Alaskan Tales #1: Alaska Out of Season

“Maybe they’ve all been abducted by aliens?” I suggested.

My boyfriend just looked at me. Okay, so this wasn’t the most helpful comment, but I didn’t have a better reason as to why the town was deserted. And not just “everyone’s inside having dinner” deserted, this was “ground zero of a very localised zombie attack” deserted.

At first, I’d thought we were in a ghost town. Many of the buildings were old-fashioned log cabins, and the hulk of an old steamboat lay rusting in the river running through the town. But as we wandered around, I noticed a few things that seemed a little out-of-place for a ghost town. Like power lines. And cars. And satellite dishes on the roofs of those same old-timey log cabins.

I’m pretty sure ghost towns don’t get HBO.

It had everything you needed for a real town – except people. It was a little eerie.

I found out later that the village actually has a population of 300 people in summer. It’s just in winter that things get interesting.

April is not tourist season in the Far North. When researching the trip, I’d noticed that The Lonely Planet went into great depth about all the things to do in Alaska from mid-May to September, but April’s entry had been suspiciously empty. I hadn’t paid it much attention at the time. Sure, I thought, some things might be closed, but people still lived in Alaska in April, right? It couldn’t be that weird to visit then? The entire state – the largest in the US, at twice the size of Texas – wouldn’t just shut down for half the year, right?

Wrong.

Alaskan winters are not exactly what you’d call mild. The temperature can get down to -40F, and on the shortest days of the year it barely gets light. They are cold, dark and harsh. Also, they last from about October to April.

Alaskan winter: long and snowy

Alaskan winter: long and snowy

Luckily for Alaskans, most of the work here is from May – September. Of the three main industries – oil, fishing, and tourism – both fishing and tourism grind to a halt during winter as Alaska awaits the annual migration north of both the fish and the tourists.

So, most Alaskans figure that if they’re going to be unemployed for six months, they might as well be unemployed somewhere warm and cheap like Mexico,* rather than buried under eighteen feet of snow.

This makes visiting in April a unique experience.

We had our first taste of this in Skagway. Just across the Yukon / Alaskan border, Skagway is a quaint two-street town that began life supplying prospectors during the 1898 gold rush. Many buildings are original log cabins and a raised wooden boardwalk lines the main street, giving you a nice feel for how the town looked at the turn of the century.

Store in Skagway

We arrived on a cold, windy day in early April. The wide streets were empty, with only a few parked cars dotted around. Most of the shops were closed, or being renovated. There were few people in the town.

But, while most of Skagway’s population was still returning north, the people we did meet were welcoming and friendly, full of small town hospitality that I soon found so characteristic of Alaska. At one point, a man approached and recommended we visit a restaurant that was opening that night. It took me a moment before I realised he was the US border guard who had let us into Alaska earlier that day.

I am not used to border guards giving me dining recommendations.

Walking down main street, my footsteps ringing on the hollow wooden boards of the boardwalk, it was easy to imagine this town a hundred years ago, as horses and carts thronged the mud street, and the town bustled with people buying and selling provisions for the long trek over the Chilkoot trail.

The town could have been kitschy or twee, but I found it enchanting.

Skagway Bazaar

We soon discovered, however, that this charming, quiet town was about to vanish. On the 4th of May, the first of the cruise ships would dock in Skagway, and tourist season would officially start.

I hadn’t given much thought to cruise ships; if I had, I probably would have thought it would be similar to Vancouver, where cruise ships arrive and depart without much impact on the town.

I was also a little wrong here. I should probably do a little more pre-trip research in future.

Cruise ships pretty much are the tourist economy here. Alaska receives close to two million tourists a year, and over a million of those come on cruise ships. Skagway, a small sleepy town of 900, receives over 900,000 tourists in four months from cruise ships. Up to five cruise ships arrive every day, with 10,000 tourists disembarking to tour the town. In less than a month, the small, sleepy village of Skagway would be so crowded with tourists, it would be almost impossible to meet a local. That quiet boardwalk I was imagining from 1898 would be thronged with cruise ship passengers, their cameras slung around their necks as they pounded their way from shop to shop.

Suddenly I realised how glad I was to be here out of season. I liked this empty Alaska, snow-bound, desolate and quietly beautiful.

We had the roads to ourselves, often travelling hours before seeing another car. Heck, sometimes we even had entire towns to ourselves. It felt as though this vast wilderness was ours and ours alone to explore.

The Kluane / Wrangle - St Elias National Park straddles the border of Alaska and the Yukon. It is the world's largest national park, with an icefield larger than Rhode Island. It's also still a little snowy in April.

The Kluane / Wrangell – St Elias National Park straddles the border of Alaska and the Yukon. It is the world’s largest protected international wilderness, with a glacier larger than Rhode Island. It’s also still a little snowy in April.

Sure, a lot of things – from tourist activities to major roads – were closed, and finding accommodation was challenging as most places didn’t open until late May / early June, but for all that we couldn’t do, it was made up for by the friendliness and hospitality of the people we met on our journey, and the chance to explore Alaska before it became awash in tourists.

A small Alaskan town nestled in the foothills of a mountain

A small Alaskan town nestled in the foothills of one of the many, many mountains in Alaska

And Alaska in April was jaw-droppingly beautiful. The land was still blanketed in snow, and jagged snow-clad mountains scraped the sky in the distance. Giant eagles watched us from their perches around town, and migrating birds crowded the skies above us. Around us, Alaska was slowly returning to life; animals were coming out of hibernation, and the locals were drifting back north. It felt as though Alaska was being aired out, and a fresh coat of paint applied for when the state officially opened for business in May.

Alaska – basically mountains surrounded by water. And bears.

Was it the trip to Alaska I had expected when planning this trip? No. It was better. Much, much better.

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A cold April day at an Alaskan beach.

*This has the unexpected – but delicious – side effect that Alaska has some of the best Mexican food I’ve ever eaten outside of Mexico. Did not see that one coming.

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2 comments so far

  1. Vicky D on

    Good to know !! I saw Alaska in the movie Insomnia(2002). Boy twas gr8.

    • vfxvagabond on

      We visited a few of the Insomnia filming locations – very spooky and atmospheric at that time of the year, with no one around, and thick fog everywhere… definitely no somewhere I’d like to be lost late at night!


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