Sunday, July 22, 2007

A Rose by Any Other Name

Skagway - an ugly name for a beautiful place. Confusion seems to abound over the name, in terms of both spelling and meaning. On maps and in guidebooks, it's "Skagway." The local newspaper, however, is the Skaguay Alaskan, although all of its articles refer to "Skagway." Our guidebook tells us that, in Tlingit, the name means "place of the north wind." The selfsame Skaguay Alaskan informs us that the Tlingit word is "Shgagwéi" and it means (a) "rugged or wrinkled," referring to the effect of the strong north wind on the waters of northern Lynn Canal (where Skagway is located) or maybe to the collecting of clouds on the mountain tops at the back of the valley, or (b) "the beautiful one," referring to Face Mountain southwest of Skagway which has been described as a beautiful Tlingit woman. (Apparently Tlingit is a very creative language.)

Whatever. The actual place, population 834, is gorgeous and the wind that wrinkles the waters has blown in some stellar weather for our visit. The sky is completely blue (the first time we've seen that since we left Las Vegas), and the humidity (to which I've become exquisitely attuned since I moved to a desert) is down significantly. Everyone's excited - apparently, it's not unusual for the helicopter tours to get canceled due to rain and fog and, while Skagway gets more sunshine than the cities to its southeast, blue skies and balmy temperatures approaching 70 degrees are still rare enough to occasion great joy.

We're not helicoptering. We're taking the the White Pass & Yukon Railroad (could that sound any more romantic??) from sea level up about 2600 feet to the White Pass, through which gold-hungry rushers made their way to the Klondike a century ago. Construction on the railroad started in 1898, somewhat after the Klondike Gold Rush, so we're much more comfortable than our plodding predecessors. Despite the hardships of the 1889 trip, I hope the 30,000 gold prospecting hopefuls who made it paused to take in the glorious scenery. It had to serve as reward enough for all but the 300 who actually struck it rich - and if it looked then as it looks now, that wasn't too bad a bargain.

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