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Alaska mountains will spoil you for all the rest. Two weeks in Southeast Alaska re-shaped a life-long sense of this remote place, which earned its statehood over sixty years ago in 1959. The fjords and mountains were a combination of Norway and Switzerland, but it’s hard to do it justice in words.
The town of Haines—population 1,713– is nestled on a strip of land at the Northern part of the Lynn Canal, which is really a fjord. My family’s guide, a 30-year resident and aspiring yogi Tom Lang, said it like this, the fjord is called a Canal and is named for a guy who never made it to Haines.
Lang was cheery and chatty, and we shared a love of books and story-telling. He pronounced at least a dozen times over the course of my visit, the Chilkat River AND the Chilkoot River which have lakes of the same name, the Chilkat Lake and the Chilkoot Lake. The names come from the Tlingit tribe and made eminent good sense. The-kat versus -koot suffixes mean many kinds of fish or a lot of fish. Tom explained that when the glacier unearthed a human body, preserved in ice for hundreds of years, folks asked the natives what they should call him. A native suggested, Man From Long Ago.
That became a kind of mantra for the rest of our visit, the dichotomy between the simple and the complex, or Alaska and the Lower 48. Man From Long Ago.
Haines is green and lush in summer, part of the Tongass National Forest, which is the largest in the United States at 16.7 million acres; it is also the largest temperate rainforest in the world, roughly 500 miles in SE Alaska. We hiked Battery Point trail, Mount Riley and the famous Chilkoot trail by Skagway, where eager stampeders had once made their laborious and long path to the Klondike gold fields. If I were blindfolded and dropped into this forest, I’m not sure I’d know I was in Alaska. The ground was covered with ferns and dogwood, grass and wildflowers, and Devil’s Club, a massive-leafed kind of stinging nettle we’d been warned about; the wooded regions were dense with Spruce and Hemlock. On the way up Flower Mountain near Haines, we passed the famous Porcupine Creek claim, a picturesque tableau of a rocky creek bed. If I blinked enough times, I could imagine the miners bent over, sifting pans.
Near the crest of Flower Mountain, alpine blossoms were tiny and snug to the ground, with vanilla and ruby colored patches. They weren’t easy to see, you had to be nose-to-the-ground close. On the way down, I saw wild roses in a field of tall grass. The intoxicating smell matched the pie I had eaten the night before, a Strawberry-wild-rose and rhubarb special. I thought the chef might have set a flower or two on top, but the flowers were baked in, a faint essence intermixed with the berries.
Breathing Alaskan air is something to experience, like drinking the water. In Haines, a woman filled plastic jugs at a roadside pipe of glacial water. You could hear the water gurgling down the rocks. Her tailgate was open and she heaved them onto the rusty flatbed. I filled my bottle and swigged back heartily, my throat and chest chilled after. The helicopter pilot Jessie who flew my family to Meade glacier went into a plank pose and lapped up trickling summer water. He said it was ancient, about as squeaky clean and pure as the earth was back when the water froze, coming to the surface these hundreds, even thousands of years later. I did the same, my children prone beside me on the glacier, lapping up water like dogs at the lake in summer.
On the flight up there, the snowy mountains surrounded us and it was clear and sunny, so I could see glaciers, joining each other like down-hill ski trails, sifting up silt and dirt, carving the land into valleys, sharp peaks above. I hiked in my cleated overshoes on the ice, shocked to find an occasional leaf blown in from the woods. The crevasse glowed a brilliant blue, the same I saw later in Tracy Arm fjord where I took a ferry to see the tidewater Sawyer Glacier, the type which fronts up to the water. On a glacier, the fresh layers of snow press into ice over time, creating an increasingly dense ice below. This is so dense that it refracts only blue. My daughter dropped her pole into a crevasse and it looked like a toothpick in a glowing aquamarine cavern. The ice would push it out years from now, like an artifact for our descendants, along with an untold number of phones of well-meaning visitors.
Alaska is wild. Saw bears near Chilkoot Lake and on Admiralty Island. You need a permit to get to the island and it’s remote; I took a float plane. The guide tracked them in the berry patches. The mother followed her cub across the trail and looked at us from ten to twenty yards away. The second cub followed. I saw a lynx on the way up to the White Pass by Skagway. Saw porcupine, bald eagles, sea lions, seals, and humpback whales. Alaska is a feeding and breeding ground. And animals get big. Had a lasting encounter on the Haines wharf, where we met a one-eyed miner who knew Holly. He opened a small film canister and shook out the gold onto his palm, one nugget about the size of a pea. “About 2200 bucks here,” he said. “Don’t forget to check out the otters by the end of the dock.” He saw better with one eye than most.
People fascinate me as much as place: locals and the folks that were drawn there, like Matt and Amy from the Northeast, who were making their way, living the van life in Skagway and guiding us on rock walls, mountaineering new trails along the pass. Holly from Haines embodied the spirit of Alaska. She had raised a family of five–or was that six–on a fishing boat. She drove the bus and tucked my family into our kayaks and spotted bear by the lake, where we had passed a young girl, in raingear and in her chair on the river walk, counting fish for the game office. Greg Horner carves totem poles in his shop and has imbued his art with Tlingit icons. John Svenson’s studio hosts Alaskan artists’ work with his own paintings lining the walls; he demonstrated his latest endeavor at his forge by the window, where he shaped Murano glass into a bead.
The Northern lights are something I’ve yet to see. I’ve set foot on glaciers in several countries, but haven’t braved the cold at the times of year when I’d have the best chance. I traveled to Alaska in summer so there were 18 hours of light and I drew the curtains to sleep. I peeked out in the wee hours and could make things out well enough, a kind of protracted twilight. That means harsh winters. About a quarter of the folks head south in winter though it doesn’t get nearly as cold as I imagined, in the teens and twenties. It’s as cold in Connecticut, but it’s the dark that depresses. At 59 degrees north latitude, it’s like Norway and that lack of light can eat at the soul. Tom Lang leaves for Bali and other residents head to Hawaii. Maybe that’s the answer. Folks in the Northeast will snow-bird in Florida. It’s a human migration that resembles birds. Some migrate and others tough it out.
IN FILM & BOOKS
I watched Jack London’s White Fang with Ethan Hawke that was filmed in a set in Haines. At home we watched Disney’s film Togo about the dog which led the dog sled team on the famous Nome serum run in the twenties. I watched episodes of Northern Exposure which I had first seen with my dad, the idea of such a faraway place hovered and awakened from a kind of subconscious. The native people I observed were dark and large, reminding me of the Polynesians. There were a surprising number of Filipinos, many who had originally come to work in the canneries.
COVid hit the region hard and my husband Mark couldn’t find a fishing trip since boatmen hadn’t gotten a license and the few who were, had been booked up. Mark was determined to eat fish daily, a tall order since there wasn’t a lot open. Don’t come to Alaska for haute cuisine or culture, though it’s there, it’s not the Four Season kind of comfort. This wilderness with lodging in old buses, cabins, lodges. You want urban and the urbane, go to Seattle and hike up Rainier. A popular bumper sticker read, Friends don’t let friends eat farmed fish. Dogs were as plentiful as people, taking up seats in the cab, heads out. Holly let us borrow her sweet Cora for a walk on the beach.
Heather Lende wrote that water dogs outnumber huskies three to one in Haines. A local author and obituary writer, her book–If You Lived Here, I’d Know Your Name–filled in much of what was missing, from how to smoke salmon to hunting and dressing goats, and the brutal and beautiful life of a remote town. She fleshed out characters and provided a rich texture of their lives. All sorts of mottos had been used to entice tourists, Valley of the Eagles, the Alaska of Your Dreams, but none stuck. Town in the Valley might have worked, as it may have been called once, by the Man From Long Ago.
Leaving Alaska on a commercial plane, I was lucky to be by the window. I could see the majesty of those mountains and glaciers for a long, long stretch on my flight to Seattle. It’s a cold beauty, a force of nature beyond human control, impassable and hard.
No doubt if you start your travels in Southeast Alaska it may well spoil you for all the rest.
Alaskan Mountain Guides for tours and sport
Tom Lang, River guide and long term resident; animal Tales from Alaska
Eagle Preserve River Float – gorgeous ride on Tsirku River, eagles everywhere and spectacular views
Fireweed – great oven fired pizzas and local desserts, Sarah J’s for coffee or breakfast, Rusty Compass for brownies and a place to sit inside
Mount Riley Hike – bald summit, lovely reward for short hike, 4.7 miles out and back
Battery Point Trail – rocky beach
UTV to Flower Mountain – beautiful summit with 360 degree views of mountains
Kayaking and Canoe
Steven Kroschel – Wildlife Center, hilarious up-close visit with animals
The Bookstore – wowza, great local reads, fun stationary, puzzles, all sorts of goodies
Skagway Inn – former bordello with rooms named for the ladies! A real hoot, cozy and perhaps haunted, but memorable and clean.
Olivia’s Cafe – great eats. Delicious dinner puffs filled with halibut or salmon or elk!
Museum – well done and worth the visit! Spin the wheel on the way out to see your chances for gold!
Rock Climbing – with Amy and Matt
Sockeye Cycling in Dyea – an old mining town, now a ghost town with trails
White Pass – hiking and ‘mountaineering’ in the avalanche zone between US and Canada
Heli-tour Glacier Discovery tour – Incredible views and glacier hiking
Tracy Arm Ferries to Sawyer Glacier, all day excursion
Forbidden Brewery and Red Spruce restaurant – in same space, best eating in SE Alaska
Kindred Spirits Post Office – awesome shop for paper and book lovers, co-located with USPS
Deckhand Dave’s Kitchen – outside with Boat Bar for drinks – eat the fish Tacos
Shoe Fly – rugged and fun shoes, function meets comfort
Rainy Retreat Bookstore – usually a dog here, found fun used and new reads.
Disc Golf – nice course and meet locals
Fishing charter with Graham Moore – great whale watching, well kept boat, saw up close with loads of sea lions