Work and Travel: Life as a Bicycle Tour Guide in Alaska

A month has already flown by here in Southeast Alaska, specifically Skagway, where I’ll be living until late September. After completing the Arizona Trail in mid April, we drove home to Indiana just in time to fly to Juneau and catch the ferry to Skagway. Travelling through the Lynn Canal, my mind was soaring while I digested the views – snow-capped mountains in all directions, sunshine beginning before 5 am and lasting until 10 pm, a sparkling channel mirroring all of this greatness. After six hours on the ferry from Juneau, we arrived in Skagway where we’ll both be experiencing life as a bicycle tour guide in Alaska, our home for the summer.

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Views like these made the six hour ferry ride fly by…
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Pulling up to Skagway on the ferry.

Skagway was built in the late 1800’s as part of the Klondike Gold Rush. The cute little town is dotted with historical sites, restaurants, and lots of gift shops connected by board walks and have building fronts that look like they are still in 1898. Of course, that’s on purpose, in fact required by the National Park Service who maintains the “downtown” strip on Broadway Street as part of Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park to transport us back in time. Skagway was created by the gold rush and survives because of tourism, specifically cruise ships. Most cruises begin in Seattle or Vancouver stopping in Ketchikan and Juneau before stopping here in Skagway. Every evening, the cruise ships and all the tourists head for their next destination, possibly Glacier Bay, Sitka, or beyond to Seward where tourists can take land excursions to Anchorage, Denali, or Fairbanks.

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Because the Lynn Canal is extraordinarily deep – one of the deepest fjords in the world – massive cruise ships can pull right up to town bringing thousands of visitors from all around the globe on a daily basis. Our little town has a summer population of about 2500 including many “seasonal locals,” like myself, which goes down to between 500-800 in the winter months. On our maximum capacity days, four cruise ships can dock and can bring over 15,000 people into town. Once here, shore excursions are abundant.

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The Lynn Canal as seen from AB Mountain.

I intend on writing several articles about my time here in Skagway, but today I wanted to focus on the shore excursion I know the most about – bicycle tours. Getting the job (via Coolworks.com) was somewhat of a dream come true, and I am thrilled to be working for Sockeye Cycle Company. I’m pretty stoked to have my first job in the outdoor industry, and Alaska is quickly surpassing even my wildest dreams in terms of its beauty and abundant plant and wildlife. On top of that, Sockeye has impressed me as a company with their rigorous training, high standards of education for all guides, and commitment to sustainability and environmental awareness.

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Giving the tandems a spin outside of the Skagway Sockeye Cycle shop on 5th Ave. This building is where I work and live as the top two floors are for employee housing.

Sockeye has been in business for 31 years and has shops in Skagway and nearby Haines. Both locations host tours, bike rentals, and shops for retail and repair. Here in Skagway, we offer four different day tours for guests to choose from: Train & Bike Tour, Klondike Bike Tour, Triple Adventure, or Rain Forest Tour. The bike portion is the same for the Train & Bike and Klondike tour, but the Train & Bike includes riding the scenic White Pass and Yukon Route train to the summit to begin the ride. I’ll group these together as Klondike Tour. Similarly, the Triple Adventure and the Rain Forest Tour biking portion is the same, but the Triple Adventure includes a hike on the Chilkoot Trail and a float trip down the Taiya River with our friends from Skagway Float. These are grouped below as Rain Forest Tour.

Klondike Tour

Whether you take the train up or get picked up in town, the bike tour begins at 3292 feet at the summit of White Pass. This historic pass marks the physical boundary for the USA and Canada. During the Gold Rush, stampeders came from Skagway hauling nearly 2,000 lbs of goods as per Canadian requirement. The White Pass Trail stretched 45 miles from town over the pass to Lake Bennett in the Yukon Territory. It took them 3-4 months to make this passage as they would shuttle their goods from cache point to cache point hiking the entire trail 40 or more times. From Lake Bennett, they had to build a boat and travel over 500 miles of river to Dawson City where the gold actually was. This path was too brutal for most, fatal for many, and overall a big bust for the large majority. Most of those that actually made it to Dawson City were too late and less than 1% of the 100,000+ stampeders struck it rich.

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Staging the bikes at the top.

Once everyone is situated on bikes and the safety speeches are spieled, the downhill tour begins. The 15 mile tour has several stops along the way to take in the majestic scenery that envelops you. We keep our eyes peeled for possible wildlife sightings – bears, doll sheep, marmots, porcupines. I’ve seen guests nearly brought to tears taking in the razor edged mountains in the distance, the gushing waterfalls, and even glaciers peeking through the glacially carved valleys. As we wind down the pass, we can see the adjacent railroad tracks and some remnants of a former trail from the gold rush era. We explain the hydroelectric system Skagway depends on for electricity, the glacial silt suspended in the cloudy Skagway River, the changes in climate zone as we descend…

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The large majority of the ride is downhill coasting with little need to pedal. As we get back to town, it’s a leisurely flat ride as we make our way back to the bike shop and the ships and bay come back into view. Basically, if you can ride a bike, you can manage taking this stunning tour.

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Almost back in town. Denver Glacier is barely seen between us far in the distance.

Rain Forest Tour

The Rain Forest or Triple Adventure tour begins with a 20 minute drive from Skagway to the historic town site of Dyea. Back in the gold rush days, Skagway and Dyea competed for business and both had their own trails that converged at Lake Bennett. The White Pass Trail began in Skagway and the Chilkoot Trail originated in Dyea. The Chilkoot Trail, once a trading route for the indigenous Tlingit natives, is a 33 mile path and much steeper than the White Pass Trail. Today, the Chilkoot is now a recreational trail managed by both the National Park Service and Parks Canada.

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Crossing the Taiya River near the Chilkoot Trailhead

After a gorgeous drive around Naku Bay and the Taiya Inlet, the bike ride begins at the Chilkoot Trailhead. We leisurely ride on a dirt road through tall Sitka Spruce trees and Western Hemlocks observing the moss covered forest floor. The Tongass National Forest, the USA’s largest, is part of the world’s largest intact coastal temperate rain forest stretching from Southeast Alaska all the way down to California’s Redwoods. We make several stops along the way to point out plant life including the trees and moss, lichen, wildflowers, and some edible plants.

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The once bustling town of 10,000 in Dyea is now reclaimed by the Tongass.

We continue our ride through the historic Dyea townsite. What was once a city of about 10,000 is now almost fully reclaimed by the Tongass. The National Park Service has established gravel paths that were once the former town streets. Many informational signs with photographs from the gold rush line the paths and give insight to what was once there.

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Taking in the glacially carved Chilkoot Valley from the Taiya Flats.

Our final stop is out on the Taiya Flats where the trees open up to the northern most point of the Lynn Canal. On a clear day, you can see the Chilkoot Valley behind you where the Chilkoot Trail would go off into the mountains, the pass out of sight. In front of you is the Lynn Canal with the snow capped Chilkat mountain range far in the distance. The flats see a huge change between high and low tide which actually occurs twice a day. Typically, dozens of seagulls are out and a few Arctic Terns and Bald Eagles will dot the sky as well.

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My latest bird obsession, the Arctic Tern, is barely seen in this picture as the white fleck center right from Yakutania Point with the stunning Chilkat’s in the distance. The Artic Tern is the most migratory species on Earth and also sees more daylight than any other species as it spends all its life in summer, from Antarctica to the Arctic each year.

The season has just started really picking up since it began in May. We’re beginning to see more cruise ships and a lot more people, but our first month was relatively slow giving us plenty of time to explore the town and the many outdoor opportunities that are here in Skagway. We’ve really enjoyed trail running on the Dewey Lakes trail system and hiking up the steep AB Mountain. A quick 5 minute bike ride will bring us to the shore where we can watch for seals, interesting birds, and the occasional whale sighting (though I’ve yet to see any myself).

In short, I’ve found myself a pretty great job in an outdoor playground here in Southeast Alaska, and it’s quickly winning my heart. If you’re cruising to Skagway or Haines this summer, check out CycleAlaska.comΒ to book a day tour! Sockeye also offers extended multi-day tours for those coming up that have a little more time to spend in the area.

Southeast Alaska is truly magical, one of the last wild places on the planet. You’ve got to see it to believe it. And, in my humble opinion, there’s no better way to see it than by bike!

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Taken while doing our guide right of passage – pumping up the pass we guide tours down, 3292 feet and 15 miles from sea level

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Have you ever had a seasonal job or are you looking to get into the seasonal lifestyle? Drop your comments below! We’d love to hear from you!

We are Sean and Bekah Eaton, long distance hikers and current bicycle tour guides living our best life in Skagway, Alaska. Follow along here, on Facebook, and Instagram as we continue living a life in motion and discovering the Infinite Geography of this incredible planet.

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