the best stories are told.

The real adventure, though, is the dog-mushing. A friend is coming up to visit in January and a whole  gaggle of us girls in town are going with her--one more thing on just about everyone's bucket list.







Saturday, November 3, 2018

Puttin' the Happy in the Birthday!

an eagle on Long Bay, Dyea AKRemember when it was so important to be six and a half, six and three-quarters? I don't know about you, but I'm sixty-six now, and I don't measure my years like this anymore. I measure them in decades.

I've had some pretty cool birthdays, but one of the most adventuresome was seven years ago when I turned 59, one year shy of rolling into my sixth decade. I was driving motor coaches out of Skagway AK and on May 29, 2011, I opened my eyes to the Alaskan sunlight that had been pouring through the crack in the blackout curtains since 4:30 a.m. I no sooner got my teeth brushed and pants on when Shari two doors down the hallway texted, "Happy Birthday. Coffee's on."

"Want to go geocaching?" she asked when I arrived, cream from the community refrigerator in my hand for the both of us. "There're geocaches in Skagway!"

Two passions Shari pursues. Crosswords and geocaching. Who would believe there is such adventure in each?

We invited two others to join up: Stanley, my roommate, and Teri from the dispatch office. After a good breakfast, the four of us headed out to the lot behind our hotel and under my window to receive instruction from Shari on how to geocache, me side-tracked with a birthday call from a son.

Brenda Wilbee talking to son Blake from Skagway AK
Standing below my window, talking to Blake
Shari Guida geocaching
Instruction from Shari
"Geocaching is pretty simple," Shari repeated when I hung up and started to pay attention. People all over the world hide things for other people to find. You can both hide a cache and find one. Into a small tin, baggie, box, or whatever, you insert a small surprise and a cache log where you write down your name and where you're from. The rules are simple. You must leave something new behind or leave what's there, there; and, always always, sign the log before re-hiding the cache.

The game is the pursuit. The reward is the finding. Which involves a gizmo sort of like a compass. I'm not sure how it all works, but out in the parking lot we turned in circles, waiting for the needle to pick up and point.

Shari's neon yellow gizmo guided us northeast through the parking lot, across the road you see in the picture, and up past Captain William Moore's cabin three blocks away. We paused for picture-taking. Teri told us that if we put one foot forward and turn sideways we'd all look skinnier. Really?

Posing outside Captain Moore's cabin, Skagway AK
Me, Stanley, and Shari posing our skinny angles
Do you think?

We moseyed on, heading north and deeper into the picture you see, behind the trees and over to an abandoned White Pass engine and box cars. Stanley poked her nose is one of the box cars. "Hey!" she said. "This is great place to come make out!"

I looked and said, "Hey! This is a great place to live!"
abandoned White Pass engine and box cars
"A great place to live!"

Our needle started going a little wonky. Shari told us that when we're within 25 feet of the cache, it'll do this. You have to just start snooping around. So snoop around we did. Teri found it. Who'd o' thunk it was there? In a crevice of one rusty hunk of metal.

For Teri, Stanley, and me it was thrill. Shari stood by with a grin. We gave Teri the honor of pulling out her find, and the excitement of seeing what was inside took me back to childhood with my sisters, when we tried to drum up adventure, getting by on a whole lot of imagination. This took no imagination. Just look at what we found!

Stanley, Teri, Shari find the cache!
Stanley, Teri, Shari
The cache!
Our cache!
Brenda Wilbee signing the cache log
Me signing the log

Skagway, Alaska's AB Hall
AB Building -- Arctic Brotherhood
Our next little adventure took us to a "virtual" geocache at the AB Building on Broadway, Skagway's main road. This is the most photographed building in all of Alaska--though don't ask me how anyone actually knows this. We had to find the date on the building, easy; a plaque on the wall, easy peasy; and something else inside. I don't remember.

Outside again, I wanted a photo of Stanley standing in the same spot a prospector once wearily posed under a heavy pack before setting off to find gold six hundred miles to the north. So here's Stanley doing her thing, not weary at all and with a whole lot of sass. And ass.

Stanley Burton poses in Skagway AK
"There's a  cache on the way to Dyea," Shari told us. "Shall we go out there?"

"Yes, please."

Dyea is the "other" gold rush town of 1898. Today it's a ghost of a place, silenced and secreted away in a century's growth of forest claiming the ground that rises out of sea. Glacial rebound in the area is about an inch a year, which in Dyea reveals itself significantly because the inlet is long and shallow. What had in 1898 been a dock, is now tide flats. What had been shoreline is now woods.

Both Skagway and Dyea were trailheads for the two routes over the Coastal Mountains, into the Yukon and fantastical gold. Prospectors who chose to go by way of the Chilkoot Pass instead of White Pass rowed four miles from Skagway, or they steamed into the long shallow bay of Dyea on a steamer out of San Francisco or Seattle. Today you drive. The road is a circuitous nine miles and around AB Mountain, around Long Bay, up the mouth of the Tyea River, over the bridge, and back down into Dyea.


Along the gravel road beside Long Bay we braked hard. An eagle had serenely perched itself on the branch of a Sitka Spruce and was looking down Long Bay without a care in the world. Suddenly, a second eagle swooped in, the two lifted together and circled south, landing in a tree behind us. I'm never not amazed at how tiny a sound these majestic birds have. One might except a mighty shriek. Not so. We tumbled out to take a better look...and to listen. 

Shari Guida pulling away wet log paper for a Dyea AK cache.Back in the truck and coming around the north end of the bay, the needle jumped in Shari's gizmo. Shari found the cache hanging off a tree, quite soggy. Whoever hid this cache, didn't understand that Skagway and Dyea are in the Tongass National Rain Forest, and it took some time for Shari to peel back the wet paper so we could all sign the log.

Finally, Dyea. I love the place. Teri had never been.

The first stop was Slide Cemetery where 63 men lost their lives on April 3, 1898, in an avalanche that caught them under a 30-foot cloud snow. Today the cemetery a somber place, a quiet place, where sunlight dapples in through the spruce and onto gigantic, prickly devil's club.

Stanley and Teri at Slide Cemetery, Dyea, AK
Stanley, Teri
Dyea AK Slide Cemetery

It is, of course, hard for Stanley to remain reverent for long. Or was it me who suggested that one of us really needed to crawl into a sunken hole and have an eulogy said? Whatever, it was Stanley who of course jumped in.

Beth Knouff pretending to be dead.
Here Lies Stanly, A Pirate Who Died Not at Sea But Under the Snow
A Story of Woe Too Sad To Be Told
Where the town of 10,000 once was is now forest, with few reminders of its former hustle bustle, the very air electrified by hope and energy and con artists.

Then and now of Dyea AK
1998  >  2018
Middle building on the left is all that stands. And see how big the row of planted trees is now?

So tell me, now that I've gotten you to Dyea, is there a more satisfying place in the world?

Dyea wharf exposed by the tide
The Old Wharf, 1897, 1898, 1899
a glacial creek running into the Lynn Canal, Dyea, AK
Creek running down into Lynn Canal
I find Dyea to be a place where there is no boundary between me and the space touching my skin. I am the space, in limitless time, in the very breath of God.

And dare I get so mundane as to say, where else can you find a glacier fed creek bed full of gold? Winking up all shiny and yellow, and drawing me at least down into the frigid water?


It was of course fool's gold and I hobbled out with feet so cold I couldn't move my toes.

Driving back to town in company of new friends--and my first but not last geocaching adventure behind me--my 59th birthday seemed a magical thing. But the day was not yet over.

Back at the hotel, Jazz, a young girl from Michigan, had baked me not one cake but two! Two? Yes, two for all the HAPA drivers there to celebrate. And Davey had his own birthday gift for me. Just to catch you up, the year before, just two days before my 58th birthday, a preacher in town had told me I was too old to fit in. It was Davey I'd found in my tears, it was Davey who'd wrapped me in his arms and decried the preacher man who'd dare say such a thing. So what better way to end my birthday, another year older than the year before, with Davey singing me "Happy Birthday"?


I've had seven birthdays since that day, but as nice as they've been they don't quite measure up to the one where adventure and friends in AK put the Happy in my Birthday!

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, 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.  A few years ago, my son Blake introduced me to Skagway and seasonal work, driving motor coaches full of tourists into the highways and byways of Alaska and the Canadian Yukon.

Anyway, so here I am after three seasons, trying out Skagway in the wintertime. I’m keeping myself busy working on my book Skagway: It's All About The Gold 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 1,000,000 summer tourists 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 around about the wind up 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, talking tightly around his ever-present baby 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 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.

“Nothing."

Knowing I could count on him three years later, I drove over to the corner of State and 15th in the biting cold. 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.”

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

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'll 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.

I'm learning what folks do during the winter. And I like it.

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
Broadway 
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”

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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.