Alaska is a place synonymous with stunning natural beauty. I’ll never forget the surreal feeling of calm and tranquillity seeing Tracy Arm Fjord growing into my field of view. Standing out on the promenade deck, our cruise ship was completely dwarfed by the tall and narrow passage into Juneau. As I’ve come to find, unless you go by water, there are places in Alaska you simply cannot access, and experiences you cannot replicate on land. Whether it be seals floating past on the chunks of ice spilling out from the Hubbard Glacier, or Humpback whales and Dolphins breaching out the water to play in your wake, cruising around the main Alaskan ports on the Queen Elizabeth is an experience I cannot recommend highly enough. But the same is true of seeing Alaska by train, an expedition through history that will leave you awestruck.
If you do decide to book a cruise around Alaska, your main ports of call will probably include; Juneau (the state capital), Ketchikan (and its famous lumberjack display), Icy Straight Point (the best place for whale watching), Sitka (great walks through the Tongass National Forest), Glacier Bay (a chance to get up close to the Hubbard Glacier) and my favorite port of all – Skagway.
Possibly the most ‘Alaskan’ port on the list, a stroll down Skagway’s main high street Broadway Avenue transports you back to the late 19th century. From the actresses portraying courtesans and calling out from top story windows to the staff at the Red Onion Saloon, the staff and residents double down to help immerse visitors in the era. As the port is now solely sustained on tourism, it’s a great attraction to have all this attention to detail.
But what hasn’t been replicated, imitated, or indeed changed much at all since it’s completion at the turn of the 20th century is Skagway’s main attraction; The White Pass and Yukon Railroad.
My ensuing journey aboard this line would take me across the border into Canada and back again. That roundtrip remains the backbone of my time around Alaska. It spoke to a childhood fascination I had with locomotion, but moreover, it represented a journey through time. This railway initially only existed to service the epic Klondike gold rush, as brazen prospectors treacherously pursued the American Dream and flocked to Skagway in search of wealth and opportunity. Steeped in history and tales of misfortune, this passage to riches emanated a sense of crazed desire that really spoke to me.
Although I wasn’t looking for gold, I was perhaps, like many of us, looking for something harder to define and more valuable. Investing time in these kinds of experiences seems to have gotten me closer to a gold strike of sorts, expanding my overall perspective. I still remember sitting inside the trundling train, watching the great Alaskan scenery roll by, and considering what it must be like to have opportunity laid out as clearly as a railway line; if only life were that simple.
But that day began simply indeed, with my cabin mate and I determined to ‘get some’ of Alaska by train. We had already planned to ride along the route, although we hadn’t a clue of when the next train would leave Skagway. As it turned out, we were very early, so after purchasing our tickets from the station we grabbed some coffee and walked around, stopping briefly in an art gallery to look at pictures we couldn’t afford. As we looped back, we found several other crew members from our cruise ship hopping aboard the same train as us. I wasn’t even surprised, and it’s an understated perk of traveling the world as a crew member on a cruise ship. No matter what secluded corner of the world you find yourself in, the chances are you’ll bump into a friend.
With a small group of us now assembled, we joined the hoard of other tourists and walked to the station platform. As the crowd grew and grew, I was surprised to find that instead of the train coming to us, we were all slowly herded towards the train, stopped in place about a ten minute walk away. This only added to the novelty and sense of adventure, in the same way you wait excitedly to creep forwards in line and strap yourself in on a rollercoaster.
But this narrow gage railway isn’t Thunder Mountain. The tour guide added thoughtful commentary from speakers, but the whole three hours it took us to ride into Canada and back was really ours to take pictures, relax, and step outside the car onto the rear platform, immersing ourselves in the Alaskan air. The movement of the carriage and the boundless scenery lulled me into a contemplative state. Looking around, I noticed every single person around me just sitting in silence and watching the world go by. I even stopped thinking about my camera or taking photos; I just wanted to enjoy the moment and disconnect.
As you enjoy the 40 mile round trip, expect to pass through a series of narrow tunnels, across impressive bridges, and alongside dramatic mountains as Alaska’s glaciers, gorges and waterfalls reveal themselves on your way to the peak of White Pass. Pay attention and you’ll notice an ominous black cross visible in an opening amongst the treeline, denoted the final resting place of two of the many men who died in the construction of this railway. Exploding entire slices of mountainside and arduously pummeling the terrain to conform to their railway was dangerous and exhaustive work, encouraged by the gung-ho attitude of the railway’s rich and decadent designers who had hundreds of thousands of dollars invested in every mile of track laid down. One of these audacious men, aptly named “Big” Mike Henley, famously proclaimed: “Give me enough dynamite, and snoose, and I’ll build you a railroad to hell.”
Although our journey of Alaska by train wasn’t anything close to being hellish, I still kept in mind the price of progress and all the past fatalities that now, over a century later, allowed us to pleasantly ride through the mountains. Travel is in many ways a luxury, and although it sometimes sounds inviting to have one’s destiny laid out like a railway track, there’s a lot to be said for having choices and decisions to make as well. With that ability comes responsibility.
Soon we rolled back towards Skagway, seeing again the busy Broadway Avenue of bustling tourists, whom we soon joined as we disembarked to have lunch at the saloon. Riding to a mining town and then back to actors serving gluten free and vegan pizza, the passing of time became all too apparent, and I felt exposed to a great part of Alaska’s history. Although I have nothing but fond memories of all the Alaskan ports, I never got the same feeling of connection to a place as I did to Skagway that day. The entire town’s history seemed to be riding along that railroad, and I was fortunate enough to ride along with it.
Whether it be the sense of discovery and fortune embedded in the tracks, or just being immersed in the amazing views; the day I saw Alaska by train I felt completely content to sail away from Skagway, safe in the knowledge I had really made the most of my valuable hours in port. I think most crew members on board ships would agree, the day’s you feel this kind of resounding sense of satisfaction walking back towards the gangway are few and far between.