Skagway to Atlin Lake

Old outhouse on the island. Log is for beating off mosquitoes.
Old outhouse on the island. Log
is for beating off mosquitoes.
© Ray Zvirbulis

Even though my room at the Sgt. Preston Lodge was directly on the main street in Skagway, I slept soundly and woke refreshed at 5:00 am. I don't recall what I had eaten for breakfast but had enough time to take a short tour of the historic part of Skagway before my ride to Atlin arrived. What impressed me the most as I walked around the town were the snow-capped mountains that surrounded Skagway.

As I rounded the corner to head back to the lodge, I saw a Chevy S-IO pickup with a camper shell parked on the street right in front of my door. I guessed, correctly, that it was my ride to Atlin. The driver was sitting in the truck waiting for me. After I introduced myself, she said her name was Ruth and she was the sister of Dave, my ride finder.

I grabbed my three bags, put them in the back of the pickup, and said I was ready to go. Ruth, somewhat surprised, asked if that was all. My first thought was to say something like, "Well, when the police are after you, one has to travel light." But I thought better of it since I was not even seated in the pickup yet. I sure did not want to see her disappear down the street with all my gear in the back of the truck.
As we drove out of Skagway and up into the mountains, heading for Canada, Ruth began to tell me all about herself. It seems that she lives in Skagway from March through October and in Arkansas during the winter months. She made the drive back and forth twice each year. While living in Skagway, she worked on a gold dredge. It was brought to Skagway by a company to serve as a tourist attraction. Tourists would be able to pan for gold from a pile of dirt brought to Skagway by a dredge because there is no gold in Skagway, except for that found in the pockets of the tourists. Ruth said she worked as a cook on the dredge.

Small island across from Atlin where I camped the first night.
Small island across from Atlin where
I camped the first night.
© Ray Zvirbulis
The miles rolled on as the mountain views and lakes unfolded seeming to become increasingly spectacular. Ruth's story rolled on also. When she lived in Arkansas she had two kids of her own and adopted three more who had been abandoned by the parents. The kids had to walk a mile to get to the main road to catch the bus but when the creek rose, they lucked out if they were on their way to school. If they were coming home when that happened, they stayed with an uncle. Her grandfather owned 160 acres of land which he plowed using a couple of draft horses. He said that it was more efficient to use the horses since he did not have that much land to plow. But one time, while working with one of the horses, it kicked him in the face and killed him. There were many other stories that made the time fly.

As we approached the Canadian customs building at the U.S/Canadian border, Ruth pulled out her passport. My stomach nearly strangled my heart as it dropped down in a death spiral. When Ruth noticed my blanched face she asked if everything was fine. I asked her if a passport was needed to get into Canada. She answered, "Yes, didn't you know that?" When I was able to answer her, I told her that all I had was my driver's license, credit card and a phone card. Both of us thought the same thing: I was not going to get into Canada.

Looking down Atlin Lake from village of Atlin.
Looking down Atlin Lake from village of Atlin.
© Ray Zvirbulis

We stopped at the door of the building and a customs agent came to the car. Ruth handed her passport to the agent who then looked at me. I sheepishly handed her my driver's license saying that that was all I had because when I had come to Atlin in 1999 that was all I needed. She looked at me and said, "You don't have your passport?" I put the most pathetic and helpless look on my face that I could muster and said, "I'm sorry Ma'am, but I just did not know I had to have my passport.” She told Ruth to pull into the parking lot while she went inside to check things out. As we sat waiting we were convinced we would be heading back to Skagway where I would have to call my wife and have her overnight my passport to me while I spent a couple of more nights at Sgt. Preston's Lodge. I was also down on my knees mentally doing some intensive praying.

When the agent came back to the car she handed Ruth her passport while sweat poured down my back. She then asked me if I was born in the US. After a very brief pause, I told her I was a naturalized citizen and had become a US citizen in 1956. She said that she had checked the information through my driver's license and had found out all that and more. She then became very friendly and reminded me that the next time I enter Canada I had to have my passport. She then said that we could go on to Atlin. I thanked her profusely and would have kissed her feet if I had not been strapped in by the seatbelt. As Ruth and I drove away, the agent added, "Have a good trip in Canada and a safe passage on the Yukon River."

We drove along Tutshi Lake (pronounced: Too Shy) for quite a longtime. Ruth said that it was about 50 miles long. Mountains rose on both sides of the lake and I thought it would be a great lake to paddle someday with my wife. We continued on through Carcross and were talking so much we missed the turnoff to Atlin and only realized it when we reached the Teslin River. Stopping at a road construction site, we asked one of the workers for directions, who told us to turn back toward Carcross at Jake’s Corners where we’d find the road to Atlin after about 100 yards. Being more attentive on the way back we found the road to Atlin. It was 98K to the town. The road started out paved, turned to dirt and after some time became paved again. It was a beautiful drive along Lake Atlin, which is close to 100 miles long.

Atlin Village, viewed from island.
Atlin Village, viewed from island.
© Ray Zvirbulis

We got to Atlin at 11:00 am. I paid Ruth $160 plus $10 for the scenic drive to Teslin River and thanked her for her time and willingness to take me to Atlin. After my three bags were unloaded and Ruth left, I walked to one of the three grocery stores in town and bought fuel for my backpackers stove and some groceries. Next I called my wife to let her know where I was and that I would start the next day and asked her to send my passport to Eagle, Alaska so that I could enter the US legally. Ruth had told me that she’d had some trouble getting back into the US with just her driver's license and birth certificate. When I got back to my gear (it was undisturbed) I set up my kayak, loaded all the gear into it and paddled across a couple of hundred yards of water to a small, wooded island facing the village of Atlin. There I set up my tent against the loud protestations of a flock of gulls.

By the time I had made supper and crawled into the tent it was about 10:00 pm but as light as day. Before zipping up my sleeping bag I made my journal entry without the use of a flashlight and noted that the temperature outside the tent was 45 degrees. The next day I would begin my kayak trip down the 2,300 miles of the Yukon River; starting at the source from Lake Atlin and ending at the Bering Sea.

Ray Zvirbulis, Show Low, Arizona