There was something we really liked about the quirky town of Haines when we visited eight years ago. We had some delicious fish and chips for lunch and a beautiful float down the Chilkat River, where we saw lots of eagles.
But this was also the place where we almost missed our cruise. After our rafting trip, we had scheduled a ferry back to Skagway, our port of call. We scheduled the next to last ferry that would get us back in time so that if something went wrong, we had one more ferry we could take.
When we got to the dock we found out that one of the ferries damaged a propeller and was out of service so the entire schedule was disrupted. Now there was no ferry scheduled that would get us back to Skagway in time. This is the danger of going off on your own from a cruise, they will not wait for you if you are late. We freaked out.
Because of an extremely nice and resourceful lady at the ferry office, we were saved. She got one of the tour cruises that had gone out from Skagway and was on its way back there, not scheduled to stop in Haines, to detour and make a very brief stop at the dock. We literally had to run down the dock and jump on the boat.
She also arranged for the cruise line to have a car at the dock ready to drive us straight to the ship on the other end. And we just made it! One little door was open on the side of the giant cruise ship. And we jumped in with seconds to spare.
So Haines had a really good vibe for us and we have been looking forward to returning. Now we were back. Driving down the Haines Highway after crossing the U.S. border we saw the Chilkat River that runs alongside the road. To our disappointment, but not terribly surprising, we did not see many eagles.
The Haines area is known as The Valley of the Eagles because thousands of eagles come to the ice-free section of the Chilkat for a very late salmon run in November, but most of these visitors leave between spring and summer. But there are still several hundred resident eagles that you see all the time around town.
And the town has a lot more to offer than eagles. There are museums, a brewery, a distillery, a farmers market, shops and restaurants, hiking, boating, fishing and more. This little piece of Alaska is connected to other Alaska towns by sea – ferries take you to Juneau, Skagway and on to other towns in the Inside Passage.
But it is also pretty isolated, and the only road to town is part of Canada. There is no drugstore here, which we found out when we needed to refill a prescription for Angel, there is no really large grocery store etc.
And yet there is something about this town. The Tlingit were the first settlers in the area about 11,000 years ago and the first to discover its riches: the abundance of fish, game, and edible plants and berries.
As they thrived, they expanded their empire from interior Alaska and Canada all the way to California by land and sea. Many of their traditions continue to be practiced today, and some of their beautiful art decorates the town.
We set out to discover some of its current riches. Our first stop was dinner. I wanted fish and chips so we returned to the Bamboo Room, the same restaurant we ate in on that last trip. The place is very funky and owned by the same family for over 40 years. And the fish and chips were still fabulous.
Next, we visited the Haines Packing Cannery. All five species of salmon (king, sockeye, chum, pink, and coho) migrate to Haines. There were several canneries there in the past, and this one was operational until the 2000s.
But tucked in these old buildings is an adorable little place, the Some Things Fishy gift shop. Jill, the owner and her mother sell their handmade knitted and crocheted items, as well as other quilted, sewn, felted items and much more. We just loved this shop and had a fun conversation with Jill who later took our picture by her three dimensional cutout outside.
Our next stop, Fort William H. Seward, was Alaska’s first permanent army post, built to establish a military presence in this lawless northern territory. It then served as a training base for Alaska recruits during World Wars I and II and a rest camp for those who served in the North Pacific Theater in World War II.
After the fort was decommissioned in 1946, five World War II veterans and their families bought the surplus buildings and land, sight unseen. They named it Port Chilkoot and set out to establish a cooperative of small businesses. The cooperative did not come to fruition but several of the families established themselves in Haines, and businesses were started in some of the buildings.
Port Chilkoot was renamed Fort William H. Seward in 1970, when it became part of the city of Haines and was also designated a national historic site. The structures are now private homes as well as businesses including a restaurant, a hotel, a theatre, an art gallery, a distillery and the Alaska Indian Arts Inc.
The Chilkoot Distillery is open to the public in the afternoons and serves a limited menu of drinks that feature their vodka, gin and bourbon. We tried a couple of their simple drinks, and found it to be a very cozy gathering place for the community.
Alaska Indian Arts Inc. is a nonprofit located in what used to be the Fort Hospital. It is dedicated to the revival of Tlingit Native art. When we visited they were in the process of restoring a couple of totem poles, art on a giant scale. There we met Lee, a descendant of one of the original five families that bought the old fort. He was full of entertaining stories and inside information about the area.
Our campground was next to the small boat harbor, and one day a week a Holland America cruise ship docks in town. This is another distinction from some of the other towns in Southeast Alaska, where multiple cruise ships may dock on multiple days.
Haines offers special discount tickets to three of their museums at the end of August: the American Bald Eagle Foundation, the Hammer Museum and the Sheldon Museum. And we intended to visit all three.
The American Bald Eagle Foundation, dedicated to the protection and preservation of bald eagles, houses raptors that have been hurt and can no longer survive in the wild and uses some of them for educational purposes. They have a wonderful wildlife diorama and several other interesting exhibits about the Tlinglit.
They also had an eagle feeding and presentation about bald eagles. Other than the two eagles in the eagle feeding, raptors are not on display.
The Hammer Museum, which Hector refers to both as “oddly entertaining” and “mildly disturbing” was a surprise. It is a jaw dropping collection of thousands of hammers that served a variety of purposes, from making jewelry and cracking nuts to blacksmithing. Displays are nicely done, the owner has searched for the patent diagrams of many of the hammers online, and printed them to display alongside the hammers.
The variety of hammers is astounding, including hammers dating from 2500 B.C. (an Egyptian hammer). I have to admit that we enjoyed this museum much more than we ever expected.
Although Dave Pahl the owner is the one with a thing for hammers, the nice young lady working there, Madeleine, certainly knew her stuff about hammers and pointed out all sorts of interesting tidbits of information.
We also visited “Dalton City”, a replica of the gold rush town that was built for the movie White Fang. This movie set actually houses several establishments including a restaurant where we had some wonderful wood-fired pizza, the Haines microbrewery and some other shops. We tasted a delicious seasonal beer made of all things from spruce tips along with our pizza.
The Sheldon Museum was established in 1924 and houses over 4,000 artifacts that include some beautiful Native art such as Chilkat blankets, basketry, clothing items, and wood boxes as well as tools, Russian trunks, historical photographs, relics from the Gold Rush era and shipping artifacts including a fourth order Fresnel lens from the Eldred Rock Lighthouse, and more.
While driving around exploring the town, we walked down a short trail to Mud Bay. Hector was taking a photograph and a lady was dropped off and started walking down the trail and across the mud flat. It turned out that just across this body of water was an off the grid community of about twelve houses. During low tide, people walk across the bay (with boots) to their homes, and during high tide they use boats. I found that incredibly romantic, yet another cool thing about this town.
Back at the campground, Hector was trying to fix an issue we encountered after leaving the Dempster – our turn signals, brake and emergency lights stopped working on our tow car when attached to Island Girl. Something was wrong with the connection. He cleaned out the contacts, straightened out some wires and they still did not work.
Fortunately, Oceanside RV has a mechanic and a small shop. They put our car up on a lift, and found that one of the wires connecting the RV lights to the car lights had torn and become disconnected. The repair was quick, easy and inexpensive.
Our experience overall with people in the town was great. Everyone was really friendly and helpful and willing to share tips and information. We love Haines.