THE WILDERNESS THAT IS CHICHAGOF

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Chichagof Island

 

“Get this… Chichagof Island in southeast Alaska is officially the most unbelievable place on earth. In a recent poll conducted by myself I unequivocally decided there’s not even a close comparison with any other location… and when the poll was taken there was no one around to argue with me anyway. We were all alone, not anyone, nobody even remotely close-by for nearly fifty miles…” Dave

Also consider this… Chichagof Island is nearly the size of Wales back in the UK. There are only four human settlements of any size… Hoonah, Elfin Cove, Pelican and Tenakee Springs of which Hoonah, by far the largest, has only eight hundred and eighty inhabitants. There is also the mysterious Chichagof Gold Mine which no one is sure still exists or not… it’s a ghostly place that only sometimes appears out of the grey mists. These small townships are foremost Tlingit First Nation settlements although those Americans down in the lower forty-eight states who decide enough is enough head this way too. You know the type, pony-tailed with platted silver beards, red-necks toting firearms with enough firepower to take down encircling siege law-enforcement forces dedicated to protecting wider society… they all head for Alaska at some point. So let me tell you just a little more about this wild part of the world that is Chichagof…

Pelican

Chichagof is mountainous, thickly forested, remote and wild. The island has the largest concentration of brown grizzly bears than any other place in the world… almost three per square mile. Offshore are the greatest numbers of humpback whales found anywhere and pods of orca whales regularly penetrate the numerous secluded sounds, fast-flowing straits and beautiful coves. Wolves, deer and powerful bald eagles scour the shorelines searching endlessly for food of some type or other. And then, right in the middle of this not-much-at-all except high-peak mountains, there’s the small boardwalk settlement of Pelican. Pelican, believe you me, is like nowhere else you can imagine. Pelican is an infamous-gem known only to Alaskans and they don’t take kindly to any so called travel-expert looking to ‘discover’ the next tourist enclave. There’s no roads in or out of Pelican, there’s no roads at all. There are no motor vehicles, no traffic laws or anything like that, just an amazingly picturesque timber-township-built-on-stilts constructed into the mountainside to feed the now dilapidated and ruined fish cannery that’s still crumbling into the sea. The only way to Pelican is by boat and even then intrepid vessels have to brave the terrifying Inian Pass narrows with twelve-knot rapids to get even anywhere close. It’s not easy to get to Pelican.

We heard careless whispers about Pelican whilst in Hoonah, rumours not really meant for our ears. But then, as we got ourselves more into the know, we’d listen to fishing-boat skippers late into beer-filled nights and invariably talk would descend into wild tales of an almost indescribable secret place called Pelican. Our hardcore-fishermen-friends tied up next to and all-around Sänna would at first whisper between themselves but then, as their beer and whisky slowly took hold, we would listen to incredible stories of wild days in Pelican, when they all made their way there for any reason they could think, to find an old friend they’d heard was somewhere around, to offload their bulging fish-catches at the old cannery, to spend their proceeds of a whole month at sea in the incredible Rose’s Bar. Then, because we had their growing confidence, we were told proud tales of infamous fish-boat skippers long since dead, wild Indians still alive, fished-out crews that’d disappear for weeks-on-end, whole gold fortunes lost in a single night, dodgy gold mine deals, incredibly beautiful women who fall in love every night you are in town, gun-toting priests, strange medicine men and drunken grizzly bears that prowl the town’s single boardwalk. We listened to stories of naked running races in the-middle-of-the-night. This was, and still is, the wonderfully secret place that is Pelican, total population of less than one hundred and twenty.

We went to Pelican. We sailed Sänna there from Hoonah as soon as we could. We traversed the Inian Pass Narrows and timed our transit of the rapids for slack-tide the way the fishermen in Hoonah said we should. It is a wild place. It’s also a beautiful place, there is every example of humankind you could find anywhere just like the wild-whispers say. In truth, if discovered by unsuspecting tourist the magic would surely be lost. Stories of naked races down the frozen boardwalk in the late-hours of the night are true. Tales of raw bluegrass fiddles played in their own inimitable style and of bare-chested dancing on the tables in Rose’s Bar are not lies, nor are the thousand-dollar-rounds-of-drinks-for-everyone when drunken fishermen not long back from the wild Pacific ring the great-bell on the bar and fall backwards to be caught by the laughing crowd… and all of this on a Tuesday night. There is a live grizzly bear that sits in the warmth of the outside toilet pit – he watches you take a piss whilst you try and refocus your world through unfocused eyes. The girls, well the girls are friendly enough, you will marry the girl of your dreams if you stay around long enough. The priest and the medicine man, they are exceptionally good friends. Old whisky drinking buddies who constantly argue about the other man’s God. This is the hidden jewel that is Pelican, the scenic township built entirely on stilts overhanging the beautifully sheltered inlet leading off Cross Sound, it’s been fashioned from nothing, carved out of nowhere because it’s where the fish cannery and the gold-buyers originally needed to be… if Pelican was anywhere easier in this world it would be the perfect tourist-trap for those with passing hours to spare. Cameras and cappuccino coffees, meaningless gifts for those back home who’ve never even been to sea, things to buy, to impress and to share for everyone else to see… you know how it generally is.

We stayed more than a while in wonderfully-wild Pelican and then sadly had to leave… you see, wrinkled Rose and her wisened-old-Tlingit Indian friend Walrus told us about a rumoured road-to-nowhere, a long lost road that’s immensely hard to find to another little known place called Tenakee Springs…

Tenakee Springs

The story I relate to you below is true. Every word. I would bet my last-bottomed-dollar you’ve never even heard about the rumoured road to Tenakee Springs. So I’m gonna tell you the bizarre story of the road to Tenakee Springs…

Of course, as you well know, Alaskan oil money is meant to improve the lives of all Alaskans, to build the local economy, to create a good American way-of-life for everyone. Oil revenue is regularly ploughed into well-meaning projects that are going to do good. It’s not surprising then that some bright-spark decided that a road from Hoonah to Tenakee Springs on the far side of Chichagof Island would be a good thing. The mysterious hot-sulphur-springs of Tenakee would be accessible for all, their undoubted health-bringing, life-preserving properties would bring great wealth and prosperity to all of Chichagof Island. Ancient Tlingit spells would mingle with the mind and life for everyone would be good. The hot-springs are long known to the Tlingit, their strange magic, the good spirits, a longer healthier way of living… Tlingit First Nation history tells us much about life-preserving hot-sulphur Tenakee Springs. A good while ago now they built a fine stone bath in the one-mud-path town in the middle of nowhere. No roads in or out of Tenakee Springs, two days by sailboat from Hoonah – somewhat less if by faster fishing boat. So they thought to built the brand-new road to remote Tenakee Springs from inglorious Hoonah…

Chichagof is high mountains, impenetrable forests, marshy muskeg, raging rivers and fiercely territorial bears. There are no roads on Chichagof. Well, that’s not strictly true, there are old logging roads, gravelled and pummelled, uneven, broken by landslides and sometimes swept-away by winter avalanches… you need tough all-terrain vehicles to even think about these roads. They’re not really roads at all, just overgrown tracks that are often difficult to find. Surely a brand-spanking-new road from Hoonah to down-trodden Tenekee Springs would be something to make everyone proud.

Then came two years of engineering fortitude and enough oil money to cover nearly forty magnificent miles. Over the high mountains passes, down into the forested valleys, stone bridges, over the tide-flooding straits, bypassing ancient Tlingit burial grounds and all the time crawling towards Tenakee Springs. Then, one fine morning, unannounced and unexpected, the first five-thousand passenger cruise-ship docked in Hoonah, they’d heard there was a new tourist-route-road a bus could take to famous Tenakee Springs. The Tlingit in Hoonah told them there was not. The Japanese and the Chinese, big Americans from the lower forty-eights, rich Europeans with jumpers over their shoulders and sunglasses on their heads, they’d already paid their money to travel comfortably by tour-bus to famous Tenakee Springs. The problem was, the local Tlingits said, they’d stopped the marvellous new road to Tenakee just one mile short.

The Tlingit Elders had got their way. You might give this some thought because there’s a good deal of sense in what they said. The Tenakee Tlingit never asked for or wanted the inglorious road from Hoonah. Tenakee Springs boasts a fixed year-round population of less than twenty, the small settlement sits precariously on the mountainside with one mud-path track from one end to the other. It’s less than half-a-mile long from each end. The hot-sulphur spring? Well, it’s a wooden shack that holds no more than three at any one time… women and men take their turns to bathe naked in the old fashioned traditional Tlingit way. Oh yes, they said, there are spirits to weave the magic into your body and to clear out your mind – but not for six tour-bus-loads of mixed nationalities, tourists who’ve paid good money to someone else far away. ‘You must make your own way by boat the long way around,’ the Tlingit Elders said, knowing full well that big cruise ships and tour-boats could never make it that way. And so the magnificent road to nowhere stops just a little too short… one mile short. At the end of the road it’s impenetrable rain-forest where the cruise-ship tour buses still sometimes occasionally stop. Then there’s bears and wolves and strange ghostly totems that bar their way – but they’ve paid their good money to see by-now-slightly-famous-Tenakee-Springs that’s still highlighted in the glossy cruise-line brochures under ‘things to see and do…’ Some of the more intrepid cruise-ship-types do try to get through but never get far.

So the two largest of the cruise-ship companies offered to complete the road at their own cost, ‘it’s only one mile’ they said. They would build brand new sulphur baths in the Tlingit style to take their tourists, they proudly announced. ‘And there’s no real need to bathe naked,’ the cruise-ship people said. They would dredge the channels and build a new dock, they would create the shops and promote brand-new cappuccino sheds. They would entice the spirits in the commercial way, they’d film the gods, the dancing girls and the unusual medicine men. ‘But the spirits,’ the Tlingits said, ‘are our own long-dead and they don’t sing their song to mend the mind of just any old head.’

Nowadays you can’t easily find or drive the road-to-nowhere because it doesn’t go anywhere. It’s now slowly reclaimed by the forests and its hairpin bends are invariably hammered by mud-slides. In some places avalanches have torn away the road but then it has been unconvincingly repaired… well, you know, just in case. If you can find someone in Hoonah to drive you to Tenakee then you can get to within one mile – but then you are on your own. You can trek through if you’re the right type and some intrepid types do. You could succeed using the only other way though, you can get there by a tortuous small boat journey – it’s a long way around through perilous waters but that’s the best way to do it, there’s a dubious anchorage and a fine small-fishing-harbour if you can find space for your boat. Only then can you take your turn in the foul-smelling-hot-sulphur bath… providing you’re willing to remove every stitch of clothing you’re prepared to wear. The Tlingits will chant their prayers and their spirits will undoubtedly stir your mixed-up mind, they’ll fix your body and perhaps your dodgy knees but not just for nobody. You have to believe, you have to sincerely believe, the Tlingits themselves always say.

We braved the infamous Peril Straits to make Tenakee. We bathed naked just how it is supposed to be. There are spirits and it is easily everything they said it would be.

Chichagof Gold Mine Camp

I can’t tell you much because I’m sworn to a degree of secrecy, a promise I made with an ancient Tlingit Spirit, an unbreakable oath cemented with my own blood. You see, there are mysterious ghosts in the old Gold Mine on the extremely remote western side of Chichagof Island.

The place was abandoned well over eighty years ago when the gold vein finally ran dry. Everything was then just left, old rusting machinery abandoned to rot and decay in the misty mountain atmosphere that always prevails whenever it rains or snows for three hundred days in every year. Just to reach the old mine means running rapids and picking your way around uncharted rocks that suddenly appear out of the rolling-thick mist. The mine is all of a sudden upon you… but then sometimes it’s not. Sometimes it’s not there at all.

They say in Hoonah not to go there, the old place will turn your mind inside out, there’s things in the mine that might send you insane. I watched a knife-fight in the bar in Hoonah, an argument between two men who had been there, they’d taken some tourists who’d begged them to find the old mine but one of their group never returned. Just disappeared, never found him. No trace. Nothing at all. Now that’s all I can tell you about that because sometime later I was told the reason why no one goes there, about the unsolved murder, the terrible ghosts and the mine manager’s fourteen year old daughter. I swore, just like all those others who’ve been there, that I’d never ever tell a soul. So that’s all I can tell you about that, about the old Chichagof gold mine, the mysterious relic in the swirling mists that’s incredibly hard to find. We thought we’d found the mine but then perhaps we were wrong. I prefer to think we never found it at all.

If you do go there, and I really don’t think you should, if you do find the mine and perhaps the young girl in the ragged white dress, if she begs you to take her with you, keep walking. Don’t listen or turn to look back, just keep walking…

That’s all I’m gonna tell you about that.

Elfin Cove

Elfin Cove is full of hippies. That’s what they tell you in Hoonah, Elfin Cove is full of hippies. Actually it’s not, it’s a thoroughly nice place that did attract those from the lower forty-eight States seeking alternative ways of living many years ago and lots of them stuck around. Nowadays they’re not so much hippies but folks who’ve found what they’re looking for through a simpler way-of-life. They say it’s ourselves, you and me, that need to question the way we live.

Like every other small settlement on Chichagof Island Elfin Cove is an incredibly picturesque boardwalk community that’s notoriously difficult to get to. No roads or tracks or anything like that. There’s a small secluded harbour with a not large stretch of sheltered water where the seaplane from Juneau lands after turning and twisting between high mountain peaks to drop like a stone before an abrupt pull-up and not that much room before reaching the landing jetty. Sometimes it’s a little too close for comfort but these bush-pilots know exactly what they’re doing. There’s never been a plane wreck yet. Well, there was one but…

If not flying in by seaplane then Elfin Cove is reachable only by boat, by braving those same rapids inside the Inian Pass that take you to Pelican. In fact Elfin Cove is a good half-way stop-off if trying to get yourself to Pelican from Hoonah. But there is a danger that, if you stay long enough in Elfin Cove, you will turn native. That’s what they’re trying to tell you in Hoonah when they say Elfin Cove is full of hippies. What they really mean is they’ve gone funny in the head, but when we sailed Sänna there we didn’t see that. Sure, the folk in Elfin Cove are different but they’ve ‘turned native’ in a respectful way, they’re entirely self-sufficient, they don’t need their TV’s or the Internet and they’ve learned to live with themselves in a way that’s actually difficult to explain. We ourselves, perhaps, understand to some degree because it’s the same type of solitude we experience when making long ocean passages but they experience the solitude as a community rather than an individual level. Let me tell you this, if you are addicted to home comforts, easy access to shopping malls, your motor vehicle and to social media then I don’t think you will understand Elfin Cove. You will say those in Elfin Cove are just hippies. But Elfin Cove is a beautiful experience that would, if you’re prepared to let it, eventually change your mind. If you are seeking to change your life, to change the way your mind views this sometimes shameful world we live in, then go and spend some time in Elfin Cove. You will, given enough time, grow your hair and turn hippie.

Hoonah

I’ve already written much about Hoonah. It’s the largest settlement on Chichagof with a mainly Tlingit population living alongside long-established white Americans. Being the administrative centre for the region, it’s also where the health facilities and schools are found and where the ferry from Juneau docks. There are motor vehicles in Hoonah… although there’s only one road it’s interesting to note that as soon as there is any semblance of a road system then everyone owns a car. Unfortunately, at the township’s boundaries the roads stop. This one-road-two-bit town is a superb location, with one if the most sheltered harbours we’ve ever found. Perfect you’d say! Or is it? I’ll tell you more about Hoonah…

Hoonah is by no means a large place but there’s an old fish cannery on the Icy Straits Point, the headland you pass when making for the harbour. In fact, there’s ruined fish canneries everywhere in Alaska. This one on the outskirts of Hoonah has been Disneyised, improved when taken over by a consortium of cruise ship operators, who’ve recently invested millions of dollars in a new cruise ship docking terminal linked directly with their Disney type version of a working-fish-cannery. In the cannery are souvenir shops, cappuccino bars, themed restaurants and yet one more ‘longest zip-line-in-the-world’. It’s not really Hoonah, it’s not even real Alaska.

But the really sad thing is this Disney-version cannery brings not much to the locals in Hoonah. They’ve tried to open locally operated eating places and such like… but the often bewildered cruise-ship-tourist who wander aimlessly around Hoonah thinking why anyone would live in a place like this are invariably eating for free onboard their ship – or in the temptingly themed cannery – so why eat out locally? Of course, most money spent by these travelling cruisers is invariably channeled in a very sophisticated manner towards those who own the cruise liners – the cruise ship operators themselves. Like ‘all-inclusive’ vacation operations throughout the world, there’s little benefit to the local economy. Sure, there are winners, but not many. When the bear-viewing tour buses drive through Hoonah, the ones with the flashing safety lights on their roofs, the local Tlingit menfolk sit quietly on their benches with a knowing smile. Bears are rarely spotted even when the cruise ship riders have each paid their ninety dollars. The amber warning lights on top of the buses, presumably to keep these tourist safe, warn the bears that flashing cameras are coming in great numbers and they quickly disappear into the woods. But there are genuinely experienced guides in Hoonah who’d love to make a decent living from the more intrepid of these cruise-ship people, but they’re made to pay hefty commissions to the cruise ship operators who’d rather sell their own meaningless tours. Of course, independent travellers do make their own way to Hoonah; they’re rewarded with a terrific experience that always create long-lasting memories for a lifetime.

Within an hour or so the ubiquitous cruise ship tourists are suddenly gone and Hoonah returns to the quiet little town where everyone is a friend. There is one big benefit though… the Hoonah City Council charge a tax on each cruise ship visitor who comes ashore and they’re generating wealth that is slowly channeled back into the community. That’s why there’s a fine new harbour, a good school with a superb library… and internet. The local cellphone and internet network has been upgraded to allow five thousand cruise ship visitors to log onto their email and Facebook as soon as their ship rounds the headland… which is exactly what they do. Unsurprisingly the new super-fast cellphone network slows down markedly as soon as the big ship shows its nose and its passengers realise there’s a five-bar 4G signal suddenly appearing out of nowhere… it seems they’re suddenly in their own true paradise, on their vacation with vital links to home restored…

But enough of that; everyone has the right to see Alaska how they choose. It’s not for me or anyone else to have an opinion about how anyone chooses to travel… it’s just the commercial exploitation that’s difficult to grind between your teeth. Chichagof Island is a fine location but by no means unique. This incredible part of the world known as the Inside Passage. To the southwest of Chichagof is only slightly smaller Baranoff Island with the wonderfully Russian built city of Sitka. Did I ever tell you about Sitka? Sitka is where Russian trappers first discovered America… Baranoff Island is possibly more spectacular than Chichagof with high mountains to rival anywhere on earth. To the east of Chichagof is secluded Admiralty Island… with only the one single wild settlement of unfathomable Angoon. There are truly wonderful tales to tell about Angoon… and, of course, to the north of Chichagof, across the suitably named Icy Straits, are the high-peak mountains of spectacular Glacier Bay. Now Glacier Bay and the Mount Fairweather mountain range is a whole new story.

Next time I’ll tell you about brave men who’ve long since died in the glacial ice-fields of Glacier Bay…


Dave & Marie Ungless are circumnavigating their sailing boat Sänna from the UK and are now in Alaska. Dave is a freelance writer specialising in high latitude sail adventures whilst Marie is a highly qualified sailor in her own right with over forty thousand sea miles under her belt. You can follow their sail adventure so far through their website www.sanna-uk.com. Their Facebook page to Like is at www.facebook.com/sv.sanna.

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One thought on “THE WILDERNESS THAT IS CHICHAGOF

  1. eric beach

    Thank you, David! If I had your wonder-lust, I would be exactly where you are! Bless Marie for not only putting up with you, but adding a little sanity to the mix. You are an inspiration and a great read! Someday in Nottingham!  I will pass this on to other dreamers that I know for their enjoyment…

    To  CC’s; I would not go where David and Marie go without a .50 cal automatic and a M-79. He does it with pepper spray, a condiment if you were to ask me. David and Marie traveled 75 miles or more on country roads (read 1 1/2 lanes wide) on 24 hour notice to meet up at a pub in the middle of England where we enjoyed wonderful food and ale to die for with fellow cruisers Richard and Kelly Tatz.  Enjoy the following!

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