On Meeting Fate in Alaska’s Inside Passage
Summer, 1965. The glacier calved, sending a small mountain of faceted ice into the frigid green water. Even the seasoned sailors on deck stared, the light of thousands of years of glacial history reflecting in their eyes. For us first before the mast, it was a religious experience – like most of the journey had been, and would continue to be, both in the flesh and in dreams.
From the water, to the ice, to the mountains; to the towns and the people; the sights and sounds rained on our senses like a monsoon. You could feel Russians here, in the buildings and on the streets of Petersburg and Sitka; gold seekers in Juneau and Skagway; and the Tlingit nation everywhere.
Scratching my head had become a habit. How did I manage to end up in this place? Finishing high school really shouldn’t have been enough to qualify me for a trip such as this. Being reasonably good in biology and indicating an interest in all things marine really shouldn’t have either. Yet here I was, on the good ship Endeavour, sailing with Picard, the famous cold temperature physicist, titrating for oxygen, dining with the Captain, (don’t forget your jacket kid), and swimming in sensations that would become part of my genetic makeup.
The surroundings couldn’t have been more different from those I’d left. Vancouver was growing rapidly, and the once friendly skyline was sprouting skyscrapers at an alarming rate, along with the inevitable congestion and pollution.
When I was a kid, the Vancouver Sun building was the tallest building in the city. Its architecture suggests it was designed and built by human beings. There is a sense of flesh and bone in those bricks and that mortar.
Today it stands like a naive and slightly apologetic athlete from an earlier era who finds, upon looking around, that a host of steroid driven monsters has diminished him with their sheer mass – the physical manifestations of unbridled growth and hunger for the new. On the North Coast, that reality seemed light years away. Here, the past seemed to continually feed the present.
Our trip took us from Vancouver, through the narrow waterways of northern Vancouver Island, across Queen Charlotte Sound, through the Hecate Strait and into the Inland Passage of Southeast Alaska. This route is well travelled by cruise ships today, but in 1965 it was a wild and wooly voyage that ended in Skagway AK – the emerald in the transportation corridor that led to the gold – Dawson City.
I love ghosts. I love being surrounded by history, especially the meat and gristle variety spawned by adventurers following their dreams. The gold seekers of 1898 fit that bill to a T, and I wallowed in the historical grit that surrounded me as I paced the streets of Skagway.
Everything about this town captivated me: The old docks, the buildings, the wooden sidewalks, the rough and ready bars. It felt like something out of an old movie, but it was real, and there were ghosts everywhere. You could feel them in the air, in the water, and in the wood. And there was one more bonus I couldn’t have anticipated.
The UK of my youth was a country connected by rail. I love railways. My grandfather worked in the shunting yards of South Shields. We travelled on steam trains when I was a kid. Those locomotives were a sight to behold: Blustering, come of age young heroes flexing new muscle and strutting their stuff. It was heart stopping. And that sound!
For me, the only thing that ever competed with a steam engine was the Black Watch pipe and drum band. They marched in our local parade every year, and I would push my way through the crowd to stand on the curb to wait, with bated breath, for their arrival.
The sight of those warriors striding with fierce grace down King street was enough to put a young man’s heart in his mouth. That easy lope, that sway of the kilt, the riveting motion of those white spats – it was mesmerizing.
But it was the pipes that sealed the deal. Jaysus! Could anything be more visceral than the pipes? And the drummers! – ripping off double stroke rolls, paradiddles and ratamacues on high tuned snares, wrists snapping in synchronous motion – the whole thing made me want to gird my loins and stride into battle. But I digress …
Skagway had a railroad. But not just any railroad – a narrow gauge railroad – a railroad designed to conquer country that was difficult to travel on foot – country that featured high rugged mountains soaring up from the ocean, glaciers, narrow canyons, and sheer rock faces. Skagway needed a railroad capable of crossing the White Pass and reaching the Yukon Territory, and I’ll be damned if they didn’t build one.
I stared at the slightly miniature engines and rolling stock; at the narrow gauge track; at the station and loading docks, and found myself grinning from ear to ear. One thing was certain. I was coming back. I was going to ride that White Pass Railroad one day, and that day couldn’t come too soon.