Origins: Cruising Alaska - #103

Every place in the world has a series of things that give that spot a special character... and make it different from every other place.  When you look at the ORIGINS of these things, you often end up with a better appreciation of the territory -- and that makes it a lot more interesting to visit.  And sometimes, these origins help us understand why we live the way we do.

It starts up at the top of the Alaskan panhandle and runs south along the coast of Alaska and the Canadian province of British Columbia. It covers a thousand miles and ends just below the U.S. border at Seattle, Washington.  It’s called the Inside Passage.

And that is precisely what it is:  a sea passage that runs along the northwest coast. But it runs between the coast and a series of islands that protect the route from the open sea. At its southernmost point the course is shielded for three hundred miles by Vancouver Island.  Then the Queen Charlotte Islands take over the defense. And finally the route is safeguarded by the more than one thousand islands that make up the Alexander Archipelago. It is a magnificent stretch of wilderness.

Much of the region is virtually inaccessible by road so the best way, and in some cases the only way, to really see the passage is by boat.

I started my journey from the Canadian city of Vancouver.

My chosen method of transportation for my passage through the Passage was a ship called the Legend Of The Seas. It was built in 1995 for the Royal Caribbean Cruise Line.  It’s eight hundred and sixty-seven feet long... a hundred and five feet wide... there are eleven decks... nine hundred and two cabins... and it can maintain a speed of twenty-four knots.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   On land we measure speed in miles per hour or kilometers per hour. At sea it is measured in something called a knot. Historians believe that sailors started using the knot during the 1400’s. The technology was pretty primitive. They had a piece of wood, they had a rope tied to that piece of wood, every fifty feet there was a knot tied in the rope.  They also had an hourglass that measured 28 seconds with sand. They would throw the piece of wood over the side of the boat.  When it hit the water, they would start the hourglass.  When the 28 seconds of sand ran out, they counted the number of knots that had gone over the side, and that was the ship’s speed.

Eventually the knot became standardized as the nautical mile, which is 6,080 feet... about fifteen percent longer than a land mile. So when a ship is doing twenty knots, it’s the equivalent of about twenty-three miles per hour. When sailors talk about a ship’s speed they just say “twenty knots,” never “twenty knots per hour.” Both the distance and the time measurement are included in the idea of a knot.

And while The Legend Of The Seas is maintaining its speed of twenty-four knots, the passengers can maintain themselves in a number of ways. There’s a spa, a sauna, one outdoor pool, and one pool that is both outdoor and indoor. The outdoor/indoor pool was designed for people who can’t make up their mind what they want. There’s a library where you can maintain your intellect... and an 18-hole miniature golf course for maintaining your putting skill.  A miniature golf course  is quite appropriate for a ship. The first miniature golf course was actually designed for use on a trans-Atlantic ocean liner.

BURT WOLF:  The water hazards on this course are just murder.

And finally, there is a Stargazing Area...  “Look -- there’s Elvis!”

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  When the Elvis years passed away, along with the original Elvis, he became a symbol.  A symbol of an easier time.  Less frightening, more understandable.  And when anyone or anything becomes a symbol it can be used to evoke a response in other people.  Psychologists have been studying this from a scientific point of view, but business people have been using the information for over a hundred years.   Let’s take a look at the case in point: the ocean liner or the cruise ship.

When luxury ocean liners first came on the scene at the beginning of the 20th century they wanted to market their first class services to upper-class families. One of the simplest ways to work toward that goal was to reproduce things on the ship that reminded the passengers of the good life on shore.

How about a grand ballroom with a majestic staircase -- a staircase that could be used by the female passengers to make a grand entrance in a magnificent new dress, a dress tastefully dusted in recently-acquired diamonds. And while you were at it, you could make the grand ballroom a replica of one of the famous hotel ballrooms in Paris or London. Then you could put in an orchestra that everyone was familiar with... one that was associated with good times.  And lots of food -- luxurious food that speaks of opulence and happiness.  Create a feeling that is somewhat like the important public events of a social season... or like an ongoing wedding party. You could also have a few rooms that reminded the male passengers of the private clubs that were popular at the time. And all of that is precisely what many of the original ocean liners did. And it worked. The passengers began to feel secure, even though they were hundreds of miles at sea.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  And it still works. Not quite as formal as it used to be. A seven day cruise on the Legend Of The Seas has three formal nights out of seven and black-tie is optional. In the old days it was black-tie every night. The dining rooms are no longer reproductions of the Dorchester or the Ritz, but they’re still pretty wonderful. And music that harkens back to an earlier time? It’s here. The cruise has a 50’s/60’s night which tries to reproduce the feeling of those two great decades. And Elvis is in the air again.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  But I am not here to step on anybody’s blue suede shoes. I want to step on land, land that few people have stepped on before. I want to commune with nature. I want to be close to the wild. But not too close.

Glacier Bay National Park is close enough.  The ship slowly eases into the narrow passages that run between the mountains of ice that make up this 3.3 million acre national park.  Sixteen huge glaciers flow out of the Fairweather mountain range.  Their forward edges melt and break off into the icy waters of the fjords that cut their way in from the open sea.

When large hunks of ice rip away from the glacier, it is called “calving,” and the sound that they make as they pull away is called “white thunder.”

The crackling sound actually comes from the bursting of thousands of air bubbles that were trapped in the ice.

Archeologists believe that native tribes have been living in the Glacier Bay area for at least 10,000 years.  The first Europeans to explore the territory were the Russians, who sailed through during the 1740s.  About fifty years later the French stopped in to check things out.  By the 1880s, tour boats were coming in to take a look.  Glacier Bay is truly one of the fascinating places in Alaska.

This morning’s port of call is the town of Skagway. The name Skagway comes from a native American word meaning “the windy place.”  It’s located at the northernmost point on the Inside Passage. The area was never a permanent settlement for any of the tribes, but it had been used for hundreds of years as a seasonal ground for hunting and fishing.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  The first European to take a serious interest in Skagway was a retired steamboat captain by the name of William Moore.  In 1887, he staked a claim for 160 acres of land and with the help of his son he built a small cabin. He knew the area so well that the Canadian government asked him to help their surveyors find a pass through the mountains.  He did, and it eventually became known as “The White Pass.”  Moore had been watching all of the mining activity going around in the territory and he firmly believed that it was just a question of time before there was a major gold strike. He also believed that when that strike came, Skagway would become the seaport for the gold rush.

And boy, was he right! When word of the Bonanza Creek gold strike got out, over 100,000 people set out to seek their fortune in the Yukon, and the route they took to get there started with a ship to Skagway.  In the end, only about 30,000 people got here but they turned the place into the classic gold rush boomtown.  In 1898 Skagway had almost one hundred saloons filled with gamblers, thieves and umm, ladies of perpetual availability.

These days Skagway has about 800 permanent residents, and a great nostalgia about its past.  Much of the original commercial district has managed to survive and the United States Park Service conducts guided walking tours through the historic areas of the town.  My guide today is Rick Fields.

RICK FIELDS:  Burt, this is The Red Onion Saloon, that actually was a saloon and bordello during the time of the Gold Rush.  Downstairs’s the saloon, upstairs the ladies of the evening. Uh, actually, during the time of the Gold Rush, if a gentleman wanted any kind of woman’s accompaniment, he could walk into that saloon and behind the bar was a display case with dolls dressed in like of the ladies that were working the floor that evening.  And so if a gentleman had any particular lady in mind, he could actually look behind the bar and if the doll was standing that she was very much available for your accompaniment.  If she was laying down, well... she was busy.

RICK FIELDS:  The AB Hall here, Burt, was also an original structure. It was a fraternal organization that was developed by the stampeders as a kind of social club, if you will.  There’s over 10,000 pieces of driftwood actually nailed onto the face of that building.  The last known member to ever join the Arctic Brotherhood here in Skagway was Warren G. Harding, our president.  In 1923 he came to visit us for three short hours. We then initiated him into our Arctic Brotherhood Lodge. 

BURT WOLF:  What goes on in the Arctic Brotherhood?

RICK FIELDS:  Today it’s actually our city museum.  Actually we have a fine arts museum of some of the old paraphernalia you might have found during the time of the Gold Rush all inside our museum and it’s set up as a display so that you can go in and spend a few minutes and enjoy.

BURT WOLF:  You know like little kids they like to take matchsticks and build things out of them and that’s what happens when those kids grow up.

RICK FIELDS:  That’s right.


RICK FIELDS:  They just make bigger piles, don’t they?

RICK FIELDS:  Well this is actually the Mascot Saloon, and the Mascot has  actually been set up as a display only by our National Parks Service, so the kind of saloon you’d actually see during the turn of the century here in Skagway; it’s got the old hardwood floors and the lighting as it was back in 1898.  Actually, the bar I could never seem to ever be served at here.  I keep trying, but it’s just not ever happened, but some of the old cigars that you might, would have found as you would have come here.  We’ve actually restored all of these buildings along this block back all to their original condition: wallpaper, paint, colors, everything is back to its original condition.  It’s really a pleasure to be in a community that had such community pride of their buildings.  I really do enjoy living here.

RICK FIELDS:  Well, Burt, this is Kirmse’s Curios.  Actually Herman Kirmse was one of the very first pioneers that came into Skagway when the words of the Klondike Gold Rush happened throughout the country.  And Herman, actually, instead of traveling over the pass and heading for the gold 600 miles away from here, he actually stopped here and established his jewelry business.  He was quite an entrepreneur, like many that had to travel the trail up here.

BURT WOLF:  I get the feeling that the real gold was in the retail business and not in the creeks.

RICK FIELDS:  I’m gonna have to agree with you, Burt.  It seems as though the guy that made a living and a good one up here was the packer, the storekeeper, the guy who sold you services.

When the prospectors headed out of Skagway they had to choose between two routes to the gold. One was the Chilkoot Trail.  That’s what it looked like during 1897 and ‘98 when some 30,000 prospectors made the six-hour climb up what came to be known as the “Golden Stairs.” And because each of them was transporting a minimum of 1,000 pounds of supplies, they made that trip at least twenty times. 

The other Skagway trail used by the gold seekers to get to a claim was the White Pass.  It was less steep than the Chilkoot but no less dangerous.

In 1900, things got a lot easier. That was the year that the White Pass and Yukon Railroad opened and connected Skagway to the town of Frazer in the Canadian Yukon.  The rails run through some of the most rugged terrain in North America.


The roadbeds were carved along sheer rock cliffs. Tunnels were hammered through solid granite. When it was completed, it was considered to be one of the engineering marvels of its time. Today it’s a marvelous guided tour for visitors to Skagway -- and the guide is Sharon Hannon.

SHARON HANNON:  Okay, we’re coming up now to the Denver Glacier Bridge.  This is mile-post 5.8 on your railmaps.  We’re going to be crossing over the east fork of the Skagway River.  As we make a real sharp left curve over the bridge, you’ll have a nice opportunity to view the train -- all fifteen parlor cars that we’re pulling.  It’s just amazing to think that this railroad that we’re traveling on this morning is nearly one hundred years old.  And how they built it back then is absolutely incredible.  What they did was, these workers were roped together while hanging on the slopes.  And the smooth granite obviously offered no footholds whatsoever.  So in hazardous winter weather, these men chipped all of this granite with hand tools in order to plant the 450 tons of blasting powder.  This was obviously extremely hard, very dangerous work, for thirty cents an hour.  And they say that this was a railroad that was impossible to build.  There is very little advanced planning involved.  Now there was no rolling stock, there was no construction materials or heavy-duty equipment.  There was no means of feeding or housing the work crews, and remember a total of 35,000 men worked on the line.  Also, the site was more than a thousand miles from the closest supply base which was in Seattle, Washington.  So the railroad had to compete for ship cargo space with the thousands of stampeders that were also headed up north.  And I mentioned earlier the workforce, highly educated professional men, but by no means skilled railroad laborers.  So this railroad was built against all odds and it was completed in only two years, two months, and one day -- all built by hand.  And it cost ten million dollars to build it, and then another two million dollars to outfit it for service.  And it’s an international railroad.  It was financed by the British, contracted by the Canadians, and engineered by the Americans.

The White Pass and Yukon Railroad certainly made the trip from Alaska to the Yukon easier.  What you’re looking at is the last remaining section of the original pass that the prospectors used.  Can you imagine hiking thirty-five miles, carrying hundreds of pounds of gear on your back, on a path that narrow?  And by the time the railroad was finished... the gold rush was over.

About an hour boat ride south of Skagway is the town of Haines.  It started out as settlement for the Native Alaskan Tlingit tribe, and they still play a very active role in the community.  A non-profit association called Alaska Indian Arts has dedicated itself to the revival and perpetuation of native craft and culture and in Haines they present the Chilkat Dancers,  a group whose authentic performances have given them a worldwide reputation.

While we were here, one of the dances told the story of a monster who had been eating the children of the tribe.  The chief decided to trap the monster by digging a deep hole, covering it with twigs, and sending a young girl to attract the monster over the hole.  As the monster chased the girl, she passed over the twigs; she was light.  When the monster ran over the twigs, his weight sent him to the bottom.

The tribe quickly gathered around, threw branches on top of the monster and set them on fire.  As the flames came up, the monster yelled that no matter what the tribe did, he would always drink their blood.  After thirty days, the tribe let the fire go out.  As they poked the ashes, they saw that the monster had been consumed, but out of the holes in the ashes a new creature appeared -- thousands of them.  They were mosquitoes.

The next day our crew was filming in an area filled with mosquitoes, mosquitoes who were feasting on us.  But somehow we all felt less aggravated by their presence, because we knew it was only the monster trying for his revenge.  The tribal dances connect the people with their heritage and to the environment in which they live -- and that makes life more understandable and easier.

The Haines area has always been important to the native tribes. It was the end point for the ancient trail into the interior, and it was also the site of the gathering of the eagles. Today the region covers 48,000 acres and is known as the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve. Each year some 4,000 bald eagles take up residence along a five-mile stretch of the Chilkat River. They’re attracted to the spot by an annual late run of spawning salmon. In addition, warm water upwellings in the river bottom keep parts of the river ice-free during the winter, providing even more fish for the eagles, at a time when many other food sources are exhausted. This is nature throwing an all-you-can-eat buffet for the eagle, and it’s been going on for thousands of years.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   But it almost came to an end in 1917 when someone in the government decided that the eagles were eating too many salmon and began to offer a bounty on them.  Over a hundred and twenty thousand eagles were shot for a dollar or two dollars each before someone realized that in fact the eagles were not doing any damage at all.  Just another episode in the endless saga of government stupidity.

Fortunately the eagle is now protected.  It is a federal crime to harm or possess a bald eagle and with any luck, the law is being enforced.

And if you’ve ever wanted to see Alaska from an eagle’s eye view, take a look at this.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  One of the nice things about seeing southern Alaska from a cruise ship is than on certain days you can go ashore and pursue your own  individual interests.  Then in the evenings you come back to the ship and you get the feeling that you’re joining old friends.  And speaking of joining old friends, I hope you will join us next time as we travel around the world, looking at the ORIGINS of some of the things that surround us.  I’m Burt Wolf.