Almost every small town on earth acquires its local character by etching a prominent profile with sometimes bizarre high jinks.
Skagway counts innumerable laughs brought here four years ago when a ruddy eccentric known only as Buckwheat mistakenly got off the ferry heading down to Haines.
Buckwheat, a sort of happy remittance man kept in funds by a successful business in one of the lower 48, regales locals and visitors alike with his antics: howling like a timber wolf from a grove of trees at a gold rush-era (1890s) tent city near town; reciting Robert Service poems to all who will listen, and writing a very funny column for the weekly paper. Ol' Buckwheat contributes generously to any of Skagway's civic betterment activities, school functions, whatever.
What Buckwheat found and fancied was a neat but rustic town founded in 1898 as a gateway to the Klondike's gold, peopled then with a ragtag group of drifting adventurers and Argonauts lusting after the yellow nuggets and dust that could make their fortunes.
Pretty little Skagway keeps its rough-and-tumble frontier past burnished bright by sprucing up the many historic buildings and landmarks from time to time, including the tomb and infamous "parlor" of Jefferson Randolph (Soapy) Smith, notorious king of the con men and town terror until he met a better shot in a turn-of-the-century duel.
Here to there: Fly Alaska Airlines or Delta to Juneau, several commuter lines getting you on to Skagway in an hour. One of the best ways to get a taste of several Alaska towns (Ketchikan, Juneau, Sitka, Skagway) is on a cruise ship of such lines as Sitmar, Cunard and others. Hardy souls drive the Alaska Highway to Whitehorse, the Klondike Highway 110 miles on to Skagway.
How long/how much? A day for the town, another or more for exploring the scenic surrounding areas afoot or on tours. Contrary to some wild tales, we found lodging and dining prices moderate.
A few fast facts: Good and rainy in fall, May through August best times but bring raincoat anyway. You can walk the town, or take a horse carriage, antique auto, trolley car and who knows what else they may have dreamed up by the time you get here.
Getting settled in: Wind Valley Lodge ($54 double) is fairly new, only 12 rooms; walk the two blocks from mid-town, courtesy car to ferries and planes.
Skagway Inn ($45-$50 B&B; double) is about the same size as above lodge but with a far more checkered past. Once a bordello, rooms are still named for the girls, including Flo, Birdie and Sal. Brass bedsteads, cheery decor but, alas, four baths for the 10 rooms.
Mary's Bed 'n' Breakfast ($45 B&B;, shared baths) is tiny but immaculate and has fluffy coverlets on beds, run by a most friendly couple answering to Nita and Jerry. See below for Mary's dining.
Klondike Hotel ($90 double) is the town's largest with 220 rooms, full dining room and lounge, brand new "turn-of-the-century decor."
Regional food and drink: Mostly lower-48 food, usually prepared in a very straightforward way without fancy footwork. But the seafood can't be faulted, salmon the freshest and best you'll find anywhere on earth, halibut almost as good.
Sourdough yeast starters, a throwback to Gold Rush days and kept forever by folks here, give a piquant flavor to breads and pancakes. And stateside or Canadian beer will hold your thirst down to an acceptable level.
Moderate-cost dining: The Prospector's Sourdough restaurant claims the oldest batch of starter in Skagway, which they use for sourdough pancakes topped with reindeer sausage at breakfasts. Chilkoot sockeye salmon is served at dinner for $10.95 with all the fixings, a gigantic halibut burger with salad for $4.75. Walls covered with local artwork, put there by students of a teacher who guarantees that she can teach you landscape painting in a day. This batch of proteges did real well.
Oatmeal at Mary's
Mary's Bed 'n' Breakfast serves one of the town's best morning meals at three large tables in the kitchen. Try the oatmeal with brown sugar and raisins, for lunch hearty homemade soups. They bake all the breads and pastries right there, and if the crowd gets too large, you might end up dining in the living room.
Miss Suzanne's, a new dining room at Skagway Inn, represents the town's approach to gourmet dining with a bang. Four- or five-course dinners from $20 to $25 bring out the likes of pumpkin ravioli, curried apple soup, jalapeno fettuccine with salmon, Key lime pie or crepes.
Jo-Dee's Salmon Bake (every Alaska town has such a place) turns out salmon, halibut, steaks, chops and chicken for $9 to $13, including an unlimited run at the salad bar and coffee.
On your own: A free guided tour of the town takes you to most of Soapy Smith's old haunts, including the Red Onion Brothel Bar, which still functions as a working saloon and even the sandwiches are sinful. You may also visit Soapy's resting place in a grove of dogwood, laid out beside the adversary who also took some lead and went to his reward at the same time.
Every evening at the Eagles Dance Hall there's a "Days of '98" musical extravaganza complete with comedy and drama, ragtime piano and banjo, the requisite gaudy and gartered dance hall girls.
Hiking and fishing are spectacular hereabouts, a 46-pound salmon landed by a teen-ager making recent headlines, and the small-plane flights over Glacier Bay and surrounding Gold Rush country will take your breath away as they did ours.
For additional information: Call the Alaska Division of Tourism at (907) 465-2010, or write (Pouch E-603, Juneau, Alaska 99811) for a 100-page vacation planner. For cruise costs and itineraries, call your travel agent.