Cruising Alaska, day eight: Skagway, Alaska on Star Princess

The indigenous Tlingits called it Skagua, meaning approximately “the place where the north wind blows.” The gold rush stampeders mispronounced it Skaguay. and it has since been spelled Cquque, Schkague, Shkagway, Schkawai, and Skagwa. In 1899, someone in a Washington, D.C. post office ended the confusion, changing it officially and forever to Skagway. Nestled between the Taiya Inlet and the Coastal Mountains, this small town of 850 residents and 455 square miles sits at the northernmost tip of Alaska’s Inside Passage. It’s most known for being the “Gateway to the Klondike” and the 1897 launching point for those seeking riches in Canada’s Yukon Territory.

Skagway retains many original Gold Rush era buildings.

“Gold! Gold! Gold!” The infamous July 17, 1897 Seattle Post-Intelligencer headline announced the discovery of gold in the Canadian Klondike. Once stampeders reached Southeast Alaska, there were two possible routes to their goal, the Chilkoot Trail and White Pass. The two trails met up at Lake Bennett, near the headwaters of the Yukon river and 550 miles away from the gold fields. Chilkoot is a grueling 33-mile trail, including a final quarter mile climb of 1,000 vertical feet. Seeking an alternative route, many people opted for the White Pass. The trail was 10 miles longer, but the summit less steep. Pack animals were not allowed on the steep Chilkoot trail, but it’s debatable as to whether or not they should have been allowed on White Pass either; 3,000 horses died in just one winter season of trekking.

I cannot begin to imagine the engineering challenge of building a railroad in this terrain in the 1880s.

The gold rush era was also the height of railroad construction across North America. Michael Heney, who ran away from home at age 14 to pursue his dream of working on a Canadian railroad project, partnered with Sir Thomas Tancrede to build a railroad on the White Pass. Everyone doubted Heney’s seemingly-impossible plan to follow the Coastal Mountain range, but he’s known for exclaiming: “Give me enough dynamite and snoose and I’ll build a railroad to hell.” In an astoundingly fast 26 months, a narrow gauge railroad blasted through 20 miles to the White Pass summit. This involved an increase in elevation of 3,000 feet, steep grades of 3.9%, and cliffside curves of 16 degrees. Work on one of the tunnels happened in the middle of winter with temperatures reaching 60 below. Tens of thousands of men chipped and hacked their way through the granite mountain face, using 450 tons of dynamite along the way. The White Pass & Yukon Route was the northernmost railroad in the Western Hemisphere and took over $10 million to complete. In 1994 it was recognized as an International Historic Civil Engineering Landmark, an honor shared with the Eiffel Tower, Panama Canal, and Statue of Liberty. It is known as the “Scenic Railway of the World,” and for good reason.

The White Pass & Yukon Route Conductor.

A thrilling perspective on the narrow gauge WP&YR railroad.

The Brakeman was a total ham.
I spent my entire day clacking along this scenic railway. To be more accurate, I spent my entire day standing on the outside platform in between two train cars, wind in my hair, eyes wide in amazement. I realized later I’d captured over 230 photographs of some of the most beautiful scenery I’ve ever seen, particularly after we reached the summit and dropped down into Canada. Just when you think it can’t possibly get any more breathtaking, the antique train clacks and clatters around another corner and it does. The highlight of the day was Lake Bennett. Mid-way through our six-hour journey we arrived at this former crossroads of the Chilkoot and White Pass trails. In the old train depot we enjoyed a “miner’s lunch” of stew, bread, and apple pie (included in the price of the excursion). I expected the food to be passable, but I was unprepared for how seriously delicious it was. Perhaps it was the historic setting. Perhaps it was the hours of fresh air and inspiration. Perhaps it was simply the best stew ever made. I will say that this shore excursion was a highlight that rivals even the seaplane adventure of yesterday. I’m a bit obsessed with trains when it comes to modes of travel, I find them impossibly romantic, nostalgic, and even sexy. I’m also a mountain girl, so I’m biased to basically every aspect of this excursion. Regardless, I strongly recommend you book the White Pass Bennett Lake trip. There are many WP&YR train excursions that stop at the summit or at Lake Bennett, whereas we continued for another two hours along the 20 miles coast of the lake into Carcross, Yukon Territory. Astonishing beauty. Do it.

Bennett Station is now used to serve a delicious "miner's lunch" to travelers on the WP&YR trains.

I mean, seriously.

Lake Bennet is 20 miles long and the train ride alongside it lasted nearly two hours.

Meanwhile, Heather spent her day with orphaned and rescued animals native to Alaska. Kroshel Films Wildlife Center is a 60-acre wild animal preserve located 27 miles outside the town of Haines. To reach Haines, Heather and 19 other passengers took a 45-minute scenic, narrated ferry ride. Were they to have traveled over land, it would’ve taken 8 hours from downtown Skagway. Once there, they were guided through the preserve by Steve Kroshel himself and fellow naturalist and falconer Mario. Heather describes these two hours as an intimate experience, both unstructured and ideal for up-close encounters with the animals. Her favorite experience was feeding an organic banana to an orphaned moose named Karen. She was also excited by the informal nature of the grounds themselves. There were no signs, no uniformed staff, no trappings of familiar zoo environments. This is the private world (and private property) of an animal whisperer who literally talks to his beloved friends in a series of noises and clicks unique to each one. As Steve wandered barefoot through his property, which is only open for scheduled tours and private appointments, he shared stories of his childhood on a farm in Minnesota where his family also rescued animals. Heather said that without a doubt this off-the-grid excursion rounded out her Alaskan experience. She enjoyed her time with the whales – and our time at sea is clearly focused on experiencing those animals in their home – but spending time with Steve’s animals in their natural environment was a highlight of the trip.

Steve Kroshel introduces a linx to Wildlife Center visitors.

Heather makes a new friend. 

Steve, perpetually smiling, and Mario at Kroshel's Wildlife Center.

Heather said this shore excursion was a highlight of her trip, and a must-do for all animal lovers. 

Tomorrow at 5:00am we’ll be up with the sun and on our balcony for the five-hour scenic cruising of Tracy Arm Fjord. After a leisurely brunch, it’s spa time. Ah yes, spa time. We spend the rest of the day and the entire next day at sea on Star Princess. We’ll be in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada on 01 June.

I hope you’re enjoying your virtual vacation. You can follow along on each day of the adventure through my Live Voyage Report landing page. If you're interested in following other Live Voyage Reports, visit The Avid Cruiser website to see where the team is exploring now!

Bon voyage…and love,

This article was originally published on the Avid Cruiser Live Voyage Report website.

Cruising Alaska, day nine: Tracy Arm Fjord, Alaska on Star Princess

Cruising Alaska, day seven: Juneau, Alaska on Star Princess