A Winter Storm Experience on Land & Sea

Yesterday we drove from Whitehorse to Skagway, and took an Alaska Marine Highway ferry to Haines where we spent the night. The weather forecast was for a severe winter storm, and we had come up with 2 backup plans for various situations such as weather closures that might come up, so when we left Whitehorse we weren’t really sure where we’d be spending the night. We did manage to follow the itinerary, and gave our adventurous group some good stories to take back home 🙂

The drive over the White Pass to Skagway was in high winds and blowing snow, but nothing I hadn’t seen many times before. I was extremely surprised to see when we got to the U.S. Customs post at Skagway that the highway was closed! Apparently we were the last vehicles that made it through, and as I write this the next morning at 06:00, it’s still closed.

There were very few people out and about in Skagway. Although the temperature was only -17°C (+1°F), the screaming north wind (80 kmh / 50 mph, I heard) made it as nasty a storm as I’d ever seen in Skagway.

Severe winter storm in Skagway, Alaska
There were no lights visible at the Lemon Rose Bakery which had offered to make us lunch, but she was indeed there, and we picked up some excellent sandwiches and cookies and took them over to the ferry terminal to check in.

Lemon Rose Bakery, Skagway
Getting aboard an Alaska ferry takes a long time, but once the vehicle is staged an hour before sailing time (2:00 pm for us), the terminal is at least comfortable. This was the view out the front window of the van, with our HNS (Haines) destination tag in place.

Waiting for an Alaska ferry at Skagway in the winter
At 1:30, the ferry Aurora appeared out of the swirling snow and sea smoke. Sea smoke (also called frost smoke or steam fog) is fog which forms when very cold air moves over warmer water.

Alaska ferry Aurora in a winter storm
Once everyone was settled on board, I, of course, went wandering with my camera. Being a crew member on the Alaska ferries is probably a great job in the summer – yesterday, not so much! Everyone we met was friendly and cheerful, though.

Crew member on an Alaska ferry during a winter storm
Note the snow being blown off the dock below us. Brrr!

Alaska ferry dock at Skagway during a winter storm
The decks of the ferry had a thick coating of ice, so walking was a challenge and I wasn’t outside much 🙂

On an Alaska ferry during a winter storm
The wind hadn’t raised waves much, and with the wind on our stern, also allowed the one-hour sailing to be very smooth. I don’t see sea smoke very often, and love it!

Although we were in a caravan of vehicles following a grader for the 4 miles from the ferry dock to Haines, once the grader turned off the roads were a challenge, with about 5 inches of snow on every road. Jeremy had arranged for someone to meet us at Alaska Indian Arts, and Lee Heinmiller, a director at the center, had actually come in through these nasty conditions.

Alaska Indian Arts, Haines
Located in the 1904 hospital at Fort William H. Seward, Alaska Indian Arts is a fascinating facility, with all manner of tools on the tables and walls for the creation and restoration of Native art of all sorts, though mostly in wood. Lee did a wonderful job of explaining the things we saw.

Alaska Indian Arts, Haines
Lee said that it takes 50-60 hours per foot to create a totem pole, so this 9-footer would take some 500 hours. Those are octopus tentacles on the right.

Alaska Indian Arts, Haines
A broad view of the main work room.

Alaska Indian Arts, Haines

After leaving the carving shop, we went to the Sheldon Museum and Cultural Center, where staff had also shown up and shovelled a path for us. I took a few people over to our motel to start checking in rather than go into the museum. I got the van rather badly stuck on a hill, but managed to get it back on the level and parked after a half-hour or so of struggling.

Just after 6, we met for dinner and drinks at the Bamboo Room a block from the motel, and it was fun to listen to different people’s thoughts about the day.

Looking at the weather forecast and road reports, this morning, we have a great day ahead of us. The storm is gone, there is lots of blue sky coming, and the highway is open.


A Winter Storm Experience on Land & Sea — 7 Comments

  1. I can feel the cold and wind through those pics! Glad you all made it before the official road closure!!

  2. To be honest that doesn’t sound like a lot of fun to me. I would love to go on the tour but would prefer better weather conditions. 🙂

  3. Had to go back and look at this one again, someone must have interrupted my lunch.

    Meant to ask how you guys deal with the bad roads w the poorly balanced vans, RWD only, right? Does the owner bother to put winter tires or have some sort of cable chain or whatever available or do you just take your chances (thinking about this too w the travelling you did for the Yukon Quest running)…?

    • The vans actually did quite well, with RWD and whatever Positrack is called now (and good winter tread). Getting turned around on the sloped Top of the World Hwy brought on a bit of pucker, but got ‘er done 🙂