Out of the Wild (On to SE Alaska)

Last Saturday decisions were made. We knew the Alaska portion of #vanlife had to end at some point and we didn’t have any more specific Alaska goals that we could accomplish in the next week or two. Fishing season is still a little ways off and spring generally comes late to Alaska so much of the other sight-seeing won’t be great for a few more weeks. Considering some of our longer-term summer goals, it was time to head south. Sunday morning we drove out the rest of the Denali Highway, finished up the last blog post, and made ferry reservations out of Haines for Monday evening.

We stopped on Sunday for just a few hours in Fairbanks to visit Denise, Sara’s friend from Maine. She took us out to a brewery where I got to chat with her friend extensively about his various hunting/fishing trips and other local AK knowledge. In another installment of “It’s a Small World,” we also ran into some people we knew from Tailgate at the brewery.

After that quick stop, we left Fairbanks at 9:00 p.m. planning to take advantage of the late light. We had a solid 12 hours of driving and I didn’t want to be too rushed Monday so I drove until about 2:00 a.m. Fortunately we only saw a few moose along the side of the road and the only one in the road was while it was still light. We did see a lot of snowshoe hares, but unfortunately none were being chased by a lynx. We crossed the border and camped in the same field we slept in on April 4.

April 4. It was 0 deg. that night.
May 6. I didn’t dare drive in to the field at all.

While I slept Monday morning Sara kept us moving south. Although there was a lot more ground showing, the lakes were still frozen and it still felt like very early spring. We made the turn to Haines and as we climbed up to 3000’ over Chilkat Pass and Three Guardsmen Pass it was again late winter with plenty of snow and blowing cold.

Approaching Three Guardsmen, the peak on the right.

The descent into Haines and the steadily climbing thermometer was rather mind-bending. As we hit the river bottom along the Chilkat River the leaves on the aspen and birch were coming out. Grass was growing and cottonwoods were leafing out. Before we got to Haines we hit 64 deg. so we took the dogs out for a walk on the still-mostly-exposed riverbed. It felt nice to bask in the sun, but very weird. On Sunday we were in late winter at Denali and on Monday we were in full spring in Haines.

The fresh green really felt strange.
Rivers and mountains (and dogs).
The peaks around Haines are amazing. Apparently there is now a ton of heli-skiing out of Haines, including the finals of the Freeride World Tour.

Haines seemed like a very cool little town, sort of like Homer. It felt like real people lived there and at one of the shops we ended up in a long conversation with a mostly-retired river guide about the Tatshenshini River. I know one guy who rafted it a long time ago when it was extra wild and remote, but it is still an exceptional wilderness river and now at the top of my bucket list. A woman explained that Haines has refused to become a full cruise stop so they don’t get the extreme influx of tourists that Skagway, Juneau, and Ketchikan get.

We left Haines on the ferry in the sunset light at 8:45 p.m. The ferry was pretty empty except for a large contingent of sled dogs that were headed to Juneau, where they would get flown up on the glacier to be excursion dogs for cruise ship tourists. We had gone far enough south that the daylight disappeared much sooner. As we started down the Lynn Canal toward Juneau we watched the scenery and wildlife from the outdoor solarium on the back of the ship.

Leaving the ferry dock.
Sunset right over Haines.
One of the many waterfalls coming down into Lynn Canal.
The lighthouse on Vanderbilt Reef in Lynn Canal where the SS Princess Sophia sank in 1918.

We must have had “good listeners” tattooed on our forehead because we were quickly accosted by 74-year-old Harvey. Harvey was returning to his camp in Gustavus from his winter in Dawson. He had just come back from an 800-mile round-trip solo sled dog trip. We learned all about his life, with serious Oregon and Maine connections, and how he ended up in Alaska. In between his stories we managed to tell him a couple things about us, but not much! After a few hours I finally took my leave and Sara escaped with me.

Sara was very nice for the dogs and got up in the middle of the night when we hit Juneau. The dogs have to stay in the vehicles and we can only go visit during layovers or on very occasional visits to the car deck so they were not terribly happy. When we got up in the morning we were past Juneau and well toward Sitka. Part of the reason we chose this ferry schedule was becase it went out to Sitka through some very narrow channels and islands. The scenery is amazing as the ferry slides through channels only a couple times wider than the boat. We saw a distant whale, lots of porpoises, seals, and one brown bear on the shore of an island. We were lucky for this time of year and had nearly unbroken sunshine on this leg of the ferry.

Between the buoy and the shore was not much wider than the ferry.

Channel dotted with good seal rocks.
This must be a fun place for a ferry captain. It would definitely keep you awake.

In Sitka we walked the dogs then took a taxi into town for a very quick visit. We walked a quick loop of the downtown to see a few historical sites before heading back to the boat. Sitka was originally a Russian settlement and there are a lot of historical markers and buildings. We did an exceptionally quick tour of the Russian Bishop’s house, built in 1842. They have managed to restore much of the house to how it looked in the mid-19th century, including exposing some of the original construction so you can see how it was built and finished. On our exploration of Castle Hill we learned that Sara was born on Alaska Day, October 18. Shouldn’t that make her an honorary Alaska resident or something?

The view from Castle Hill.
The Russian Bishop’s chapel in his house.

The ferry just backtracks the narrow passages through the islands but it was fun to see again at a different tide. We went to sleep before we really saw anything new as the ferry headed to Petersburg and then Wrangell. We entirely missed Petersburg and woke up part way through the Wrangell narrows on the way to Wrangell. We didn’t see the narrowest part, but the apparently the Wrangell narrows are even narrower than the Sitka narrows. The topography near Wrangell is quite different, though, and when we woke up there were grassy banks below the trees and fishing cabins common along the narrow channel.

After Wrangell it was on to Ketchikan. Along the way we saw a ton of Dall’s porpoises and one orca. Sara’s high school friend, Fred, lives in Ketchikan so we decided to lay over about 40 hours and catch the next ferry on to Prince Rupert, BC. (This is the same friend who has the cabin we stayed at outside Kenai.) Fred and his wife Kaley have a great view of the water and we sat on the deck at sunset watching whales spout. Though we didn’t see any crazy jumping, it looked like they were fishing with bubble nets as there was a regular series of very close spoutings.

Old friends.
Nice view from Fred’s deck.
This is with a telephoto lens, but with the sun setting over the water you could clearly see the whales spouting with your naked eye as the sun lit up the spray.

It was fun for Sara and Fred to catch up and Fred was able to answer a lot of the questions we had come up with from our travels (e.g. why there are so many wrecked/burned cars just abandoned along the side of the road). Fred and his wife Kaley used to live in Dillingham out in western AK and, as a state trooper and then a game warden (just a division of the state troopers), Fred has seen much of the state. Unfortunately, Kaley was in Portland, OR for work so we didn’t get to meet her. Of course, this is just an excuse for me to come back as we need to meet Kaley. Kaley also has a rather serious fishing problem and it would be great to come visit when she is around to act as a fishing guide!

Though we didn’t have too long to explore Ketchikan, we hit the SE Alaska Discovery Center and a hiked a few short trails. I was rather put off by the massive cruise ships docked in Ketchikan (four at one time on Thursday), but the video about the history of Ketchikan explained how such tourists were always part of the Ketchikan scene as steamships used to come visit in the early days.

Wandering in the rainforest with blooming skunk cabbage.
Skunk cabbage.
Fred sent us out to starfish beach where we saw … starfish.
And this cool sea fan of some sort.
Kenai decided he liked the taste of barnacles and mussels so he grazed on the rocks.

The final leg of our SE Alaska ferry tour left Ketchikan very early Friday morning so we were up early to head out. Sara had been feeling lazy and the dogs were going to get stuck in the van for most of the day so while I parked in the ferry lane Sara took Kenai for a run. The trip from Ketchikan to Prince Rupert is only about 8 hours and the scenery isn’t as interesting so I promptly went back to sleep. It was also cool and rainy most of the way so there was not much interesting to see.

The most interesting thing we saw in Prince Rupert was this container ship getting simultaneously loaded and unloaded. We counted at least 21 rows that were at least 17 wide and 7 high, so the ship carries at least 2380 containers.

Taking the ferry through SE Alaska made me almost feel as if it should be a different state. It felt far more like the Pacific NW than the rest of Alaska, which feels alpine/arctic. There are still some rather amazing mountains, but the islands are dense temperate rainforest with massive spruce, hemlock, and cedar trees. On our hike in Ketchikan we even saw huge banana slugs, which I have only seen on the Oregon and Washington coasts. I suppose that variation is what happens when the state covers as much area as 1/5 of the rest of the U.S. states. It is even more shocking that in all our five weeks touring Alaska, including travelling almost every major road in Alaska, we saw one small corner of the state. I have travelled a lot of places and, while I always say I want to go back and explore more, Alaska is one place where I am adamant that we come back to spend more time. Even though it is remote and much of the state is wild, it is readily accessible and easy to visit from the lower 48.

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