‘TV doesn’t do it justice’: first cruise ship visitors arrive in Skagway

Skagway’s modern gold rush – the cruise ship season – has begun. The town of around 1,000 people expects almost 800,000 cruise ship passengers this summer. And the first 2,000 of those passengers had a chance to explore town Tuesday. The Celebrity Solstice sailed north from Vancouver, with stops in Ketchikan, Juneau, and Skagway.

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Tourists walk from the Celebrity Solstice towards town. (Emily Files)
Tourists walk from the Celebrity Solstice towards town. (Emily Files)

Southeast Alaska residents are reveling in the warm, sunny May weather. But some cruise ship passengers are confused.

“I was gonna say I was expecting more snow, not realizing how temperate it really was,” one passenger said.

“There’s no snow on the ground,” said another. “We expected at least two foot of snow.”

But the snow-less sidewalks aren’t a big deal for Floridian Martin Levenson. Alaska? He says, there’s nothing like it on earth.

“I visited all the other 49 other states and this is the last one,” Levenson said. “Save the best for last.”

This is Levenson’s 19th cruise, but he’s never been to Skagway before. David Freeman and Denise Gunn from Victoria, BC are repeat visitors to Skagway.

“We’ll probably go to the Purple Onion, is it? The Red Onion.”

This is their sixth time here.

“Skagway’s just beautiful, I really enjoy it,” Freeman said. “If Skagway wasn’t on the itinerary I probably wouldn’t do it.”

Freeman and Gunn head to the Red Onion on Broadway, and Eric Hauck from Alberta heads to the…

“Train ride, choo choo,” he says. “Be a kid again.”

“It’s quite an interesting operation to see, moving so many people around,” said Tyler Rose, HR Director at the White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad. “We haul over 400,000 passengers a year.”

The railroad takes passengers on scenic rides to destinations like Carcross and Fraser. It’s also the biggest summer employer in Skagway, with 175 people working the train, the gift shop, the ticket booth.

“It’s unreal, it really is,” Rose said. “All the people coming in, it’s almost like a homecoming. Employees and friends you get to see, the shops open up. The ships start coming in. I know for the businesses the cash registers start to ring.”

One of those businesses is the BBQ Shack, owned by Bob Gibson.

“We do caribou burgers, and elk and buffalo burgers,” he says. “And my baby back ribs, the meat’ll just fall right off the bone.”

Gibson just sold a couple burgers to Laura Everitt and her husband. They’re from England, and it’s their first time in Alaska.

“We’ve traveled and we’ve done Juneau and Ketchikan. And Skagway is so beautiful. It’s so pretty. The buildings are stunning.”

Laura says they wanted to come to Alaska because they watch TV shows that take place here. Like the Deadliest Catch and Ice Road Truckers.

Allison Graham plays Belle Davenport in the Days of ’98 show. (Emily Files)
Allison Graham plays Belle Davenport in the Days of ’98 show. (Emily Files)

“We’ve seen it television, but it just does not do it justice,” she says. “It really doesn’t. It’s beautiful.”

Laura says they’re also enjoying learning about the history of Skagway, the gold rush days.

Those days are re-enacted in the Days of ’98 show. Allison Graham, who plays Belle Davenport, recites some lines:

“A man named JD Stuart strolled into town with 28 hundred dollars worth of gold dust in his poke. Jeff’s men were still riled up from the fourth. I guess they must’ve felt untouchable because they lured poor JD into Jeff’s parlor and right into a trap.”

Graham says it’s a mostly true story.

“It’s a vaudeville-style show all about Soapy Smith and the events the led to his tragic demise at a shoot out down on the pier on July 8th, 1898.”

Letishia Moore is a jewelry store employee at Milano, and Jennifer Ozuzun is an owner at The Local Jeweler. (Emily Files)
Letishia Moore is a jewelry store employee at Milano, and Jennifer Ozuzun is an owner at The Local Jeweler. (Emily Files)

Down the block from the Days of ’98 show, is a much different business, but one that’s commonly found in cruise ship ports: a jewelry store.

“This is amethyst,” Jennifer Ozuzun says as she takes a sparkly necklace out of a display case “You can see it’s still in rock form, so it hasn’t been cut and polished.”

Ozuzun and her jeweler husband, Murat, own The Local Jeweler shop. Is she excited about the start of the season?

“Uh, can you tell?” she laughs. “I’m really excited, I waited seven months for this. And having your own [store], it’s our baby so it’s a big deal.”

Ozuzun says she’s been back and forth between Skagway for 8 years. Her friend Letishia Moore, who works at the Milano jewelry store, says she feels drawn to Skagway.

And apparently, so do the cruise ships. According to the Skagway Visitors’ Bureau, there will be 402 port calls this summer.