Sunrise in Skagway, Alaska, comes at 4:00am in July. And the blackout shades in our cruise ship’s state room leak enough around the edges to confirm it. So “bright and early” is exaggerated. And with a sunset round about 10:30 the night before, “O-dark-thirty” never really happens. And therefore a good night’s sleep never really happens either. But there’s CycloMonkey, looking at me like I’ve over-slept on Christmas morning. “The ship’s already docked. Can we go ride?”
Even though we had a great ride yesterday and covered 40 miles, there’s a new cycling adventure on tap today. We had signed up for one of the Princess Cruises’ excursions called “Summit to Sea,” a bicycle ride offered by the Sockeye Cycle Company (somehow related to Cycle Alaska, I believe). For this ride, I won’t need my shoes and pedals, I won’t bring my own helmet and I won’t even wear a proper cycling kit. This isn’t about exertion; it’s about coasting and taking in the sights.
Skagway is a borough (meaning “county”, not a city) in a narrow, glaciated valley on the northern-most fjord on the Inside Passage, 90 miles north of Juneau. According to Wikipedia, the name Skagway was derived from shԍagéi, a word the native Tlingit used for “rough seas in the Taiya Inlet.” The actual meaning translates to “beautiful woman” more or less. But there is a Tlingit legend about a mythical woman named Kanagu whose nickname is shԍagéi and is said to have transformed herself into stone in this area and then caused the strong winds to blow toward the neighboring town (today’s Haines, Alaska). That wind causes the rough seas which the locals referred to by her nickname. Sadly, in the time it took you to read this story, you could have walked the 25 blocks from one end of town to the other.
Skagway became important because gold was found in 1896 in the Klondike in Canada’s Yukon Territory. Even though the gold fields were 500 miles away, this was a convenient port from which to start. The population swelled to 30,000 and a railroad was started to take prospectors up and over the White Pass. By 1899, the stream of gold-seekers had diminished and Skagway's economy began to collapse. By 1900, when the railroad was completed, the gold rush was nearly over. Today the year-round population is a little over 900 but each summer, with seasonal workers and cruise ships, it swells to over 6,000. Including my wife and me on this beautiful day.
A van with a trailer-full of hybrid bikes was waiting at the bottom of the gangway. We signed waivers and filled out forms that asked how many times we’d ridden a bike in the last three years. My wife wrote none; I saw some other tourists write single-digit numbers. I started extrapolating my weekly rides to 150-odd weeks and decided to just write 1,000. (Checking today, I started using Strava in Feb., 2012, and it says I’ve logged 1132 rides.) I introduced CycloMonkey to the guide and the other cyclists. Alas, no lifelong friends or future travel companions in this group.
The van took us up the mountain on the opposite side of the canyon from the White Pass and Yukon railway which slowly hauls tourists a bit farther than we were going. At a wide spot in the road near the 3,200-foot summit sign, the van let us out and we got fitted to our bikes. From that vantage point, we could see the Canadian border and British Columbia on the other side – we could have thrown a rock that far. My wife and I were tempted to bike down there just to cross into Canada – we had our passports with us – but the guide didn’t make that offer. There’s no border guard or passport check there. Instead, the Canadian customs building is a few miles further inland, and the U.S. customs building is a few miles downhill in the other direction – making this wide spot in the road some sort of international no-man’s land. Intriguing, eh? (1)
Our guide, Matthew Jillson, asked us to ride single-file and not pass each other. He took the lead in order to control the pace and asked me – since I was 1,000 times more experienced than the others – to bring up the rear. And with that and a single pedal stroke, we were coasting down the mountain (on the brakes already).
Along with CycloMonkey in my backpack and a few little things, I had my Garmin bike computer to capture the ride details. Over the 14 miles and 3,204 feet of descending, we actually had 108 feet of climbing – that’s it! The average speed was governed to about 12mph, but somewhere along the way Garmin says I clocked 32mph. I certainly don’t remember that. It also says we had a full hour of stationary time; i.e., resting from all the coasting. At the one and only climbing portion, we stopped before and after the climb. My wife asked if we could go back down and climb it again – apparently such enthusiasm for exercise is rare among the cruiser clientele.
We coasted, then stopped for pictures, then coasted some more and discussed geography, history and the transient lifestyle of seasonal workers with our guide. Jillson, as he’s known, is from Vermont but attended film school in L.A., lives in Seattle and is constantly roaming the world working in jobs like this. Apparently there’s some sort of 24-hour mountain bike ride on the summer solstice, when you can ride for 24 hours without needing headlights. And you can hike from Skagway to Haines in a day, take a half-hour boat ride there, or take the road for 350 miles round-trip. The latter takes you to Whitehorse, the capital of Yukon Territory and it sounded like the most appealing option! Skagway is a rare city in this part of Alaska that is actually connected to the lower 48 by paved roads.
The views were fantastic from the top and it was warm, clear day. Around every bend would be some new spectacular scenery. Little by little, we descended until the 25 little blocks of civilization came into view. But long before that, the towering cruise ships in the harbor dominated the landscape, er, seascape as it were. The cruise trade completely transforms this area from May to September. Jillson says that none of his friends use their cell phone or try to get on the internet when the ships are in port. Everything is satellite up here – no fiber optic cables over the mountains – and the cruisers consume so much bandwidth that data traffic slows to a crawl. First world problems. A bigger problem is getting groceries. The barge comes in on Tuesdays and stocks the local grocery. If you miss that day, or if one of the restaurants screws up their order, you might not get bread or milk that week.
Once we got back to town, I bought a Sockeye Cycle coffee mug and another jersey. Then we wandered around town and had lunch at the Skagway Brewing Co. Skagway was a fascinating little place and my favorite port of the trip. In the afternoon, we tried our hand at glassblowing. But that’s another story and no place for a monkey.
(1) Did you like my Canadian “eh?” there? That translates loosely to the British “innit” which was derived from “isn’t it?” and basically gets appended to almost any sentence as an audible endpoint. It’s not actually a question that requires an answer.