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Saturday, May 29, 2010

Trains and Flowers in Skagway

Location: Skagway, Alaska
Population: 892

Today we had a full day in Skagway and we took the vintage White Pass and Yukon Railroad tour up into the mountains. We passed multiple waterfalls and gorges on our 20 mile, 2865 foot climb to the White Pass summit. This train route was built during the Klondike Gold Rush to connect the seaport of Skagway to the interior at Whitehorse, and the tour retraces part of this historic route.

The tour, like everything else in Skagway during the mid-day hours, in the summer season was swamped with tourists from the pair of cruise ships docked in the harbor. The cruise ships provide the lifeblood for the local economy here, and the main street through town is dedicated to souvenir shops and, interestingly enough, diamond and jewelry stores for daytime visitors. While I know a lot of very nice people who travel by cruise and met some nice folks from the ships today onboard the train, I have to say that after experiencing the cruise ship rush in Skagway I'm grateful we don't have that type of tourism to deal with in Friday Harbor!

After disembarking the train we drove over to Dyea, which was the beginning of the historic Chilkoot Trail that led from the coast to the Yukon goldfields during the Klondike Gold Rush. It's also a nice estuary habitat in the Taiya Inlet that we read was a good spot for birding. Aside from the three squabbling wandering tattlers (year bird 182), the birding was rather underwhelming, but there were some neat wildflowers around.

For me, going to a new region and trying to identify wildflowers is kind of like immersing yourself in a new language that you are barely familiar with. I learned about vascular plant families in a college course and started identifying local flowers in earnest last spring, but here everything is all different. I may recognize a plant as being in the violet family, but the species is entirely new to me. In some cases, I have no idea where to start! Luckily, I picked up a nice field guide for the region that has been helping me learn some new plants. This one that I discovered today is the Alaska violet (Viola langsdorfii):

This one I knew I had seen in field guides before but I had never found it in the field. It's the dwarf dogwood or bunchberry (Cornus canadensis). The greenish-white flowers are very distinct, which is nice when you're trying to identify a new wildlfower.

Tomorrow, we're off on the ferry to Haines, known for being a little bit off the path usually taken by the cruise ships. I've heard great things about the town, so in addition to getting out on the water for the first time this trip I'm looking forward to seeing the sights in this town!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The people of Haines are wonderful. Hope you enjoy your day there.