Southeastern Alaska

Pictures included with this travelogue may be accessed by double-clicking on the blue hyperlinks. All links within this article are designated as: (link): link to a WWW site (photo): link to a graphic file (video): link to a video file

As a friend of mine recently said, "He who dies with the most toys with the most buttons wins!" As such I have played with capturing video and creating quick-time movie clips. I have included one video clip with this travelogue. It is a rather large file (2.2 M) as video clips usually are, and I have found it can take about 10 minutes to download it on a good day with a 28.8 modem. May I suggest that you begin downloading it now, and let it download in the background as you enjoy (I HOPE!) the text. Alternatively, there is another prompt to download the clip within the body of the text.

Download video of a calving glacier at Tracy Arm (2.2M)

And now, the story begins:

          When Carolyn and I first visited Alaska, we traveled there in the GoFort (our truck and camper) along the AlCan Highway. Let me tell you it is a long way to Alaska from Death Valley. We spent eight weeks and traveled over 8,000 miles enjoying the western United States, British Colombia, Alberta, and the Yukon Territories, in addition to Alaska. A great trip, but we came to the conclusion that next time we traveled north, we would spend more time and cover less ground. We accomplished this desire in the summer of 1997, traveling the inside passage (photo) on the Alaskan Marine Highway System (link) to Skagway where we launched our hike on the Chilkoot Trail, and then returning to the conterminous U.S. on the inside passage, while visiting ports of call along the way. Having treated our backpacking adventure in "The Chilkoot Trail," this travelogue is a brief discussion of our journey through southeastern Alaska.

      Having successfully navigated the Chilkoot Trail, we landed back in the town of Skagway (link) after an exciting ride down the White Pass on the WP&Y Railroad. Here we had several days to swamp out after the trip, while staying at the Skagway Home Hostel. A shower has never felt better, and the chance to launder and wear clean clothes is one of the simple pleasures that we often overlook. Skagway (meaning "windy place" in the Tlingit dialect) is a quaint town built at the head of the Lynn Channel. It was built largely in response to the influx of gold seekers needing shelter and supplies. One hundred years later its purpose is still largely towards catering to people who "just got off the boat," as ferries and cruise ships dock here regularly. As such, the town has never held any great appeal for me, past the ability to buy some souvenir. (You can usually spot tourists in Alaska by virtue of the shirt or hat that tells everyone, "Hey, I'm in Alaska! Clean sneakers (cruise ship attire) is also another sure sign a person is a tourist.) Being forced to spend a few days in town before our boat hauled us off to the next place forced me to move beyond that disinterest. Spending a little extra time allowed us to peel back the surface of the town, and see beneath the veneer. We had the opportunity to talk with some of the residents, faces started to become a little more familiar, and relationships began to deepen. Having the extra time allowed for a little further exploration of the quieter corners of town as well. Amongst other things, I would heartily recommend a trip to the local museum housed in the Alaskan Brotherhood Lodge located downtown. You can't miss it: it's the building constructed with driftwood!

      From Skagway, we are off to Haines (link), just a hop, skip and a float down the Lynn Channel. Haines ranks as one of my favorite towns on the panhandle. The town (photo) was founded in 1881 by the Presbyterian Church at the request of the Tlingit Indians.
          Haines is noteworthy in several respects. It is the home of the American Bald Eagle Preserve, located on the Chilkat River. The river is fed by springs so that it never freezes. As such the fish are able to run all year and this provides for an excellent habitat for our national raptor. The preserve hosts one of the largest populations of Eagle during the fall and winter months, which turns out to be a great photo-op for the many two legged pilgrims who come to this winged rendezvous.
          The preserve is located on the only road connecting mainland Alaska (through British Colombia) with the panhandle. We had the opportunity to travel this road into British Colombia during our stay, and I highly recommend the drive. We enjoyed some of the best glacial geomorphology I have ever seen.
          Complementing the preserve is the American Bald Eagle Foundatiom (link) visitor center located just outside of downtown Haines. They have a great display of local wildlife, and wonderful educational programs for visitors.
          We enjoyed our stay in Haines at the campground located across the road from the Fort Seward parade grounds. Fort Seward was built at the turn of the century by land donated by the church in response to the possibility of border disputes with Canada. It sits high upon a hill overlooking the Chatham Straight, and now hosts the Hotel Halsingland (great food!), several bed and breakfasts, and community arts and cultural centers. I would recommend the Hotel for the best burgers in Alaska (amongst other fare), the Fort Seward Lodge for their all-you-can-eat Dungeoness crab, and the Chilkat Dancers (photo) when you are in Haines.
          It was our great pleasure to see our friends Gerry and Elaina who traveled all the way down from Palmer to see us. Gerry is a clansman of Scottish decent and a master of the blarney (or would that be haggis?) Within a few days we were running about town in kilts with stilts, so as to not get any of the blarney on us!
        Every day spent in Haines was better than the day before. As in Skagway, we found that having accomplished most things on the "Must Do and See" list provided by every chamber of commerce, we had an opportunity to discover the people behind the town. Even the former mayor had been to Death Valley, and was looking forward to his first trip to Saline Valley (he showed me his map!) The director of tourism pulled us over while we were downtown and struck up a conversation, having heard Gerry and I slinging the blarney some days before and seeing us around town regularly. He gave us our drive up the road to British Colombia. While stopping for lunch at the Mile 33 Roadhouse as luck would have it I ran into an old river rat I had run the Colorado with some years past. I would have liked to spend more time in Haines and seen the 4th of July in this marvelous town, but the ferry schedule dictated that we board the ferry on July 3, or wait another week to make our connections down the passage.

          Reluctant to leave Haines, but looking forward to our next adventure, we boarded the ferry for Juneau (link) at 7:00 PM. We grabbed a couple of cots up on the solarium and settled in to watch the world go by.  A nice quiet ride down the passage found us pulling into Juneau at midnight.
Juneau is a funny town in all respects. It is the state capital of Alaska. For being the capital, there are no roads going in or out of Juneau. Two out of three people are employed by the government. In its desire to be first in the hearts of its constituency, Juneau celebrates its 4th of July fireworks at midnight:01 on the 4th. As such, we unfortunately did not get to see any fireworks of the 4th of July, since the ferry terminal is 20 miles out of town. Town was booked solid on the morning of the fourth, so we had a cab deliver us to the state campground at the base of the Mendenhall Glacier (photo). We had read of this campground in the 1997 Juneau visitor's guide and thought it sounded like a nice place. When we got there, the campground was completely torn up by heavy equipment, which was conspicuous in the absence of campers and RVs. The cabby said he could return us to the terminal if we preferred. I looked at the meter, noting we had spent $10 to get to this point.
          "So you mean for $20 I can get back to where I started?" I inquired.
          Upon his assurance that we could catch a bus to town the next day, we offloaded our backpacks and duffel and headed down the road to find a spot between the graders. In fact it turned out to be a nice quiet camp, and we were in good position to view, and subsequently climb the glacier next morning. The only question was, how exactly to get up to the glacier. Not a lot of people around to ask directions. After a while, people started coming up the road asking us where the trailhead was.
          "Not anywhere around here, I can assure you!" I tried to be informative. I took a trip down the road and eventually met the cabby who was dropping people off at the "Campground Closed" sign. To my surprise he wasn't my cabby from last night.
          "You better stop dropping people off here," I explained to him. "And while you're correcting your last mistake, why don't we all go up and see where the trailhead really is!"
          As he shuttled his last fare, along with Carolyn and myself, up to the trailhead, I regaled him with the tale of my experience with the cab driver the previous night.
          "Oh, that guy!" he exclaimed with recognition, "He's an idiot. The only cabby who has ever shot at a customer. Guy didn't want to pay his bill."
          'Golly, I wonder why not?' I thought to myself. After hearing that, I wasn't even sorry I had given him a modest tip, though I questioned that move after hearing that his assurance that a bus was available was in error.
          "You mean to tell me they cancel public transportation on holidays?" I inquired?
          We contracted with the cabby to pick us up at 4:00 PM, after we had hiked the glacier, and hoped for the best. We had a great hike up the glacier, and to our surprise and delight, found our ride waiting for us upon our return, whereupon we were transported to the Alaskan Hotel in downtown Juneau where we had reservations for the next few nights.
Despite the lack of fireworks we felt our 4th of July to be a rather exceptional day. We got to hike a glacier, and upon checking into our hotel, saw the first live pictures of Mars broadcast from Sojourner. To top everything off, we had made arrangements to look up a long lost cousin of Carolyn's, and had been invited to a family barbecue. We had the added treat of a sailboat ride up Gustanof Channel after supper, so the lack of fireworks turned out to be insignificant.
           Carolyn's family is indeed delightful, and I am sorry that they live in Juneau, since I would like to see them again, but would rather not see Juneau. As I said, it is a strange town. Our hotel room was equipped with a TV so as to reduce the noise level coming off the street below. I don't know why I hadn't thought of cranking the volume all the way up at 2:00 AM after the bars closed. I guess I just need some more experience traveling. There was a nice coffee shop across the street from the hotel. For an extra 75 cents they will gladly put mayonnaise on the sandwich you order. You can get a copy of yesterdays new marked up from $1.00 to $1.50. I reckon they must figure that if you don't know what happened yesterday it is pretty important to you that you catch up.
           While in town we decided to take a short cruise up the Tracy Arm to see the glacier from boatside. We called a day in advance for reservations, and were told not to bother as plenty of seats were always available. Upon our arrival at the terminal the next morning, we were told the boat was full and they would be happy to make us reservations for the following day. I persuaded them to let us on the boat now! We got some good video footage of a calving glacier (video).
           To its credit, Juneau has some very nice museums, and some wonderful cousins.

           My prayers being answered, we eventually found ourselves back upon the ferry, heading for Sitka. The only challenge was the trip. On the evening of the rainiest day of the entire trip we landed upon the M.V. LeConte, one of the smaller vessels of the Alaska Marine Highway System. It carries a maximum of 250 passengers, and if we had less than 300 people on board I would be quite surprised. Every recliner lounge, every cafeteria booth, every inch of available floor space was staked out and claimed. The solarium at the back of the ship leaked, and we found ourselves pitching our tent in standing water. Much to its credit, our North Face Stratos kept us dry and comfortable all night.
           To our delight the weather cleared somewhat over the course of the night, and early morning found us pulling into the town of Tenakee for a brief stopover. Tenakee is a delightful little town who's main street (photo) is a footpath. There are no cars in this island town. There is a natural hot spring located in a bathhouse downtown, which may be used by all, assuming you arrive at a time designated for your particular gender. The town's infrastructure is simplistic. Outhouses (photo) are located on piers that attempt to reach the tide line.
          Having seen all there was to see in Tenakee, our stalwart vessel resumed its course to Sitka. Sitka (link) is located on the Pacific Ocean, (rather than the Inside Passage), under the view of Mt. Edgecomb, which is an active volcano. Some years back a local prankster took some old tires up onto the peak of Mt. Edgecomb (photo) and on April 1 (Fool's Day) lit the tires on fire, causing some concern amongst the populace. He found himself under arrest shortly thereafter
          Sitka used to be the capital of the state of Alaska. It was also the capital for the territories when this part of the world was under Russian rule. When the Americans bought the territories from Russia, all the Russians left, and today there is nary a ruskie to be found, despite the fact that Sitka remains the seat of Russian culture in Alaska, and sports this culture to the delight of all the cruise ships that put in here.
           We spent five days in Sitka and enjoyed each and every one. There is a lot to do and see here. The Russian culture (photo) is prolific, and the Russian Bishop's House, reconstructed by the National Park Service is well worth seeing. The National Park Service also hosts the Sitka National Historic Park on the east end of town. This is a fantastic park noted for its collection of totems (photo) displayed along well groomed paths in a verdant forest of spruce and hemlock. The personnel at the visitors center are very helpful in disseminating information about local hiking that visitors can enjoy.
          We missed the New Archangel Dancers (Russian folk dance review) during our stay. We did catch the Tlingit Dancers, and this troupe is well worth seeing. Even having seen the Chilkat Dancers (same tribe, different sect) in Haines did nothing to diminish the performance in Sitka. Much to their credit, the Tlingit Nation is very interested in sharing their cultural traditions with visitors so that others may enjoy, become aquainted with, and understand their rich culture.
          Sitka hosts the Sheldon Jackson College (link), and we stumbled upon this  quite by accident on our way to the Sitka National Historic Park. The college was founded at the turn of the century for local native residents, who slept on the floors and were required to hunt for their meals. It is a Presbyterian school, and during our visit, volunteer work groups were busily sprucing up and renovating the buildings and facilities. Travelers should be aware of the college, as it hosts the most reasonable lodging and meals in Sitka. The Sheldon Jackson Museum (operated independently) also contains the best collection of historic artifacts in all of Alaska, and has the added distinction of being the first concrete building constructed in Alaska.
          The Alaska Raptor Rehabilitation Center (ARRC) is located in Sitka, and this center is a 'must visit!' The ARRC (link) is dedicated to the rehabilitation of Alaska's injured wildlife, notably eagles, and other raptors. They give a wonderful presentation, and there are many birds available for close up viewing (photo) at the center. The ARRC is supported through volunteer effort and contributions, and there has been some talk in our house of returning north to Sitka to volunteer our efforts. I heartily recommend a visit to their website for more information on this very worthwhile organization.
          Having run out of the usual list of things to do, Carolyn and I took the opportunity one day to rent a double seated sea kayak (photo), and went sporting about the islands north of town, occasionally living dangerously by approaching the swells of the open Pacific. It was the first time we had ever ventured about in a kayak, and having gotten a taste I can safely say it won't be the last.

          The day finally came for us to continue on our journey, and we ventured down to the ferry terminal with hopes of getting on board early enough to find a dry spot for our tent under the solarium. We were lucky enough to be first in line, and right behind us were a few young lads who were to become an integral part of our journey. Young Curty was returning from Cub Scout camp in Juneau, and was being escorted by Daryl, an exchange student from Mongolia. They were on their way to Wrangell, as were we, and were on shore for the brief layover the ferry required to drop off and pick up passengers. We had a great time talking and joking with these young travelers, and were delighted that after being allowed to board ship they relocated their goods up to the solarium next to where we had claimed recliners for the journey to Wrangell. (Luckily the solarium on the M.V. Taku was in good shape and did not leak, thereby making the tent unnecessary.)
          We arrived in Wrangell (link) the next day, under adverse weather conditions. Daryl had encouraged us to stay at the Wrangell Hostel, located in the Presbyterian Church where he worked. The rates were reasonable, and he assured us that Carolyn and I would be able to lodge together. Having no plans for accommodations in town, we agreed that this might be a good plan. Indeed, I would like to advise traveling folks to take advantage of hostels whenever possible. Not only do they offer the most reasonable rates as well as cooking facilities, they are marvelous places to congregate with other travelers, share stories, and learn from others about local information as well as information on places that you might be interested in visiting. One word of caution might be to inquire as to the hostel's policies before committing to a stay. (For instance, we did not stay at the hostel in Sitka since they required all guests to vacate the facility by 8:00 AM and did not permit people back until after 6:00 PM.)
          Upon disembarking from the ship, Daryl's sponsors, Don & Harriet graciously offered to transport us to the hostel. Being that it was Sunday morning, and that the church was acting as our host, and that Daryl was due to play the organ at the service, and that neither of us had been to a Presbyterian service, and that it was raining like crazy, we decided to attend church. A lovely service it was too, and afterwards we were delighted by Don & Harriet's invitation to have supper at their house the following night. We had had one home cooked meal since leaving Bellingham and were absolutely excited at the prospect of a second. Did we like salmon? Well, what does anyone come to Alaska for, if not to eat salmon? We eagerly accepted!
          After services the rains abated and we walked on down to a local beach where petroglyphs (rock art) were to be found. We found some petroglyphs, but spent most of our time talking with a few folks sitting about on some driftwood logs. These fine folks were to turn out to be good friends during our stay in Wrangell. We met Mary the ranger, who, in days to come would give us a tour of the town's surrounding area and take us hiking on some marvelous trails. We also met Val & Glenn, from Petersburg. We had to pass by Petersburg (link) on our way south, but from Val & Glenn's tales of their town, we will never pass it again. I would encourage any visitors to Petersburg to stop in at Val & Glenn's Alaskafe where you can enjoy fresh coffee while being online at one of their computer terminals, and enjoy a trim at Glenn's barber shop in the back.
          Within less than a day's time Wrangell was shaping up to be one of our favorite towns, by virtue of the inhabitants of this isolated hamlet. Unlike many larger towns along the panhandle, Wrangell appears to be more self sufficient, and less reliant upon tourism for its bread and butter. As such it does not overextend itself towards catering to the tourist's needs. For dinner, you better enjoy pizza and burgers if you plan to eat out. I don't mean to suggest that there aren't things to do in town. In addtion to the petroglyph beach, Wrangell hosts a marvelous museum, which just happens to be located in the basement below the town's recreational center. If you ever wanted to know how a gym floor feels under the onslaught of a basketball game, a visit to the museum will be edifying. Wrangell's high point may be the Shakes Tribal House, which is a replica of the impressive architecture of a house of high caste among the Tlingit people before Christian missionaries forced them to abandon traditional communal residences. Time your visit right (look for a cruise ship or ferry in port) and you will be treated to an outstanding interpretive presentation of the house, and the traditions of the Tlingit people by a member of the clan. You could knock off these standard tourist spots in a day, but then you would miss the magic of this town.
          I don't mean to suggest that tourists are ignored. There are many fine artists in town who are happy to have you stop in and look around the gallerys. The children of Wrangell are worth special mention as they are a uniquely enterprising lot. North of Wrangell lies the Stikine River, and up the Stikine lies a rock outcrop that serves as the source for the world class Wrangell garnets. The garnet claim was originally owned by the first all woman corporation in America, and they mined the garnets for the manufacturing of sandpaper. They deeded their claim to the children of Wrangell for perpetuity. The kids now go up by boat with their folks, rock hammers and chisels in hand and harvest the mica schist that contain garnets the size of brussel sprouts. They then dutifully arrive at the dock as each and every ship pulls in, setting up their display tables, which always include lots of garnets both in and out of matrix, pictures of their mining endeavors and tales to tell. They are tiny little capitalists, and work the passengers well, but their deals are reasonable, and most of the proceeds go towards their continuing education. As we were to spend several days in town, I asked the young fellow with the best presentation to bring me back the biggest bestest piece of schist he had in his garage when he returned for the next boat. He was happy to do so and made me the sweetest deal on the dock to boot. We brought home lots of garnets!
          We did spend several days in Wrangell, (I would not have minded spending more), visiting the few sights there are to see, and spending our time hob nobbing with the locals, who showed to us that this small town was the amongst the friendliest of towns along our route. Don & Harriet made us ever so welcome in their home, treating us with the best salmon I have ever eaten, tales of their work in Mongolia as English teachers, and videos of Dr. Harriet's work as a traveling (by boat) practitioner in rural Alaska. We are looking forward to visiting Daryl in his homeland of Mongolia soon.
          Our days spent in Wrangell reinforced a truth that I had discovered along our journey, and an insight that I would like to share with you as a fellow traveler. Whenever possible, spend at least twice as long in a place as you feel is necessary. The artifacts and objects of a land can be found in the museums. The spirit of a place can only be found in the hearts of its people, and that takes a little extra time. It is worth every extra moment spent.
          While we looked forward to "returning home," it was with a sense of sadness that we departed Wrangell, for we knew it to be our last stop in Alaska. In a few days we would find ourselves with our friends Ross and Candy in Bellingham. They had expected us back two weeks after our departure. It will have been four weeks by the time we shared our welcome home hugs.

  Not Ready to Go Home Yet: North to British Colombia

          On July 22 we continued our trip in a northerly direction, hoping to avoid a return to the sun baked parcel we call home as long as we might be able. Besides, we were still enjoying crackin' weather, and saw no reason to not take full advantage of such fortune. In British Colombia such weather should not be overlooked or missed. We crossed the border in Blaine, and on to Tswassen to ride the ferry to the island of Vancouver. I would like to point out to travelers that this ferry costs about 1/2 the fare charged by Washington State Ferries for transport to Vancouver.

          Upon arriving in Schwartz Bay, we proceeded south to our first sightseeing destination: Butchart Gardens (link). This spot is largely responsible for my desire to visit Victoria. I was last here 18 years ago, and visited the gardens during Christmas. I was taken with the beauty of the place, even in December, and felt that someday I must surely return when the gardens were in bloom. We were not disappointed, and I cannot overstate my recommendation of this botanical wonderland to the Victoria bound traveler. How does a geology student, with a heart as hard as stone come to have such a sensitive side, as to enjoy the splendor of the grass, the glory of the flower? In fact a large portion of the gardens are built within a relict limestone quarry. The family made its fortune in Portland Cement, and Mrs. Butchart was perhaps one of the original environmentalists, insisting that the hole be reclaimed (photo) to a more aesthetically pleasing display.

          Our next stop was to be Craigdarroch (pronounced craig - darrow, meaning rocky oak) Castle the following day. This is a Victorian home dating back to 1880 owned by the Dunsmuirs, Victoria's richest family. Dunsmuir came to Victoria working for wages with the Hudson Bay Company, became a free miner, and made his fortune mining coal. The is castle is a must see. On the way to the castle our trip was punctuated by a surprise encounter with the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory which welcomes visitors throughout the week, and offers public stargazing on Saturday nights, weather permitting. What we thought was our bad fortune, arriving in time to fall in behind a summer camp's field trip, turned out to be good fortune as the curator gave a sterling description of the observatory and opened the telescope's dome doors for the edification and amusement of the children in attendance.

          Next day we finally made it to downtown Victoria (link), home of the Embassy Hotel, the Parliament buildings, and myriad attractions, the best of which must be the Royal British Colombia Museum (link). It would be difficult of offer sufficient praise for this showcase of natural and regional history, First People (who we in the states refer to as Indians) culture and history, and current exhibits. It is perhaps the best museum of its kind that I have ever seen, and I recommend a visit to their website to perk your interest.

          From Victoria we traveled north on the island of Vancouver, obtaining passage on the ferry to the Sunshine Coast of British Colombia. Here spent some time with our good friends Ted and Joannie in the town of Lund. Ted has a small compound established on the slope overlooking the harbor. With some amount of effort he has terraced an almost vertical rock face, building decks, a hot tub and greenhouse and now has a commanding view (photo) from his perch.
 Ted has a herring skiff docked nearby and almost everyday we went out into the channel to drop and harvest prawn traps, or shuck oysters on a nearby secret beach. To complement such fine fare, Joannie always made a fresh homegrown salad garnished with flowers from her garden, and dressings made from her own herbs. As if life isn't good enough, the weather remained splendid for us during the two weeks we spent. And I thought naming this region the Sunshine Coast was going to be a cruel joke.
           It was with a sense of reluctance, and a resignation that all things must come to their end when at last we headed south once again, this time for our home in the desert. We knew that this was the culmination of a long planned, and long lasting adventure, that started in Baja, took us down the Grand Canyon, then north to Alaska on the trail of the stampeders. Now it was time to count our blessings, and return to the traditional ways of our people: back to work! Don't you hate it when that happens?

Links to websites found in this travelogue


Alaska Marine Highway System

Skagway, Alaska

Haines, Alaska

American Bald Eagle Foundation

Juneau, Alaska

Sitka, Alaska

Alaska Raptor Rehabilitation Center

Sheldon Jackson College

Petersburg, Alaska


Wrangell, Alaska

Links to friends in Alaska:

Jaycee's World Northern Lights


Butchart Gardens

Victoria, British Columbia

Royal British Columbia Museum  

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