Float Trip in Haines
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If you loved the TV show "Northern Exposure," you'll love Haines. It's the kind of laid-back place you picture when you think about an Alaskan town. The first thing you'll notice when you arrive is how scenically beautiful Haines is. The setting is probably the best of any Alaska town. The town is located on the shores of the Lynn Canal, the state's longest fjord, and surrounded by glacier-covered mountains and rolling hills. Close to town are lakes and rivers.
The population here is only 2,500, and you can easily walk around the town in an hour or two. Only a few cruise ships visit here, which is a big bonus: Haines is not at all touristy (at least not yet). This is a place where you can mingle with locals, chat with a lumberjack at the Pioneer Bar and maybe even hear about how someone had a bear in their backyard the night before.
The first people to call the Chilkat Valley home were the Tlingit. In the 1800s, fishermen -- including Indians and imported laborers from China -- began commercially fishing the waters.
Missionaries arrived later, in 1879, led by S. Hall Young and the naturalist John Muir, and made the area a base for converting the Chilkoot and Chilkat Tlingit tribes to Christianity. The town was actually named for Francina Haines, who was secretary to the Presbyterian Home Missions Board (she never actually visited the town, but helped raise funds for the exploration).
The next chapter in Haines' history was the arrival of prospectors, who began stopping by in 1897 on their way to the Klondike in search of gold; the precious metal was also discovered about 36 miles away in Porcupine, though it quickly petered out there.
Then it was the turn of the U.S. military, which decamped here in 1903 at a time when America was concerned about border disputes with Canada. They chose the place for its protected location and set up the first permanent Army post in Alaska, Fort William H. Seward.
The fort was used until after World War II when it was decommissioned after 42 years of service. The veterans who stayed started local businesses, including a salmon smokehouse and the Hotel Halsingland, established art galleries and funded Indian arts training programs for local kids, including the Alaska Indian Arts Cultural Center at Fort Seward. Preservation efforts were put in place by one group who bought the fort's 85 buildings from the government in 1947 with the goal of turning it into a utopian art and business community – galleries and small shops exist there today.
Haines is also blessed with surrounding natural areas and wildlife in what is known as the "Valley of the Eagles." The area is a magnet for bald eagles, drawn by the warm open water and abundant supply of salmon. More than 3,500 of the birds visit from October to February – during that time a dozen eagles may share a single tree limb. But even during the May to September cruise season there's a resident population of several hundred. And if you head out of town you're likely to see plenty of them – on a bike ride to Chilkoot Lake (about 10 miles from the ship pier) we counted eight bald eagles.
Note: If you aren't on a ship that visits Haines, you can still get here easily on the fast ferry from Skagway. The two communities are both at the northern end of the Lynn Canal, about 35 minutes apart. Haines makes a great side trip, especially if you've been to Skagway before. Roundtrip ferry fares are $54 for adults and half price for kids.
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Other Alaska Cruise Ports:
Anchorage • Haines • Icy Strait • Juneau • Ketchikan • Petersburg • Prince Rupert • San Francisco • Seattle • Seward • Sitka • Skagway • Vancouver • Victoria • Whittier
Smoked salmon or halibut.
Where You're Docked
Thanks to a newly expanded dock, you no longer have to tender from big ships into Haines. Small ships dock at the nearby Native American-owned ferry terminal, which also has a small souvenir shop. Both docks are within walking distance of most of the town's main attractions.
You can walk from the pier to Fort William H. Seward and into town. Pick up some walking-tour information on Haines at the visitor center (122 Second Ave.). It's open in summer Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. and weekends 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.
You can walk pretty much everywhere in town, but if you want to go see the eagles you can rent a car from Eagles Nest Car Rental (1069 Haines Highway, 907-766-2891) from $49 per day. Taxi service is available from Haines Shuttle and Tours (907-766-3138). Since supplies of taxis are limited you're best off reserving in advance.
Fort William H. Seward was designated a National Historic Site by the US government in 1972. Situated on a hill above the dock, the open-air fort is accessible to visitors at any time of day. Walk around and read the plaques on a self-guided walking tour. Many of the buildings are former barracks and officers' quarters. In the center of the parade grounds is a replica of a Tlingit tribal house. The former fort hospital on the south side of the parade grounds is now the Alaska Indian Arts Cultural Center and has a small gallery and carver's workshop where you can see totem carving in progress (it's open when cruise ships are in town). The totems produced here are highly valued (actor James Earl Jones has one in his front yard). Note the giant whale gun positioned on the parade grounds opposite the water. The gun is owned by a local who fires it like a cannon on special occasions.
The Sheldon Museum and Cultural Center (11 Main Street, at the corner of Main and Front streets, 907-766-2366) was founded by Steve Sheldon, a local man who amassed a wonderful collection of Haines memorabilia. Included are Tlingit artifacts, gold rush-era objects, military items and more (open weekdays 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. and weekends 2 to 6 p.m.).
Dave Pahl, a local resident, decided to collect hammers. His collection grew and grew, and a few years ago he opened the quirky Hammer Museum (108 Main St., open weekdays 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.) across from The Sheldon Museum. Here the longshoreman shows off his 800-year-old Tlingit hammer among some 1,500 tools from all over the world.
Haines is home to a major bald eagle reserve. If you can't get into the wild to see the birds, at least visit the American Bald Eagle Foundation Natural History Museum (113 Haines Highway, 907-766-3094). A huge diorama depicts more than 150 bald eagles, and there are stuffed specimens including bears in the educational displays. It's a must-do for families (open weekdays 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and evenings when cruise ships are in town).
Been There, Done That
The Alaska Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve is a 48,000-acre park located along the Chilkat River and is considered Ground Zero for eagle-spotting. While cruise passengers won't see the majority of eagles during their visits (high season is October to February), you'll still spot plenty of the several hundred bald eagles that live in the area year-round. The best viewing sights are on the Haines Highway between miles 19 and 26. The local park rangers' office has updated sighting reports (907-766-2292).
Sockeye Cycle (24 Portage St., 907-766-2869), right up the street from the cruise ship dock, rents bikes for $12 for two hours, $24 for four hours, and also offers guided bike trips.
Duffers can brag about a truly unique experience after hitting the links at the nine-hole Valley of the Eagles Golf Links & Driving Range (907-766-2401). Located about two miles from downtown, the range, opened in 2005, is built entirely on wetlands that are periodically covered by high tides. The turf is artificial so as not to disturb the environment with chemicals needed to treat greens. The spectacular scenery includes salmon and trout streams that run right through the course. Moose and bears are spotted frequently. Rental clubs are available. Reservations are recommended.
Go shopping. Dejon Delights (37 Portage St., 907-766-2505) near Fort Seward is the place for freshly smoked Alaska salmon and halibut. They offer free samples so you know what you're buying and can ship your selections if you don't want to carry them. Wild Iris (907-766-2300), also on Portage Street, is an art shop selling nice silkscreen prints, fine jewelry, Eskimo arts and silkscreen prints, and has a beautiful garden out front. A well-kept secret is the Sheldon Museum's gift shop where you can find locally made gifts, jewelry and many books on Alaska.
The Local Catch (907-766-3557), on Portage Street near Dejon Delights, is an open-air stand selling Thai and vegetarian dishes, fish tacos, sandwiches, coffee and sweets. Pioneer Bar and Bamboo Room Restaurant (Main Street near Second Avenue, 907-766-2800) will remind you of "Northern Exposure." It's a local bar with a pool table and darts in the corner. The restaurant is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and the house specialty is halibut and chips. For a cocktail, stop by the Officers Club Lounge at the Halsingland Hotel (907-766-2000). It opens at 4:30 p.m. daily and features a pub menu and local beers. The hotel's fancier Commander's Room serves New American cuisine for dinner only.
Staying in Touch
The Haines Borough Public Library (113 Third Ave.) has several computer workstations available free of charge on a first-come, first-served basis. The library was named the Best Small Library in America by Library Journal in 2005 (open Mon.-Thurs. 10 a.m. to 9 p.m., Fri. 10 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. and Sat.-Sun. 12:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m.). The Wolf Den (1053 Haines Highway, 907-766-2939) has an Internet lounge and Wi-Fi for your laptop, for a fee.
Haines by Motorcar is a fun way to see the town without walking. You ride in 1930s and 1940s vehicles, and entertaining guides share the history of the town.
Jet boats are an excellent way to explore the Alaska Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve. You bus out and board a small boat to explore the narrows of the Chilkat River. You'll see eagles and -- if you're lucky -- maybe even a bear or moose.
The Haines Wilderness Kayak Experience takes you paddling on the calm waters at the top of the Inside Passage where you may spot humpback whales, porpoises, seals, sea lions, sea otters, moose, brown bears and bald eagles.
For More Information
Haines Convention and Visitors Bureau: www.haines.ak.us; 800-458-3579
--by Fran Golden. Boston-based Golden, whose contributions to Cruise Critic include features, ship reviews and destination-oriented port profiles, is also co-author of Cruise Vacations for Dummies.
--photos courtesy of Alaska Travel Industry Association