The Historic White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad

Learn about the historical start of Skagway

“Born in the Klondike Gold Rush of 1898, the White Pass & Yukon Route is a rare story in the history of railroad building.” -All Aboard Magazine

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Skagway, also referred to as the Garden City of Alaska, is located at the northern tip of Alaska’s Inside Passage, just 100 miles northeast of Gustavus. In 1900 when the city was established, the population reached 3,117 and was the second-largest settlement in Alaska. Now, Skagway’s year round residents almost double Gustavus at 850 people. It serves as restored gold rush town with a historical significance for tourists to experience, and is the headquarters of the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park.

The History

In his search to find uncharted land into Interior Canada for a survey company, Captain William Moore was the first non-native settler in Skagway. He arrival in 1887 is credited with the discovery of the White Pass route into Interior Canada. Only nine years later in August, gold was discovered in the Klondike by George Carmack and two Indian companions, Skookum Jim and Dawson Charlie. By 1897, boatloads of prospectors made their way eagerly to this new opportunity. Not two months following those hopeful prospectors and dreamers, the landscape had grown into a lively city with a population of about 20,000.

Though the gold found by Carmack and his companions was a minimal amount, it triggered a massive movement and forever changed the course of history in Southeast Alaska.

Exploring the City

The city of Skagway prides itself on preserving its history. The main shopping street, Broadway Street, features building fronts similar to what you would have seen back in the 1890’s. A walking tour of various lengths can be taken to familiarize yourself with this delightful town. Several National Park Service Buildings help you learn about the gold rush and all the men endured with the hope of striking it rich.

If you have time be sure to head out to the Skagway cemetery. You will be able to see Frank Reid’s headstone inside the cemetery and “Soapy” Smith’s grave outside the cemetery. You don’t know the Reid/Smith story. No trip to Skagway is complete without learning about their gun battle and how it helped Skagway become a peaceful and quite town.

The Train Ride

 

When our guests go in the train they usually take the Summit Excursion up to White Pass and then back down to Skagway. The White Pass & Yukon Route climbs from sea level in Skagway to almost 3,000 feet at the summit. Imagine being on the same type of trains up the same route the gold miners were traveling in their search for gold.

REMEMBER: Weather in Southeast Alaska is unpredictable, and can present an obstacle to flights and activities. The Bear Track Inn is not responsible for any costs incurred or activities missed due to weather related delays. We highly recommend trip insurance.

Read more about the railroad here.

Humpback Whales in Glacier Bay

The most common and most exciting encounter guests will have while on the water here in Glacier Bay is with the majestic humpback whale.

Humpback whales are known for their massive migrations from the southern Pacific waters of Mexico and Hawaii, to the northern waters of Alaska and Antarctica (though they can be found traveling through all of the major oceans). Their known to travel as far as 16,000 miles, with mature males leading the way. Glacier Bay is a general “hot spot” of whale feeding activity, and has been observed here as far back as 1899. Whale numbers rise in mid-June and peak in both July and August.

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If you are interested in reading about the humpback whale research accomplished in Glacier Bay, click here

Identification

IMG_0827_edited-2In addition to their massive size and visible “hump” on the back (hence the name!), humpbacks can be identified a few other ways. Though their back is flat with a small dorsal fin on it, while swimming, they will arch their back and fluke, causing the “hump” that we use to identify them.

These mammals are generally dark grey or black with white patches on their stomach, and poses two blowholes atop their head. Blows are also a good sign of humpbacks. Water covering the blowhole is vaporized and the whale exhales on the water’s surface, causing a visual “spout”. This spray can travel anywhere from six to twenty feet high. IMG_0978_edited-2

Flukes (or tails) are used to identify humpbacks in a more unique way. Each pattern of a fluke is equivalent to fingerprints on humans. The parts of the fluke include the tips, notch (middle of tail), and the trailing edge (the nooks and ridges on the end of the tail). From the notch, you can identify the left and right fluke. The trailing edge remains stable during a whales life and is a pretty good identifying factor of the whale. The notch and scaring patterns are also used in identification. Learn more here.

Using body language is an exclusive and incredible way humpbacks communicate with one another. These aerial acrobatic abilities include breaching, tail lobbing, and pectoral fin slapping. These fascinating marine mammals are also known to communicate through sounds. These sounds, and songs, are usually loud,  low-pitched moans, whines, or howls. Whale songs play a role in mating rituals and feeding coordination, as well as social structure, and can last anywhere from minutes to hours. Air is pushed out of it’s blowhole to create these sounds.

Behaviors

Feeding

Instead of teeth, humpbacks have baleen plates, which are bristles that help to catch small prey. These bristles are bunched close enough together to capture prey, but are spread apart enough to allow water to pass through without issue. Their diet includes small aquatic animals, from krill or squid to herring, pollock, and mackerel.

Humpbacks will diet during their winter in Hawaii or Mexico (there, they will mate or give birth if had been pregnant), and migrate to the northern waters of Alaska to feed during the summer months.

Breaching

Breaching is a behavior that scientists and enthusiasts can’t quiet agree on the cause for. Is it for communication? Is it to warn off predators? Or are they “playing”?  During a breach, the whale will shoot out of the water, spin, and land on it’s back. Landing on the back allows more structural support for the giant beauty. This, along with tail and pectoral fin slapping, create a bursting sound to be heard for miles, almost like a canon firing. It is an incredible and unbelievable sight to see a humpback breach.

Pectoral Fin Slapping and Tail Lobbing

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Tail lobbing

 

 

A humpback’s pectoral fins are dark on one side and white underneath, and can be up to fifteen feet long (1/3rd of the whale’s total length). Fin slapping or tail lobbing are behaviors thought to either communicate with other whales or stun surrounding fish for feeding, though during mating season, males use their pectoral fins to  battle for females. Tail lobbing is when the whale will repeatedly slap its fluke against the water.

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Pectoral fin slapping

Spy-Hopping

Spy-hopping occurs when a humpback will emerge the top of it’s body out of water to “take a look around”. They can shoot up from ten to twelve feet, and may spin around to take in their surroundings. Then, gracefully, it will return to the water. Researchers believe this behavior helps with navigation.

Lunge Feeding and Bubble-Netting

IMG_1296_edited-2When humpbacks lunge or bubble net feed, you are truly getting a rare glimpse at the cunning and marvelous abilities they are capable of. They will lunge feed alone or in groups. The whale will lunge through a school of prey with it’s mouth gaping open, followed by it’s outburst through the surface.

Bubble-net feeding is a coordinated group event. Witnessing this behavior is almost metaphysical, and we have been lucky this season to have it occur multiple times for both our guests an staff to witness. During this spectacle, the pod will dive down together, while one will swim around in a circle and blow bubbles. These bubbles confuse and confine the fish. The bubble blower will let out short bursts of “feeding calls”, followed by one long, loud call to signal the pod- “It’s time!”. On this final signal, all of the pod will come through the circle together, mouths gaping open as they catch as much fish as possible. Imagine seven or more humpbacks exploding through the water’s surface, mouths open! The sounds are just incredible, and you can even hear it all without a hydrophone!

We hoped you enjoyed learning a little bit more about one of nature’s most incredible species. Be sure to contact us about how you can see it all for yourself!

Other Facts:

  • The humpback is one of over 80 known species of cetacea
  • When born, humpbacks are about 14 feet long and weigh 2 tons (1 ton = 2,000lbs)
  • Males grow up to 46 feet and weigh up to 25 tons, while females grow up to 49 feet and weigh up to 35 tons
  • They can have 270-400 plates of baleen
  • Their tongue is 2 tons alone
  • Humpbacks can live up to 100 years
  • They can look into their own mouths!
  • Whales lack vocal chords
  • They will consume between a third to half a ton of food a day
  • Gestation is 11-12 months, and are single births. Females bare offspring once every 2-3 years while fertile. Sexual maturity is from 4-7 years.
  • During the winter, humpbacks will fast and live off their body fat, or blubber, that they acquired during feeding season. They focus on migration and mating during the winter, and feeding or hunting during the summer.
  • Though these whales can be seen migrating, hunting and mating in large groups they are generally very solitary and non social creatures that prefer traveling alone or in small groups of two to three
  • The seasonal trek from Hawaii to Alaska and back is 6,000 miles per year
  • Male humpbacks in the North Atlantic can be found singing the same song in unison even when they are miles apart from one another, while males in the North Pacific can be heard singing a different song.
  • The humpback whale is currently listed as an endangered species and is protected against hunting by law

 

Read about how you can see humpbacks while whale watching aboard the m/v TAZ or the Glacier Bay Day Tour. Or, read about how you can kayak with them!

Source: Whalefacts.org and nps.gov

Kayaking Excursions

Insight on one of the must-do activities in South-East Alaska

If kayaking among humpback whales, quiet forest and outstanding scenery is on your bucket list, than this excursion will not disappoint. Southeast Alaska is known for it’s extraordinary sea kayaking. Kayak the Inside Passage and Glacier Bay National Park while learning about the wildlife, geography, and history of this unique area.

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Kayaking in Glacier Bay National Park

All kayaking trips are in double sea kayaks, but booking for a single is also an option. Rain gear, rain boots, life jackets, and kayaking equipment are all included and provided. These kayaking options are suitable for lone wolves and families, beginners, and champs alike. 

Kayaking with the Whales

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Kayak with humpback whales, otters, sea lions, porpoise, and other marine wildlife. Learn to recognize them by their sounds, behavior, and appearance. Explore the tide pools, trek the rain forest of Chicagof Island, and enjoy being one with nature.

These trips start with gearing up and a short orientation on the basics of sea kayaking. To begin your journey, you will take short boat ride from Gustavus to Point Adolphus, where humpback whales are known to feed and socialize. Kayak around the shoreline and observe the wildlife around you.

For lunch, paddle to shore and enjoy the serenity. Hike through old growth forest and let your knowledgeable guide teach you about your surroundings. Then kayak around a little more, until its time to reluctantly say goodbye.

Kayaking in Glacier Bay National Park

Guided or Unguided, Half Day or Full Day

Paddle in the protected and treasured waters of Glacier Bay. Day trips are in the lower part of Bartlett Cove. Both single and double kayaks are available. Half-day trips are available in the morning or afternoon. All trips begin with an orientation.

Guided Trips

IMG_0099_0009_edited-1Kayak with a group of other adventurers and an experienced guide. These waters are protected and full of abundant wildlife, including humpback whales, harbor seals, sea lions, sea otters, Eagles, bears, and more! Just as with kayaking with whales, your guide will teach you all there is to know about Glacier Bay, both on land and by sea.

Unguided Trips

Unguided trips are great for the self-explorers. Paddle at your own pace, stop where you want to, and explore whatever your heart desires. This trip is suitable for beginners as well, since Bartlett Cove is very calm and easy to navigate.

Extended Kayaking and Camping Trips

Guided, 3-8 Days

If a day trip just isn’t enough for you, consider joining a group of others that feel the same. Camping trips include spending time on either Point Adolphus or further into Glacier Bay National Park. Kayaking and camping by the glaciers is also an option. Contact us for more details on this amazing and unique opportunity.

What Should I bring?

Your rain gear (pants, jacket, boots) is provided, as well as kayaking equipment. We recommend that guests bring the following on their excursion:

  • Long underwear (for underneath your clothing)
  • Wool socks
  • Hat and gloves (preferably fleece, or a material that is both warm and does not retain water)
  • Sunglasses
  • Camera equipment, of course
  • A neck or face wrap is optional, to protect from the wind

Additional Notes:

You will be provided with dry bags to keep your electronics and extra clothing in. Dry bags are stored in the kayak, by your feet.

The rain jackets provided will have Velcro on the wrists to keep out water. Gloves are recommended as extra protection from water.

Kayaking equipment includes the kayak, paddles, and “skirts” to seal you into your kayak and protect your legs from water.

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Interested in seeing humpback whales and other wildlife, but not so much into kayaking? Learn about our whale watching excursion on the TAZ and wildlife viewing on the Glacier Bay Day Boat Tour.

Gustavus Plane Crash Site

In 1957, Gustavus was a small community, consisting of only fifty or so people. The airfield was built during WWII as a refueling stop for planes traveling the almost 1,500 mile trip from Seattle to Anchorage. The only accounts from the frightful night of November 23, 1957, are from a few homesteaders and the survivors of the crash.

Anxious to get home to their families for the holidays, eleven men of the U.S. National Guard boarded a twin engine Douglas C-47 and headed for Anchorage, AK. Of these men were four crewman, six civilian employees, and one army “hitchhiker”.

The crew was unable to make their scheduled refueling stop in Annette Island due to heavy winds and severe turbulence. At this point, they had two options: Turn around, causing unwanted delay and excessive fuel usage, or, refuel in Gustavus. The choice was seemingly obvious, and they headed for Gustavus. Unfortunately, the pilot was new to Alaskan weather conditions. For those unfamiliar, Alaska’s weather is unpredictable and challenging. Fog can swoop in without notice, and can be followed by with powerful winds and consistent rain.

In the snow and dark, the pilot decided to make a “short” visual approach to the runway in Gustavus. After one approach, the passengers could see the lights, but not the runway. Again, the pilot attempted to survey the runway. Survivor Harry Aase recalls,  “We made one approach and we could see the lights as we went over, but we did not land. Then the pilot went back and tried again. This is twice now we had seen the lights of the airport. We were beginning to worry a bit in the passenger apartment.”

The third attempt to land became fatal. The plane was too low, and the right wing clipped a tall tree. The aircraft spun and landed into the ground, nose first. Mr. Aase states: “We were all knocked unconscious, except for our hitchhiker.. he apparently just rode the plane down (from the rear). He just kept hollering for the plane to land, land, land!”

Fire began spitting from where the exhaust had pulled loose. It was pitch black otherwise. The survivors, dazed and rattled, decided to exit the aircraft and inspect one another with small flashlights they were able to recover. Knocked out teeth, a broken arm and jaw, and a few scratches. Only some had survived.

Homesteader Anne Chase remembers the event well. “After supper.. it was snowing so hard, so we decided to stay home. Suddenly, we heard this airplane circling. It was a large plane with a heavy motor going around and around… We heard a thump, but did not think much of it (we thought it was the dogs). A few minute later, Les Parker called and said, ‘Did you hear the plane? Did you hear where it crashed?’.

The snow was nearly two feet deep that night. A local homesteader, Gene, had decided to take a flashlight and his dog out to look for the plane. Unfortunately, Gene’s flashlight was too dim to recognize his surroundings. He later found out that he had come within 75 yards of the plane. The passengers later recalled seeing Gene’s dog- but thought it was a wolf. They decided to stay by the plane.

The survivors decided to try and make camp. An emergency crank-radio was discovered, but they agreed to wait until morning to use it, as it was too dark and they couldn’t be seen.

Almost every homesteader in Gustavus helped in the search and rescue. The brave locals were fanned out along what is now Mountain View Road, making their way into the darkness. Once they reached the crash site, seven survivors were found. Ken Youman, a local, carried one survivor out on his back. Others were carried out on makeshift gurneys composed of branches. Once out of the woods, the survivors were transported to the only local lodge at the time.

  • Survivors:
    • Lloyd Timmons; army security station in Kenai Peninsula
    • 2nd Harry S. Aase, 28, chief of personnel for territorial military department in Juneau
    • Robert D. Ellis, 22, staff assistant for the 208th infantry battalion of the AK National Guard, Juneau
    • Warrant Officer (J.G.) Richard J. Mueller, 38, administrative specialist for the National Guard, Juneau
    • M-Sgt James E. O’Rourke, 39, unit caretaker headquarters 207th infantry battalion, Anchorage
    • 1st Wallace J. Harrison, 29, staff assistant, headquarters 1st scout battalion, Bethel
    • 2nd William W. Caldwell, 27, staff assistant, headquarters 1st scout battalion, Nome
  • Deceased 
    • Captain Robert E. Kafader, 37, a Californian recently transferred to Anchorage National Guard, due to his mutli-engine qualifications
    • 1st Dennis V. Stamey, 29, Anchorage; was in training and in transition for a transfer to the Florida National Guard, where he planned to fly jets
    • Staff Sgt. Floyd S. Porter, 29, Anchorage; nicknamed “Red” and the only single man aboard
    • Staff Sgt. David A. Dial, 34, Anchorage, Radio Man

Take a moment to remember. In the quietness of your surroundings, as you take in this incomprehendable yet unsightly scene. Honor these survivors and brave residents who stepped into action.” -Rita Wilson

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Credit: “The Complete 1957 Gustavus Plane Crash” by Rita Wilson and the Gustavus Historical Archives & Antiques (gustavushistory.org)