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A bus tour from Skagway through the Yukon in the 1960s

Arctic & Northern History

This story was part of "Ten Days in the Ice Age" by John Dos Passos, published in Holiday magazine in April 1966.

    It was nearly dusk, the wind had hauled into the south, and inky clouds had closed off the channel behind us by the time we docked in Skagway. The head of navigation of the Lynn Canal is a scattering of frame buildings and false store fronts on either side of a wide street, pebbly like a stream bed, which the sourdoughs of gold-rush days ironically named Broadway.

    Skagway lives on memories of two stampedes: the frenzied climb over White Pass by a mob of gold-seekers headed for the Klondike at the turn of the century; and the massive movement of supplies and men, which was to lay the foundation for modern Alaska, by the United States Army at the time of the Japanese descent on the Aleutians.

    Skagway is all tourist trap, but the sense of remoteness takes the banality out of many of its attractions. It's rather touching to see the local storekeepers and schoolma'ams dressed up at tourist time, after supper, as bad men and scarlet women out of Robert W. Service. In redecorating the Golden North Hotel with brass beds and antimacassars they have managed to reproduce the flavor of that special mid-19th Century subculture that spread up the coast from San Francisco.

    On the walls are photographs of the heroic Harriet Pullen, who, left a widow with children to support, moved up from Wisconsin and made a tidy fortune furnishing chow to the prospectors in Klondike days. She was reputed to be a lady friend of a confidence man and desperado known as Soapy Smith, who met his end shooting it out with the vigilantes; but when steamship tours took the place of the gold rush as Skagway's source of income, Mrs. Pullen turned her hand to presiding with becoming dignity over a hostelry noted for its food and its flower garden.

    Some ladies I met on the boat got dutifully soaked tramping through the Skagway gardens even after the rain came on. Sweet peas. Snapdragons, all huge. Monkshood the only perennial. Nobody wanted to miss an item out of the picturesque sixty-year-old past.

    Until the present generation, Americans have seemed almost impervious to the past - at home, that is; the past was in Europe. How the mood has changed! Now every scrap of local history is turned into a side show. Is it our inability to cope with what's happening to us today that makes us gulp down greedily every spicy bit of anecdote out of the past? Every beaten-up piece of secondhand furniture sells as an antique.

    I don't mean that the trek into the Yukon through Skagway wasn't a great show in its day. I wish I'd been there to see it. We have all wished once in a while we were Dangerous Dan McGrew.

    I could see the clouds moving in from the south as I trotted along the duckboards that form the sidewalks of this Broadway. I hardly had time to take refuge in a restaurant before the curtain of cold rain that had already blanketed the waterfront swept up the street. I'd been eating well on the whole trip, Petersburg shrimp and fresh salmon and halibut, well-cooked at that; but this king crab was the best anybody ever tasted. Almost worth making the trip for. Skagway is one of the centers of the Alaskan crab fisheries, and here they fried it to the queen's taste.

    The old Yukon narrow-gauge railroad, rehabilitated and equipped with powerful diesel engines during World War II, now runs a daily load of tourists over the White Pass into the Canadian Yukon. East of the divide we find the sun shining. The railroad skirts a series of lakes that the prospectors used to navigate on rafts and improvised boats. Terrific wind gusts made the going difficult. It was easier in winter, on the ice. The town on Lake Bennett was quite a metropolis in the early days of the century. A great big log church, left unfinished when the gold rush petered out, still stands to testify to the energy of those days.

    At the railroad station at Bennett, dinner is served to the passengers at long tables in old-fashioned boarding-house style. The tourists will hardly believe it is moose meat they are eating.

    At Carcross, at the farther end of Lake Bennett, an old river steamboat sits on props on the bank of the Watson River. From here on, in gold-rush days, prospectors, if they succeeded in poling their boats and rafts through twenty miles of icy blasts and choppy water, found steamboat transportation through other lakes and tributaries to the Yukon. Jack London is supposed to have made his living for a while piloting boats through the rapids above Whitehorse.

    Whitehorse turns out to be all new. The people are not slow in telling you that their town is the capital of Canada's Yukon Territory. There is a large administration building, an Indian school and a post office. There is just a touch of consistent architectural taste - so rare in American cities - in the plain white buildings. I recalled that in Vancouver the look of discrimination in the new Canadian buildings had struck me hard after rattletrap Seattle. As Jefferson kept saying, architecture is the most important of the arts "because it shows so much." Just a glance down the single main street of Whitehorse gives you the feeling that there is a certain style about the Canadian North.

    The Whitehorse Inn has tried to catch up with the times by putting on a new face to the street. Inside it is still a seedy old-time Canadian hotel. There's a delegation here from Ottawa, dreadful swells who won't say How-do-you-do to a tourist on the stairs. If they had been Americans, they would have been shaking your hand. Dark suits, narrow ties, cardboard faces; they reek of the Foreign Office. There are signs on the bedroom doors: Sir Somebody This, the Right Honorable Sir Something That. Their walk proclaims the VIP. Some of them are foreigners; there's an unmistakable Russian. Their necks stiff with protocol, diplomats are being shepherded through the North.

    At the bar, things are quite different. There is a lot of drinking done in the North. People blame the climate. Two wind-burned old-timers, with the look of being fresh from the tundra, are drinking with a raw-boned young man in blue denims, a newcomer for sure. He's drinking up strong, a little too strong. He keeps saying he has to go to work at eight. Must be an electrician from the hydroelectric plant: where else would they be working around the clock? One of the old-timers remonstrates a little. "They can't fire me," he shouts back. "It cost them $300 to bring me out here."

    From Whitehorse north, all transport is by road and airplane. The river boats have given up. There's a group of old stern-wheelers jacked up on the soggy shore of the Yukon River. On the stern of one of them is propped a sign carefully lettered in red: Please brother find me a nicer home.

    Whitehorse is full of Indians, but they dress and act like anybody else. One has the feeling that their relation to the society around them is changing. The youngest generation is being absorbed fast. There is something new going on in the North.

    Along the Alaska Highway next morning, I hardly saw an Indian, only the homes of their dead. The bus driver stopped to let the passengers roam for a while through the burial ground of a tribe of Crows.

    The place is heartbreaking. Instead of tombstones they build little model houses for the spirits of the dead to abide in. They are white men's houses, with glass windows and gable roofs. Years ago they used to leave food and cooking pots and accoutrements in the spirit houses; they don't any more, because the white men stole everything. Still, it is in neatly made models of white men's shacks that the Crows like to think their dead await eternal life.

    It is an all-day ride from Whitehorse to the Alaska border. At first the bus goes through a burned-over region. The rain has left the road slippery. We pass a car that has skidded clean up the bank. The driver explains that the Alaska highway is one of the hardest roads in the world to keep in condition. Permafrost, washouts, snowdrifts. They have a worse time with the American part of the road, which is hard-topped, than they do with the Canadian section, which has been left in gravel. Only three months in the year are fit for repair work.

    The sky has cleared. Glittering white pyramids of the Saint Elias Range thrust up to the west. We trundle through rolling plateau country, a mossy land of stunted spruce. This is the taiga, which stretches in a huge band across the Northern Hemisphere from Baffin Land to the Urals. From horizon to horizon there is nothing but starved spruce and dwarf willow and fireweed gone to seed. At Kluane Lake the road skirts the mountains. On the gravelly shore of the vast, empty aquamarine lake the driver stops to point out some tiny white specks way up the slope of a Gibraltar-shaped outcropping. Mountain sheep - Dall sheep, they call them in Alaska.

    He tells us the lake is full of fish, and sure enough, at a lunchroom attached to the filling station in a tiny settlement called Destruction Bay, there is fresh-caught lake trout waiting for our lunch.

    Evidently men have persisted for thousands of years on this lake shore that seems so barren. At the museum at Whitehorse, along with mammoth tusks and mastodon teeth, there are artifacts and arrowheads and chipped flesh-scrapers dug up at Kluane Lake from strata said to date back 8,000 years.

    After leaving Kluane Lake, the emptiest, bluest great lake I ever saw, we enter a region of small ponds and tangled water-courses wandering among pygmy trees stunted by the permafrost. To the west rise new snowpeaks of the King and Queen Range. Nineteen-thousand-foot Mount Logan is mantled in clouds. Somebody sights a baby moose. There's a beaver swimming across the brook beside the road.

    Properly enough, the next stop is called Beaver Creek. This is the frontier between Yukon Territory and the State of Alaska. The bus discharges its passengers at the comfortable Alas/kon Border Lodge for the night. Across the road is a Canadian forestry station with flower beds and a greenhouse where they are growing tomatoes - an incongruous sight at 63° North latitude. Farther along is an Indian mission church contrived by the Oblate Fathers out of a Quonset hut, with snapdragons and ageratum in a tiny flower bed in front.

    An Indian hamlet is scattered through the woods around the mission. Wandering about in the saffron glare of a great sunset, we meet an Indian family going home to their cabin. A woman leads the way, bent forward by a burden hanging on her back from a thong across her forehead. She gives us a sweet smile in return for our greeting. Behind her scramble the children. The older ones carry small packs. Alongside trots the dog. The dog has his pack, too, carefully made, like saddlebags for a mule. Never saw a dog with such a proud look.

    Years ago near Chichicastenango in Guatemala, I met a Mayan family toiling up the steep trail into town. There were the same thongs across the forehead, the same eyes and cheekbones, the same look, except that those Indians had a burro and were dressed in home-woven cotton. Their dog, too, had a pack just suited to his size. The recollection gave, for me, a stamp of truth to the theory that humans migrated across Bering Strait to people the continent southward, as no amount of argument by anthropologists has ever done.

    We turned out early next morning to find the thermometer outside the coffeeshop reading four degrees below freezing. This was August 28. I board the bus again, for the trip into Fairbanks. The Alaskan part of the highway has been black-topped, but the frost heaves make it rougher than the gravel road in Canada. There are many detours. Road crews are working overtime with bulldozers and road scrapers to repair the washouts before winter.

[and on into Alaska they go...]