They come for a pee, a snack, and a knick-knack. After spending 45 minutes in the first Canadian community that many will ever experience, cruise ship passengers are back on the buses to see Emerald Lake or have a chicken dinner at Caribou Crossing Trading Post.
Such are the challenges, and opportunities, for shopkeepers in Carcross.
One minute, it is a sleepy, spiritually beautiful town nestled at the foot of Montana Mountain.
Five minutes later, it is a helter skelter array of buses, each depositing streams of tourists who are anxious for that pee, snack, and knick-knack. “The most buses I have seen here at one time is 27,” says Jamie Toole, owner and operator of Chilkoot Trail Authentic Sourdough Bakery. “It gets busy.”
“If we have four cruise ships in Skagway, we will see between 500 and 700 people through these doors. “When the weather is really nice, they will spread out,” Toole continues. “But when the weather is cold, they will come in for a cinnamon bun and hot coffee.”
His team — two up front, one in the kitchen — are set up to handle the fl ash traffic with premade, pre-wrapped baked goods and soup served in compostable bowls.
Toole, who is busy these days renovating his Caribou Hotel, reaches under the cash register to pull out a cruise ship schedule from Skagway. He says Carcross will likely see 25 per cent of the maximum number of passengers on each docked cruise ship.
This contributes most of the over 100,000 visitors Carcross will welcome this year.
Looking at a typical day in June, he says, “It gets exciting.”
Cathy Isaac keeps her cruise ship schedule on a bulletin board behind her cash desk. She is the owner and operator of Bear Paw Gifts in the Carcross Commons, a huge, sunny deck ringed with small businesses catering to visitors. “Tourists come from all directions,” she says. “Sometimes they come in the front door and out the back. “And, when the train goes by the windows, people rush out for a photo op.”
Keeping track of how many customers come in, and how many buy, she says her season is starting with fluctuating results. Sometimes, on a slow day, a third of the walk-in traffi c will buy; and, sometimes on a busy day, a tenth will. So, how do you prepare? “You just don’t,” she says with a laugh.
Across the deck, at The Bistro on Bennett, Julie Boily says they will find ways to get faster in their second season. “We are not waitressing,” she says. “We are more like a rustic cafeteria. “People come in and tell us what they want, they pay, they take a number and they sit down. “We are trying to please the buses and we still need to find a way to be faster.”
Yet, at the same time, they are trying to give these visitors a Yukon-style experience. They have beer samplers from Yukon Brewing and they serve bison and elk.
Often it is a sandwich from the cooler so that bus passengers can still walk around town to see the sights.
However, it is the nature of business to grow. So, Boily and the rest of the management team are looking at what locals want. Considering, too, that Whitehorse and Skagway residents come to Carcross for the world-class mountain biking and hiking. “Mountain bikers will go all day,” says Boily. “And then they stop in for a burger and fries, a beer, and go back home.”
That is the same thinking, across the deck, at Caribou Crossing Coffee. The owner/operator, Heike Graf, says the original idea behind the Carcross Commons was to offer up business opportunities and employment year-round.
More than that, even: a life. “We are not built around the bus tourist anymore,” says Graf, a passionate advocate for the Carcross Commons. “Of course it started with buses, and economically we need them, but it is changing. “We are getting more and more traffic from Skagway and Whitehorse because it is attractive here. “We have incredible bike trails, and an incredible hiking community, and the beach for young families. “It is just amazing.”
Q: What can you do for fun in Whitehorse?
A: Go to Skagway. Yes, Graf has heard that joke. But she suggests the punchline should now be, “Go to Carcross.” “People come in here and say, ‘Oh my God!’” she says. “They now come here just for the coffee or one of the monthly concerts and free events.”
Caribou Crossing Coffee demonstrates its faith in Carcross by being open from mid-February to mid-December. “For years and years the bus has been king,” says Graf. “And some people still have that mindset, but there is a new way of thinking.”
Nothing wrong with the old thinking, mind. Indeed, Graf was the first businessperson to see the plans for the Carcross Commons and the first to commit. The decision for her location was based mostly on the needs of the bus passengers.
“The Restroom Emporium is right there,” she says, pointing out the front window. “And the Information Centre is right there.
“So, there is nothing more to say I guess.”