In June 2015 we took our first cruise on the Norwegian Pearl to Alaska. On our Alaska cruise we sailed 1,760 nautical miles over seven days from Seattle, Washington to Juneau, Skagway, and Ketchikan in Alaska, through Glacier Bay National Park, to Victoria, British Columbia, and back to Seattle. Check out our route:
We sailed from Juneau to Skagway overnight and arrived in Skagway at 7am on Day 4. Our first view of Skagway was very much like Juneau – a small fjord with the town nestled in the crook of the mountains and right on the water.
Skagway was founded in 1897 and has a current population of 920. During the Klondike Gold Rush in 1896, Skagway boomed with prospectors and by June 1898, it was the largest city in Alaska with a population of 10,000. The sudden influx of visitors and residents brought with it lawlessness and dubious citizens – prostitutes, swindlers, and con men (a lot of this culture is maintained in the downtown area for tourist interest). In 1898 a 14-mile railroad was constructed called the White Pass and Yukon Route. Unfortunately gold was never found in the Skagway-Dyea region and around 1900 the rush was over. Skagway’s economy had all but collapsed. The main industry in Skagway now is tourism with roughly 1 million visitors annually, 3/4 of which arrive on cruise ships.
One of the biggest attractions in downtown Skagway is Rotary Snowplow No. 1, seen below. It was used to help clear the train tracks of snow during the harsh winters in Skagway. It is pushed by two helper engines and its 10 blades use centrifugal force to clear the snow (probably could have used one of these in Boston with our 100+ inches of snow this winter). The plow was built in 1898 by the Cooke Locomotive and Machinery Company of Paterson, New Jersey for the White Pass and Yukon Route railroad and was retired in 1965 (cool video of it in action here).
Skagway’s downtown is very cute but relatively small – mostly touristy shops.
The buildings were pretty incredible though and had a really nice vintage feel.
Our excursion for the day while we were in Skagway was a visit to the Sled Dog & Musher’s Camp in Dyea, Alaska. A very small group of us (about 15) were picked up by Kyle from Alaska Excursions and driven to the camp (about 30 minutes from Skagway). Kyle gave us a very comprehensive background on the area and the histories of Skagway and Dyea on the drive.
The landscape was gorgeous. Dyea was a former gold rush town as well but there is literally nothing left to show for it. All of the buildings and roads have become forest again so it’s now an actual ghost town. My favorite thing about the area was all of the wild orchids everywhere.
To get up to the sled dog camp we had to get off the bus at their base camp and load on to this refurbished German unimog military truck. The camp owns a few to traverse the steep and rocky terrain to and from the camp (which is about one mile, straight up, from the base camp).
Halfway up the road there was a scenic overlook of the Dyea tidal flats and Taiya River where we were able to get out and take some pictures.
We loaded back in to the unimog and finally arrived at the sled dog camp!
This camp is home to mushers who bring their dogs to train for various winter races. All of the dogs at the camp are owned by year-round mushers training for speed races, the Yukon Quest, and the Iditarod.
The mushers bring their dogs to Alaska for the summer to weight train. They spend their time here working out by hauling 2,000 lb. summer sleds (you’ll see below). The sleds they normally pull during speed races or the Iditarod are roughly 400 lbs. so they put on serious muscle training in the summer. In the winter the mushers will take their dogs to the midwest or western states to train on endurance/long distance running.
At the mushers camp we learned all about the race logistics (nice summary here), the rules and regulations, and how the dogs are cared for. It’s worth mentioning here that these dogs are true athletes. The dogs in the camp are typically Alaskan huskies – crossbreeds of Siberian huskies, hounds, setters, spaniels, and German shepherds. The breeding of these dogs has been very intentional, their mixes being chosen for strength, stamina, speed, tough feet, endurance, and a good attitude. These dogs are not forced to be runners – they are working dogs and genuinely love to run, and you can clearly see that when you meet them. The mushers confirmed too that if any dog shows any signs of disinterest in the sport from a young age, they are adopted out immediately. They don’t force them to do anything they don’t want to – but these animals naturally want to work.
Time for a dog sled ride!
Each sled holds 6 riders and one musher, and is pulled by 16 dogs. The musher calls out commands to stop and start, to make turns, and what speed to run at. John and I sat in the front of our sled and were amazed by these dogs!
(Again, full screen mode is best for the video!)
During our sled ride the musher stopped to take some pictures of us in the sled with all of the dogs included!
After our 1 mile sled ride the musher introduced us to all 16 dogs!
She told us each of their names and a little bit about their personalities. The two in the middle below are the two who were in the very back of the sled we were on. They are brothers and are super playful with each other.
Each dog was so sweet, friendly and loving, with such distinct characters, and were just genuinely happy animals. They loved to be pet and actively sought our attention. These dogs clearly have a good life!
After that we were headed to the best part of the camp – PUPPIES! The sled dog camp also breeds the dogs and has a special area just for the puppies and their moms. It’s a win-win for them too since visitors like us actually help to socialize the dogs, which is essential if they want to be successful racing athletes.
I cannot even put into words how precious and adorable these puppies were. They were so chill and relaxed too. We totally fell in love.
This little guy was a kisser!
After we spent as much time with the puppies as we could we headed back on the unimog, back down to base camp, bussed to downtown Skagway, and back on the cruise ship. It was a full day of fun and adventure – just like vacation should be. AND PUPPIES!
Stay tuned for Cruise Day 5 in Glacier Bay National Park!