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Up the Yukon

When we docked at Skagway, a train was waiting nearby. It was an old train, with vintage ‘clerestory’ carriages, with open platforms at each end, looking like it may have strayed out of a cowboy film. Some of the passengers were boarding it, but we got on to a bus, which was taking us over the border into Canada, to join the train for the return trip.

The coach driver introduced himself, and requested us to call out if we saw any wildlife, for most of his attention would be on the road ahead. And, no sooner were those words out of his mouth, they were drowned by excited shouts of ‘Bear!!’ … and there was indeed a black bear by the roadside. Alas, by the time we’d drawn alongside, and I could get a decent shot, he’d disappeared into the undergrowth. So, all we have from that encounter was a not very good shot of the rear end of the bear as it shambled off. Still, at least we can say that we saw a bear.

As we drove up into the mountains, I thought at first that Tyler, our driver/guide was a bit of a philistine, driving past a multitude of photo ops, but I soon realised that if he’d stopped every time an opportunity presented itself, we’d never get there. And, when he did stop …!!!

Eventually, we stopped at the Caribou Crossing Trading Post, where we had agreat barbecue chicken for lunch. Here, they displayed indigenous animals, both living and stuffed … some of them long extinct. There was also a small museum, with a section devoted to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police … come to think of it, we never saw a live ‘Mountie’ all the time we were in Canada!

There were also many huskies, my favourite dogs, on display. We could have taken a sled ride, but it was a wheeled sled, for there wasn't any snow. Having taken a sled ride on snow a couple of years ago, we thought it wouldn't have seemed the same, so we passed, and just admired some recently-born puppies instead. They told us the puppies were still too young to be taken from their mother, so we resisted the temptation to smuggle one out … our house is really too small for a fully grown husky, lovely as they are, anyway.

Just outside Carcross is the Carcross Desert … who would have believed you’d find a desert this far north? Plenty of sand, though, but rather surreal looking, with firs and pines growing out of it, instead of palm trees.

We stopped for a while at Carcross… originally, it, too, called Caribou Crossing. In the days of the Gold Rush, this was the major transportation hub; the railway runs through here, and it stands on the shores of Lake Bennett, along which a steamboat service ran. And, long before boats and trains, the Chilkoot Trail passed through here.

We checked the ‘SS Tutshi Memorial’; this is the remains of a paddle steamer that used to give pleasure cruises on the lake. It was in the process of being restored, but was partly destroyed by fire in 1990. It’s interesting to know, though, since she was built in 1917 right up until her retirement in 1955, cruise passengers would ride up from Skagway on the railway for a sail on the lake.

There’s also a preserved steam railway engine, the Duchess, as well as some other railway artefacts. The railway still runs through Carcross, and it would be physically possible to get the White Pass & Yukon train up here. But, we drove to Fraser, British Columbia, where the train awaited us, by a picturesque and photogenic lake, to take us back down to Skagway.

The train was the same one we had seen at Skagway earlier, drawn by two vintage diesel locos, in distinctive green and yellow livery.

The story of the line began in the 1890s, when gold was discovered in the Yukon Territory. Tens of thousands of hopefuls took the arduous trek from Skagway through the mountains to the goldfields. Of course, people began to try and think of easier ways to get up there, and, in 1898, the construction of a narrow-gauge railway began.

The 3-foot gauge was adopted because of the tight turns involved in negotiating the mountains; it also meant lower construction costs. The line reached Carcross in 1900, but most of the gold was now mined by large corporations, rather than individual prospectors. But, the railway was still used to carry ore down to the port at Skagway.

The line closed in 1982, because of a world slump in metal prices, but re-opened again, as a tourist attraction only six years later.

This, I think is the best scenic rail ride I’ve ever been on … but, I say that about most of them. If I was to ride the Kuranda or the Otofen again, they might become No. 1 on my list yet again!

The tight turns certainly helped a great deal in getting good photos ‘of the train from the train’, and the fact that we were allowed on to the open platform at the end was great for photographing and video-ing the stunning scenery we passed through.

The White Pass Summit (named for Canadian Minister of the Interior Sir Thomas White, not because it’s white … although the snow might make you think differently) is the border between Canada and the USA, and the flags of the two respective nations mark it. And, that’s the easiest entry I’ve ever made to the US … an official just walked along the train, requesting passengers to hold up their passports open at the photo page.

The train stopped just outside Skagway; there didn’t seem to be a railway station as such. I think there was a shuttle bus laid on to take us back to the ship, but we had plenty of time in hand, and the town is fairly compact, so we decided to walk.

Skaqua, as it used to be known, means ‘windy place’, and it was once used by First Nations people for hunting and fishing. But then, in the 1880s, the cry went up ‘There’s gold in them thar hills!’ The population of the quiet village swelled dramatically, for it was not far from the Chilkoot Trail, a traditional Native American trading route, which was a convenient way to get to the goldfields of the Yukon, and it was here that the prospectors would land.

Whether Skagway lay in Alaska or Canada wasn’t settled until 1903, when the present border was established. .

Most of the buildings we passed have been well preserved … although they now sell goods and services more suitable to modern tastes. Gone are the trading posts, brothels and saloons; it is said that such places made more money from the gold rush than prospectors ever did. But, the atmosphere still remains … we didn’t actually see anyone being thrown through the saloon window, but wouldn’t have been surprised if we did.

So, it was back to the ship, moored under a cliff, with a snow-covered mountain backdrop. No cheerless, concrete cruise terminal here, just another excellent photo opportunity.

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Keith Kellett spends his ‘retirement’ travelling, writing, photographing, videoing and blogging about food and drink, beer, old cars, railways, beer, steam engines, history and historical re-enactments, bygones, beer, gardens, travel, beer and brewing, nature and the outdoors and beer. Sometimes, he gets published; sometimes, he even gets paid! He operates a blog ( and has written two books ‘One Thing Leads to Another’ and 'When the Boat Comes In'He’s originally from Cumbria, but now lives in Southern England, near Salisbury, just (I was going to say, a stone’s throw) a short distance from the ancient stones of Stonehenge, where he’s a volunteer at the Visitor Centre when time permits..

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