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Gold Panning in Skagway

SKAGWAY, Alaska -- It's all in the wrist.

Buckwheat Donahue, Skagway's four-time gold-panning champion and No. 1 town booster is giving the kids a lesson in getting rich quick. Straddling a stream, he's showing them how to shake a dirt-and-water-filled pan so the gold flakes settle on the bottom. It's hard, frustrating work, and no easier to find the gold than it was a century ago.

But just as 13-year-old Reggie and 8-year-old Melanie are getting disillusioned enough to quit, they spot shiny thumbnail-sized nuggets. They're so proud of themselves I can't bring myself to tell them at that moment that Buckwheat stacked the odds in their favor.

It seems fitting that we're gold panning in an encampment called Liarsville, just outside the tiny historic town of Skagway -- the entire downtown, all 15 buildings, is designated a National Historic Park.

Liarsville is a kitschy reconstructed miners' camp, so named because reporters too lazy to follow the would-be miners over the mountains settled in here, filing their ``eyewitness'' accounts of the Gold Stampede that mesmerized the world a little more than a century ago. Just like today, people loved real-life adventure tales.

It's to Skagway, of course, that more than 100,000 people -- doctors, salesmen, teachers, many who'd never spent a night in a tent -- rushed to seek their fortunes in the Yukon Gold Stampede after early lucky prospectors arrived in Seattle and San Francisco in 1897 with two tons of gold on board.

``There were entire families with kids who came, too,'' said Karl Gurcke, the National Park Service's historical archeologist.

Few of them found their fortune, of course. Some died trying. More went broke. But in the process, they had the adventure of their lives and changed Alaska and the Yukon forever.

Today, people in Skagway still are mining gold -- from cruise-ship passengers. And the growing number of families among them have prompted cruise lines to ask area outfitters to develop more kid-friendly programs, locals here say.

Incredibly, this town of less than 2,000 people (the population is half that in the winter) draws more than 800,000 tourists each season -- more than the entire population of Alaska and mostly from the big ships traveling up and down the Inside Passage.

Twenty-five cruise lines -- including the major players such as Carnival, Royal Caribbean and Holland America -- make Skagway a regular port of call each week. Some days, there are four ships in at once, spilling thousands into the town's narrow, seven-block downtown area and spending an eye-popping $65 million each season. There are scores of captains' signatures scrawled on the bluffs near the wharves, a Skagway tradition dating back to the 1920s.

It's easy to dismiss this place as one more tourist trap, but that would be a mistake. Get beyond the crowds and you'll get a history lesson you won't forget -- even when you go to bed. The Golden North Hotel, which may be Alaska's oldest and has been open almost continuously since the Gold Rush, may not have showers in every room, but it's packed with Gold Rush-era furniture and even a ghost!

Tell the kids about gutsy people like Harriet Pullman, a widow with four kids who arrived with $7 and died not only wealthy, the owner of a big hotel, but an Alaska legend. She started by selling pies made from dried apples and baked in tins she'd pounded from cans. They'll love the story of Soapy Smith, the rascal who ran the town until he was gunned down, cheating miners by sending their money home by nonexistent telegraph. You'll also get to rub shoulders with some amazing modern-day Skagway characters, like Buckwheat Donahue, the town's tourist director and bon vivant who gives stirring readings of Robert Service's Gold Rush-era poetry when he's not promoting his adopted home town. Buckwheat, by the way, never meant to come to Skagway, much less take residence. A Denver businessman, he was on vacation in Alaska, had partied too much on the ferry and missed his stop, waking up in Skagway. A year later, he sold his business and moved here, starting several new businesses along the way.

Now he and others here do their best to help visitors understand why the miners' stories still have resonance for us today. Get a sense of what the miners endured on foot when you wind your way up the mountainside on the single-gauge White Pass & Yukon Route Railway that was built in 1900 to ferry miners and supplies the 45 miles over the 3,000-foot pass between Skagway and the Yukon. It's an awesome ride, through a mountain tunnel, past spectacular waterfalls and Dead Horse Gulch, where some 3,000 pack animals -- victims of neglect and overloading -- perished. Opt to ride the train partway and hike to a glacier. Many come here to walk all or part of the 33-mile Chilkoot Trail to the Canadian headwaters of the Yukon River. (Make sure to check ahead about needed permits.) Before the Gold Rush, the Chilkoot tribe controlled this strategic trade route over the mountains to the interior. Later, more than 30,000 gold seekers hiked the Golden Stairs, more than 1,000 snow steps carved straight up the mountainside. Most miners had to scale the brutal pass 30 to 40 times, shuttling the required ton of goods -- a year's worth -- to the Canadian border. The pictures of those miners, packs on their back, climbing up the snow-covered hill, right behind the other, might be the most famous of the era. Today, the trail is part of the national historic park, and hikers literally trip over history in some spots, past old shoes, gold pans, shovels that were left behind.

Like most of the miners, chances are you won't go home with much gold -- except what you buy. But there's other pay dirt hidden in the crowds -- the chance to show kids there's a lot more to history than what's in their books. The nuggets they mine should pay off big time at school-project time.

IF YOU GO

Call the For Skagway Convention and Visitors Bureau at 888-762-1898 or www.skagway.org and be sure to ask what family excursions are being offered.

Call the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park at 907-983-2921 or www.nps.gov/klgo. Ask about Buckwheat's free poetry readings and hiking permits for the Chilkoot Trail, part of the national historical park.

Call Packer Expeditions at 907-983-2544 or e-mail at Packer@ptialaska.net to arrange day hikes along the trail or trips that include the train ride with a hike to Laughton Glacier. Ask about family packages. Day trips start at $79.

Call the Golden White Pass Railroad at 800-343-7373 or www.whitepassrailroad.com and the Golden North Hotel at 907-983-2451 or www.alaskan.com/goldenorth. Rooms start at $75.

For general Alaska information, call the state's Division of Tourism at 800-862-5275 or www.travelalaska.com.

(c) 1999, Eileen Ogintz. Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate



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