On July 19th, 2000 the Sun Princess docked in Skagway, Alaska. It was my first cruise on my first ship and Skagway was our first stop. I remember stepping off the gangway onto the dock. I had a disconcerting feeling that the cement dock was moving (it wasn't). Passengers were streaming all around me, making their way to tours and shopping. It seemed like I was the only one who didn't know what I was doing or where I was going. It was one of my loneliest days.
Yesterday I stepped on that very same dock with a different feeling entirely. I was with my husband and my son, watching Oscar see the ocean for the first time. It was February, and there was not a passenger in sight. A seal bobbed in the water, looking at us. We were alone, but not lonely. I have a peace and happiness in my life that 22-year-old me could not have foreseen.
I was really excited to see Skagway again. It's one of the ports I'd visited the most during my time on working on cruise ships, and one of my favourite. I'd often go hiking up to Lower Dewey Lake with friends. We would picnic beside lake which could be so still the reflection was flawless. Sometimes we'd do a circuit around the lake. On top of the cliffs on the far side, if we were lucky we might see we an eagle flying beside us. It was one of the few ports where we could get a break from ship life.
Although many of my fellow crew members have been to Skagway, I don't think many have been there in the winter. Cruise ships start heading south around September.
Unlike Juneau where there is a tourist shopping area, and a separate local/crew shopping area, as far as I know, Skagway is just Skagway. I used to walk from the ship to the residential areas and wonder what they all did in the winter.
When we drove into Skagway it felt weird, like returning to a hometown after many years of being away. It looked almost exactly the same as I remembered it, only instead of crowds of people in the streets and shops, the streets were practically deserted.
The population of Skagway drops from 2,000 to 800 during the winter, and that's not factoring in almost a million people who come for the day on cruise ships.
Most of the shops were boarded up or had empty display cases in their windows. The tour company buses were all hibernating. We actually drove onto the cruise ship dock, noting our favourite restaurant, the Stowaway Cafe, had a new name, and our favourite coffee stand was still there, but closed.
There were some cafes and restaurants open, a couple shops, and of course, the liquor store. We went to The Sweet Tooth Cafe for lunch, took a drive to the abandoned town of Dyea, and headed home.
Oh yeah, the shocking secret, or rather, the mildly surprising fact about Skagway in winter... No snow. That's right. Far from the ice-encrusted ghost town with snow drifts in the streets of my imagination, it looked pretty much the same as it does in the spring at the beginning of the cruise season. There was even green grass on the lawns. Who knew?