Saturday, June 12, 2010

It's A Bit Like Polishing a Turd

Skagway AK: 13 July 2009: Christopher Prentiss Michel
Skagway AK 2009 
by Christopher Prentiss Michel
used by permission but not necessarily as an endorsement this blog.

Skagway has a housing issue, there just isn't room for everyone. This town of 900 year-round residents live in a paradise hamlet just a few blocks wide and one mile long. Snowy mountains rise straight up to the east and west. This narrow valley almost immediately begins to pinch down from four blocks wide to three to one to a tight squeeze that zig-zags up the Klondike Highway to the summit of White Pass and into the Canadian Yukon beyond. A town conceived, birthed, and sustained by the Gold Rush of 1897/98, it’s a tourist Mecca. Almost a million people will pass through here before the summer’s end and it takes an influx of 1,500 summer staffers to man the plethora of jewelry stores and adventure getaways, everything from necklaces carved from woolly mammoth tusks to helicopter rides out to the glacier fields. Where do all us “summer staffers” reside for the five months of the season?

Employers often purchase or build housing or in some other way create places to live--from rustic to  historical landmark hotels. I was, however, hired late in the season and all these opportunities were long before filled. My son, a seasoned summer worker, arranged for me to stay the month of May with the Presbyterian preacher; after that, I'd be on my own. So I've spent five weeks trying to find a place to lay my head. At fifty-eight years old, I find the challenge a, well...a challenge. Even with my son assuring me “Something will work out."

Charlotte Jewell of Jewell Gardens, Skagway AK
Charlotte Jewell
Something was not working out and D-Day was imminent. Then one day my boss Charlotte, owner of Jewell Gardens where I'm working, slipped her arm through mine. "My brother tells me you're looking for a place to live. This true?"

"It is."

"He says you're looking for a five-star hotel."

I laughed. "And I want a chocolate mint on my pillow every night!"

"I have a cabin. In the back of my house. It's a half-star hotel."

We both laughed.

"It's not much to look at right now," she said. "We've been using it for storage and there's been a bad leak in the roof. A lot of water damage. I think there might even be mold in there. But if you'll give my husband some time to do some new dry walling--"

"I can paint!" I eagerly interrupted. "And I don't mind helping with the clean up." Little did I know.

Jim Jewell duly did the dry walling and I was told to go over and take a look--fully warned there would be no place to poop, cook, or keep clean. But she would get me a wee frig, a microwave, and a membership to the Recreation Center so I could shower.

I first saw the place five days ago. Here is what I saw:

Brenda Wilbee's gold rush cabin abode, Skagway AK 2010
Gold Rush Cabin counter before clean up
Gold Rush cabin desk interior before cleanup
Gold Rush Cabin closet before cleanup
Gold Rush cabin bed before clean up

What the pictures don't show is the smell of mold--or the detail of "clean up." I backed out and headed down to see my new friend Jess, manager of the gift shop at Jewell Gardens where we both work. We sat in her mezzanine office. “I don't think I can live there. My health,” I stammered, ever mindful of the precariousness of a faulty immune system and the fact that there is no doctor in this town, not even a pharmacy.

A few minutes later I again stood in the little cabin, this time with Jess, watching her pretty face. She looked around and finally said: “We can make this cute. I promise. It has potential. We can do this.”

I put my trust in her. And such is life here in Skagway. On her day off, she and Natalie, a server at the Gardens, plus my son Blake and his friend Ethan (my friend, too, another bus driver up here and a total cutie pie I’ve gotten quite attached to) all showed up and we went at the place—hauling out the stuff, bleaching down every square inch, painting the entire thing a pale buttercup yellow.

Cleaning up at the Gold Rush cabin

Blake pried off a window of plexiglass up by the bed, which had been stuck on tight with some kind of goo, then headed to the hardware store. He brought back hinges and weather stripping and made me a window that actually opens and closes, enabling much needed cross ventilation. The open/close window is critical. I need fresh air if I am to mitigate the mold, and now the bleach and paint fumes. He also brought back some screen mesh and nailed it up so the mosquitoes don’t come in—important here in Alaska and probably more critical than the fresh air!

Backside of Brenda Wilbee's 2010 Gold Rush cabin abode, Skagway AK

Skagway AK's Whitehouse B&B
White House B and B
It’s taking some work. The carpet, which I asked to have ripped out, and which won’t be ripped out, had to be cleaned—somehow. Miracle enough, after a day of cleaning and painting, Blake, Natalie, Jess, and I went down for a “pint of ale” at Skagway’s Brew Co, and one of the women from the preacher’s church overheard us talking about the place. She owns the White House, a lovely Gold Rush B and B just around the corner from my new digs. She offered to let me use her carpet cleaner.

Perfect strangers overhearing a conversation in the pub. Only in Skagway. But there’s more to the story. The next morning Jess and Natalie met Jim, Charlotte's husband, at the coffee shop.

"Hey, how's it going with the cabin?" he asked. "Getting the place cleaned up okay?"

Before and After of Gold Rush cabin kitchen
Before and after gold rush cabin clean up of writing desk
Before and after gold rush cabin clean up of bed
Before and after gold rush cabin clean up of closet

They duly reported.

Jim laughed and said, "Still, it is a bit like polishing a turd, isn't it?"

Ha, ha.

I still can't tell the story without cracking up. And so despite my scattered existence in this faraway place called Skagway, Alaska, I find myself at last beginning to feel at home in this narrow valley of river and rock, squeezed in between high mountains. Housing can be a bit like polishing a turd at times, yes, but there's no shortage of humor and  friendship. If Skagway struggles with its housing, it doesn't suffer from lack of generous and warmhearted people--permanent and seasonal and all ready to step in--"something working  out"--planting me firmly in the warm and nurturing soil of humanity at its best.


  1. Thanks for the flood of great memories! I stumbled on this while searching for jobs in Skagway--never quite lost the itch to go back.

  2. I'm thinking of accepting an internship there this winter. Do you think there would be housing available for me and my 2 kids?

  3. Melinda, try posting to Skagway Bulletin Board.

    People are pretty helpful. Does the company offering the internship provide housing?