Origins: Alaska - #117

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.

Fragments of the earth’s crust drifted together to form Alaska.  And they are still very much in the process of drifting and forming.  And what they have formed is already the largest state in the United States of America.  It’s twice as large as Texas and has fifty percent more coastline than all the states in the lower 48 put together.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  The native tribes who lived here along the southern coast of Alaska had actually developed a rather capitalist society.  They believed that each family should own their own goods and encourage the family to pursue their own individual economic goals.  Amongst the Tlingits, the more stuff you had the more respected you were and the more privileges you received from the society.  America was really early into this entrepreneur thing.

The Spanish were probably the first Europeans to explore this coast, but the Russians were the first to try and take control.  The Russians showed up in 1741.  Actually, it wasn’t really a Russian.  It was a Dane named Vitus Bering who worked for the Russians, and eventually lent his name to the Bering Straits.  When his crew got back to Russia, they showed everybody the sea otter pelts that they had acquired -- skins that were immediately judged to be the finest fur that anyone in Russia had ever seen.  That did it.  The exploration and the exploitation of Alaska was underway.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  The word Alaska comes from a native phrase that means “the object towards which the actions of the sea are directed.”  But it wasn’t only the Russians who were directing their actions towards Alaska.  The British were beginning to nose around.  Captain James Cook came through in 1778 and picked up a few otter skins of his own.  And to make matters even worse, the Spanish were thinking about coming back.  They’d been down in Los Angeles, and when they realized that the movie business wasn’t going to begin for another hundred years, they started moving up along the coast to see what was happening here.

Sure, Alaska was beautiful, and the sea otters made a great fashion statement, but by the 1860s Russia wanted out.  Well, actually what they wanted was to sell out before somebody just took Alaska away from them without making a payment.

A Russian agent went to see William Seward, who was then the U.S. Secretary of State, and somehow convinced him that buying Alaska was the deal of a lifetime.  And at 7.2 million dollars -- or 2 cents per acre -- it was.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  For hundreds of years, the Gastineau Channel along the southern coast of Alaska was a quiet fishing ground for the local Tlingit tribes.  All that changed in 1880 when a Sitka mining engineer offered a reward for any tribal chief who could bring him a piece of gold-bearing ore and show him where that ore came from.  A Tlingit clan elder by the name of Kowee brought in the sought-after sample, and George sent a couple of prospectors down to check out the location.  One of them kept a diary that has the following entry:  “We knew it was gold, but we were surprised to see so much of it, and not in particles -- in large streaks running through the rock and in lumps as large as peas and beans.”  I like these guys.  Not only did they know about gold, they were into good eating.

Their names were Richard Harris and Joe Juneau.  They staked a 160-acre townsite and the gold rush was on.  Originally the town was called Harrisburg, apparently because Harris could read and write and Juneau couldn’t, so Harris did the recording of the claim.  Eventually, however, Juneau got his name back.

Unlike many gold rush towns, Juneau survived and even prospered after the gold rush was over.  Today it is the state capitol of Alaska, and home to about 30,000 residents.  Juneau is on the small side in terms of the number of people who live here, but in terms of area it is actually the largest town in North America and second largest in the world.  It covers 3,108 square miles.  The city clings to the base of two mountains that top out at over 3,500 feet above sea level and literally lock Juneau into its waterfront cove.

There are no roads or rail links into Juneau.  If you’re coming in or going out, it’s by plane or boat.  The boat part is particularly important.  Each summer almost half a million visitors come to Juneau on cruise ships.  Fortunately, they don’t all come at the same time the way the gold prospectors did in the 1800s.

As a tourist there are a number of things of interest in Juneau.

The easiest access to a spectacular view of the area is from the Mt. Roberts Tramway.  Its base is right in front of the dock where the cruise ships tie up, and its top is 1,750 feet above... overlooking Juneau and the Gastineau Channel.

For me, the single most interesting place in Juneau is the St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church.  It was constructed in 1894 at the request of a Tlingit chief, and stands as one of the oldest original Orthodox churches in Alaska.  Subdeacon Basil welcomes visitors and explains the history and meaning of the structure.

SUBDEACON BASIL:  The interesting thing about this church is that this building was not built by Russians.  There were never any Russians here in Juneau.  Most of the time when people come here, they’re expecting that there was a Russian community here and Russian missionaries, and they built this church, and that there are possibly descendants of the Russians still here now.  But the case is, ironically, here in Juneau, the native Tlingit tribe themselves built this church rather than Russian missionaries.  And they did that because when the missionaries from the lower 48 were coming here, they were doing services in English and sort of decimating the native cultures.  The natives themselves contacted Russia because they wanted a church that would protect their culture, and encourage their culture, and do services in their language, and Russia responded generously by sending this church, a priest and everything necessary for services.

BURT WOLF:  The iconostasis is very interesting.  What does it mean?

SUBDEACON BASIL:  Well, in general, the iconostasis itself, you know, is usually the first thing that attracts anybody’s attention.  Whenever you come in, it -- the structure itself is actually built in Russia and shipped here.  And the meaning of the iconostasis is not as a wall of separation.  Usually when someone comes in and sees it for the first time, they think, “Well, why are you separating the altar from this area?  It must mean that the priests are more sacred or holy and the people are unholy.”  Which is not the case at all.  The iconostasis, which is this screen, and it actually still exists in Western churches as an altar rail.  And most of the people in the west have unfortunately probably forgotten the meaning of the altar rail.  What it is is when you look around yourself in creation, you see the created world, you see the cosmos, you see people, you see ravens, you see the grass, and mountains, and the fixtures in this church.  And it’s almost as though it’s on a screen before your eyes.  But God is always here present, too -- He’s perpetually present.  But you don’t see God.  What you see is creation, the cosmos.  Well, that’s what this iconostasis represents -- it is a model of the cosmos.

And then those doors, which we call the royal doors, are closed -- that is an image of what we see in the world.  But, if one allows oneself, the eye of your heart opens, and those doors open, and you see God through creation.  So that’s the goal of Christian spirituality, is that you should be seeing God in every blade of grass, in every person most especially.

And we have these six icons, these paintings on here, and they shouldn’t be seen as the iconostasis -- as a solid wall -- but actually a wall with six windows.  These we call icons windows into Heaven, and they are portraying people who are filled with the presence of Christ, and it’s portraying Christ himself.  And each icon is precisely that -- a window into Heaven.  And the reason why most of the time iconographic style or Byzantine art is very unrealistic, it’s very unwestern, European portrait style, is that in trying to portray Heaven, you’re actually showing something that’s a higher dimension of reality, because Heaven is not going to be the three dimensions of space and the fourth dimension of time that we’re familiar with.  You’re going to be looking into a world that’s going to be a higher dimension of reality.  So the iconographers have always used various techniques to symbolize that to us.  And one of them is that the people, the individuals on icons, tend to be almost two-dimensional -- kind of flat.  And then objects will be out of perspective or out of phase.  You’ll see especially objects that should be cubes or like books, you’ll see too many sides of the pages of the book, or various objects are all in wrong perspective.  And again it’s continuing to try to emphasize to you that you’re looking from a three-dimensional world into a higher dimensional world to portray that sort of idea. 

BURT WOLF:  The Orthodox Church has a very distinct cross.

SUBDEACON BASIL:  Right.  It’s not the only cross that’s used in orthodoxy, but it’s very, very much used and it’s very well known and we sort of become identified by it.  It’s an attempt to portray more detail of the crucifixion.  The top bar is the sign that was hung above Christ’s head under the orders of Pontius Pilate that says: “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews” in the various languages.  Then at the very bottom, you see where His feet were nailed to the cross.  And it’s pointing out at an angle, that bar, because it’s pointing to the two thieves on the right and the left.  And it brings them to mind.  And on the right, there was the thief who asked Christ to remember him when he came into His kingdom.  And then Christ says, “This day, you will be with me in paradise.”  So, it points upwards because that means a soul ascended into paradise according to Christ’s statement.  And to the left, it points downward to the thief who rejected and despised Christ.  And so each time we see that cross, that sort of decision is being placed before us; are we accepting or rejecting Christ on the cross?

The top of the church is -- usually, people who drive by perhaps on a Sunday morning and just see the church would think of it as an onion dome, but of course it doesn’t have anything to do with onions.  What it represents is what it looks like.  It’s a candle flame, and it’s representing the flame of the Holy Spirit that came in the church at Pentecost.

Behind the mountains that form Juneau’s backdrop is the Juneau Icefield, over 1,500 square miles of ice cap, and the source of thirty-eight glaciers, including the Mendenhall.  Mendenhall Glacier is just thirteen miles outside of Juneau and it is one of the few drive-in, walk-up glaciers in the world.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  The Mendenhall in Mendenhall Glacier was Thomas C. Mendenhall, the Superintendent of the U.S. Coastal and Geodetic Survey at the time that the border was surveyed between Canada and the United States.

As moisture-filled air comes in from the Pacific Ocean, it runs into the peaks of the coastal mountains.  The encounter causes the air to give up its water vapor and it does so in the form of snow... over one hundred feet of it each year.  Because the air is so cold up here, the snow never melts.  It just gets heavier and heavier, and packs together so tightly that the air between the molecules is lost.  In the process, it transforms itself into glacial ice.  Under this extraordinary pressure, the ice begins to flow.  The Mendenhall Glacier flows down the Mendenhall Valley for twelve miles at the rate of two feet per day.  But it never gets anywhere, because at the same time that it is flowing, it is also melting.  Each day, large chunks of ice break away from the glacier and float off into the lake at its base.  The process is known as “calving.”  In addition, glacial ice just melts away at the front edge.  When the rate of Mendenhall’s flow is compared to the rate of its melting, you end up with an annual withdrawal of about thirty feet.  And it’s been withdrawing since the 1700s.

My home away from home on this trip has been the Royal Caribbean cruise ship Legend Of The Seas, and its next port of call is the town of Ketchikan.  Some folks refer to it as “the first city” because it’s the first major city that you get to in Alaska when you’re coming North along the coast.  Like many communities in this area, Ketchikan started out as a fishing camp.  In this case, it belonged to the Tlingit people.  When European and American settlers came in, they built the waterfront area on pilings that ran out over tidal flats.  It extended the community’s life in many ways -- particularly during Prohibition, when smugglers would row in under the stilts and pass whiskey up into the houses through trap doors.

These days, however, Ketchikan’s fame rests on totally legitimate activities.  It is a major port for people who are interested in charter fishing.  There’s excellent salt water fishing for giant halibut, red snapper, cod and salmon.

Ketchikan is also a center for native art and culture.  About ten miles up the road from town is Totem Bight.  In 1938, the U.S. Forest Service began a program designed to preserve and restore the totem poles that were part of the native villages, and Totem Bight is the present center of their work.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  A totem pole is not an object of worship; it is a silent storyteller that presents the folklore of the people who carved it.  The Tlingits tell a story of a carved log that washed up on the shore and inspired their people to create totem poles.  The Haida tell a story of a master carver who created a housefront and a number of poles during a single night and then taught the villagers how to carve.

This is the kind of community or clanhouse that was built during the early 1800s.  It would have housed between thirty and fifty people who shared the same family lineage.  Each individual family would have had its own space for living, but the fire was shared.  Household gear and blankets were stored under removable floorboards, and foodstuffs were hung from the rafters.

MARY KOWALCZYK:  The screen on the front is a stylized raven.  Paintings on the front of a house were usually just for people who had a lot of wealth.  This stylized raven has two eyes that are elaborated into faces.  First of all, if you can imagine taking a head of a raven, cutting it down the back, and pulling it open so that it would be on a two-dimensional surface, that’s how you would be looking at this.

BURT WOLF:  Oh, isn’t that interesting?  I never understood how they saw it that way.

MARY KOWALCZYK:  And the two eyes, like I said, are stylized, elaborated into a face.  The red u-shape that’s upside-down represents the beak.  The u-shapes on either side of the oval door there represent the tail and the sides represent the wing.  The native people utilized all their spaces when they did a design, so they didn’t want to leave anything uncarved, or anything undecorated, and so that’s how come they filled the face of the house in that way.

The low oval entrance through the totem pole was typical.  It was a good form of protection during periods of conflict.  The straight black beak on the top figure tells you that it is Raven.  A carved box at his feet contains daylight.  Below, there is a mink and a frog standing next to a figure of a man, who represents the story of how the man brought life to the killer whales by carving them.  The figure with the large turned-back beak at the lower end of the pole is Raven-at-the-Head-of-Nass, the powerful chief who owned the sun, moon, and stars.  Below the chief is Raven’s mother.  The legend represented here is the story of Raven creating daylight and bringing it into a darkened world.

Our last official area for exploration was Misty Fjords National Monument, which is just south of Ketchikan.  You can get to Misty Fjords by plane or by boat -- but that’s it.  There are no roads to Misty’s 2.2 million acres of wilderness.  Hundreds of thousands of years ago huge glaciers pushed down from the north.  As they moved along, they carved cliffs that plunge hundreds of feet into the sea.  The granite rock formations display black strips of magma that were formed sixty million years ago when earthquakes cracked through the rock.  Waterfalls pour down from sources hidden in the clouds.  This is truly one of the most beautiful places on earth.

Having satisfied everybody’s hunger for nature, the Legend of the Seas’ crew turns to satisfying everybody’s hunger for dinner.  Actually, they have been feeding us five times each day -- breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea, dinner, and a late-night snack.

But there were a few recipes that I thought you might enjoy taking a closer look at.

Lutz Koch is the executive chef, and his first dish is for a Halibut with Wine Sauce.  Four halibut fillets are seasoned with a little salt and pepper.  A tablespoon of butter goes into a sauté pan.  As soon as the butter melts, the halibut goes in, followed by a quarter of a cup of fish stock.  A cover goes on the pan and the fillets simmer for eight minutes.  While the fillets are cooking, the sauce is made.  A tablespoon of butter goes into a saucepan and is stirred until it melts.  Then a quarter of a cup of shallots are added.

BURT WOLF:  You know, if you don’t have shallots, you can use chopped onions, it’s still fine.

A half cup of white wine goes in and everything boils for two minutes.  A half cup of fish stock is added, and simmers for two minutes more.  Then a cup of light cream goes in and cooks for an additional two minutes.  The liquid is then thickened with one tablespoon of cornstarch that has been blended into a half-cup of cold water.  A few drops of Worcestershire sauce.  A bit of stirring.  Salt and pepper.  A half teaspoon of lime juice, and finally a teaspoon of chopped fresh dill.  Everything is mixed together, simmers for a minute, and we’re ready to plate.  The fish goes down, the sauce on top, and a sprinkling of fresh dill.  This is a nice dish to serve with rice or boiled potatoes.

CHEF LUTZ KOCH:  Okay, we have some chicken breasts, we make a nice walnut sauce with it.  And what I have to do first -- I salt and pepper them, on two sides, of course, and dip them afterwards in flour.  If you have a nice family’s chicken [sic], you will see this will be excellent dish for the Sunday dinner.

Two tablespoons of olive oil are poured into a hot pan and then heated.  The chicken breasts go into the pan, skin-side down.  They’re cooked for four minutes on each side and then removed from the pan.  Half of the oil is then drained out, and a half-cup of chopped onions go in.  Then two tablespoons of balsamic vinegar are added.  A minute or so of cooking, and then a half-cup of white wine goes in.  A tablespoon of cornstarch that’s been dissolved in a mixture of water is blended in to thicken the sauce.  Next, three-quarters of a cup of chopped walnuts.  A minute or so of cooking to heat everything up, and the chicken returns.  Eight more minutes of cooking, and the dish is ready to serve.  Some chefs add a touch of cream and a little Scotch whiskey or port wine to the sauce.  The vegetables go onto the plate, then the chicken, the sauce, and a few more chopped walnuts on top.

Finally, there is Baked Alaska.  After all, we are cruising in Alaskan waters.

CHEF LUTZ KOCH:  ...and I will show you; you need three-color ice cream, and we cover this with sponge cake, and after the sponge cake we use meringue.

BURT WOLF:   Oh, that’s easy.

CHEF LUTZ KOCH:  Easy.  Very easy.

BURT WOLF:   Okay.

It’s kind of like aluminum siding.

CHEF LUTZ KOCH:  After the sponge cake you use meringue.

BURT WOLF:  Whipped egg whites with sugar.

CHEF LUTZ KOCH:  Sugar.  Plenty of sugar.

BURT WOLF:  Let’s put it on.


BURT WOLF:  The sponge cake and the meringue work as an insulator, so when the heat heats the ice cream, it doesn’t melt.

BURT WOLF:  Now, normally at home you would finish this off by taking a blowtorch and just browning it on top, but no open flames are allowed on ships.  So we’re going to do this by flaming some rum and pouring it on top.


Did I say “no open flames?”  I meant “no open gas flames.”  This is fine.

This whole dish has a glacier-like quality... especially the receding edges.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  Well, those are some of the more beautiful and interesting parts of southern Alaska, and thanks to the cruises on the Inside Passage, they’re comfortable and easy to get to.  And I hope it will be easy for you to get to 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.

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.