Photo: A narrow-gauge WP&Y train negotiating a turn on the route to the Yukon
I looked out the train window at the narrow rock-bound trail just below us. I was awed to realize that it still showed the effects of thousands of feet more than 100 years after it had stopped being used.
Photo: The trail of '98
It was our third day in Skagway and we were taking a round-trip train ride from Skagway to Carcross in the Yukon on the White Pass and Yukon Route railroad
. The narrow-gauge railroad, built in only two years over a route many thought would be impossible, had replaced the famed Trail of '98 used by stampeders in the Klondike gold rush of 1898.
The train crested the summit and started running on almost level terrain, leaving behind us the terrifying hairpin turns and a track that clung to a nearly sheer mountainside. Small lakes appeared beside us, sprinkled with rock islands vegetated by scrubby little trees. How could something so desolate be so beautiful?
Photo: The area near White Pass
We rounded a bend to see a quaint red train station by the side of Lake Bennett. The train came to a halt and all passengers got off for lunch. The tour had advertised lunch and I'd imagined that meant the traditional box lunch. But instead, the conductor herded us into the station to a full sit-down meal at long tables. The lunch, beef stew, bread and apple pie, replicated what the original travelers on the WP&Y railroad ate.
Photo: a gold stampeder's boat on the shores of Lake Bennett
From Bennett the train followed the lake to Carcross in the Yukon. We had a half hour to explore the town. We'd been worried that wouldn't be enough but it was almost too much. A church, a general store turned tourist shop, a café, a tourist office and an art gallery were just about everything there was to see.
Wandering into the small one-room museum in the train station, we ran into the conductor. "If you're ready," he said, "we can leave. You're the only return passengers until we get to Bennett and pick up hikers." Everyone else had opted to take a bus back to Skagway.
We returned to our car, the first one after the engine. It was also the oldest car on the train and the only one with a small cupola on top. Steve had eyed the cupola, noting with disappointment the "employees only" sign. So when the conductor asked if there was anything they could do to make us comfortable, he naturally asked if we could ride in the cupola. The conductor hesitated, then said yes. He helped us climb the ladder and pointed out the emergency brake lever, which we were not to touch under any circumstances, then left us to enjoy the view over the engine to the track ahead. Steve was in seventh heaven but I found it difficult to take pictures through the small windows and opted to go back below and ride on the platform between cars. With no other passengers to compete with for the best spots I could change sides with the changing scenery. When other passengers boarded at Bennett and Fraser, they occupied other cars and left us to ourselves.
Photo: Steve in the train cupola
The conductor came back to join me on the platform. "We're totally tied to the cruise ship schedule," he told me. "The round trip will never be a big seller because cruise ship passengers don't have time. But we're trying to build it up as much as we can.
Another advantage to traveling in our own boat and not being tied to a schedule.