The Lynn Canal slices up Southeastern Alaska for 90 miles. Rocky shards of geology contain the path of North America’s largest fjord, their mountainous faces scaling outwards and upwards from the water’s edge.
The canal’s ferry that runs between Juneau and Skagway tugs itself on water that descends 2,000 feet below the hull. The surface is hard and flinty, as if the mountainsides have tumbled into the canal, blending the textures of earth and water together.
There is nothing playful here. The odd home or two rarely breaks up the line of the watchful mountains. The houses are too far away from the ferry deck to discern if they are inhabited or showing signs of neglect. The only suggestions of life are the tips of dorsal fins shaving the water’s surface as orcas profit from the wealth of food during the warm summer months.
At the top of the canal sits the Alaskan town of Skagway. Considered the home of the North Wind, this nonessential Tlingit town became the West Coast boomtown of 1898 when gold was discovered and the Klondike Gold Rush began.
Skagway survived the collapse of the gold supply, but now depends on cruise tourism for survival. Five months out of the year, the town that is twenty-four streets long and three streets wide accepts passengers on these vessels of vacation. People come from China to Mexico and Tennessee to Germany to see Alaska and the Inside Passage. Up to 10,000 passengers come each day on these ships, hoping to see bears, bald eagles and the glaciers that continue to shape Alaska’s terrain. At the end of September, the cruise ships stop coming, shops close up, and only 300 people remain to tuck into the Alaskan winter. It’s a town on life support, with a heart that depends on the extravagance and spending of outsiders.
It’s definitely not Brussels and it’s definitely not the America that I know. At least, not yet. This is where I’ll be for the next few months, staving off reverse culture shock by immersing myself into an American culture totally unlike my own. I’ll be doing the odd job here and there while using the opportunity to learn about the culture – both in general and in beer-related terms – in America’s last frontier. Perhaps by then, I’ll be tough enough for another sort of Wild West – that of my uncharted, unscripted freelancing future.