Nestled among mountains, tucked in one of the furthest corners of the world is a place that is more special to me than anywhere I’ve traveled. Perhaps its two parts beauty and three parts nostalgia, but Haines, Alaska is a place that has haunted my dreams for nearly two decades. And I’m not speaking figuratively here.
While Alaska feels like a hop, skip, and a jump away from Oregon, the actual execution is a bit hairier. At least with children. A three-hour drive to Seattle saved us $500 (We would have had to drive an hour to Portland’s airport anyway), and a 2.5 hour flight brought us right into Juneau. We had to stay overnight in Juneau as the next ferry didn’t leave until seven the next morning.
Of all the travel, the ferry ride through the Inside Passage is by far my favorite and the most spectacular. On days when the sun is shining, you feel like you’ve been transported to paradise. The mountains are RIGHT THERE. They aren’t off in the distance. No. If you jump overboard and doggy-paddle a quarter mile, you could scale one as soon as you reach shore. The sun glistens off the white peaks that stand sentinel in a deep blue sky, and it sparkles and dances on the crystal water below. I’ve even seen whales along the route. Seriously people. Paradise.
Four hours later, our destination came into view- a compact little town that lay snugly between the Inside Passage and the base of a jagged mountain range. To access this town by car, one would have to drive north into Canada on the only road leading out of town and circle around the Yukon down to B.C. and then on into the U.S. I highly suggest flying.
This was my fourth visit to the tiny town of Haines. The last time I was there, I was a teenager.
Needless to say, visiting the place of my dreams was a little surreal. Everything looked the same, but the small changes throughout the town spoke of the years I’d been away.
One of the best things about being in Haines is staying with the locals. My generous and hospitable friend graciously allowed me, my husband, and my three rowdy boys to live with her for eight days. If this doesn’t attest to the inherent fortitude of Alaskans, then I don’t know what does.
When I was a girl, one of the most remarkable cultural differences I noticed among Alaskans was that the houses I visited had some sort of mounted head or animal skin on the wall. Alaskans hunt. And many of them do it to survive.
And although my gracious hosts had no animal parts on their wall, they assured me it wasn’t for lack of trying. I have every confidence that their walls will be covered in a few years. And even if they haven’t gotten that big kill yet, they are proficient in other areas. One of our hosts went subsistence fishing and caught twelve giant salmon (well, giant to me). He expertly gutted and cleaned them right in his back yard. To me, that’s pretty gritty.
The meals we ate during our stay were the stuff of dreams: Moose roasts, bear sausage, and salmon patties. Our days weren’t just full of good food. They were also full of adventure. Here’s just a few things we did:
Beach walks along the Chilkat Inlet.
Bonfires and s’mores in the back yard.
A quick hike to Battery Point (along a trail which gets a lot of bear traffic, although we didn’t see any.)
Kayaking near Rainbow Glacier
A Mt. Ripinsky run
A hike up Mt. Riley
A farmer’s market in Dalton City
Bear sighting at Chilkoot River
A trip to Mosquito Lake
A pit stop at 33-Mile restaurant (complete with goat out back)
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about this little town isn’t the places to visit, but the people who know each other by name. I once read a book by Heather Lende entitled “If you Lived Here, I’d Know Your Name.” It caught my attention because it made me think of Haines. When I read the jacket, I quickly learned that was because it was about Haines. I can attest to the title’s veracity. And to drive this point home, we even saw Heather walking her dogs along Chilkat River.
It was entertaining to me not just to run into people on the beach, walk into supermarkets, or visit coffee shops and have my friend immediately strike up a conversation, but I also got a kick out of going places by myself and having people cast a curious eye in my direction. Never did I feel like an outsider. I simply sensed a quiet curiosity and willingness to learn more. (By the way, people wave at each other when passing each other on the highway. By the time we left, I stopped asking my husband, “Did you know that guy?”)
Haines makes people, no matter from what walk of life, feel like they belong. And no matter how many times I visit, the town always waves its magic wand, leaving me spellbound and with a deep-seeded desire to return.