Of the nearly two million people who venture to Alaska each year, about half of those travel through the southeast section, also known as the “panhandle,” “Inside Passage,” or simply “Southeast” to those of us who live, work, or play in within its lush, green landscape.
Right now, in fact, I’m doing all three; living on board an Un-Cruise Adventures vessel, sailing the nooks and crannies of Southeast for a week, showing off a place that doesn’t usually require much in the way of an introduction. It’s work, but it feels like play, and in a few minutes a group of excited young people is going to come charging up the stairway, demanding to know what amazing adventure my cohorts and I have planned for their day among the drooping spruce trees and gentle swells of a bay known only to the fortunate.
What’s the attraction? Why are we, they, or any of us drawn to this drippy, mysterious, and often isolated corner of the United States? After living in Alaska for 10 years, and spending the past four immersed in Southeast’s charm, let me see if I can unpack a few reasons.
WEATHER. I’ve witnessed my share of Southeast Alaska downpours, when even my bona fide foul-weather gear is wringing wet. Boasting (?) more rain than any other United States city, Ketchikan receives 165 inches of annual rainfall, give or take a few inches. Do you know how amazing that is? So much of the country is in major drought, and even Southeast is suffering a bit, but to have water falling from the sky, nourishing the sea, rivers, lakes, and all manner of growing things is nothing short of a miracle. If you’re traveling to Alaska, pack your best rain suit, boots, and hat, and give thanks for every drop of that liquid sunshine for making your surroundings so breathtakingly beautiful.
PEOPLE. Alaskans are a very kind bunch as a whole, politics aside, and residents of Southeast are no exception. As I do more hours of research for my next book, Alaska on the Go: exploring the Marine Highway System with children, I find myself chatting up folks who grew up under the mantra of “do unto others,” a manner of living that appears wherever we go. Whether it’s a ride between town and the ferry terminal, or helping a fellow community member in need, Southeast Alaskans know the world turns under the auspices of kindness, and pay it forward whenever they can. Want to know us better? Step away from the main streets and visit our parks, libraries, and local stores.
WILDLIFE. Whales, orca, sea lions, seals, sea otters, bears, wolves, deer, bald eagles….shall I go on? Have you ever had the pleasure of being awakened by the gentle “blow” of a humpback whale right outside your ship’s cabin door? Or, perhaps, a mama brown bear wandered down to a nearby creek and taugher her cubs the finer art of salmon fishing, and you saw it all. From subtle to awesome, Southeast Alaska’s wildlife moments are all ones to cherish. Occasionally, I will remind guests aboard the ship, or passengers on the ferry to put the cameras and cell phones away for a while. As my friend Eric Morrow, a captain for Alaskan Dream Cruises says, “The best memory card of all is right there in your head.”
TRADITION. Imagine a life of subsistence, which means everything you eat, wear, build with, or use as a tool comes from the land or sea. The incoming and outgoing tides dictate life, and one’s senses are closely in tune with nature at every moment. What a rush. What an opportunity. The Tlingit, Haida, Tsimshian, Eyak, and other Pacific Coast tribes are working hard to preserve and protect the valuable traditions passed down for thousands of years. We as visitors owe it to them, and ourselves, to learn as much as we can, and share it with others.
RECREATION. Southeast Alaska sits along the rugged coastline of the Inside Passage, between Canada and the Pacific Ocean. It is and always has been a doorway to all things water-themed, and is famous for its fishing and boating. Kayakers can navigate between small channels for days or weeks at a time; cruise ships large and small can bring thousands of visitors to capture at least a glimpse of its beauty, and some day return for a closer look. The water is an extension of Alaska, and not spending time upon it is a grave mistake, indeed. But, there are other opportunities; hiking, camping, biking, climbing, the list goes on and on, and one could spend an entire year here and still not accomplish every outdoor recreational goal.
This is a place worthy of more than a four-hour stopover. Stay a while, you might find its allure intoxicating. I know I do.
I must go; it’s early in the morning and the smell of cedar and spruce are meeting with the briny low tide to bring a most delightful atmosphere on deck. There’s a cloud that looks like a whale tail, and not a breath of wind is stirring the trees.
It’s a Southeast Alaska day ahead, and I don’t want to miss a moment of it.
For more about Southeast Alaska, visit these communities’ visitor bureaus.