Chapter 7.  Skagway, Alaska - VBS

Bert & Shari Frenz, 1998 All rights reserved.

Day 86 - August 5, 1998 - Milepost 7631 (107 today) - Skagway, AK

(Bert) A land of contrasts, the wilderness between Whitehorse and Skagway offers the most dramatic shifts in scenery of any hundred-mile stretch I’ve visited. We drive slowly to take in the sights and stop often to get a closer look. Emerald Lake is our first stop. Emerald describes its color and emerald implies its gemlike luster, but neither do justice to the jewel delighting our eyes: dark green depths merging with turquoise blue shallows; blue-green, crystal clear water covering submerged sand bars; a single loon suspended on a glass lake. Mountains, some still hiding patches of snow, surround us as we continue down the smooth highway. We stop at Carcross Desert - worlds’ smallest desert - originally covered by a large glacial lake but now dry with strong winds that prevent growth from covering the sand. Tutshi Lake stretches for miles along our path first in Yukon Territory, then British Columbia, then Yukon again and finally breaking up into a stream as we approach the U.S. border. The water shimmers and sparkles like a million miniature lights. The abandoned 1908 Venus Silver Mine stands dilapidated on a steep mountain defining one of the lake shores. We drive through a thick forest of Sitka Spruce and Ponderosa Pine. Then suddenly, the forest stops and only stunted trees, sparsely scattered, continue down the valley. Here, virtually no soil lies above the rough rocks which are gathered in piles. The whole scene looks like a glacier disappeared overnight, dropping its load of boulders randomly and leaving small pools between islands of rocks. Short grass and diminutive trees find a few crevices to wedge in their roots. Marmots and ground squirrels find homes in the cavities. Now we disconnect RTENT and Pathfinder and I lead the descent down White Pass toward Skagway. Glaciers cap high precipices, waterfalls plunge over cliffs, streams and lakes fill gaps, but mostly I watch the road in front of me has I coast down in first gear at 25 m.p.h. I coast into our campsite in Skagway, a small town wedged between high mountains and fronting a deep bay at the top of Alaska’s Inner Passage. So there we have it: lakes, streams, ponds, mountains, glaciers, desert, badlands, waterfalls, forests, islands, ocean - all in today’s hundred miles.

(Shari) I know, I know, I said this before. Nevertheless, this time I really mean it. Today’s scenery is the prettiest ever on this trip. RTENT tickles deep blue and green lakes, caresses green valleys, huffs past mountains and winks at glaciers as she traverses the road from Whitehorse to Skagway. From Emerald Lake’s marbled blue and green waters down to the seaside village of Skagway, our eyes are treated to one marvelous sight after another. We visit the world’s smallest desert at Carcross where the whipping winds from Lake Bennett prohibit vegetation on the sandy glacial lake bottom. We stop at a roadside turnout to view Tormented Valley, a desolate rocky moonscape, with stunted trees and small lakes and streams, that goes on for miles. We observe an abandoned silver mine that guidebooks would call rustic or quaint. Then we begin the 14-mile 3,290-ft. descent into Skagway. Again we unhook the car from the motorhome and Bert and I travel down the steep slope in separate vehicles, each enamored with the scenery, but unable to share our emotions. Steep cliffs with vertical drop offs abound and unsurpassed vistas present themselves at every turn in the road. We stop at the US customs station and the officer waves me through with a friendly "He explained," as he nods in Bert’s direction. We arrive at Garden City RV Park near 1 p.m. and are less than satisfied with this property that is to be our home for the next ten days. We are squeezed into spots packed closer together than stadium seats at Kyle Field. What happened to all my stupendous scenery? After lunch we explore the town with our bikes. Three cruise ships are parked at the dock and the town is booming with the beautiful people just off the ship. First we stop at Diamonds International Alaska for my free diamond earrings. Honestly, I got a free pair of studs with diamond chips on the faces because I mention an ad in a paper I read. Next is a brewery tour at the Alaska Brewing Company, a year old establishment. The owner takes us through the brewing process, explaining that glacial fed water from the melting Juneau ice field is used along with Alaskan barleys mixed with other grains to make his five different brews. He has a special brew for the locals. They were afraid that no beer would be left for them after the cruise ships docked. He developed a special hand signal, much like a waving Mickey Mouse ear, when requesting the local brew. I tell him we will be a local for ten days and he tells me that the beer can be bought by the half gallon. Move over milk, hear comes the beer!

 

Day 87 - August 6, 1998 - Milepost 7631 - Skagway, AK

(Bert) Summer flowers have matured to fall berries. I’ve already found Bog Blueberry, Bunchberry, Lingonberry, Strawberry, Timberberry and Crowberry. This morning I hike up the north slope at the edge of Skagway and I add Baneberry (poisonous!), Raspberry, High-bush Cranberry and Devil’s Club berry. I didn’t know there were so many berries in Alaska. The deep woods offer Western Hemlock and Ponderosa Pine as a welcome addition to the now humdrum dominant spruce we’ve been watching for hundreds of miles. The mountain forest borders on a rushing river and I return to town across the suspension bridge that sways in today’s strong winds blowing in from sea. I again see three cruise ships docked in the harbor. Skagway’s economy is booming with increased tourism. I’m told that 27 cruise ships now visit per week. Later in the day the four of us don raincoats and walk along Broadway, browsing shops. Then we stop to visit Skagway Assembly of God, a dark red church building where next week we will lead Vacation Bible School. We talk briefly with Pastor Steve Smith before he leaves for an appointment. We stay to check out the facilities and talk to Kaj (an unusual Danish name pronounced with the "j" sounding like "I") a student from Pacific Lutheran College who is spending the summer assisting at the church. Later in the evening, Pastor Steve visits us in our motorhome and brings along Leonard, the assistant pastor for the summer whose home is in Washington. It sounds like Pastor Steve has lots of assistance with his small, but thriving, congregation.

(Shari) Skagway is wedged between mountain ridges much like a missing piece of mile high lemon meringue pie. We do not take long to walk the seven blocks to the Assembly of God church. There we meet, Kaj, a young Pacific Lutheran student here on a summer internship as youth director. He fills us in on a little history of the church and its congregation of 35 souls. I wonder how such a small congregation can support the nice facility, a full-time pastor, a summer intern and a summer assistant pastor. Kaj tells me God’s spirit works in many ways. We continue our walk to Broadway, the main street of Skagway, and browse more shops. Buying bagels at the grocery store, we walk back to RTENT and eat a light supper of sandwiches while watching a movie. Steve Smith, pastor, and Leonard, the assistant pastor, stop in to introduce themselves and visit a bit. Leonard, a commercial fisher in Washington, entertains us with fishing stories and previous trips to Alaska in his 22-ft. boat. After they leave, we finish watching the movie and crawl into bed to read before turning out the lights. Darkness arrives in Skagway about 10:30 p.m. and finally we use our inside lights. Is this another sign of the approaching winter?

 

Day 88 - August 7, 1998 - Milepost 7631 - Skagway, AK

(Shari) Rain, beer, pizza. These three words describe our day. Not much can be done outdoors as it rains and drizzles all the time. I bake cinnamon buns, clam chowder and sour dough bread. We retrieve e-mail at the church. I buy beer at the brewery and serve it for Happy Hour. Gene and Charlene Diers arrive and park in front of us. All six of us walk to Northern Lights for more beer and yummy pizza. We watch another movie and crawl into bed listening to more rain hit the roof.

(Bert) Rain falls all night and continues intermittently throughout the day. I take advantage of the dreary weather to catch up on computer work while nestled cosily inside RTENT. I review the VBS materials we will use next week, print off copies of this journal for parents, send a couple invoices for my business and answer e-mail. In mid afternoon Shari and I go to the church to transmit e-mail, then to the ferry dock to check schedules for our trip to Juneau and Sitka after next week. When we return to RTENT, Gene and Charlene Diers from Fenton, Missouri, who are the team leaders for VBS here, have arrived. We met them first in Anchorage at our VBS orientation meeting and since that time, like us, they have been traveling Alaska. We compare travel experiences as the six of us sit in RTENT enjoying some of the local brew which Shari bought in town in a special half-gallon container. Then we all walk in the rain to Northern Lights Pizza, a great pizza restaurant with reasonable prices.

 

Day 89 - August 8, 1998 - Milepost 7631 - Skagway, AK

(Shari) Charlene begins our VBS work session at the church with a devotion and prayer. Bert, the organized one, makes a schedule and to do list for Monday’s session as we develop it. Charlene assigns registration tasks to each of us. We are to greet the children and help them make compliment necklaces out of yarn. I have my necklace made before the rest finish talking about it and before I know it, I am in charge of that activity. It is a cute idea. Sixty pieces of 3-in. yarn are tied in a bundle on a yarn string around your neck. As you give someone a compliment, you also give him a yarn piece. Before we leave for the day, each of us has at least six pieces of yarn on our necklace and VBS has not even begun. We assign roles for the puppet show, opening, closing, songs, and crafts. Tomorrow we plan a "dress" rehearsal before tackling Monday’s lesson. We finish the planning session with homemade cookies from Jean (she gets five compliments on that alone) and are back home within three hours. We meet again at Charlene and Gene’s for snacks and my homemade soup before we walk to the visitor center to hear the free Robert Service recitation. Before our 1996 trip to Alaska, I had never heard of Robert Service, although his book sold more copies than the Bible in the 1920s. A jovial bearded Alaskan named Buckwheat greets everyone in the audience with personal attention. He recites poems and draws howls, sighs, hoots and groans from the audience on cue. He has a woman play Bessie with the Boil and another man play the corpse in The Cremation of Sam McGee. He entertains with wit, voice and story and we exit the auditorium after an hour with hunger pangs for more. Our walk home in the drizzle has us passing closed shops and open bars. Skagway is a ghost town tonight. No cruise ships adorn its harbor and most stores are closed. Employees have the night off and we see many parties taking place in the taverns along the street or among the young workers in their homes we pass.

(Bert) Rain continues to mid morning. It sure can rain a lot here in August. In the afternoon we meet at the church to organize our VBS program for Monday. The Alaska Mission provided us with good VBS materials, but we have the freedom to choose among various alternatives and to incorporate some of the other craft materials we brought with us. For a committee of six, we function quite well and in no time we have an agenda laid out and roles assigned. One of the ideas for the kids is a compliment necklace that also serves as a name tag holder. We cut 60 short pieces of yarn and attach the bundle to a longer piece of yarn that serves as a necklace. Throughout our session, if we compliment another person, we tie a short piece of our yarn on their necklace. Soon our necklaces are covered with different colored bows. It sounds hokey, but it becomes fun and I think the kids will enjoy it too. In the evening we go to a performance of Robert Service poetry. Although I was unacquainted with his poetry before our first trip to Alaska, I’ve since learned that Robert Service, the bard of the North, is extremely popular here. Most of his poetry was written in Whitehorse and Dawson City shortly after the gold rush. Poems like The Shooting of Dan McGrew and The Cremation of Sam McGee are legends in melodic verse and homespun humor while, at the same time, letting us get a feel for life in the Far North around the turn of the century. Our entertainer tonight is Buckwheat, a boisterous and comical Alaskan dressed in lumberjack attire set off by bright red suspenders. His style of recitation incorporates his audience as props in the show and highlights the humor of Robert Service’s work. It’s quite a contrast to the performance by Tom Byrne that Don and I enjoyed in Dawson City. Byrne’s style is all professional, reflecting his London theater background. Playing the role of a staid elderly gentleman, Bryne brings out the lyric quality of Robert Service’s poetry and his sensitive ear for the stories of the Yukon. Both performers left us with a day to remember.

 

[In the subsequent journals about VBS, we have changed the names of the children in order to protect their identies}

Day 90 - August 9, 1998 - Milepost 7631 - Skagway, AK

(Shari) I do not know what I expected but whatever it was it would have been wrong anyway. Church services at the Assembly of God are anything but the expected. We first go to Bible Class which is rather a straightforward Bible class in Any Church USA. Everyone meets in the sanctuary for an opening of song accompanied by Pastor Steve on the electric guitar. Little Rachel, 3, is so cute saying her memorized Bible verse. All the children say verses, none too young to escape; even a two-year-old repeats the words as Pastor Steve recites them. Just when I think it is time to move to another segment, I am surprised to see adults come to the front to say their verses. Then the offering is exchanged with rolls of pennies. For 50 cents, you get one roll, for a dollar, two. The girls put their rolls in one decorated bucket and the boys in another. The two buckets are put on a balance beam. The heavier one wins and the contributing sex is dismissed to class first. Adults meet in the overflow room and our six contribute significantly to the number attending. We meet Mary, April, Gil, Monica and Pastor Leonard who conducts the class on forgiveness. Church service starts at 10:45 a.m. The first hour is basically announcements and songs of praise conducted again with Pastor Steve on the electric guitar with words projected on the wall with an overhead. After prayers and offerings, Pastor Steve has the sermon. He talks of King Manasa and his evil and asks the question can the rich or famous come to know God? As I sit listening to him preach, I can find no differing theology between what is going on here and what goes on at home in Holy Cross. We both deliver the good news of our Savior. However the presentation is way different and I wonder how other members of Holy Cross would take to the Hallelujahs and Amens that liberally punctuate the service. That is if they can get past the electric guitar. I personally find the music uplifting and lustily join in the singing. Bert mentions this Skagway congregation entrusts a good deal to us in opening up their church and children to our VBS. I pray we do not disappoint them and live up to their trust.

(Bert) Before this morning, I’ve not attended an Assembly of God worship service. While no theological differences from my Lutheran background are apparent during today’s service, the style is a stark contrast to the rather stiff and formal services offered at many Lutheran churches I’ve visited. The most striking is that Lutherans have an 11th commandment applicable only to their pastors. It requires all church services to terminate after 60 minutes and all sermons to be winding down after 10 minutes. In the olden days, Lutherans may have tarried longer, but these days if a sermon runs beyond limit, pew sitters start fidgeting in their seats, swinging their arms in exaggerated movements to examine wristwatches and start nodding their heads in napping fashion. Today’s marathon begins at 9:30 with Bible Class, moves to an 10:45 a.m. service that begins at 11:10 and winds up at 5 minutes before 1 p.m. after what must be a 45 minute sermon. I am impressed with the patience of the row of young girls sitting in the front pew. Their enthusiasm and attentiveness are beyond what I thought children were capable. Despite my background, I found the service uplifting, the message powerful and the Christian witness contagious.

 

Day 91 - August 10, 1998 - Milepost 7631 - Skagway, AK

(Shari) The first to arrive is three-year-old Randy. He is shy at first but it does not take him long to feel at home. Next, two sisters arrive, Rachel (age 3) and Melinda (age 2). Jacqueline, 13, Carolyn, 12, Sonia, 7, and Pamela, 9, round out our VBS group. The Alaskan Mission Committee told me not to be disappointed with the numbers, but I cannot help feeling a little disheartened. Six of us and hours of preparation are a bit of an overkill for seven already churched children. God has His ways, I guess. I help them make their compliment necklaces and conversation around the table is somewhat stilted. Keeping the attention of the group during the mixer is a chore with the string of ages we have. Things get better with the puppet show and the group is spellbound as puppets, Frieda and Freddy bicker about having Christmas in August. After Christmas songs and a birthday cake for Jesus we move to a balloon race representing the stomping out of sin. Since it is rainy outside, we conduct the race in the fellowship room, which later transforms into a craft room. The younger kids color and put cotton balls on a lamb and the older ones assemble a nativity scene. The crafts are a big success and Jacqueline and Carolyn take extra crafts home to give to their friends. They tell me the 7th and 8th grade classes are held in the same room with the same teacher. Both classes together are only 16 kids, 3 girls and 13 boys. I do a bit of mental arithmetic and realize the juvenile population of Skagway is not large. Bert closes with an explanation of the red and white candy cane. After lunch, hearing loud commotion, I peek outside and low and behold I see Dave Davis with Sally sitting in the Freightliner. They came to visit with us and at this moment I need the sunshine that they literally and figuratively brought down the mountain with them. While the six of us prepare for tomorrow’s VBS, Sally makes salmon soup from the many salmon that they caught and we did not. We bring our bowls to their 5th wheel and eat and jabber the night away.

(Bert) Randy is the first to arrive. Then comes Pamela dressed in a pretty purple dress. And Sonia, in a colorful flowered dress, comes with her older sister, Jacqueline. Carolyn, a 7th grader, shows up next. Sally comes with her two-year-old Melinda and her three-year-old Rachel. Visiting Pastor Leonard and his wife Cheryl come to help. All of the girls have such pretty names and show smiling faces to match. All, except Pastor Leonard’s family, are native Skagway residents. Few children live in Skagway. In fact, Jacqueline tells us her 8th grade class shares the same teacher as the 7th graders and together they comprise about 15 students. Our VBS starts slowly as the children warm up to their out-of-state teachers. Shyly, they answer the registration questions, make their compliment necklaces and sing the first of the songs led by Jean. They squirm impatiently as Pastor Leonard reads from the Bible about the angels announcing Jesus’ birth, setting the stage for our Christmas in August theme today. But with the start of the puppet show performed by Shari and Don, the children start to warm up. Cupcakes and fruit punch are welcome as the next on this morning’s program. Cupcake candles are lit and we sing Happy Birthday to Jesus. The fun really accelerates with a story Char tells about how sin loads us down and she illustrates by trying to walk while carrying a balloon between her legs. In hearty laughter we watch each of the children try to walk the same distance between line markers, carrying a balloon between legs. At the finish line they stomp on their balloon, symbolically illustrating Jesus removing our sin. We move to the next activity. The littlest children color a sheep and place cotton balls on their pictures. The older ones construct manager scenes from a punch out cardboard kit, with Don giving building instructions. Back in the chapel, we join in Christmas carols and I quiz the kids about Jesus’ birth, using the manger scene and Leonard’s Bible reading as a foundation. I am amazed at the answer three-year-old Rachel gives to my question about what the angels said to the shepherds. She recites a lengthy Bible passage from the Christmas story, word for word. Not only did she have the right answer, but she had it in detail and in complete sentences. Faster than seems possible, it is already noon and the first day of VBS is over. We return to the RV park, catch lunch and hope for a short nap. Only a few winks into a nap we are surprised by the appearance of a King of the Road 5th wheel pulled by a big Freightliner. You guessed it! Dave and Sally have found us again. Gene and Char wonder what is happening when Don and Jean and Shari and I get all excited about the new arrivals. While Dave and Sally settle in, the six of us return to church to plan tomorrow’s activities. When we return, we all get together for dinner at the King of the Road. We enjoy salmon soup with some of Dave and Sally’s catch. I read one of Jim’s journal entries (you’ll recall, Ermine flew back to Texas and Jim continued out of Alaska toward Vancouver) in which he described his misadventures on mind boggling slopes in B.C. If Jim says the roads are steep, you better believe you don’t want to try them yourself. We all decide to bypass the scenic side road he took in southern B.C. Our conversations split and the room is a buzz as, simultaneously, Don and Dave are relating fishing stories; Shari, Jean, Char are trading fish preparation ideas; Gene and Sally are talking about life in Alaska in winter. It’s great to travel to Alaska. It’s even more fun when you can share your experiences with others along the way.

 

Day 92 - August 11, 1998 - Milepost 7631 - Skagway, AK

(Shari) Four more children join our original seven this morning for VBS. Beth, 3, Jamie, 11, Nicole, 9, and Veronica, 11. Veronica, going into 5th grade, dresses as if she is a senior in high school. I smell the freshly smoked cigarette as I help her make her compliment necklace. She tells me she has just moved to Haines because her mother got a job there. How or why she came to VBS this morning is unknown. She knows the other children but is quiet and removed from them. At 11 years of age, she should still be playing with dolls, not cigarettes. I am saddened at the lost years of her childhood and am grateful we can briefly touch her life today. Beth requires at least four watchful eyes to keep her on track. Randy, Rachel, Melinda and Beth are a class unto themselves for ten teachers. Luckily they seem to take to Gene and Don and listen to them sometimes. Praise the Lord, 20-something Matt is present this morning to help. We open with songs. Don, portraying a disciple, relates the story of Jesus calming the storm. Our plan was to have the little ones make wind socks using stickers for decorations. The bigger kids then could decorate theirs with fabric paint. When the little ones see the paint, they have those caps off and are painting everything. The best laid plans . . . turn to chaos. Everyone paints their windsock. Luckily the day is pretty and as the children finish - all at different times of course - they go outside for snacks and relieve pent-up energy. I follow with a game of trust, matching marker caps with marker pens, while blindfolded. Back inside, we make cross sand paintings: an activity from the donated Holy Cross Buddy Boxes. All ages really enjoy this one and the crosses are prized possessions to take home. The puppet show is again fun and we close with Bert reinforcing the story and asking questions. I need a rest and head for some quiet time at RTENT. I am 28 years removed from having contact with little ones and am not used to the commotion. The Lord is getting me ready for my grandchildren, I guess.

(Bert) Day two at VBS brings newcomers Jamie, Nicole and Beth: three sisters. Also, Veronica a 5th grader comes via water taxi from Haines. This morning our singing is enhanced by several songs lead by Jacqueline, including a catchy one entitled "Pharaoh, Pharaoh, let my people go" which comes with hand and body motions. After a Bible reading about Jesus calming the sea, Don does a magnificent performance as a disciple dramatically relating the story as if he just experienced it a few hours before. Don really gets into role playing. Today’s craft projects tax the skills of the littlest ones, but when they see the older kids doing it, they can’t be deterred. Little three-year-old Beth keeps telling me, "I can do it!" Together we cut strips in a piece of cloth. While I hold the cloth taunt, she clips with a child’s scissors. Because she hasn’t quite managed the mechanics of scissors, I have to keep moving the cloth so that she can cut in a more-or-less straight line. She’s good at putting on the sticky symbols, preferring fish to all others. However, manipulating the paint tubes is a formidable feat for both of us. While she’s squeezing the tube and swinging her arm randomly, I’m trying to keep the paint on the cloth and not on the table, her hands, her clothes and anything else in its path. I help Sonia on another craft that produces beautiful results no matter what age is its creator. A sticky baseboard has been covered with paper, then scored in a pattern of a cross in front of a sunburst. Sonia peals off one small section of the scored paper, revealing the sticky surface. Then she pours colored sand on the sticky surface, dumps the excess on a paper plate, leaving a single layer of sand adhering to the baseboard. She repeats the process on another section of the pattern, but chooses a different color sand. With each step the sand picture develops further and when she finishes Sonia has a colorful sand painting showing a prominent cross in front of brilliant multicolored sun rays. I again do the closing, summing up today’s message. I tell the scary story of the time Shari, Missy and I were off the coast of Vancouver in stormy waves high above our fishing boat. Then I relate that story to Jesus’ calming the sea and the lesson that Jesus also calms our fears. The warm near-80 afternoon is Skagway at its finest: clear blue skies setting off sharp edges of rocky mountains riding above pristine montane forests. Late in the day Shari and I walk through Skagway, meeting Dave and Sally as they exit from Buckwheat’s Robert Service recital. We join them for a beer while they eat pizza at a local restaurant and walk back in the cool evening now semi-dark at 9:30 as Fall is upon us.

 

Day 93 - August 12, 1998 - Milepost 7631 - Skagway, AK

(Bert) We are into the routine of VBS operations by today. If we do this a few more days, we should be professionals by the end of the week. Newcomer Jeff is a hit with us Texans. The sixth grader just moved to Skagway from Houston and will spend the summer here. Then he will move to St. Thomas. His family is part of the transition occurring in Skagway. His father works at one of the stores that has branches here where the ships stop in summer, and in the Carribean where they cruise in the winter. Little by little, the local merchants are being bought out by the big guys who spruce up the stores and bring in a higher class of merchandise. In a sense, Skagway is becoming the Disneyland image of a turn of the century Alaskan town: it’s pretty, it’s comfortable, it’s fun, but it’s also the fairy tale version of the real thing. VBS goes smoothly until our 10:30 snack time when four kids leave for a program at the library, putting a big dent in our next activity session. The ongoing summer program encourages children to read and today must be a special occasion because when they return at 11:30, they tell us about prizes they won. Most surprisingly, little Beth won two tickets to ride on a helicopter. But the kids are back in time for the puppet show and are really getting into seeing each episode of the brother-sister act played by Shari as Frieda, using a monkey puppet, and Don as Freddy, using a dog puppet. After VBS, the six of us have lunch at an outdoor tent restaurant near the train station. Downtown is buzzing with cruise ship tourists riding trains, antique 12-passenger taxis, shuttle buses, helicopters, airplanes, tour buses. A few of them even walk. In late afternoon Shari and I bicycle through town, stopping in the small residential area at the outskirts and come upon Jacqueline, Pamela and Carolyn: some of the VBS students. They climb on their bikes too and Jacqueline shows us Pastor Steve’s house. With a town this small, everyone knows everyone and they all live within a few blocks of each other. Shari and I continue biking out of town, turn up the hill toward Dyea which is the start of the famous Chilkoot Trail taken by the gold rush miners bound for the Klondike in 1897. We petal uphill for a half-hour until Shari is pooped, then turn around. I sail down in four minutes; Shari takes six minutes because she uses her brakes. We’ve had another great day in Skagway with clear skies, refreshing sea breezes and shorts and T-shirt weather.

(Shari) Jeff joins VBS class today, our second boy. He is 11 years old and from Houston. Can you believe it? We hit it off right away as I show him how to make a compliment necklace and nativity scene. Either Beth is better behaved today or Gene’s constant attention has calmed her energy. She almost sits through Pastor Leonard’s reading of the lesson. Enforcing the lesson, Jesus’ healing of the paralyzed man, today’s crafts include a scratch off sun catcher, a gold cross and a rescue bag. Rehashing the morning over tempura at Klondike Kate’s, we unwind and can enjoy the beautiful weather. When it is beautiful, it is beautiful! The sky is without a cloud and the surrounding mountains loom majestically skyward, embracing Skagway like a grandma’s hug. The cruise ships are in and the town is a bustle of activity. Trains toot, helicopters whir, horses - pulling tourist cabs - clip clop, happy voices shout and laugh over cameras clicking. Everyone wants to freeze this moment and take a piece home with them. Bicycling over the road to Dyea makes us want to capture the beauty also. The trip uphill takes us 30 minutes, as we stop several times for me to rest and enjoy the view. When my legs turn to jelly, we turn around. Coming down, using my brakes constantly, the cool wind caressing my face; I relish the ride. My favorite bike trails are flat or down. The only better path would be to take a car up and the bike down. We stop at Pullen Creek Park and watch young couples from the cruise ship fishing for Pink Salmon in the pond. The pinks have started to turn color as they finish out their life cycle but that does not deter the tourists from the catch. Don said those poor pinks must have such sore mouths and bodies from being caught so often and released. No one was checking licenses and I doubt those cruise people had one anyway. The town of Skagway knows what side of the bread is buttered. The tourist dollar is the gold of 1998 and the town thrives as much today as it did 100 years ago during the gold rush. Catering to the tourist, business must pack all of their profit into five short months. After that the summer help vacates to a warmer clime, the closed restaurant and shop walls echo emptiness through the winter wind. It must be lonely, cold and quiet in those off months and I wonder what my new Skagway friends Jacqueline, Carolyn, Sonia, et al. do with their time.

 

Day 94 - August 13, 1998 - Milepost 7631 - Skagway, AK

(Bert) "Frieda." "Frieda," calls out Char at the end of the puppet play. Somewhat surprised, Shari sticks her monkey-clad arm back up over the edge of the curtain. "Beth wants to give Frieda a hug," Char continues. All morning at VBS, Beth has an attention span of less than 30 seconds. But at the closing puppet play, she is fascinated with Frieda-the-monkey, Freddy-the-dog and Grandma-the-skunk. For 10 minutes she rivets her attention on the action. She gets out of her front row seat and peaks behind the screen to see Shari, Don and Jean with their hands in the air. However, knowing the secret of the puppets does not remove the magic of the show. The story line is that Frieda is sad that Jesus died, but Freddy tells Frieda that the story has not ended. Then Grandma comes on stage to tell Frieda of the resurrection and now Frieda is happy and begins hugging Grandma as well as Leonard who is holding up one end of the curtain. And Beth wants a hug too. Our VBS morning was a good one. Separating the younger kids from the older ones during activity time has helped reduce commotion. While the little ones go on a walk to a nearby park, Shari and I work with those old enough to write. Together we compose a thank-you note to Holy Cross, Bethel and St. John’s churches and to AAL, the fraternal insurance company, for their contributions of VBS materials, supplies and snacks and their prayers. Then Pamela, Jacqueline, Carolyn and Nicole copy the letter in their own handwriting and the letters are passed around for everyone to sign. In May, kids from St. John’s school wrote letters to the VBS; now I read some of them aloud and three of the girls pick a favorite and write back about themselves and Skagway. We may have started pen pals between Nicole and Chelsie, Jacqueline and Sabrina, Carolyn and Arielle. After lunch, Shari and I drive the Dyea road, the same place we bicycled yesterday. A mile in, we see we had bicycled to the top of the hill and quit just before our chance for a great view. Today we stop at the observation deck and enjoy a panoramic view of the Skagway fjord with town nestled at water’s edge between rows of steep mountains. From our promontory we can see up White Pass on our left, the whole town before us, three cruise ships at dock to our right and the long narrow waters of Taiya Inlet on Lynn Canal. We continue down the Dyea road which narrows to a one-lane gravel path that requires us to pull to the shoulder when we meet occasional oncoming traffic. With all the days we were in Skagway in 1996 and now in 1998, I don’t know how we overlooked this picturesque drive. Our road clings tenuously to the mountainside as we edge beside a fjord, inland, round the bend, outland and then around another fjord. The second fjord points toward the source of the Taiya River and the town site of what was once Dyea. The waters are an alluring shade of blue-green, calm and pure. As the fjord narrows, the water shallows and Harbor Seals periscope close to shore as they swim through the channels forged between marsh grasses. We reach the tip of the fjord and cross a one lane bridge over the rushing Taiya, strangely without salmon. Here is the base of the steep mountain pass called Chilkoot. In 1897, Dyea was built on the flat land beside the long marsh. In a year its population swelled to 10,000 as the gold miners arrived. A few remnants still remain of the 1-mile wharf built over the mudflats. Even with the wharf, the miners still had to hike a mile to Dyea. Here they gathered together their possessions and learned the news about Chilkoot Pass and the Canadian Mounty requirements: each gold miner had to carry one ton of supplies up the steep pass, build a boat and travel the Yukon River to reach the goldfields. Carrying a ton of supplies meant many trips up and down the hazardous pass. A cemetery attests to the many miners that died through the mishaps of reaching the gold fields. In 1899 the railroad was completed at Skagway and the alternate route made Dyea obsolete. By 1903 its population dropped to one settler. Now as we walk over the town site, almost nothing is left. A field of Wild Iris must be beautiful in spring; today we just see the dried husks of spent flowers. Fireweed blooms have transformed into cottony feathers clutching dry stalks. A Merlin perches on a tree stump in the grassy marsh. Only stillness rests where 10,000 miners once camped.

(Shari) No new children show up today but all the others come back: we must be doing something right. We get lots of giggles, smiles and hugs today as we progress through the activities. We listen to the first section of Benjamin’s Box, a delightful story about a boy that is a first hand witness to Jesus’ last week on earth. Colorful eggs with little objects hidden inside accompany it. I give each child a color matching one of the eggs. When that color comes up in the story, the child opens the egg and we discuss what is inside. Everyone but Beth pays attention. We make bead bracelets and write thank-you letters to Holy Cross, AAL, Bethel and St. John Lutheran for their support in this program. The leftover Buddy Boxes from Holy Cross saved our program every day with an extra craft or two. AAL’s monetary support bought the snacks that fed tired and hungry tummies each day and St. John’s support bought additional supplies needed for crafts and lessons. Beth is hard to control but, I tell you what, she sure does love those puppets. She sits riveted to her seat and after today’s show, she gives Frieda, the monkey puppet, a hug. Now isn’t that cute or what? Pamela has to go to visit her grandpa in an Anchorage hospital tomorrow and as she gives me a special hug, she tells me that she will miss me. Jacqueline wants me to stay longer than Friday. Sonia wants Jean to be her teacher when school starts in September. Carolyn wants VBS to last two weeks. We sure have come a long way from the awkwardness of Monday. When we get back to RTENT, we find Dave and Sally have left and a note tacked to our door. We too will miss them but I am sure our paths will cross sooner than either of us expects. I can’t let that relationship die. Dave, I will just have to drink the special Skagway brew in the fridge that I saved for you last night. Too bad! As the clouds break this afternoon, we drive to Dyea. We stop at an overlook, and take pictures of Skagway hundreds of feet below us. What an awesome sight! Three cruise ships lined up at the dock look like toys and our motorhome appears as a small speck of white. The town, four blocks wide and twenty blocks long, is like our friend Marilyn’s Victorian village beneath her tree at Christmas, complete with a narrow gage train. At the town site of Dyea, I try to put myself back 100 years in time. My ears listen for the sounds of a century ago; the metal ring of the blacksmith, the squeaking of a wooden door, the drone of 10,000 voices as they prepare for the climb up Chilkoot Pass and the gold beyond. But today I am greeted with the rustling wind and a far off waterfall in this ghost town now overgrown with weeds. How can a town of more than 10,000 people disappear in so short a time? Where are the remnants of its existence? Only a few rotten pilings, sticking out of the mud like rotten stumps, remain of the 1-mile wharf and a few pieces of boards heaped together give evidence of any building. Life goes on and changes and, as I see the back of the cruise ship departing Skagway in the distance, I am pulled back to the present, a much more pleasant time.

 

Day 95 - August 14, 1998 - Milepost 7631 - Skagway, AK

(Shari) Our last puppet show, our last craft, our last lesson. VBS is over and all we have left are wonderful memories. Little Beth: so full of energy. Little Rachel: smarter than her three years. Jacqueline: more mature than her 12 years. Little Sonia: so sweet and quiet. Nicole, Jamie and Veronica: struggling with life. Jeff: our faithful boy. Charles: who shows up today for the first time, at 20 minutes before closing. Pamela: our quiet beauty. Carolyn, Randy and Melinda: normal kids for their age. Pastor Steve, Susan, Pastor Leonard, Cheryl and Kaj: all new friends. The class may be small in numbers but it leaves a big impression on my heart and soul. We touch their lives so briefly and I wonder who is teacher and who is pupil. They have taught me the love of childhood again, spontaneous actions, outbursts of giggles, freedom from societal expected behaviors. What fun! Jacqueline says she will wait all afternoon until I come to her house. She wants to teach me how to jump on her trampoline. Bert kids that Friday noon, after he picks up his paycheck, he is done. Little does he realize that Pastor Steve has a paycheck of sorts for us. He has arranged tickets for the six of us tomorrow to take the narrow gage train up White Pass. This was one activity we skipped because of the expense. We are overwhelmed and overjoyed with the opportunity. Cleanup goes fast. We leave most of our leftover materials for the church to use in the future. Later we all gather outside RTENT for Happy Hour before dinner at Stowaway Cafe next to the small boat harbor. Each couple splits a meal of barbequed ribs, rice pilaf, salad and homemade bread. Charleen orders a bread pudding with six spoons, each of us getting a taste of the house speciality. Skagway is in weekend mode: no cruise ships and few people on the streets. As we walk the 20 blocks back home, we hear the locals relaxing through open windows. We see them in small groups at bar tables. True to form, we meet someone we know on the street: Charles. We hardly know any people in this town but continually run into the few we do know. Small town America is evident.

(Bert) Our last VBS day, I take note of the relationships we built in just one week. Names were easily tied to faces the first day, but now I see beyond the faces. Some of my co-workers were disappointed with the small turnout this week, hoping for 30 children. But it seems God had other ideas by sending us 12 instead. With six VBS workers plus three parents, we were able to interact much more closely and build stronger relationships. Now instead of just names and faces I see some kids from broken families, some struggling with the awkward transition between child and adult, some with energy beyond control, some with shyness beyond timidity. I also see some kids celebrating life, some learning to share, some growing in faith, some developing talents they didn’t know they had, some finding role models they haven’t encountered before. I see God at work through us, or, like our hand-imprint banner now says, "God’s helping hands in Skagway." Looking at her compliment necklace, Jacqueline remarks, "I’ve never made some many compliments in my life," as she realizes how the necklaces served their purpose this week. Jacqueline has a gift for evangelism. She invited a dozen kids to VBS, eight of whom came. She also made and took home dozens of extra crafts that she distributed to neighborhood friends who were not allowed to attend, but who welcomed the crafts and the message tied to each. All the kids linger beyond the noontime closing to collect their treasures and to say lengthy thank-you’s and goodbyes. Pastor Steve surprises the six of us with free tickets to the narrow gauge railroad ride that climbs beautiful White Pass. All of us had decided to pass on the excursion ride because of its expense, so Pastor Steve’s arrangements with the railroad are an overwhelming and unexpected present. After they all leave, we six sit around the table to fill out evaluation questionnaires and we reflect on the week past. Char pays each of us a compliment, zeroing in on each person’s unique talents, and we recognize Char for her talents. Then we recognize how our different talents worked together to make the whole, just like the Bible passage says. We started apprehensive and unsure; we ended confident and fulfilled.

 

Day 97 - August 16, 1998 - Milepost 7631 - Skagway, AK

(Bert) When the clock reaches 12:30, I find it hard to pull away from Pastor Steve’s message. Our train leaves at 1 p.m., but Pastor has the momentum going and I’m involved in thought. The whole morning at Skagway Assembly of God stands in stark contrast to a week ago. We’ve made so many friends here we feel a part of this congregation. Everything about the worship service is more meaningful. And Pastor’s message really has me thinking. Based on a most unlikely text from 2 Chronicles 34, he points out that children’s most formative years are the first eight and that grandparents have substantial influence over what their grandchildren believe. That also says a lot about the VBS we just concluded. When the six of us get up to leave, so do five others who also have train tickets. We are happy to have Jacqueline join us; her father works for the railroad and arranged a complimentary ticket for her. In response to the thousands of gold miners trying to reach the Klondike, The White Pass & Yukon Railroad was constructed in two years, two months and two days, beginning May 28, 1898. It connects Skagway to Whitehorse, although our route today will only take us from the sea to the summit, just past the Canadian border. We’ve driven through the pass on the highway, but the railroad is a totally different perspective. The narrow gauge railway requires only 10 ft of roadbed. In the climb to the summit, the roadbed has been carved from the mountainside using 450 tons of dynamite. The sheer drop-offs beside our track has Shari sitting on the opposite side of the train. I look down to see the milky glacier water rushing below us and up to see the lofty rock walls. We get a magnificent view of Bridal View Falls as it plummets 6,000 ft down from glaciers on Mt. Cleveland and Mt. Clifford. We pass only a small section of the gold miners Trail of ‘98, a narrow footpath edged along the mountain; most of the original trail is now overgrown with trees or covered by rock slides. We reach the summit at 2,865 ft., having traveled 20 miles to get here.

(Shari) What a difference a week makes! The church service is the same as last week, but we have changed. We no longer feel separate and uncomfortable. As soon as we walk into the building we are greeted with the warm smile of Jacqueline and the giggles of Rachel. Jeff gives us a nod as we walk to a pew. This feels like home. More people are present today. We meet Mr. and Mrs. Milke and we joke about his name until the cows come home. He is the mayor of Skagway. We present a banner to the church during service. We had all the children outline their hands and we traced over their prints with gold glitter fabric paint. "God’s Helpers in Skagway, VBS 1998" is printed in silver glitter. In the presentation Charleen mentions how we team members worked as one body, naming the talents each of us used in the VBS. Pastor Steve directs a sermon based again on King Menasas’ grandson Josiah. He picks up on the theme how important the grandfather’s influence must have been on the grandson. We get up to leave early right in the midst of one of his sentences and as I exit I hear him say, "Have a nice train ride." Amazingly, I am reluctant to leave. Jacqueline’s dad works at the train station and can get her free tickets. She accompanies us and we share our packed lunches with her. Toward the top of the journey, I want to get off the train. I can see 2,000 ft. below me, straight down. I see a little itty bitty track and bridge ahead of me as we make a turn. It does not look sturdy to me and I do not want to go over it. The train leans to the outside and I move across the aisle to balance the load. As we enter the tunnel, it becomes pitch black. I see the red light of Gene’s video and the glowing smiley face of Jacqueline’s phosphorescent T-shirt as she dances at the front of the car. We pass the Gold Rush Cemetery, Bridal Veil Falls and Dead Horse Gulch. Far below us we can peer over the cliff and view the remains of the Trail of ‘98, the route to the gold fields in 1898. It is narrow and littered with rusty remnants of days long past, complete with the skulls of horses that died along the way. Later in the evening, Pastor Leonard stops over to say one last long goodbye.

Next Day Table of Contents                                                  Alaska Mission Committee Web Site