Alaska is huge. To gain a perspective of its size, superimpose a map of Alaska
on that of the continental US. Alaska stretches from Canada to Mexico and from
the Pacific to the Atlantic oceans. Some of its inhabitants live closer to Japan
than to their capital city, Juneau.
Our Alaskan adventure was spent in
the Inland Passage, visiting some of the cities and the spectacular Glacier
The Inside Passage
This unique waterway with over 1,000 islands lies
in the southeast of the state. It is a world of its own, with snow-capped
mountains, glaciers and fjords. It is encompassed by the Tongass National
Rainforest, the largest of its kind in the US, comprising an area of over 17
million acres (6.9 million hectares). This rainforest is two-and-a-half times
larger than present-day Israel.
A unique aspect of the Inland Passage is
that there are virtually no roads connecting the towns, and access is only
available by sea or air. The Inside Passage was the easiest route for those
making their way to the Klondike Gold Rush.
Several cruise lines ply the
route from Seattle or Vancouver to Alaska and then traverse the Inland Passage,
making stops along the way, finally arriving in the ports of Whittier or
We traveled on the Island Princess, operated by Princess Cruises.
The ship can accommodate almost 2,400 passengers and has a crew of 800. It is so
large that one had the impression of being in a large resort hotel rather than
an ocean liner. There were plenty of activities on board to cater to the
different cultural tastes of the passengers.
One can only marvel at the
superb efficiency, organization and brilliant marketing. Despite the large
number of passengers, both embarking and disembarking were efficiently done and
it never felt overcrowded.
This is the southernmost city in the
Inland Passage, and was our first port of call. It has a population of 8,050 and
its economy is based on tourism and fishing.
The city is known as the
“Salmon Capital of the World,” and has the world’s largest collection of
standing totem poles, which are representative of the original tribal
Totem poles nearly became extinct in the first half of the 20th
century, because an active attempt was made to suppress the native culture.
Today, however, there is a renewed interest in local customs, and the totem
industry is flourishing. The poles are not religious objects, but feature
prominent tribal members and their family lineage, also depicting stories
related to tribal history.
Creek Street, a wooden boardwalk, is
Ketchikan’s most famous landmark, abounding with restaurants, museums,
galleries, boutiques and gift shops. During the gold rush, this was the city’s
red-light district and in its heyday, the street boasted over 30 brothels. Dolly
was the most well-known madam of the time, and her establishment has been turned
into a small museum preserved much as she left it.
landmark is Married Men’s Trail, which afforded easy access for prospective
customers to Creek Street.
In 1880 gold was discovered by Joe
Juneau and Richard Harris, assisted by one of the Tlingit chiefs. The city of
Juneau was founded at this site; the gold mines were operational until
The city began with a few trading posts and saloons.
it is the state capital but is only accessible by plane or boat, and has a
population of just over 30,000 people. Tourism has been a real boon to the city
and in summer, huge cruise liners bring in thousands of visitors
After docking at the pier, we were met by Kelly Moore from the
Juneau Convention and Visitors Bureau, who was our delightful and informative
guide for the duration of our sojourn there. Adjacent to the city is the Juneau
Icefield, which lies within the Tongass National Rainforest. This expanse of
interconnected glaciers covers almost 4,000 sq.km., and is only slightly smaller
than the Negev Desert.
Our first stop was a helicopter ride over the
Juneau Icefield. Soaring high above the icefield and rainforest, one has a
stunning view of the glaciers, icy mountain peaks, sheer cliffs, deep crevices,
waterfalls and lakes. It is only from this perspective that the majesty and
vastness of this wonder can be truly appreciated. The Temsco Helicopter Company
lands both on the ice as well as on grassy terrain, enabling visitors to step
out of the helicopter and appreciate this wonder of nature from close
In the afternoon we were taken to the Mendenhall Glacier, Juneau’s
most popular attraction. Situated 23 km. from downtown, it is the most
accessible glacier in all of Alaska.
The Mendenhall is one of 38 that
flow from the Juneau Icefield, extending over 20 km. to Lake Mendenhall. The
glacier is 1,000 meters wide and 30 m. thick. At the site, there is a visitor’s
center with numerous trails and stunning overlooks. Because of the warm weather,
this glacier recedes at a rate of about 30 m. a year.
Our visit continued
with a stop at Glacier Gardens Rainforest, a landscaped botanical garden in the
heart of Tongass National Park. The characteristic feature of these gardens is
the “upside-down” flower towers.
When a tree falls, the trunk is inserted
upside down into the ground. The exposed roots are covered with moss and each
spring, flowers are planted in these exposed roots; there are about 25 of these
trees in the garden.
This exquisite site was recognized in 2012 in a
Readers Digest poll as the “Most Interesting Landmark in America,” and is a
venue for meetings, conventions and wedding receptions.
There are guided
tours through the rainforest. Glacial striations and grooves line the bedrock,
indications of a glacier which has now receded, and the summit offers a
panoramic view of Juneau and its surroundings.
We also visited the
Silverbow Inn and Bakery, the oldest operating bakery in the state. It was
refurbished by an expatriate New York family, which settled in Juneau with their
young children. Here, we were treated to a genuine New York-style bagel with
Alaskan smoked sockeye salmon.
To get a final perspective of Juneau, we
ascended by cable car to the 550-m. summit of Mount Robert. From here, there is
an incomparable vista of the whole area.
There are also well-marked
hiking trails with several totem poles.
In 1896, gold was found
in the Klondike region of Canada’s Yukon Territory. The town Skagway owes its
very existence to this gold rush, since it was the gateway and the easiest
transportation route to the Canadian goldfields.
Ships brought thousands
of miners up the Inland Passage to Skagway and its sister town of Dyea, which
were situated at the northernmost point of the Inside Passage.
Skagway had a single cabin. Within 3 months of the arrival of the first boat,
the population exploded and soon there were 15,000 to 25,000 people in the city.
It had well-laid out streets, hotels, offices, saloons, stores and brothels.
Fights, prostitutes and liquor were to be had everywhere. The town was described
as a “little better than a hell on earth.”
On their arrival, prospective
miners had to climb almost 1,000 m. to the summit of the White
Canadian border authorities insisted that each potential miner had
to bring 900 kg. of supplies to guarantee their survival in the harsh winter.
The prospectors then continued to Lake Bennett in Canada’s British Columbia,
which was 65 km. from Skagway. Here, they built crude boats and rafts to float
down the Yukon River to Dawson City, the epicenter boomtown of the Gold Rush, a
distance of about 650 km. An estimated 100,000 goldseekers set out – but only
about 30,000 made it to Dawson City.
The White Pass and Yukon Route
narrow gauge railroad was constructed in 1898, linking Skagway to Whitehorse in
the Yukon, a distance of 175 km. Some 35,000 workers toiled on this astounding
engineering feat, which was completed in just 26 months. By 1900, when the
railroad was finally completed, the gold rush was nearly over and the population
explosion ended almost as rapidly as it began. The town’s economy began to
collapse, but some enterprising locals had the foresight to develop the town as
a tourist center.
Today approximately 900 people live in Skagway, but the
population more than doubles during the summer tourist season – when the town
services almost 1 million visitors from cruise ships. Our host in Skagway was
Carlin “Buckwheat” Donahue, a charismatic, fascinating and gregarious character
who directs the Skagway Visitors Center. He was diagnosed with heart disease in
2003 and to prove that he had fully recuperated, he actually walked about 8,530
km. from Miami to the Yukon River and then paddled a canoe for a further 3,700
This enterprise took 327 days, for the added purpose of raising funds
for the local Skagway medical clinic.
Buckwheat met us at the pier and
showed us around.
The Red Onion Saloon was a notorious bordello at the
height of the gold rush. Today, it has been converted into a bar-restaurant with
colorful décor and ladies in authentic costumes who serve as tourist
Another one of the town’s distinctive buildings has a façade made
of driftwood and houses Skagway’s Visitors Center.
The White Pass narrow
gauge railroad is Skagway’s most popular tourist attraction. It traverses steep
gradients hugging the cliffs, going through tunnels and across bridges providing
stupendous vistas, until it reaches the summit of White Pass.
also drove us to Dyea, a remote inlet which was also a bustling town at the time
of the gold rush. Many prospective miners arrived in this small port. However,
it proved to be too shallow for larger ships. The death knell for Dyea was the
construction of the railroad from Skagway. The town was disbanded and today
nothing remains except a few pylons.
Glacier Bay: This was the grand
finale of our trip through the Inside Passage. When George Vancouver ventured
into the area in 1794, the bay was completely covered in ice. The inlet was
created by the receding of the glaciers and melting of the ice. Today, the bay
still boasts of several glaciers, the most prominent of which are the Margerie
and Grand Pacific glaciers.
Without question, this is the most dramatic
sight in the Inland Passage.
Jews of Alaska
The first Jews came to Alaska
with the Russians as fur traders. After the Alaska purchase, Jews strengthened
their commercial ties to the country. They were prominent during the gold rush
and even financed some of the mining ventures.
The first Jewish prayer
services took place in Dawson City in the Yukon Territory in 1898. In 1904, a
group of Jews in Fairbanks organized a congregation and a year later, acquired a
cemetery that is still the only Jewish burial ground in Alaska. Some 750 Jews
currently live in Fairbanks, the second-largest city in the state. The Reform
congregation in Fairbanks has been described as the world’s northernmost
synagogue. Jews have been in Juneau since its very establishment and today,
approximately 100 Jews reside there. The Reform Congregation, Succat Shalom, was
built in 2004. The small Jewish community in Ketchikan meets weekly for Shabbat
services at a private home.
The total Jewish population in Alaska today
is slightly over 6,000 and the majority live in Anchorage, the largest city in
the state. There are two synagogues in Anchorage, the Reform Beth Sholom and the
Orthodox Lubavitch Jewish Center, which was established in 1991 and is the only
Orthodox congregation in the State.
In July 2013, the Lubavitch Jewish
Center opened the Alaska Jewish Museum and Cultural Center, which aims to
highlight Jewish cultural artifacts and document the contribution of the Jews to
the development of the state. The museum’s first exhibit was titled “On the
Wings of Eagles,” and we were privileged to attend the official opening. It is
well-known that from 1948 to 1950, more than 47,000 Yemenite Jews were brought
to Israel in Operation Magic Carpet. What is not so wellknown is that much of
this endeavor was carried out by pilots and planes of Alaska Airlines.
the early 1940s, secretary of the interior Harold Ickes and members of Congress
considered a proposal to make Alaska a settlement for Jewish refugees from
Europe seeking asylum from the Nazis. With Ickes’s support, interior
undersecretary Harold Slattery wrote a formal proposal known as the Slattery
Report. This bill met strong opposition from non-Jews as well as Jews – notably
Ernest Gruening, the first governor of Alaska, who was of Jewish
Skagway, together with two other Alaskan cities, endorsed the
Slattery Report. Unfortunately, president Franklin D. Roosevelt failed to
support the plan, and consequently nothing came of it.
The writer was a
guest of the Juneau Convention and Visitors Bureau and the Skagway Visitors
An emeritus professor of medicine, the author writes, reviews and
lectures on medical topics, music, art, history and travel
(www.irvingspitz.com). He was recently recognized with the Sidney H. Ingbar
Distinguished Service Award by the Endocrine Society for his contributions to
His photograph album can be viewed at www.pbase.com/ irvspitz,
and he may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.