“You boys armed?”

Skagway-1898-mayAbove, Skagway, Alaska circa 1898. Below, 2016.

Crowds

“You boys armed?”

That was the question, asked almost 45 years ago when Bob Keller and I walked into a small dark saloon in Skagway, Alaska. Our interrogator was a burly woman – yet sharp around the edges like a fine skinning knife. Her edges had been honed and tempered by years standing in the same spot, dealing with the rough and tumble of Alaska life.

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Depot in Whitehorse. Rail line to Skagway was completed in 1900.

I guess – no we did – look pretty scruffy after driving up the Alaska Highway from Dawson Creek to Whitehorse, a journey of just under 800 miles of mostly mud. Anyone in Whitehorse who had business in Skagway in those days bought a ticket on the White Pass and Yukon Route – a train that made the day-long trip over the White Pass with stops in Carcross and at Lake Bennett – and the only way you could get there from here.

“Yes,” I answered, thinking she must have been joking about our appearance, not guns.

“Well, you can’t drink in here if you’re armed.”

“Only kidding,” I replied. Her eyebrows shot up in a don’t-try-to-BS-me stare  that had me seeking cover. “No guns,” I reiterated.

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The Mounties required miners to bring a ton of food into the Yukon. They had a list of necessary goods every prospector had to have. They hauled their goods up the Chilkoot Pass, one pack at a time and piled them up until they had the lot.

“Open up them coats and raise your arms, Goddamn it!” Keller gave me a look. He was a strict bourbon man in those days and the paucity of that commodity in weeks of traveling through Canada had put him off his feed. And my banter was about to get between him and a bottle of Jack Daniels that gleamed behind the bar.

The only other customer in the place lifted his face off the bar to watch. Our hostess stomped around to the customer side of the bar. “Raise em up, I said,” she ordered.

We did. No guns.

Welcome to Alaska. This was why two newly discharged U.S. Marines drove thousands of miles, from Southern California to the Yukon Territory. As far from civilization as we could get. Bob had his bourbon, and I ordered a scotch – always in good supply in Canada.

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Buildings shorn of paint…
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2016.

 

In 1971, Skagway was a couple of blocks of dilapidated buildings, long since shorn of paint by howling wind, salt air, snow and neglect. The fall air chilled to the bone. A few piles of snow melted slowly in the shadows of buildings. Standing in front of the old saloon, we could see Skagway Inlet a few hundred yards distant, and the steep mountains that squeezed town and inlet into a narrow crack of space.

A chill wind blew in off the inlet, then whispered and sighed around the old buildings and through the trees. I could hear other things as well — the sounds of 1898 carried through time on the moving air. And this was why I came.

The train we rode was a long line of ore cars with a passenger car cum caboose tacked onto the end. The seats were wood benches and heat came from a small pot belly stove in one corner. That caboose could have had a spot on any nineteenth century train in North America.

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Climbing the Chilkoot, one step at a time. How many trips to get your ton of goods up to the top?

This was the very Skagway that greeted gold rushers by the thousands in 1898. The echos from that time were so strong then, that I am able to conjure them up even today. During the rush, Skagway sported something like 84 saloons, and although the saloon population had dwindled to just two or three when we arrived in 1971, I could still close my eyes and tromp up Main Street in the mud with hundreds of others.  I could listen to the excited cacophony of folks soon to be rich or busted, and the smart ones who found their bonanza right there in Skagway, six hundred  miles from the Klondike. This is the image I have carried for 45 years.

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The new road, Highway 2 Tutshi lake.

Nowadays, a 100-mile highway connects Skagway to the Alaska Highway just outside of Whitehorse. The train no longer runs from Whitehorse – you have to drive to Frazer or Carcross to catch it, and they have real passenger cars now. Ignoring these subtle harbingers of change, I clung to my original vision as we drove the “new” road. I was not prepared for the gut-punch that awaited me down on Skagway Inlet, because now there is yet another way to get there.

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Black bear, transmuting berries into a long winter’s nap.

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The country, of course, is magnificent; green, wild and filled with life. An old saw once declared that the human body was 98% water. I think you could say the same for this country, rivers, lakes, snow, waterfalls, creeks, cataracts and rain reign in abundance.

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Just above the trees, the bridge of a cruise ship. Oh -Oh.

As we descended the steep grade into town, the first thing I saw peeking above the trees was the monstrous bridge of a cruise ship. Oh, Oh. Once on the main street, three more cruise-ship bridges appeared. Skagway had reinvented itself, or more likely, cruise ship operators did. Now, instead of the lonely but authentic, almost-ghost town I encountered years ago, Skagway had turned into a blocks-long jewelry store, catering to hordes of souvenir-hungry cruise ship denizens – tough folks who came to experience life under the midnight sun from a luxury suite on a Holland America cruise ship. Pioneers.

My Skagway had degenerated into a plastic village. Echoes and whispers snuffed out. A Knott’s Berry Farm, north. A European vision of Frontier Land. Buildings, old and new, were now brightly painted and the wooden boardwalks filled with folks. Hawkers with strange accents stepped out of shops to accost passersby. Cruise ships now obscured the view of the inlet.

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Peek-a-Boo view of Skagway Inlet. Sigh.

Tour buses, vans and other vehicles plied the streets.  It would seem that the get-rich-quick syndrome that made Skagway in the first place had emerged from long hibernation. But this time the golden mother lode had a different source – a P.T. Barnum vein as wide as Main Street where there’s a “… sucker born every minute.”

My metaphysical connection to the Trail of ’98, the mushers, miners, merchants and madams took one look, screamed and retreated to a deep and unreachable place.

I suppose there is another side to all of this. And the chaos of Main Street, Skagway today could approximate the glory days of ’98. Here a dying town was revitalized, repainted and renewed. Surely there is some good in there for someone – even if it is starkly phony.

I didn’t stick around to find out – but fled in a desperate attempt to reconnect with the memory I had held for 45 years.

I wonder what that burly bar tender would think if she could see today’s imitation. As we moved away from the downtown horror and back up the road toward Whitehorse, recollections peeped out from the places to which they had retreated. And there was Bob again, happy to have found a few bourbon whiskies and some Native Americans to fleece at the pool table, and the other customer in the saloon complaining that after 14 years in Skagway, locals continued to view him as an outsider.

I will continue to cling to the old Skagway, but it’s hard to remember the forest after the trees have all been cut down.

Next up: Beyond the Arctic Circle on the Dempster Highway.
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Author and co-pilot, navigator and general counsel.

Squamish or Sḵwx̱wú7mesh

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Gray skies and green trees. Howe Sound.

The wind, squeezed into ever smaller space between mountains on either side of Howe Sound, howls north from the Salish Sea and then up the Sound, gaining speed 1-IMG_7869until it reaches Squamish, British Columbia. There, where the river of the same name empties into the Sound, sits the town.

Days are long here. Yet, in July, white slashes of snow trail down granite fissures and steep gullies. High peaks continue to preserve snow, enfolding it in the irregular lines of the crests.

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Snow preserved on high peaks.
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Snow and ice in granite cracks and fissures.
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Undulating path along the east shore of Howe Sound.

Traveling north from Vancouver on the Sea to Sky Highway, a wayfarer follows the undulating path along the east shore of the Sound. All along the route, chutes of water cascade over granite escarpments and boulders, plummeting hundreds of feet in some places, finally emptying into the Sound. Deep green forests encircle huge granite outcroppings above the road.

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Shannon Falls and the end of Howe Sound.

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Stawamus Chief. Granite and green forest.

I call this the land of gray skies and green trees, and the scenery, especially here in this part of B.C. evokes thoughts of creation, Gaia, the Universal Creative Source… or whatever floats your boat. Stand in one spot and turn in a full circle: ocean, estuary, rivers, waterfalls, forest, granite, high mountains, and snow – all visible in one turn. Even the most hard-bitten, show-me, big-bang theorists might have a little twinge of wonderment when making the trip. No disrespect intended.

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2-IMG_7972Back to the wind. The funnel effect creates an excellent environment for just about any activity that combines a human being, a kite of some sort and a floating board. When the wind howls, bright colored kites and para sails rise and fall, dart back and forth, spin and turn in a frenzy of motion reminiscent of clouds of insects hatching out of the water and searching for a mate. Canoes, kayaks, rubber dinghies, sail, power and fishing boats add to the turmoil of motion in the Sound.

A quick scan of the granite faces with a pair of binoculars will reveal groups of climbers negotiating various cracks in the rock, or repelling down on a rope. From time to time a base jumper can be seen diving off the high cliffs – and one Seattle man recently lost his life as result of a parachute malfunction. Miles of trails lure hikers and mountain bikers from all parts of Canada. Bear spray sales are brisk.

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July 1, 2016. Canada Day, Squamish, British Columbia. A short but spirited parade celebrating Canadian Independence. The parade was so short that the pipers were only half way through “Scotland the Brave” before they turned the corner and disappeared along with their music. I thought they should have gone around the block and marched past again, so we could hear the entire number.

Sḵwx̱wú7mesh is the Salish orthography – appropriate since the Salish branch of the First Nations settled here originally. And the 7 is thought to represent a pause in the pronunciation, something like squa mish, perhaps. A glottal stop if you will. Like many Native American languages in the U.S,  efforts by both governments attempted to force assimilate aboriginal cultures, and many languages fell victim. Sḵwx̱wú7mesh is one such language, and today there are no Squamish who speak it as a first language. The dual-language road signs represent part of a major effort to preserve the original language of the region.

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Squamish Rail Museum

Even if you don’t speak Sḵwx̱wú7mesh, the Canadians do pretty well with English and a visit here will not entail spending energy in translation and interpretation. Folks who live here claim to be “Wired for Adventure!”

Indeed, there is much to do, see and enjoy along the Howe Inlet.

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Happy neighbor Doris.
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Big Wheels keep on rollin’
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Camp. Whistle Punk RV Park.
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Nothing better… salt water, nice beach and a dummy to throw the stick! Woof.

 

Saturday Market

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Downtown Squamish, BC. Folks heading for the market.
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Hemp Vodka? Absinthe? She’s got it!

There’s something timeless about a Saturday farmer’s market. It’s a ritual linking us to neighbors, and to our past. If you want to know something about a community, visit the Saturday market – much more revealing than a cursory look from the highway.

Go ahead, wander in, have some fun. 2-IMG_8080Stroll down the narrow and crowded rows between booths; some fancy and some just a couple of planks stretched across two barrels. Commotion.7-IMG_8092 Conversation. Laughter. Vegetables. Soap. Hand-crafted oils. Vodka made from Hemp. Massage. Bread. Meat and fish. A little something for everyone. Smell it, Feel it. Taste. All senses will engage here.

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Medieval Facebook. Narrow aisles. Smell. Feel. Taste.

Couldn’t you travel back in time a 100 years and see the very same thing? How about 200 years or 300? Yes, I think one could hop on a time train with a ticket all the way back to the beginning of civilization and see the same vibrant process.

What would the ticket holder see as the train stops at various times in the past and in various countries? Perhaps a little more dirt, a few more animals and flies, and probably a good deal more… well, aroma. But the mechanism is the same – people work all week on farms, gardens or in their ateliers and then, on Friday or Saturday, bring their wares and produce to market.

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Change go to wife! Haha!

Today’s market in Squamish, BC, featured a farmer whose energetic, rapid fire banter and Asian inflection drew crowds to his booth. Clearly he enjoyed himself as well… and he raked in money hand over fist. What could be better?

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Hand over fist.

You want Onion?

Today only… $400. Ha.Ha.

Blueberry?

Picked this morning!

One and a half pound, six dollah fifty!

Change go to wife; happy wife is happy life. Ha. Ha.

Tomato? Pick your own – box over there.

Hey! You! Vote Donald Trump? Haha!

So what’s timeless about it, you ask? 1-IMG_7892It’s a ritual that has existed so long in civilization that it’s grown into our DNA. Farmer’s markets then and now are as much social network as market place – Dark-Ages Facebooks or Twitters that somehow invaded our biology.  On some level, a Saturday market offers comfort – a little window into a simpler life. Vibrant, colorful, alive and without the insidious mechanics of life in the twenty first century. My kind of place.

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Ancient rituals, now part of our DNA.
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Your friendly fish monger!

Feeding the Bears in Banff

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The Canadian Rockies, just west of Banff, Alberta.

 

Standing Bear
603.

A codger curmudgeon named Bruce,

Stopped to pee right next to this spruce.

Now this crap pile you see,

Dropped by bear 603,

Is all that is left of old Bruce.

 

Nigel, the Australian ranger at the entry station warned that a female grizzly had been seen near where we were about to camp. And he mentioned in passing that a pack of wolves had been hanging out in the Bow River Valley. Yikes! Wolves and bears… welcome to Banff and the Canadian Rockies.

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This goat darted our into the road, crossed over and ran up an almost vertical escarpment.

Banff the park and Banff the village lie along the Bow River at about 4,600 feet above sea level. The Bow River Valley covers a huge amount of territory and once that fact came to light, anxiety levels dropped a notch. A big part of me wanted to see wolves and bears in the wild, but the idea of an unexpected encounter was a bit unnerving.

I’m not a fraidy-cat, but I know my limits. I don’t swim in the ocean because there are creatures lurking there with an entirely different view of my position in the food chain. I stay away from bears and wolves because they might have the same idea as a great white shark – and because I know nothing about the life-ways of wolves, sharks or bears.

The expert who advocates saying in a calm manner, “go away, bear” is an idiot. Waiting for the froth-mouthed bear to charge into bear-spray range as a protective measure is an invitation to be transformed into a lumpy pile of bear crap. I prefer being a lumpy human being.

My daydreams turned into endless and nightmarish sudden encounters with angry bears. A stream-of-consciousness transmogrification from human being to bear shit. My nightmare bear is monstrous and standing on his rear legs. As his head slashes from side to side, gallons of foamy saliva fly to either side, flowing in rivers down the trunks of nearby trees. “Go Away Bear!” My jaw works, but I am pretty sure no sound emerges. His roar shakes the trees.

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Partially digested blueberries, cedar bark and alas… the fate of all curmudgeons!

This is a Canadian grizzly. He halts his head slashing just long enough to bellow, “Too bad, you lose. You forgot to say EH!” Then he charges. My right hand flashes down in the fast-draw bear spray maneuver that I should have practiced before setting out into the woods. As the can comes up into position, its momentum carries it forward out of my hand and onto the trail between me and the bear.

Fifteen minutes later I’m a half mile down the trail – now a pile of poop extruded from a grizzly’s butt, mixed in with some partially digested blueberries and cedar bark.

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Evening view from camp. Hard to beat this.

I decided to stay close to camp. The environs there were wonderful. High craggy mountains and green green forest. On the map, the camp looks like a crowded little ghetto. It is not. The campsites are the pull-off type – parallel to the road, and the roads are terraced so that neighbors on the passenger’s side are below, with trees in between and neighbors on the driver’s side are across the road. A fairly decent layout to accommodate 1000 or so rigs and still give everyone the sense of being out in the boondocks.

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Downtown Banff. Quaint. Crowded.

Banff the town is a different story – at least in my opinion. Tourist busses, crowds of people and attendant traffic did not add up to a great experience. Back in camp, I listened each night for the plaintive howl of prowling wolves. I waited furtively for #603 to stroll down the road. Nothing. And so after a few days, we headed north toward Jasper and I thought that Nigel might be better off returning to Australia and counting kangaroos.

Bears, indeed.

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Rocket J. Squirrel. Are you eyeballin’ me?