Note: Paperback includes map, Kindle digital version does not, suggest getting map below.
The spot that looks like a New England village at Mile 1012N is Fort William H. Seward, sometimes known as Port Chilkoot. Decommissioned after World War II, it is now part of the city of Haines, just to the north, and offers a variety of cultural activities.
Haines, until the highway to Skagway was completed in 1979, was the only town in southeastern Alaska with a road that went anywhere (it connected to the Alaska Highway). Today it is rich with Tlingit culture and is especially known for the dramatic fall migration of bald eagles that feed on Chilkat River salmon.
Haines is also the closest you will find to your basic Alaska small town without the side-by-side jewelry stores and gift boutiques that are the mark of cruise ship stops. A little fishing, a little tourism, a little logging: pretty much your Alaska small town activities. The contrast between Skagway just 10 miles north is stark. On a “Five ship day” in Skagway, maybe 10,000 folks will be wandering the streets, taking the train to White Pass, etc. While at Haines, if there isn’t a ship in – typically two ships a week stop there – there’s plenty of room on the sidewalks!
If your cruise takes you to Skagway but you want a refreshing change from the congestion when the big ships are in town, there is a foot ferry over to Haines. You’ll find a nice path from the dock along the shore to a very laid back town with some great views overlooking Lynn Canal. If yours is one of the ships that does stop, there is usually a kayaking excursion as well as a trip down the Chilkat River, usually by big inflatable rafts. If you’re up for some exercise, groups that have taken the kayaking trip reported a really good experience, getting up close to sea lions, etc. Also, you can jump on the water taxi, visit Skagway and get back before your ship leaves – make sure you check the schedule.
Just to the west of town, over the hill, is the mouth of the Chilkat River. Here it winds through an ever changing landscape of islands and sand bars. In Tlingit, Chilkat means ‘winter storage container for salmon,’ which pretty much sums it up – salmon runs continue here into late winter. The presence of so many fish attracts the largest collection of bald eagles anywhere. Haines markets itself as Valley of the Eagles and has a festival, usually in early November, when typically there are three or four thousand eagles hanging out along the lower river, chowing down on the carcasses of chum salmon that have spawned and died. The river excursion takes you lazily right through the heart of this. In summer, of course, there aren’t as many eagles, but there still are plenty.
If you haven’t seen totem carving up close, the native cultural center on the south side of Port Chilkoot has an ongoing totem carving project.
Haines is also a pretty good place to bike – there are bike rentals as well as bike tours. If you’re on your own, ask for the road to Cannery Cove. It’s very scenic – with glacier hung mountains over the inlet.
In the 1970s, when salmon prices were particularly high and the dog salmon run to the Chilkat River was strong, a fleet of some 300 boats would crowd into the narrow inlet to catch salmon at 10$ a fish! A small locally owned cannery served the local fleet. Gillnetters from all over Southeast came to Haines in the fall, hoping to double their seasons in a few weeks of big fishing. They often did, but not without suffering: Lynn Canal around Haines is a notoriously windy place, and snow is September is common. Those hardy fishermen who stayed late often had to face early blizzards!