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International Trade

Skagway and Whitehorse swap bikini waxes for brown curry
By Eva Holland
May 07
2016
From the May 2016 Issue

“Anything to declare?”

The border guard seemed a tad hostile, a bit bored, as she poked her head out of the customs building into the chilly air. But, I remembered from previous encounters, she was almost always that way—the grumpiest of the bunch that welcomes Canadians home after they’ve returned from Skagway, Alaska.

Around us, the fog that so often clings to the summit of the White Pass sat in its usual place, hiding the ragged line of peaks that divides the Yukon and northernmost British Columbia from Alaska’s panhandle, a thin slice of moody coastline. Behind me, the road climbed over the hump of the summit and crossed the invisible line of the international border there before plunging down to sea level. Ahead, the highway wound around long, icy lakes and gravelly mountain flanks to the First Nations village of Carcross before dead-ending at the Alaska Highway in Whitehorse. 

“Just some Thai food,” I answered, nodding towards the bag of take-out on the floor of my vehicle on the passenger side: brown curry with chicken for a friend and red curry with tofu for me, two tall plastic containers steaming away alongside smaller cartons of rice.

“I know,” she said, her usual disgruntlement sharpening into a clear note of envy. “I can smell it.” I smiled, apologetic, and she handed me my passport and waved me through. 

Cross-border curry runs might be unusual in some parts of Canada, but they’re a tradition for plenty of Yukoners—part of a unique, symbiotic relationship between Whitehorse, the Yukon capital, and Skagway, the sedate Alaskan village that sits on the Inside Passage, 180 kilometres south. 

Skagway is the end of the road: The port is hemmed in by glacier-covered mountains, and the only ways to get there are by small plane; by ferry, cruise ship, or private boat; or via the South Klondike Highway from Whitehorse. Skagway’s 800-odd permanent residents, and the hundreds of seasonal workers who join them for each summer’s tourist season, are largely American—but they rely on a small Canadian city for everything from dentistry to bikini waxes. That small Canadian city, in turn, relies on them for—well, curry, for a start. 

For Whitehorse residents, Skagway is a quick and easy getaway, a change of scenery. It provides an opportunity to breathe some ocean air, to get out on the water, to hike or camp in a completely different ecosystem from the subarctic boreal forests back home. It’s a chance to eat and drink at a brewpub, to chow down on pad Thai at Starfire or on butter chicken at Bombay Curry. 

Two hours is a long way to drive for take-out, but in the peculiar calculations of life in the North—where people in small communities make similar commutes each week just to do their grocery shopping, where people will spend hundreds on flights and an overnight stay in a southern city for a Beyoncé show or a Canucks game—it makes a strange, perfect kind of sense.

I drove carefully away from the checkpoint, taking each curve slow, anxious to avoid spilling a drop, and wondered if I should pick up some potstickers to cheer up that envious agent the next time I rolled through.