Skagway is a very beautiful pioneer town, and looks as all as the Wild West should look. All brightly painted wooden buildings with boardwalks for pavements. It even has a brothel that still has girls in dodgy outfits to smile at you. It’s called the Red Onion Saloon. The ship moored near town and the weather was cloudy but dry. However, I will not be reviewing the shops or the restaurants or the town. I was too busy. I took TWO tours today.
First thing in the morning I boarded a 25-seater minibus covered with pawprints.
This took us, via a brief drive through town, out of Skagway and up the mountain, only half of which journey was on tarmaced road. The rest of the road was rather as though it was in the process of being resurfaced – you know when they take the top layer off? It wasn’t, it’s always like that. It wasn’t the worst ride I’ve ever experienced, but it was less than comfy.
We drove around the sides of several gorges and some indescribably beautiful scenery. I took photos, but it is so very frustratingly impossible to do it justice. I have tried, but it doesn’t really communicate the savage beauty of Alaska very well. There is no lense big enough, for a start.
When we arrived at the Mushers CampTM, there was a short walk across boggy ground, but they had thoughtfully nailed some planks in place so that we could cross quite easily. We then went up the mountain in the second mode of transport of the day. A Mercedes Ubimog, I think it was called. A very odd name for quite an odd vehicle. Sort of like a Jeep on steroids.
I must confess that, once we started the rather vertiginous inclines we confronted, I rather wished it had caterpillars instead of wheels, but, despite the cacophonous din of its straining engines, it made it up every one without incident. Having only a lap seat belt for comfort, having faith in the driver helped, particularly when some of the paths were accompanied at the sides by near vertical drops. In the end, I just stopped looking down. It seemed wisest.
We went up to several thousand feet – enough to make my ears pop and for a noticeable drop in temperature, but not quite to the top of the treeline, although we could see it above us. When we arrived at the track, which was basically a mud circle about a third of a mile long through the spruces, the dogs were already on their lines, attached to the sleds in teams of 16 and waiting, not very patiently, for us. They wanted to run and they told us in no uncertain terms to hurry up and strap in so that they could get going. All forty of them barking at once was rather loud!
The third vehicle of the day resembled a six-seater golf buggy, although with dogs instead of any engine, obviously, and we each had a separate seat with a seat belt – a very reassuring touch.
The mushers stood on the back behind us and yelled to the lead dog occasionally. They didn’t yell very loudly, mind you, because once they started to run, there was no barking and there was no other source of sound whatsoever around us, so sometimes it seemed as though they were simply talking to the lead dog (Dozer, a girl), despite the fact that she was several metres ahead of us. One of our mushers was a Reddington –grandson of the man who started the Iditarod. Sledding royalty, basically.
These dogs have been bred to run and they love it. During the Iditarod, they run 100 miles a day and eat 18,000 calories each (about 80 Big Macs a day). They food is fed to them hot, to keep them warm, although they were panting quite considerably today, because it was too hot (about 10 degrees centigrade). They prefer MINUS ten, bless them. My toes got so numb, I lost all feeling in them for about an hour. That’s plenty cold enough for me, thanks very much. The Iditarod course goes below minus sixty, which doesn’t certainly appeal to me. With the races run during the height of the winter (the Iditarod is in February), during the summer months, the dogs have to train, and so someone’s bright idea to drag tourists around in circles is brilliant. It allows them to run and train and earn money at the same time.
After the run, we were introduced to each of our dogs. I don’t think I can remember all of their names, and how the mushers remember all 300 at the site, I have no idea, although they obviously each know their own dogs well. There were Dozer and Merv at the front, Felix, Stovepipe, Bacon, Eggs, who are brother and sister (Waffles was in another team), Bert and Ernie. Dozer found my gloves very tasty (must remember to send them to the laundry!).
Then, sadly and, somewhat nerve-wrackingly (you think those inclines looked steep going UP?!), it was time to go back down the mountain to the camp, where we bought stuff in the shop, listened to some woman going on rather boringly about the practicalities of the Iditarod and had the chance to meet some pups, born only a week ago, whose eyes aren’t even open yet.
Dog sledding is a very serious business in Alaska – it’s the state sport – and there are sprint races as well as endurance runs. The puppy in my pictures is a sprinter breed, not an endurance one. Huskies are endurance, whereas sprinters are cross-bred with a more Pointer look about them.
The sledders come to Skagway every summer to swell the number of people in the town considerably. All the summer staff, who work as guides, waiters and so on, live in RVs and tents for six months. Our bus driver works in Aspen during the winter and Skagway in the summer. The actual permanent community is minute.
Said guide, Garrett, drove us back to town just in time for me to catch my afternoon tour. The train was parked right next to the ship, which made life simple! We took the White Pass Scenic Railway Yukon Route, which took us up the mountains and into Canada and back again, along the railway built for the gold rush stampeders, as they are known. It is renowned as one of the most beautiful train rides in the world. I’ll try and do it justice with pictures, because words are useless. Mind you, I wouldn’t have liked to have done it by any other method of transport, such as horse or mule. This is some of the most unforgiving territory on Earth. The gold rush stampeders were clinically insane.