Category Archives: 2005 Retracing the Yukon Gold Rush

Well, *I* thought it was funny

There once was a cruise ship in Hoonah
Whose passengers hated canned tuna
“If we wanted such fare,
“We’d go over there
“And sail with the folks on that schoona’!”

When I read this out loud to the folks on Indigo, it went over like a lead balloon. What, don’t schooner and tuna rhyme?

The truth is, we only ate tuna on Indigo once. And that time, I disguised it so well that Barry later asked me if my tuna salad actually had tuna in it!

Zipping South on Indigo

(Originally posted as written by Barry, but that was a technical boo-boo. Definitely a Meps original: Barry never uses colons.)

It feels strange, not to be moving every day. Stranger still is the feeling I have when I lay down in bed at night: My bed’s not moving. And I’m not in a tent. Hey, where the heck am I?

And how did we get from our last web entry, at Craig, to Puget Sound in only two weeks? As Indigo’s skipper, Paul, said to us in Campbell River, “This is the delivery portion of the trip.”

Back up with me, all the way to Juneau, on July 5th. When Barry and I returned there from our side trip to Dawson City, we had to find a needle in a haystack. Or, one 42-foot boat out of thousands. We were looking for Indigo, and her crew was looking for us.

We got off the ferry from Skagway at 3 am, after about four hours of sleep. The terminal was miles from town. A couple of other backpackers were standing around, so we asked what their plans were. “They said we can pitch our tents right here until morning. We’re just waiting, um, for the dogs… ” “Right here” was the patch of grass in front of the terminal, where ferry-riding dogs were doing their business. We found a clear spot, pitched our tents, and turned in until 7.

In the morning, we hiked into town and looked for Indigo. There was no sign of her, so we checked our bags at the Alaska State Museum and spent the day there. Actually, our bags didn’t fit in their lockers, so the kindly staff put them behind the front desk, and then spent the rest of the day tripping over the bulky things. That afternoon, I made a lucky call to the right marina. “I just talked to that boat on the radio,” said the harbormaster. “They’ll be on E-dock, out at Douglas.”

When we got off the bus in Douglas, the island opposite Juneau, there was a really weird noise from the other side of the street. “I knew that emergency whistle was good for something,” said Paul. He and the crew were waiting for a bus on the other side of the street.

It was a diverse group. Paul is a professor of economics at Seattle U., with two months off to complete the trip. His wife, Gayle, had a month of vacation from Vashon Youth & Family Services, but it was not a good time to travel: Her father was battling cancer back home and didn’t have long to live. Norm, recently retired from a government job, is a scuba diver, boatbuilder, and artist who signed on as crew for the whole trip. His wife, Linda, retired from over 20 years with the Department of Agriculture just before flying to Prince Rupert and sailing on Indigo for a month. Her first days of retirement reminded me of my own. You just can’t believe this vacation will never end.

At 42 feet and over 30,000 pounds, Indigo sounds like a big boat. But she doesn’t have a lot of interior space, and it was very crowded with all of us aboard. When the sun was shining and the glaciers were calving and the whales were jumping, it was glorious. When it rained for three days in a row and we started running out of fresh produce and there wasn’t enough room to dry 6 sets of foul weather gear, it was miserable.

Aboard Indigo, we went north and west, through Icy Strait to Glacier Bay National Park. Then we went back south, between Chicagof and Baranof Islands, to Sitka, where Gayle flew out just in time to say farewell to her father. We cruised along the Outside, enduring swells and seasickness and stopping at Goddard Hot Springs, the Maurelle Islands, and Craig, where we rented a Suburban to explore Prince of Wales Island. (I know, embarrassing, but it’s the only model of car they rent there.)

In one super-long day (19 hours), we headed back east to Prince Rupert, where Linda flew home, in part to care for their geriatric kitty. With a crew now numbering four, we made it to Friday Harbor in just ten days. That’s where Barry and I said goodbye and caught a Washington State Ferry. We’d been aboard Indigo for exactly one month of the ten-week trip.

This afternoon, we’re heading out for a weekend sailing trip with someone we only met a few days ago, when we were in Friday Harbor. There’s another story there, too long for now, but the good news is this: Tonight, when I go to sleep aboard Sparrow, nee Nereid, I know my bed will move. It will rock gently at anchor, and Barry and I will be off on yet another adventure.

Eagle doesn’t rhyme with seagull

He’s staring at me down his beak
Looking massive, ferocious and sleek
This huge awesome eagle
Is so goddamned regal
I feel like a featherless freak

We were paddling down the Yukon River when I wrote this. There weren’t too many eagles, about one a day. Lots more arctic terns and gulls, and a few kingfishers.

Barry and I actually call eagles “iggles” and seagulls “siggles.” It runs in the family: We recently heard that Barry’s 2-year-old nephew calls seagulls “e-gulls!”

Back to Puget Sound

Well, our trip to Alaska is finished with a return to one more mode of transportation. We left Indigo in Friday Harbor, and then took the Washington state ferry from the San Juan Islands to Anacortes, and are now back on Camano Island.

We need to sort through our pictures, journals and memories of the trip and find some goodies to share. Eventually our lives will settle down and we may figure out what to call “normal” for a while, but probably not ’till September.

Off-the-beaten-path points

Getting Indigo into the slip assigned to us was a bit hectic this afternoon. Once the boat was secure, the fellow on the dock looked up at the five of us. “Welcome to Planet Craig,” he said with a grin.

Craig, Alaska, is on Prince of Wales Island. The library computer has a waterfront view, looking across at green and blue mountains. There’s a street, with cars and trucks. But I’m sure their odometers don’t read much, since the road doesn’t go anywhere. There are lots of boats, mostly fishing boats and trawlers.

We measure places in Alaska by how far off the beaten path they are. Hoonah received a high score, when we stopped there on our way to Glacier Bay. On our way back out of Glacier Bay, we saw a cruise ship docked there, and Hoonah’s score slipped. Sitka got high points for the marina, where we met fascinating people. One fellow had sailed with Allen Farrell, one of our heroes. We grilled him for details. We chatted with a woman named Jackie, whose family of four had cruised the Pacific for seven years on a shoestring. She and her husband are working in Sitka currently, their two children riding up and down the dock on bicycles. Another fellow invited us to join him and his buddies for beers on his powerboat. Sitka is a friendly place.

But for off-the-beaten-path points, Tenakee Springs was best of all: No cars, only a wide path with bicycles and handcarts. I like the idea of life without cars.

In a few minutes, when the library closes, we’ll explore Craig and its totem poles. We’ll let you know what kinds of people we find here. Hope they’re as friendly as Sitka!

Whitehorse, Yukon, 1:30 AM

A few feet away from our campsite
Some people are having a fistfight
It’s pretty surreal
This kind of ordeal
Is not s’posed to happen at twilight

We were in Whitehorse, Yukon Territories, the day before the summer solstice. There were a couple of hours of twilight in the woods where we were camping, but it was light all night long. The lack of darkness made people stay up late, drinking and playing frisbee and then having weird middle-of-the-night fights.

Drinking from the Yukon River

Upon our return from the Skagway library where I last wrote, we found the one picnic table in the tenting area of the campsite was taken by two older German fellows. Luckily for us, they offered to share…not just the table, but their stories. Manfred is from East Berlin, Peter is from West Berlin. Peter’s been visiting the Yukon for 30 years, paddling the river dozens of times. Manfred, who is 69, was unable to fulfill his travel dreams until the fall of the Berlin Wall. I asked him where he could travel before 1989. He wrinkled his nose. “Russia, Poland. Bah! Hungary.”

He’s making up for lost time — he’s seen India, South America, and climbed Mount Kilamanjaro. He has always wanted to paddle the Yukon, so this summer, he and Peter paddled from Whitehorse to Dawson City. “It’s easy,” they told us, and they gave us the brochure from the outfitter…so…

When we left Skagway, we took the train over White Pass, the one that followed the trail through the 1897 Dead Horse Gulch. Awesome ride, not to be missed. A bus took us to Whitehorse, where we stopped at the visitor’s center and watched a 15-minute film about the Yukon. It was full of what we thought was hyperbole. “When you come here, you want to stay,” the film said, over and over. Someone was quoted as saying, “If you drink the water from the Yukon, that’s it. You’ll never leave, or if you do, you’ll have to come back.” Cute movie, we thought. A bit over the top, though. What did we know? We were in downtown Whitehorse, for crying out loud. We hadn’t seen the real Yukon yet.

A couple of blocks from there, we rented a canoe and a couple of “bearproof” food barrels and purchased a strip map of the Yukon River. When we came off the river eight days later, after complete solitude and no trappings of “civilization,” I was starting to understand the movie.

We left the canoe at Carmacks, a little place where the road crosses the river, and boarded a converted schoolbus for the 5-1/2 hour trip to Dawson City, scene of the Klondike Stampede. Aboard, we met Jim and Heide, Corrie, and Dawn and Vern. I never cracked the cover of my book. We talked with them all the way there.

In his film, “City of Gold,” Pierre Berton says of the 1898 gold rush stampeders, “When they arrived (at Dawson City), many never dug for gold at all. They had already found what they were seeking.” Not hyperbole. By the time I’d spent five days in Dawson City, I understood what he meant.

There are tourists, and there are passers-through. There are lots of RVs. But there are also people who came 20 or 30 years ago, and haven’t left. We met a Vietnam-era draft dodger with roots in California. He bought a portion of the old school, moved it to a lot on the north edge of town, and now calls this place home. Across the river is Dieter, with his German accent. He’s been in Dawson City for 25 years, running the hostel for over 10. Our bus driver has been here since 1988. He’s not going anywhere, either.

This is no has-been ghost town, nor is it only a place for tourists. Dawson City is still a gold mining town, a special place that many people call home. We stopped to chat with a man perched on a boulder on Front Street. His name was Ian, his accent Scottish. Looking like a leprechaun (“I grew up only 12 miles from Ireland,” he admitted), he was trying to figure out the best way to make Dawson City a home for himself and his dog, Yukon. Another man, who leads Boy Scout trips up here from “down South,” is looking for retirement property. “It’s a special place,” he said. “It gets to you.” I doubted he’d seen the Yukon film, but he was quoting it directly.

When we paddled the river, we tried to drink from the tributaries instead of the river itself. But we must have gotten a sip or two by accident. Because I understand the movie now, and it’s not hyperbole. You can really get “the bug” up here, and then you have to come back.

I have this idea for a way to make some money, up in Dawson City. Once I work it out, I just might be back. See ya’ next year, Yukon!