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Haines, Alaska: One of the Last True Bastions of Small Town America

By Roy Stevenson
ITWPA Member
Photography by Linda Popovich

The small town of Haines nestles peacefully, overlooking the remote shores of Alaska’s pristine, 90-mile Lynn Canal -- the longest fjord in America. Haines lies at the base of the fog-shrouded Takshanuk and Chilkat Mountains. A belt of foothills covered in Pacific Northwest evergreens is all that separates the town from these towering massifs with glistening glaciers crawling down their steep black granite canyons.

Haines is a quiet little harbor town of 2,400 souls. They’re mostly flannel-shirted fishermen, loggers, artists, and retirees, with a sprinkle of gold miners, all sharing two things in common. They love the spectacular natural vista of fjord, forest, and mountain that greets them each morning when they open their curtains, and they have no desire to live the city life anymore. They’re here to get away from it all. Some might call them reclusive, and they’d be proud of that.

There’s no rush hour traffic in this isolated village and the residents all know each other, perhaps too well. But they’re genuine and friendly and look you in the face when they talk to you. Their hands are calloused from hours of hauling in heavy gillnets laden with struggling salmon, or working outdoors. Bears scavenge through garbage cans in back yards, and the occasional moose strolls through the streets. Visiting Haines is like time traveling back to the 1950s, and, sadly, it’s not something you’re likely to see in the lower 48 anymore -- it’s a remnant of America that has been lost to iPhones, MTV, and urban sprawl.

Certainly the residents are subject to the usual squabbling you’ll find in any small community, but it’s the sort of place where, when it comes down to it, people rally around to help neighbors who have fallen on hard times. The newly unemployed are likely to find a fisherman on the doorstep with a couple of fresh salmon, or to have a hunter drop by with some choice moose cuts for the freezer.

As you might expect from its expansive natural setting, most of the attractions in Haines revolve around the great outdoors and indeed, the town is a world-renowned haven for outdoor adventurers. During its summer months (from May to September), backpackers, campers, kayakers, rock climbers, and mountain bikers converge here to ply their sports. They paddle on scenic gray-silted lakes, hike through rugged, heavily forested trails, scale impossible rock faces, and free fall for miles on bone-jarring descents down skinny mountain trails.

We start our Haines experience with a kayak trip with seasoned guide Nathaniel (“Nacho”) Stephens from Alaska Mountain Guides & Climbing School. Nacho tells us about the natural attractions around Haines, driving us out to Chilkat State Park along winding gravel roads. We drive past a cove with a small picturesque salmon cannery jutting out over the water on a pier and a sailboat with trees growing from it moored in the harbor.

The wind is too strong across the Chilkat inlet, so we drive north back through town to Chilkoot Lake, where we put our kayaks in and paddle comfortably around the perimeter. The water is a grayish color from the alluvial runoff from the mountains, and the lush trees growing right up to the water’s edge teem with life. We paddle directly underneath a large, mature, black bald eagle that looks down at us with disdain.

Stopping on a bank covered with undergrowth, we tie our kayaks to some small branches and have a sandwich lunch while Nacho tells us of his worldwide travels and about the flora and fauna in the area. Paddling back into the wind is tough but rewarding, as we cruise along the far shore of the lake looking at cascading waterfalls and vast mountainsides that taper off into the lake.

On our drive back, at the mouth of the Chilkoot River where the salmon are running, we see a beautiful brown bear with her two cubs, their long brown fir rippling with every step. They amble along the riverbank, not 30 yards from some of the fishermen. Standing up to their waists in water, the fishermen do a double take when they see the bears behind them. “Bear!” they yell down the river to the next fishermen, and then turn back to their fly-fishing. Only in Alaska!

A couple of days later we cycle back towards the Chilkoot River along the coast road with Thom Ely, owner of Sockeye Cycle Company, who leads Alaska Bicycle Tours. We pause on the roadside to watch a mother bear with two cubs strolling idly along the beach. The chubby bears sniff for any tasty salmon morsels that might have washed up on the shore of the fjord. Looking up behind us, we see a bald eagle keeping watch in a tall Douglas fir just across the road.

The next day, for another fix of Alaska wildlife, we take the Chilkat River Adventures Company’s flat bottom aluminum jet boat on a high-powered cruise through the extensive, swampy Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve. Despite the noise of the engines, I am amazed at the wildlife we see on this 48,000-acre bottomland, where the Chilkat, Klehini, Tsirku and Chilkoot Rivers converge. The waterway is shallow in places, a muddy brown, with reeds and thick growths of trees sprouting from its banks.

We see several eagle nests above us, huge platforms of branches and twigs that have been built up over the years; some are four to five feet deep and easily that much across. The occasional bald eagle soars high above us when we get a little too close. The six-foot wingspan of these raptors is breathtakingly impressive as they flap with a swooshing sound. Further on down the river, a couple of shy moose spy on us from behind some brush, and panicking waterfowl thrash desperately away from us over the stagnant, marshy water. Here and there a weathered clapboard shack lies amongst the overgrowth, covered in a dense growth of moss that is endemic to S.E. Alaska.

Rainbow Glacier Adventures took us on a tour of an active gold mine that brought us up to speed on the gold mining history of Haines, and we visited a working gold mine -- one of the highlights of my Alaska gold tour. Holly Jo Parnell picked us up at our hotel to drive us 35 miles out to the Big Nugget Mine.

This open cast mine is located at the end of a nine-mile-long gravel road, in a ravine at the bottom of several mountains. It’s a gorgeous place, where years of gold mining operations have formed a flat plateau. Here we can watch the gold miners operating the heavy equipment to extract those precious ounces of lustrous gold from rocks and dirt.

 

Holly Jo gives a demonstration of gold panning, and we swirl, sift, and sieve the dirt and debris from our pans to find a nice-sized little nugget gleaming up at us, which we get to keep.

The return journey includes taking a trip down a side road to the ghost town of Porcupine Creek. In 1905, during the Porcupine Creek mining boom time, over 2,000 people resided here. Today, little remains of the town except for a couple of weathered clapboard houses with broken, sagging roofs and some collapsed piles of logs and wood that once were houses or log cabins. It’s a sad sight, but its former residents mined 81,000 ounces of gold from the area, so life here can’t have been too bad.

We’ve seen so much nature, now it’s time to see Haines’s other activities. Our Jilkaat Kwaan Cultural Tour of the Klukwan Village is excellent. The tribal longhouse is new enough for us to smell the cedar planks. It has a fire pit sunk into its center with an opening in the roof above. It took the tribe five months to build this longhouse and decorate it with totem poles, which tell several stories in their deeply etched carvings. Tribal cultural leader Daniel Klanott, 33, points out bears, ravens, eagles, whales, and other animals that are deep, symbolic parts of their culture.

We are treated to a dancing display by an ensemble of pretty Jilkaat girls ranging in age from eight to eighteen. Draped with colorfully-decorated red, black, and blue woolen cloaks alive with native symbols, and holding ceremonial paddles, these demure girls put on a dance performance their elders would be proud of. Thousands of years of heritage show in their faces as they gyrate and chant the Knock on Door Dance and the Salmon Fishing Dance.

Living in Seattle, I’ve seen my share of Northwest native ceremonial dancing by professionals, but these girls easily rival the slickest tourist performances that city has to offer. Most of the kids live outside the village of 50 Jilkaats, but return during summers to absorb their tribal culture and reunite with their friends.

Salmon are the nourishment and spiritual lifeblood of the Jilkaat Kwaan and we watch a demonstration of how salmon are prepared for the smoking rooms. Our guide uses a sharp-looking paring knife to defin, gut, slice, and debone the salmon to reveal its rich red meat. It sounds gory, but she’s obviously done it thousands of times before; she can clean a fish in less than a minute. “Now if we can only stop the bears from nosing around the smokehouses,” she says -- and she’s not joking.

Our next stop is to watch two master totem carvers working on a thick trunk of yellow cedar. This piece will take six months to complete and is to be emplaced near the village’s greeting house. The carvers inscribe the outline of their totem’s features in pencil before chipping away at the log. They’ll do this for months, depending on the size and elaborate decorations of the totem.

Back in sleepy Haines, we explore its museums, art centers, and other quirky attractions. A walk through Fort Seward is a must. Once a frontier outpost, Fort Seward was set up to establish the U.S. land claim for this area from the Canadians, and construction was begun in 1903. We walk past Officer’s Row, a tidy collection of well-preserved white buildings (some now serving as B&Bs), and the fort’s headquarters, the parade ground, the Captain’s Quarters, and the old Guard House.

Also on the fort grounds are the Chilkat Center for the Arts and the Alaska Indian Arts Skill Center, both open to the public, with an eclectic series of galleries boasting colorful contemporary work by native artists and a room where you can watch totem pole carving.

A walk through the American Bald Eagle Foundation Museum in Haines is particularly instructive. Dioramas, photographs, exhibitions, tours, and live raptor presentations tell everything you need to know about these superb birds. The museum exists because of the close proximity of the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve.

Haines hosts the renowned Alaska Bald Eagle Festival every November, with 3,000 eagles as the special guests. The eagles are drawn to a four-mile stretch of the Chilkat River to feed on the late salmon run. The trees, I’m told, are absolutely packed with eagles, and the event draws thousands of spectators, journalists, and photographers from around the world. It’s no wonder that Haines is named “The Valley of the Eagles.”

On Main Street we come across the truly unique and world-famous Hammer Museum. It’s easy to spot because there’s a huge 20-foot-tall hammer standing in front of it. It would be fair to say that museum curator Dave Pahl has an obsession with hammers -- all types of hammers.

This affable and amiable man has collected so many types of hammers that his wife eventually told him they needed to be moved from the garage. Rather than part with them, Dave started the Hammer Museum in 2002 and has never regretted it.

Dave’s sincerity shows through when he tells me that his mission is to show visitors the history and multiple uses of hammers, and how important they are to society. He ranks the invention of the hammer up there with the wheel and fire. And he may be right. Inside, hanging on every inch of wall space in the four rooms, are hammers -- 1,500 in total.

I discover there are so many varieties of the humble hammer that my initial incredulousness has been replaced by a genuine respect for Dave and his amazing collection. I rate the Hammer Museum as one of Haines’s Top Three attractions, not least because of the fascinating stories that Dave tells about each and every one of his hammers.

There are drink hammers for tapping against a glass to order more drinks in night clubs in the 1920s, triple claw hammers, farriers’ tool hammers, cobblers’ hammers, combination drills and hammers, coffin keys, bed keys used for tightening the bed springs on early beds, political hammers, clock winding keys, metal tack hammers, cattle stunning hammers, meat tenderizers, hog tattoo hammers, chisel hammers, electricians’ hammers, adjustable head hammers, staple pulling hammers, spring eye hammers, Clark bar hammers, box terrier hammers, ripper hammers, fabric block printing hammers, bung starters, and literally hundreds more variants. I’m astonished.

When Dave was digging the foundation for the museum, he uncovered an 800-year-old warrior’s pick or slave killer hammer used by the Tlingits. The Smithsonian Museum of American History donated the mannequins now posing with the hammers. The Hammer Museum should be one of your first stops in Haines, and for the $3 entry fee is worth every cent. Do not miss it!

Tucked away behind the village, at the fairgrounds, is a recreated turn-of-the-century western street complete with boardwalk and facades over the wooden shops. These buildings were the town props for the 1991 movie “White Fang” based on Jack London’s famous book by the same name written in 1906. Although the film was lensed out of town, the city had the foresight to reassemble the prop storefronts in the fairgrounds and encourage local businesses to set up shops therein.

One of the most visited places in this well-kept facade is the Haines Brewing Company, where you’ll meet master brewer and ZZ Top lookalike Paul Wheeler. Sample some of his fine hand-crafted ales and beers including Dalton Trail Ale, Lookout Stout, Eldred Rock Red, IPA, and Captain Cook’s Spruce Tip Ale. It’s a small operation, but extremely popular with the locals who are constantly dropping by to refill their growlers. Sample Dave’s homemade root beer -- it’s delicious.

There are a few restaurants in Haines, but your dining experience should definitely include breakfast in the Bamboo Room Restaurant, housed in what looks like a red barn. Listen to the friendly banter of the local fishermen and interplay between the locals. It’s free entertainment and will give you a flavor of what life is like in Haines. Try the wide selection of home-baked donuts and pastries at the Chilkat Bakery and Restaurant.

How to get to Haines

Traveling by the large, comfortable ferries on the Alaska Marine Highway is a great way to get to Haines. When I arrived, the shuttle from my motel was not there, so a local retiree put my bags in her station wagon and drove me to the motel. It turns out that her daughter worked there some years ago.

Where to stay in Haines

The Captain’s Choice Motel offers comfortable rooms with laundry facilities, a bar overlooking the fjord, and close proximity to downtown Haines.

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