By DREW FOULIS
Skagway has been attractive to travelers for at least 116 years. Gold was discovered far to the north deep in the Klondike’s tributaries. News spread so quickly that within a period of two years, thousands of people came through Skagway to seek their fortune. Approximately one percent made profitable claims, the rest found only adventure.
When you look around from the boardwalks of Broadway, it is impossible to avoid the gaze from the majestic mountains rising from the Pacific Ocean. Today that sense of adventure is still drawing visitors. Tens of thousands of cruise ship passengers filter through Skagway throughout the short four-month summer. Every one of those temporary residents stay only a day or so but are still able to experience the thrill of adventure.
In 1916 Skagway was unofficially titled the “Garden City of the North.” The wild and domesticated gardens around Skagway attract a different variety of temporary resident, the rufous hummingbird.
The name rufous refers to the rusty red coloration of this tiny traveler. They spend harsh Alaska winters in Mexico where they can find plenty of flowers to feed on. The rufous hummingbird feeds mostly on the nectar from flowers but will catch insects midair as an on the go snack. It is just about time for them to make their summer debut back here in Skagway. They typically show up just in time for the salmon berry and red flowering currant to start blooming. The rufous hummingbird is mostly rusty red in color save for the green wings of the males.
The waters of Skagway harbor are teeming with marine life. Seals, sea otters and countless sea birds reside here permanently. There is one large mammal that can be seen only in passing, the gray whale. Traveling more than 12,000 miles a year, the gray whale spends the summers off the coast of Alaska, filtering sediment off the sea floor for small plankton. Once the coastal waters start to cool off, they travel in small groups called pods back to the coast of Mexico. The Sea of Cortez is where they find warmer waters. Measuring 40 to 50 feet long and weighing over 30 tons, this monster whale was once extensively hunted and was on the endangered species list until 1994. They harbor many parasites on the surface of their skin and resemble large rocks covered in barnacles.
The melting snow capped mountains surrounding Skagway draw in one amazing temporary resident, the pink salmon. In late summer the salmon literally fill the banks of Pullen creek, rushing upstream to spawn. The salmon in turn attract bears, grizzly and black, down from their mountain foraging grounds. The buffet of protein rich fish is more attractive and reliable than the gold of the Klondike stampede that put the town of Skagway on the map.
So whether you came to experience the adventure of Soapy Smith’s Skagway for a day, or you have come to work your way to a poke full of gold after a glorious season in an exciting place. Everyone should remember to stop, look around, and appreciate the presence of the many temporary residents of Skagway Alaska.
Drew Foulis is a seasonal resident of Skagway, exercising his naturalist sense of wonder while satisfying his thirst for adventure. This column will appear monthly this summer in the first issue of the month.