Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Howling in Liarsville

Today we are in Skagway, which is an English-ized version of the Tlingit Indian name for the city. It means either "windy place" or "cold northern wind"; I've seen and heard both definitions while here. The little town - population 850 during the winter, 2,500 during the summer - is bordered on three sides by mountains, and the fourth by the sea channel our ship came up. Food and supplies are delivered once each week by barge, though there is a highway that connects down through Canada and into the lower 48 states.

Skagway is best known for being the head of two trails into the Klondike and the gold rush of the 1890s. It's most famous tourist attraction is the White Pass Railroad, built in 1898 despite treacherous conditions. It took tens of thousands of men, 450 tons of explosives, and 26 months to complete. Now it carries over 400,000 tourists each year on a 40-mile loop. The railway originally extended over 100 miles through the Yukon.

Instead of the railroad ride, Bonnie and I chose to visit "Liarsville" - where you howl like a wolf baying at the moon to greet someone, you howl to say goodbye, and you howl when you're just plain angry. Between the lumberjack show and Liarsville, we have given our lungs a good stiff workout.

While we were there, we had some salmon grilled on an open air range, and wood-smoked. It was delicious and like a picnic on a sunny, 40-degree day. Still, we must be getting acclimated in some ways, as the temperature seemed extremely bearable ... at least until we finally made our way back to the boat, when the cold wind began to bite through our layers of clothing.

Why is it called Liarsville?

When the gold rush became news, editors of newspapers all over the country sent reporters north. Based on scanty interviews with prospectors, stories were being written that gave the indication the gold rush was a pleasant boat trip north, an easy wagon ride into the gold fields, and there you would just be able to bend down, pick up gold the size of small rocks, and make your fortune.

The reality was that the Skagway trail into the Klondike was incredibly difficult, taking six months to reach the summit and the size of your "fortune" was, at the least, greatly exaggerated. When these reporters finally reached the tent city at the head of the trail, they realized the extent of the arduous journey before them, and most stayed at the base camp, sending back stories to their editors as if they had, indeed, reached the Klondike, and perpetuated the gold rush myth. In other words, they lied.

Based on these fabrications, thousands of would-be prospectors surged north, and halfway up the Skagway trail, realized the futility of their efforts, dropped most of their gear by the side of the trail, and returned to the tent city where they found the very journalists who had written the stories sending them on this fool's errand. Thus the tent city was eventually dubbed "Liarsville." And I imagine that's also where the tradition of howling began.

A couple other notes about how small the city of Skagway is ... there is one gas station. No prices posted, because they don't need to advertise. If you want gas, you pay the going rate. Same thing for the grocery store. A gallon of milk costs more than six dollars.

Our tour guide noticed that the library was open today and remarked, "The book must be back."

Every post office in Alaska doubles as a gift and souvenir shop. The one in Ketchikan also did taxidermy. But postal thinking is the same all over: There is one postal collection mail box where you can drop your cards and letters in the city of Skagway ... and it's six feet in front of the post office. I'm sure the people of the town rejoice over those six saved steps each and every day.

During the booming gold rush, Skagway held 80 saloons and brothels. Well, times and values have changed, obviously. Now the tiny city has 27 jewelry shops.

Well, we're safely back on board and tomorrow is our Canadian stop: Prince Rupert, British Columbia. We also have to once again change our time zone, bumping ahead one hour.

No comments: