Look for coastal brown bear tracks in the sand.
World of eagles
There are many good stories in Southeast Alaska, but my favorite is the story of hermit Jim Huscroft, who in the early 1900s
lived on Cenotaph Island off what is now Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve. Once a year Huscroft made the boat trip to
Juneau, where the local Elks Club saved him the past year's worth of newspapers. Then he returned to his island to read each
paper, one per day, precisely one year late.
That sense of being buffered from the outside world still prevails in Southeast. The weather contributes. Alaska is a young land and has young weather. Specifically, teenage weather: moody, extreme ― weather that rolls its eyes at you and makes you want to confiscate its car keys. The day dawns drizzly and sullen, flights get canceled, hikes postponed. The next morning, the sun blazes, and sky and water shine a fierce and brilliant blue.
When I get to Haines, a ferry ride north from Juneau, it is the first kind of day. The sky is tarnished silver, the mountains wrapped in fog. It's a testimonial to Haines's appeal that I still fall in love with it.
"It's so wild and beautiful that all I can do is walk outside my house and stare," writes the bard of Haines, Heather Lende, in If You Lived Here, I'd Know Your Name. Set on the Lynn Canal with the Chilkat Mountains behind it, Haines has the heart-stopping geography you come to expect in Southeast, and an architectural charm that is less common. That's mainly due to Fort William H. Seward, an early 1900s U.S. Army base whose creamy white buildings group around a parade ground, as neat as the crease on an officer's dress uniform.
Good things to do in Haines include staying at the Hotel Hälsingland, once Fort Seward's officers' quarters and now a rambling, comfortable hotel with a superb restaurant: The seared halibut is not to be missed, and the wine list is exemplary. You can walk across the Parade Ground and admire the totem poles at Alaska Indian Arts and the handcrafted jewelry Madeleine and Fred Shields (he doubles as Haines's mayor) sell at Wild Iris.
Still, wildlife rules. The salmon-rich waters of the Chilkat River draw enormous concentrations of bald eagles. Their population peaks in winter, but a summer raft trip down the Chilkat will show you more eagles than you've seen in your life.
To encounter more Alaska wildlife closer up, head 28 miles north of Haines to Steve Kroschel's wildlife center. Kroschel got his professional start as wolf wrangler for the film Never Cry Wolf, then ventured into wildlife photography. His specialty these days is standing in front of avalanches and filming them. His associate, Mario Benassi, films highly venomous snakes (such as cobras and fer-de-lances) for nature documentaries.
Avalanches, deadly snakes: You sense a certain daredevil spirit here. But once Kroschel and Benassi introduce you to their Alaskan menagerie ― all injured or orphaned wild animals that Kroschel has rescued ― you're too entertained to be alarmed. "None of Santa's reindeer could be male," Kroschel announces as we meet his caribou. "That's because bull caribou" ― our name for reindeer ― "drop their antlers right before Christmas." Other things you learn: Baby porcupines are very cute, lynx have long legs for hunting in deep snow, and baby moose like bananas ― or at least the moose I feed a banana does.
All of Kroschel's animals are impressive. But I'm drawn mostly to the wolves. There are three the day I visit, cousins perhaps of the wolf glimpsed at Glacier Bay. Roaming in their fenced enclosure a few feet away from me, they are even more amazing: handsome, intelligent, seemingly friendly. You want one for a pet, until Kroschel reminds you, "Watch your hands." Wolves, he says, are like Alaska weather: "Their mood changes day to day."
World of bears
The floatplane lifts off from the Gastineau Channel and flies south over Juneau. I look through its window, down at the world I'm convinced I won't see again. Good-bye, little cars. Good-bye, little houses. Good-bye, little Fred Meyer discount center.
But a few minutes later, as I watch from the viewing platform, a sow and
two cubs lumber along the creek 30 yards away. They are, I think, the most astonishing things I've ever seen: the red-brown fur, the shambling walk, the sudden and surprising bursts of speed. The mother scans the creek for salmon, occasionally scooping one up, biting its belly, letting the carcass drop back to the creek. The cubs hunt, too, but get distracted, sitting down in the creek to splash water at each other.
Then, menace. A second, larger sow and her older son arrive. "He's trouble," the ranger says, "and his mom always backs him up." The first sow and cubs scatter downstream.
By now what had been drizzle has turned to hard rain. My glasses fog, the seams on my allegedly waterproof jacket let rivulets of cold water course down my back. I should be miserable but am entranced. The ranger leaves; I keep watching. The rain gives the scene a silent intimacy. All I hear is the sound of water falling and the occasional cry of a raven.
On that afternoon, all of Alaska seems like a bear: shrouded in mist and mystery, beautiful, forbidding, fiercely alive. You feel lifted out of yourself viewing it. You realize that what scared you the most was what you most needed to see. You realize, too, that what the trip has taught you is that the world is greater than you ever imagined. It has bears and glaciers, whales and wolves, and a prevailing sense of wonder. It would take a checklist as big as the universe to write it all down.
Next: Getting there