The 2023 season at Carcross Commons started full-throttle and it didn’t slow down. That’s according to Heike Graf, owner of Caribou Crossing Coffee.
Graf has operated her shop in Carcross for 12 years. On Sept. 26, she told the News that people typically start trickling through the community in May, giving vendors a chance to adjust to the pace before things pick up in mid-June.
“This year, the first cruise ships came in April,” Graf said. “People were really eager and happy to be out and spending money.”
For the first time since the pandemic, there were no restrictions on travel. Cruise ships are coming through Alaska again, the White Pass is running trains once more and people are driving North in greater numbers.
In anticipation of this first season back, Derek Crowe said the Commons were tidied up in the spring. Crowe is the executive director of the Carcross Tagish Limited Partnership (CTLP), which manages the Commons.
He said the youth crew that usually takes care of the trails in the community also helped manage the Commons this year by painting, power washing, pulling weeds and installing bear-proof garbage bins.
He said the new owners of White Pass and Yukon Route also did some extra work this year, refinishing the boardwalk around the train station, which added to the season’s excitement.
“The water or the train is the right way to arrive in Carcross,” he said. “The more of that we can have, the better. It’s great to see White Pass back and investing in the community.”
As far as how the preparation has translated for vendors, Crowe has heard mixed reviews on the 2023 season.
“I’ve heard some people are doing really well, but I’ve heard that others are saying people don’t have as much money to spend,” Crowe told the News over the phone. “The coffee shop and ice cream shop and the Bistro are doing a brisk trade.”
Crowe said part of the reason for the uptick noticed by business owners like Graf is partly because Yukoners re-discovered Carcross during the pandemic, and didn’t forget about it even after travel restrictions dropped.
“The local tourism was really huge, and you could tell that just by the license plates on the vehicles,” said Crowe. “When you combine that with the Alaska traffic, we had especially busy Saturdays and Sundays.”
Crowe said a bathroom counter installed at the Commons in mid-June reported 60,000 visitors. Crowe said the actual number is likely higher because the counter has a reset button that was hit a number of times.
He estimates it’s closer to the 100,000 visitors that were logged by the Visitor Information Centre in 2019.
“The last year before COVID was gold,” she said. This year might have been even better for her in some ways and more difficult in others.
”For me, in the coffee shop, the COVID years were not bad to me,” said Graf. “On the contrary, I was one of the few small business people in the community who was actually quite happy with having a little bit of a break and catering to my locals, which were super supportive.”
One way she has struggled recently is when it comes to finding staff for her cafe, which is open seven days a week from May to Thanksgiving, for eight hours a day. On top of that, there are two hours of prep before and after the cafe closes.
“Seven days, 12-hour days, to do this with six people is hard,” she said. “A few people were amazing and committed, and they carried the season on their back.”
Graf said Caribou Crossing will drop down to winter hours after Thanksgiving weekend, operating Friday to Sunday, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., until the week before Christmas. It will open again with those hours on Valentine’s Day before resuming regular summer hours on May 1.
Crowe said he knows some vendors plan to remain open through the end of October rather than closing on Oct. 1, like the washrooms and the Visitor Information Centre at the Commons.
That’s because Alaskan cruises are going to continue through October this year.
Nancy Bliss is one of those. In fact, she was also one of the first vendors to open her doors in the spring.
“I was like an April fool,” says Bliss, a professional psychic medium who runs Bliss Witchy Wagon. “I was there ahead of everybody.”
She was excited, though. This was her first season.
Bliss said she worked as a social worker for years but loved working in retail when she was younger.
“The variety of people is amazing,” she said. “You meet so many people, and having been a small-town girl myself — I grew up in rural Saskatchewan — it’s neat because I hear all these amazing accents from all over the world, and I get to try to guess where they’re from.”
Because 2023 was her first year, Bliss said she has nothing to compare it to, but said she’d encourage anyone to try selling at the Commons if it’s something they’ve been thinking about. She said the rent was affordable, the staff were great, the foot traffic was steady, and the bus drivers played a huge part in funnelling visitors toward the shops this year.
“They were amazing at helping out the local businesses,” she said. “They’re very encouraging, and they promote us like crazy.”
Bliss plans to remain open until the end of October and through the winter on warmer weekends.
Contact Amy Kenny at firstname.lastname@example.org