Monday 10 June 2013

Hitting the White Pass Trail

Number Two of this trip’s five train journeys came today: the White Pass and Yukon Railway, from Skagway up to the pass and back down again on yet another fabulous morning. We’ve been so lucky so far – the locals are feeling obliged to say “It’s not always like this, you know” and, in Seward, “We call weather like this ‘cloud failure’.”

So the conditions were perfect for the ride in the old carriages behind Engine #73, puffing gallantly up a remarkably steep gradient, across trestle bridges and through a couple of tunnels. The mountains were high and sharp-edged, in both senses, and there was plenty of snow, as well as trees with fresh foliage and carpets of bright dandelions. Waterfalls splashed down the rockfaces to join the muddy, tumbling Yukon in its narrow gorge.

It was so warm and sunny that it was hard to imagine how it was for the Stampeders in the winter of 1897-98, who had to climb up the pass not once, but up to 30 times each, ferrying the one ton of gear and provisions the Canadian police insisted they brought with them. We also ran alongside Dead Horse Trail, where 3,000 horses died, of starvation, overwork and maltreatment by gold-crazed miners, poor things. Meaning the horses, though the men (and women) had it hard too, and very few found much gold when they eventually got there, though a few did make their fortunes.

There’s plenty of gold in the town now: the tourists bringing their money (four ships in today) and also in the windows of the many, many jewellery shops that line Broadway. It’s still pretty there, though, the buildings are charming, and the setting is lovely beside the water, below the snowy peaks. Up at the Pass, we drank a toast of champagne to “the men who built the rail, those who followed the trail, and you who came by sail” – a bit naff, but tourists are undoubtedly the saving of Skagway. Well done, us.

And what better way to finish a day of public works - sort of - than to sit at a window table in La Terraza on the Silver Spirit and have a pleasant dinner while the ship glided past mountain peaks under a lowish sun, the sea smooth and the sky above clear? Magic.

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