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Summer season for Chilkoot Trail and White Pass railway uncertain

Regulations banning cruises in Canadian waters “puts the season in serious doubt”
A train on the White Pass and Yukon Route cuts through the mountains as it approaches Fraser, B.C., on May 19, 2019. (John Hopkins-Hill/Yukon News file)

Policies aimed at curtailing cruise ships in Canadian waters until 2022 are bad news for the White Pass and Yukon Route Railway, said the company’s director of business development Tory Korn.

“It certainly puts the season in serious doubt,” he said.

On Feb. 4 Transport Canada announced a decision not to allow ships carrying more than 100 people to call at Canadian ports until February 2022. United States maritime regulations mean that in order to operate most cruise lines travelling up to the Alaskan Coast must include a stop in a foreign port.

Alaskan representatives, including Senators Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan and Congressman Don Young, have said they disagreed with the decision and “will fight to find a path forward.”

In the meantime, the decision has ripple effects on the Alaskan and Yukon tourism economies. The rail company has laid off 27 employees, citing the pandemic’s effect on tourism.

The train didn’t run in the 2020 summer season.

“When there’s no revenue coming in you just have to really limit the size and scope of the operation as much as you can. Our company’s always been committed to the long term for this industry in Skagway, and so we’re gonna be there, but it’s just a matter of how long does it take to get there?”

“I think there’ll be a big push to really market to the independent traveler, and maybe some small ships, if we’re not able to find some way to salvage something of a season,” Korn said. “It’s really hard to run the train for small groups, it’s just a very expensive operation to run, given what’s required to actually operate real tours. So we’re uncertain at this point whether we’ll be able to open up or not.”

The status of the railway — and the closed border — will also impact the 2021 season of the Chilkoot Trail.

Parks Canada has advised those seeking permits to stay tuned for updates in April as the federal organization works with partners to determine if some parts of the trail might be open.

“Parks Canada is coordinating with Indigenous partners, communities, the U.S. National Park Service and other governments with respect to their concerns about COVID-19 to determine which portions of the Chilkoot Trail could open in 2021 and under what conditions,” said Kathy Burden in a statement on behalf of the organization. Parks Canada says the trail’s status “is complicated by a number of factors” including part of the route being in the United States and British Columbia.

Completing the full 53 kilometres normally involves crossing the international border twice. Self-isolation is not possible on the trail.

“In addition, most visitors egress from the trail via the White Pass and Yukon Route railway, and the railway’s schedule for 2021 is not certain,” said Burden. “Parks Canada encourages visitors to continue to refer to the Chilkoot Trail National Historic Site website for updates on the 2021 hiking season.”

Contact Haley Ritchie at