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Ian McIntosh’s Top10 Travel deals and tips

August 19, 2019 Headline News, Travel Deals No Comments Email Email

Issue 49: Saturday, 17 August 2019

You can sort of understand how pioneers like Captain Cook must have felt as he sailed around Australia when you cruise Alaska. You pass everything from thick forests ending right as the water’s edge to towering mountain ranges topped in snow although summer is well advanced here. Apart from the odd fishing boat and tiny settlements there is no evidence man has ever stepped ashore on much of the rugged coastline.

Most of the tours at each stop head out on land or sea to hopefully view everything from whales to brown bears. As expected, considering we are talking about cautious animals in the wild, results are often disappointing – although we did get a rare treat while bear watching in Icy Strait Point. Just as we were about to leave our third lookout over a river teeming with salmon – a young bear ambled along the riverbank right past us and then startled a Bald Eagle – presumably snatching its meal. Even our guide was amazed

We are sailing on Oceania’s Regatta – a small ship by today’s standards, accommodating around 600 passengers. You easily forget the advantages of Regatta until you pull into a port as we did yesterday and watch the never-ending lines of passengers waiting to get on or off larger ships like Westerdam – home to 2000 cruisers. Oceania is a fairly new name in our part of the world but that is set to change as Australian itineraries are added.

One of the real surprises for me in this vast and isolated part of the world is how warm it can be in summer. Not even winter seems to terrify locals in towns like Sitka – we get a lot of rain but not too much snow I was told. The fog tends to roll in in the evenings and mornings can by misty with light showers – but afternoons have been delightful all along the way. Who would have thought the ship’s pool would be getting plenty of use in Alsaka?

The little township of Skagway Alaska was super busy when we arrived thanks to a maximum of four cruise ships clogging the harbour – but the thousands of visitors hardly rated a ripple compared to the influx during the Klondike Gold Rush. More than 100,000 hopefuls arrived after gold was discovered in1896. Madness is the only word for what followed – men and women – even children made a life-threatening journey across treacherous, icy valleys and harrowing rocky terrain.

We saw part of the trail they had to negotiate today aboard a vintage railcar as it traces the journey from Fraser to Skagway. The railway was built to make the journey to the goldfields easier – but the gold had petered out by the time it was finished in 1900. The White Pass and Yukon Railway clatters through increasingly hostile valleys and mountains – how anyone managed the trek during summer let alone winter is a mystery you are left to ponder from the comfort of your train seat.  The 3 ft (914 mm) narrow-gauge railroad linked the port of Skagway with Whitehorse, the capital of Yukon.

The trip on the section from Fraser is interesting enough – before we boarded we braved a suspension bridge over a raging river way below. While you marvel at man’s ability master nature to blast the railway out in the first place, you could be forgiven for getting a little bored as the journey rolls on. Most memorable, as i said before, is pondering just how people managed to tame some of the most inhospitable country on earth. Less than half of those who started the trek to the Yukon arrived and after that monster effort they stood little chance of finding gold.

It was discovered by American George Carmack in1896 in Rabbit Creek (later renamed Bonanza Creek), a Klondike River tributary that ran through both Alaskan and Yukon Territory. Canadian authorities required every prospector to have a year’s worth of gold mining equipment and supplies before crossing the Canadian border which made the trek along a narrow path all but impossible for pack horses. It’s estimated 3,000 of them died on White Pass. If they made it, prospectors had to build or rent boats and brave hundreds of miles of winding Yukon River rapids to reach Dawson City.

No one knows how many died during the river trip – only about 30,000 weary stampeders finally arrived in Dawson City to discover reports of available Klondike gold were greatly exaggerated. By the end of 1898 countless miners had already left Yukon Territory penniless, leaving cities such as Dawson and Skagway in rapid decline. These days fortunately the gold boom is back – but it has been renamed tourism.

Today we are heading for Ketchikan and then on to Prince Rupert British Columbia and then a real treat – the tiny island of Victoria near Vancouver. The cruise ends in Seattle on August 20.

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