“Wherever there were glaciers, the world was in a constant state of creation.”
John Muir, Wilderness Essays
First Stop: Icy Strait Point/ Hoonah
Hoonah is located on Chichagof Island, less than 40 miles from Juneau. While once known for the canning of salmon, only since 2004 has the town of Hoonah been known as a cruise destination. The construction of an elaborate and “official” pier and tourist center known as Icy Strait Point has turned this fishing / canning port in to a great location for travelers to explore.
We were welcomed at the entry to “Icy Strait” by a group of teens singing and playing their ancestral instruments. (Little did I know that these teens comprised the majority of the high school students who remained in Hoonah for their education.)
HICCUP #1: WE NEEDED A PLAN B
One thing a person learns when visiting remote areas, even in the United States, is to be flexible with your plans. Case in point – the tour jeep company oversold their excursions so instead of a guided tour throughout the Hoonah area, we took our backpacks and hiked sans tour guide. Getting to the town “center” was easy as the hike was only 1.5 miles over flat paved terrain. (Note: Bikes, strollers and wheelchairs could make this trek without problems as there are sidewalks and paths.)
Our initial stop on this impromptu hike resulted in us stumbling upon a small restaurant/ bar. The Office Bar is a lot like the infamous (albeit fictitious) pub, CHEERS – as you enter a stranger and leave with everyone “knowing your name”. Jess, one of the bartenders, was a fountain of information and on the “ready” to pour your beer and tell stories about the history and people of Hoonah. Ask about snow accumulation and she will show you the “family album” of local residents helping each other during snowstorms and more. When you have had your fill of beer and peanuts, head on down a few more blocks to try local fare. Fish is the menu favorite and the Fisherman’s Daughteris a fun little place with outside seating that attracts both local families and tourists. When you leave this restaurant turn left and walk about two more blocks. There you will find the bald eagle’s nest across from the school. There also is a totem pole demonstration.
Best of all… whales grace the Icy Strait region in late May and June. While we were at Hoonah we watched more than eight whales swim and feed right in front of us. There is no mistaking that whales are a force to ‘reckon with.” I held my breath, as a whale watching boat seemed drifted within a 50 meters of a pod of whales. But, all were safe! Below is a video of the whales eating from the strait gobs of fish! Apparently, one “lead” whale will catch in his/her mouth enough food to supply to the others in the pod. The tell tale sign that they are involved in this activity is the “bubbling” that happens on the surface. When you watch the video below look carefully for the bubbling formation in the water followed by four whales coming to the surface in almost perfect unison.
More about Hoonah and culture…
The culture of Hoonah fascinated me. The town is around 700 people and the depths of their pride is immeasurable. Children are educated about their heritage by locals and their formal education occurs in the local public school until the 9th grade. Then they can opt to remain in Hoonah or go to high school school in Juneau. (Interesting fact: The graduating class of 2018 from Hoonah was nine students.)
Hoonah is a remote area and to access it means you either arrive by plane, helicopter or boat. There are no roads that connect this village to another town across Alaska, including Juneau. To view a map of the area click here.
Hoonah residents are proud of their heritage and what the legacy they have built. I thoroughly enjoyed our time and the gracious hospitality of all we met. If you have an opportunity to visit – do it!
Do you remember the show “Northern Exposure”? I swear it is about Juneau, Alaska. Juneau is a small town with lots to offer and if you are like me, you will fall in love with it! Cut off from other parts of Alaska, you can only access Alaska’s capitol by sea or air but there are a lot more amenities in Juneau than “nearby” Hoonah.
Juneau, perhaps, could best be described as quaint and mighty at the same time. There are quaint small shops and restaurants, but then you have the mighty glaciers nearby. Mendenhall Glacier is the closest and most famous of those available for viewing by tourists. Our family ventured on a helicopter and went to Taku, a glacier that took about a 15 minute helicopter ride from downtown Juneau. Kudos to Coastal Helicoptersfor this educational experience, but first and foremost keeping us safe! Our helicopter tour found us soaring high above the glacier field and parkland. Nothing can quite describe what it feels like to view glaciers from above and then walk on one. We drank clear and clean “glacier water” and took a ton of photos. Our helicopter operator was knowledgeable, humorous and most of all – experienced!
Special Note: I wish I had studied more about glaciers and icebergs before I traveled to one. I think it would have made the experience much more enriching. Also, for those less adventurous, consider the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center.
Stepping back in time with a trip to Skagway!
Skagway reminds me of a movie set. Nothing seems real because it all looks so perfect and as if time stopped 60 years ago. I kept thinking that I was in the backlot of a movie studio – that is how clean and perfect it is! Our intent was to walk the town and then hop on the Skagway White Pass and Yukon Railroad. Mother Nature had a different idea as a rockslide prevented us from being able to make that excursion, so our family resorted to “Plan B”. The guys went on tour of the area via bus, while the “gals” hiked the village by foot.
A few notable highlights… 1) Go to the SKAGUAY NEWS DEPOT! It is charming and also reminds me how much I miss establishments that sell printed material! I had a lovely conversation with one of the salesclerks and she told me that Skagway has over two-thousand residents during the Summer. However, when the snow flies, so do the cruise ships, and the town shrinks to a mere 900 or so. When the winter becomes a deluge of snowstorms all comes to a halt. Like Juneau, Skagway is dependent on ships to bring goods or planes. Newspapers are flown in daily except during the winter months.
2) Sweet Treatsis one of those stores that you walk in because it just smells so yummy! But, once you clear the doorway you realize that you are on sensory overload! Decorations from Mexico cascade down from the ceiling alongside Japanese lanterns and other “party decorations”. I was curious if there was a “theme” to this place and was told, “It is meant to be colorful.” My friends at Sweat Treats – you succeeded!
3) Be sure to visit the White Pass train depot. Even though we couldn’t travel by train to visit the Yukon due to the rock slide, the depot itself was worth a visit! (Note: Railroad crews were working very hard to remove the rock and check the train track for any issues. They were hoping to open the White Pass railroad for business very soon. Get updates here via their email.
GLACIER BAY NATIONAL PARK
There are not enough words in the universe to describe the majestic beauty of the Glacier Bay National Park. I awoke early to grab a “front row” seat on the cruise ship and photograph every glacier, iceberg, mountain goat, etc. that I could see! What I learned from the park ranger who gave the passengers a very nice description and running commentary about Glacier Bay, was that we need to do MUCH BETTER in taking care of our environment. The glaciers are receding at alarming rates and perhaps global warming is to blame. If you do only ONE THING on a trip to Alaska – please see up close glaciers and icebergs. And, if you are on a cruise, please don’t make references to the Titanic or sing the theme song from the movie.
Our last stop was the small coastal village of Whittier, Alaska. We arrive at midnight and there was still enough light to see across the region. I was amazed that this part of Alaska truly gets nearly 20 hours (or more) of light during late Spring/ Summer.
Here is a photo I snapped about 12:15 a.m. from our cruise ship of the small village of Whittier. This photo is unfiltered / unretouched. Shot with an iPhone 8 Plus.
LAST THOUGHTS and SOME RECOMMENDATIONS….
On a scale of 1-10, I would rate seeing Alaska by cruise a solid 8. There were a few hiccups that impacted our cruise, but, overall the experience was very, very good!
Here are a few quick recommendations:
Do read up about glaciers, fjords and the history of the region you are visiting in Alaska. I wish I had and I couldn’t really “google” from the ship as we didn’t have an internet package.
Prepare for rain and mud. We were REALLY LUCKY to have had great weather for the majority of the cruise, but it could easily have been foul weather. BOOTS are a necessity 12 months a year!
Bring sunblock, bug spray/ ointment and moisturizer as you can get a lot of sun, bugs or dry air in this regions.
Have a very reliable camera/ cell-phone and protect it from wet weather and breakage with sturdy cases.
Be sure to take photos of important documents and your cruiseline card, in case of theft or loss.
Consider tacking on a land adventure – such as visiting Denali National Park, Seward or Anchorage.
Don’t sit in your cabin or stay on the ship. Go and explore, take excursions and make memories!