Fire Cloud...
An irregular marking on the exterior of Native American pottery: usually resulting from burning fuel coming in direct contact with the vessel during firing

Friday, 29 June 2007

The Land of the Midnight Sun

Skagway, Alaska – June 29, 2007

There are strange things done in the midnight sun
By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
That would make your blood run cold;
The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
But the queerest they ever did see
Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge
I cremated Sam McGee.

-Robert Service

This is dangerous country. You can still die of exposure, get eaten by a bear or get trampled into the mud by a herd of cruise boat tourists. There are three cruise ships in port today and the tiny town of 900 has its population swollen to 6,000 until about 7 pm.

There is only one road into town. It leads over a spectacular pass to Carcross in the Yukon, 70 miles away. We spent a night in Carcross. It seems to be mostly populated by people whose ancestors migrated over the Siberian ice bridge 20,000 years ago. A notice in the place we stopped announces that a dogcatcher will soon be hired to collect unleashed dogs before any children are injured. The Alcoholic Anonymous bus leaves at 5:30 on Friday nights for the meeting in Whitehorse.

We started hiking up the brutal Chilkoot trail yesterday. Back in the rush of ’98, Mounties were waiting 33 miles away in the Yukon and required each gold seeker to have a ton of supplies. That required nearly 40 trips over the brutal trail unless you were lucky enough to have $200 to pay 20 natives $10 each to carry 100 pounds on your behalf. I get worn out after a half-mile of rock climbing and turn back.

We’ll take a ferry later this week to Juneau. It’s the state capital but only accessible by boat or air. Haines is our next stop; it’s about 10 miles away by ferry and 360 miles by road. The White Pass railroad up to Carcross was completed in 1900. You can still ride it up to the Summit. At the time it beat a broken ankle.

Soapy Smith established himself a Marshall and dictator of Skagway during the gold rush. He ran various cons on the miners. He offered telegrams at $5 each for any that didn’t notice that the wire ended in the bushes. Another good one was a free medical exam in a tent. You stripped for the exam and when you emerged your clothes and boots were gone. We walked out to Soapy’s grave this morning down the railroad track. He would be pleased that the town is maintaining his tradition.

I still tell Jack London bedtime stories to my grandchildren, but I had forgotten Robert Service. He made almost $500,000 off his poem, “The Cremation of Sam McGee”. Imagine Japanese tourists listening to “The Ballad of Blasphemous Bill” about sawing off frozen arms and legs to get Bill into his coffin….

Here are some shots of the Alcan Highway

And more of Skagway.

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