Isolated between the Pacific Ocean and the immensity of British Columbia, the panhandle region is fragmented by countless channels and fjords.
From it rise the Coast Mountains, a coastal mountain range semi-subsumed in the largest forest in the United States, the Tongass.
This rude nature makes the construction of roads unfeasible. With the exception of Skagway, Hyder and Haines, local villages still lack a road connection to the outside.
The route of choice is the Alaska Marine Highway, as the name implies, a kind of maritime highway that starts in the far Aleutian port of Unalasca/Dutch Harbor and runs along the interior passage of the Alaskan Skillet Cape to Bellingham or Prince Rupert, north of Vancouver.
We had just landed on Juneau, coming from greater Anchorage. It is in the picturesque Alaskan capital that we board the M/V Malaspina.
We sail towards Skagway, a few hundred kilometers to the north, between green fjords always soaked by rain and humidity.
We dock in a hidden Juneau cove shortly after sunset.
Janilyn's Warm Reception in Skagway
Janilyn awaits us at the top of the ramp that protrudes from the dock. Without realizing it, it hinders the passengers who go up, overloaded with the luggage they are carrying.
When he finds out about us, he inaugurates an affectionate and willing welcome that would last for almost three days. “I'm glad you came. I was really looking forward to your visit!" To which he adds after closing the jeep's tailgate “'Boa! I left my husband and son at the bar. Lukas will be performing soon…”
With no time to let go of the long journey, we find ourselves at Bonanza, a cozy Skagway bar, drinking invigorating Alaskans Amber.
In a corner, several musicians play for themselves, for their families and some friends, engrossed, as if it were the concert of their lives.
At the tables and at the counter, easy conversations flow, interrupted only by the occasional joke too amusing to be ignored.
Lukas picks up the guitar and conquers the room with a semi-hoarse and melodious voice.
His melodies in the style of Red House Painters or Mark Kozelek solo, give mother Janilyn goosebumps, and take her to an extreme of emotion that she is forced to share. “It’s wonderful, isn’t it?
I'm very proud of him... and look... since I'm talking about pride, I'd like to tell you something else: my husband and I haven't done this in a long time.
We started to receive foreigners when we realized the image with which United States they were getting to the rest of the world.
The US Image and Skagway's Seasonal Bipolarity
We felt it was important to show outsiders the hospitality of the real America and soften the image we were creating. Fortunately, we now have a more worthy president to help us.”
Despite the often embarrassing contribution of barbarian Republican Sarah Palin and the more conservative strata of the 49th state's population, this diminutive portion of Alaska has long contributed to making a difference.
Perhaps because the territory is detached from the Lower 48 and intimately linked to nature, its existence is lighter and more relaxed, ideal for those looking for new perspectives on life. But not only.
Skagway appears as one of the first towns to arrive from North Country (the great northern Alaska) to the discovery of the Panhandle, the skillet handle.
Its fixed population does not reach 1000 inhabitants, but, as it is part of the Alaskan cruise route, as June approaches, it is reinforced with many other immigrants from the north of the United States and from abroad.
as it happens in the neighboring southern cities, during each short summer, this workforce serves nearly one million visitors who can disembark from up to five monstrous cruise ships per day (with a total of 8000 passengers), 400 per year.
Skagway: The Profitable Commercial Frenzy from May to September
They are groups of retired people and entire families that land on a time trial, determined to spend unforgettable moments and spend to match.
Skagway makes life easier for them. Ships dock almost on Broadway Street. This street keeps outsiders dammed up and entertained among its shops, bars and cafes.
As a complement to the ambush, the historic buildings were recovered and redecorated in detail.
They display eye-catching windows and billboards, sophisticated calls for consumerism that the most alienated of ascetics would have trouble resisting.
In the final years of the XNUMXth century, the appeal was different.
It shined much brighter than the elegant windows on Broadway Street and often cost people their lives.
The Age of Shining Alaskan Gold
In 1896 gold was found in the Klondike, a remote region of the vast Canadian Yukon territory.
The following year, a steamship left a first wave of miners at Skagway's Moore's Wharf.
There were more and more ships that would raise their number to 30.000, the vast majority of conflicting and unscrupulous Americans eager to conquer the 800km of mountains and glaciers that separated them from the millionaire rubble.
Not all made the way.
The pioneer narratives were soon promoted to myth. They exalted freezing storms, attacks by Indians, bears and wolves, and poorly calculated river crossings in which several caravans were lost forever.
The more prudent aspirants dedicated themselves, instead, to supplying and serving the miners.
So many stayed in Skagway that, in 1898, the city was fought over by 10.000 greedy souls and had become the largest in Alaska.
The Tourist Reenactments of Skagaway's Golden Age
“Enter gentlemen, don't make ceremonies! The ladies, if you don't mind, ask them for money and go shopping…” proclaims a pimp squeezed by corsets and seductive lace, at the entrance to the Red Onion Bar's Brothel Museum.
Today, shows like the “Days of 98” theater, the fictional town of Liarsville and the Gold Rush riverside camp send visitors back to the time.
As is to be expected, they fall far short of the harsh reality of the time, made up of alcohol and prostitution, of fights, shootings and lynchings that the representatives of the law sought above all to avoid.
Jack London's Adventures and Misadventures in Alaska and Klondike
In 1897, Jack London and his brother-in-law James Shepard gave in to the call of prospecting.
Shortly afterwards, London was already suffering from scurvy. In 1903, she spent her life in Alaska for the role from an unexpected perspective.
In "The Appeal of the Forest” chronicled the plight of Buck, a San Bernardo mestizo with a Shetland shepherd who is kidnapped in California by a gambler buried in debt and finds himself desperate in the worse-than-dog world of the Klondike.
Inland, along the Chilkoot Trail, existence was just as hellish.
Upon arriving at the Canadian border, thousands of prospectors were only given permission to proceed when they had over a ton of equipment and provisions.
In addition to going against all of today's customs logic, the requirement entailed numerous round-trips and caused a serious congestion of wagons along the steep White Pass.
The problem forced the Canadian government to build a railroad.
Delayed by the numerous obstacles raised by Soapy Smith - a controversial Skagway mobster -, the project was only completed in July 1900, after the gold rush had passed.
White Pass and Yukon Route, a Stunning Rail Gorge
Although it served little or nothing for its initial purposes, the White Pass and Yukon Route has remained mostly active ever since.
These days, its smoky train and the western scenes it crosses are one of the main reasons why so many dock. cruises at Moore's Wharf.
In the summer, they also provide employment for dozens of residents of the town.
Janilyn does everything she can to facilitate the experience of those who are now visiting the city that was the gateway to that gold stronghold.
When we arrive chilled from the round-trip train journey, she, her family and friends invite us to sit around the fire, drinking beers and eating grilled salmon.
At the time of departure, the hostess and her husband offer us sandwiches with that succulent fish and say goodbye in a disguised commotion.
Soon, the family would temporarily move to Oregon.
Skagway would once again be given over to its wintry solitude.