Day 5 – Skagway, Alaska

Railroading through History in Skagway

Today, my adventures in Skagway took me up the White Pass & Yukon Route railroad aboard a vintage steam train. It's one of six excursions Silversea offers that include this historic transportation network. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders
Today, my adventures in Skagway took me up the White Pass & Yukon Route railroad aboard a vintage steam train. It’s one of several excursions Silversea offers that include this historic transportation network. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

Aaron Saunders, Live Voyage Reports

Silversea’s Silver Shadow came alongside in Skagway, Alaska early this morning, tying up at the Ore Dock on the western edge of town. After another delicious room service breakfast delivered by my butler, Muhammad, I set out to explore Skagway before embarking on my Silversea shore excursion this afternoon: a chance to ride the rails up from Skagway to Fraser, British Columbia.

The elegant Silver Shadow at Skagway's Ore Dock on June 23, 2014. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders
The elegant Silver Shadow at Skagway’s Ore Dock on June 23, 2014. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders
Before my tour, I took the opportunity to explore the historic Gold Rush town of Skagway. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders
Before my tour, I took the opportunity to explore the historic Gold Rush town of Skagway. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

Silversea offers six different excursions here in Skagway that include the historic White Pass & Yukon Route Railway (WP&YR). These range from the standard White Pass Scenic Railway (SGY-Y) excursion to the massive White Pass Railway & Alaska Sled Dogs and Musher’s Camp option that spans seven hours in duration.

However, the one that truly interested me – and the one I ended up taking – was the four hour, All Aboard Steam Train – White Pass & Yukon Route (SGY-I).

All Aboard! Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders
All Aboard! Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

Priced at $199 per person, this tour offers several notable advantages over the standard, 3.5-hour run that comes in at $135. Where the other excursions are pulled by diesel-electric locomotives, the All Aboard Steam Train excursion is pulled by a Baldwin 2-8-2 Mikado constructed in 1947 and delivered to WP&YR that year. The numbers 2-8-2 designate the number of wheels the engine has; in this case, two in front, eight main drive wheels, and two trailing wheels. Designated as No. 73, she was the last steam locomotive purchased by the WP&YR before diesel locomotives were introduced in the 1950’s.

It’s also noteworthy for the fact that it goes completely past the White Pass Summit to Fraser, British Columbia, letting guests see more of the rugged terrain that would-be prospectors were greeted with on their long journey to the Klondike.

Inside of car No. 248, awaiting departure. Two cars were set aside exclusively for Silversea guests. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders
Inside of car No. 248, awaiting departure. Two cars were set aside exclusively for Silversea guests. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

The train backed up onto the siding right next to Silver Shadow at her berth at the Ore Dock on the western side of the town. The two last cars – in my opinion, the best cars – were reserved exclusively for guests on the Silver Shadow, while the foremost cars seemed to be utilised by guests from other cruise lines, who had to be bussed over to our dock.

I took the last seat on the last car, numbered 248. It was originally built in the late 1890’s, but as you can imagine, it has been substantially refurbished over time. Once everyone was onboard, the train gave a great lurch and began its journey up to the White Pass summit and Fraser.

On our way up the historic White Pass & Yukon Route, which would take us from sea level to the summit, some 2,865 feet higher. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders
On our way up the historic White Pass & Yukon Route, which would take us from sea level to the summit, some 2,865 feet higher. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders
Seeing actual smoke emanating from the smokestack of the 1947 Baldwin locomotive was actually rather romantic. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders
Seeing actual smoke emanating from the smokestack of the 1947 Baldwin locomotive was actually rather romantic. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

When I first cruised to Alaska as a teenager, my parents took my sister and I on the White Pass train’s shorter, diesel-powered excursion. It must have cost my father a fortune. Sadly, I think it was lost on the 15-year old me: my memories are of it being beautiful, but boring. Sixteen years older and hopefully wiser, I’d packed a newspaper and a book in case I was ever bored. I never took either out.

To start with, this is the railway that was supposed to have been an impossible pipe-dream to build in the first place. But a man named Michael J. Heney was undisturbed. The veteran railwayman, who had extensive experience with Canadian Pacific, reportedly stated, “Give me enough dynamite and snoose, and I’ll build a railroad to Hell.” I don’t know what ‘snoose’ is, exactly, but I do know I’d stay the heck out of Heney’s way.

Constructing the WP&YR was no easy task. The average grade is 141 feet of elevation per mile. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders
Constructing the WP&YR was no easy task. The average grade is 141 feet of elevation per mile. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders
Crossing one of many wooden trestles. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders
Crossing one of many wooden trestles. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

Construction started in May of 1898, and by the following February, the first train had reached the summit. With its steep grades and enormous change in elevation (the summit is 2,685 feet above sea level, but only 20 or so miles from Skagway), the fact that the railway was even built is nothing short of astonishing. But consider this: the bulk of that work was done during the harsh and unforgiving winter months.

To keep costs down – and because of the limited available space – the WP&YR is what’s called a “narrow gauge” railway. The distance between both rails is only three feet, and the entire width of the track ties is just 10 feet. In many places along the 27.7-mile journey up to Fraser, the landscape drops off sharply on one or both sides of the train. The track looks impossibly small, and the sight of the 145,000lb Baldwin Mikado crossing timber bridges made more than a century ago does have a bit of a “pucker” factor to it.

What Year Is It? Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders
What Year Is It? Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

But the sight of the Mikado belching smoke, soot and steam into the air is unbelievably romantic. It’s not very environmentally-friendly to say so, but when you see that ash-black smoke fire into the air like a dragon roaring, it gets the hairs on the back of your neck up. It’s a beautiful sight; a sign of the raw power this workhorse is able to generate. Coupled with the restless click-clack-click-clack of the cars against the track and Engine No. 73’s lonely whistle bouncing off the mountains as it climbs ever higher, this excursion manages to bring back the heyday of the Gold Rush – if only for a little while.

Smoke and soot from the train covers the horizon. I'd been photographing from the platform at the rear of the train for most of the afternoon, and was surprised to discover that I'd accumulated a fair amount of soot on my shirt! Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders
Smoke and soot from the train covers the horizon. I’d been photographing from the platform at the rear of the train for most of the afternoon, and was surprised to discover that I’d accumulated a fair amount of soot on my shirt! Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

If I sound enthusiastic about the experience, it’s because I am. I loved this. The WP&YR is something that every visitor should experience when in Skagway. The White Pass shut down in 1982 due to lack of demand and changing economic priorities, but reopened as a tourist attraction in 1988. It’s a marvel of engineering, and a testament to the endurance and tenacity of the earliest pioneers of the Klondike.

Some photos from my afternoon adventure with Silversea:

The original "Trail of '98" that led into Skagway, as seen from the WP&YR. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders
The original “Trail of ’98” that led into Skagway, as seen from the WP&YR. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders
Arriving at the Summit, the landscape changes dramatically. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders
Arriving at the Summit, the landscape changes dramatically. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders
Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders
Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders
Imagine thousands of stampeders making their way here - with little to no idea of the dangers that lay ahead in the Klondike. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders
Imagine thousands of stampeders making their way here – with little to no idea of the dangers that lay ahead in the Klondike. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders
Train and wilderness. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders
Train and wilderness. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders
A Champagne Toast at Fraser, British Columbia. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders
A Champagne Toast at Fraser, British Columbia. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders
Making our way back down to the Summit and Skagway. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders
Making our way back down to the Summit and Skagway. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders
Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders
Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders
A Lonely Place. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders
A Lonely Place. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

But experiencing the White Pass, pulled by a steam locomotive, is an entirely unique event. It’s also one with a precarious future: steam engines like the Baldwin Mikado are costly to maintain and operate, and – as our guide Erin pointed out – our engineer today has been doing this for 51 years. On our run, he was in the process of training an up-and-coming engineer on the Mikado; in this era of diesel-electric power, few operators know how to handle a locomotive like this.

Guests make their way back to the Silver Shadow just before the all-aboard time of 4:30pm. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders
Guests make their way back to the Silver Shadow just before the all-aboard time of 4:30pm. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

Trading my steam train for decidedly newer transportation on the dock in the form of Silversea’s Silver Shadow, I sat on my balcony and watched our departure. It was warm enough out that I enjoyed a light beer and read the copy of the Juneau Empire that I picked up last night. We slowly maneuvered away from the Ore Dock and left Skagway and the White Pass behind.

Departure from Skagway always fascinates me, because watching the town recede into the distance strikes me as one of the loneliest sights I’ve ever seen. It only takes four or five minutes of sailing before the town disappears entirely, swallowed up by the landscape that has changed very little for centuries.

Silver Shadow sailing Lynn Canal this evening, as seen from my suite balcony. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders
Silver Shadow sailing Lynn Canal this evening, as seen from my suite balcony. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

Lynn Canal is a lonely place, too. North America’s deepest fjord, we’ll be sailing back down this beautiful but isolated stretch of water as we make our way to Sitka tomorrow. Many gold seekers lost their lives in this Canal, and its historic significance sadly remains unknown to many.

There’s a beauty to this loneliness – one which, I think, is only magnified by the gorgeous surroundings of the Silver Shadow. Understated and laid back, I feel like I’m seeing more of Alaska aboard this ship than I have on my five previous trips. Perhaps the reduced number of guests onboard has something to do with that; I can’t be sure. But I do know this: Silversea is all about sensory stimulation.

Tonight, I was able to stimulate my tastebuds with a dinner at Le Champagne, Silversea’s signature specialty restaurant.

Le Champagne is decidedly intimate, with just a handful of tables. It's the ultimate dining experience on any Silversea vessel. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders
Le Champagne is decidedly intimate, with just a handful of tables. It’s the ultimate dining experience on any Silversea vessel. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders
Preparing soup tableside at Le Champagne aboard Silversea's Silver Shadow. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders
Preparing soup tableside at Le Champagne aboard Silversea’s Silver Shadow. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

At a cost of $40 per person, Le Champagne is the only dining venue aboard the Silver Shadow to sport a surcharge. It’s less of a cash-grab and more of a way to ensure that those who want to dine here are accommodated. The menu, created in conjunction with Relais & Chateaux, has changed little since I first experienced Le Champagne two years ago aboard the Silver Spirit – not that anyone’s complaining. It almost doesn’t matter what you order here; chances are good that the food will be excellent.

You Can't Go Wrong: the only problem with Le Champagne is that everything looks fantastic. Presentation is immaculate, and the food is to-die for. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders
You Can’t Go Wrong: the only problem with Le Champagne is that everything looks fantastic. Presentation is immaculate, and the food is to-die for. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

For dinner, I had the foie gras, followed by the fish bouillon with Camembert cheese, prepared tableside. For my entrée, I chose the Forest Pigeon, which was superb. Of course, that description hardly does the food justice. It’s sublime, extravagant and wonderful. Some of the best food I’ve eaten on any cruise ship anywhere in the world has always been in Le Champagne. Best of all, you can pair your food from an extensive wine list, or chose to indulge in the complimentary white or red wine of the day.

Don’t take my word for it: with a week still to go here onboard the Silver Shadow, Le Champagne is booked solid for the entire cruise. I was only able to get in because of a last-minute cancellation. If you are at all interested in experiencing Le Champagne, my advice would be to book it online in advance using My Silversea.

No matter which day you chose to dine, it will be a magnificent end to your evening.

Farewell, Skagway. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders
Farewell, Skagway. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

Our Live Voyage Report onboard Silversea’s luxurious Silver Shadow continues tomorrow with our arrival in Sitka, Alaska! Be sure to follow along on twitter by following @deckchairblog or the hashtag #LiveVoyageReport.

Follow along with our entire journey!

Silver Shadow, Alaska

DAYPORTARRIVEDEPART
Thursday, June 19, 2014Vancouver, British ColumbiaEmbark Silver Shadow18:00
Friday, June 20Cruising the Inside Passage
Saturday, June 21Ketchikan, Alaska08:0014:00
Sunday, June 22Juneau, Alaska09:3023:00
Monday, June 23Skagway, Alaska08:0017:00
Tuesday, June 24Sitka, Alaska09:0018:00
Wednesday, June 25Cruising Tracy Arm / Sawyer Glacier
Thursday, June 26Wrangell, Alaska07:0016:00
Friday, June 27Prince Rupert, British Columbia08:0017:00
Saturday, June 28At Sea
Sunday, June 29Victoria, British Columbia08:0023:59
Monday, June 30Vancouver, British Columbia07:00Disembark
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