Some would argue that Southeast Alaska has two seasons: wet and wetter. Water defines life in Southeast, from the way we dress and work to the way we travel.
While the rest of Alaska speaks of ‘Outside’, in Southeast the equivalent term is the ‘Mainland’ – a mindset any Hawaiian could relate to. Only three of the many towns and villages of Southeast are connected to the mainland via a road, every other community – including the state capitol, Juneau – requires some form of boat or airplane ride to get there.
The state ferry system, the Alaska Marine Highway, is a lifeline for visitors and locals alike. These ‘Blue Canoes’ haul everything from summer tourists to school basketball teams, vans of produce to cement mixers. If it needs to be shipped, the ferry is one of just three options. Every stitch of clothing (unless you wear buckskin or tanned salmon hide), every vehicle, every gallon of milk at the store – all of it - is shipped into the region.
Most freight arrives via a barge – and the lion’s share comes from Seattle.
Some consider Southeast another suburb of Seattle – with the added bonus of not having to pay Washington sales tax (however what you save on taxes doesn’t offset the cost of the commute). We do more shopping there than in Anchorage, although if one does end up in Anchorage you can bet that we’ll fill those three free bags (Alaska Airlines allows three free bags, up to 50 lbs each, on all in-state travel) to their weight limit. Forget Samsonite, luggage in Southeast is often a set of beautifully matched Rubbermaid totes – they’re inexpensive, lightweight and, best of all, rainproof.
Speaking of air travel, around here fish fly first class. It’s one of the few places in the world where ‘combi’ aircraft are still used. In a combi, the front half of the jet is taken up by ‘igloos’ – storage containers that only resemble an igloo if you’ve had one too many slugs of orange juice (most flights in Southeast are too short for a full beverage service – and forget about a proper meal). It has to be one of the few places in the world where a scheduled jet flight can be as short as 15 minutes (that same flight can last an hour if the weather is bad with a missed approach). Passengers fly in the ‘back of the bus’ – which also means deplaning into whatever form of rain is falling at the time since only two airports in Southeast have those cozy little tunnels found at airports elsewhere.
If the jet has a mechanical issue and the ferry schedule is no help, you might find yourself on a floatplane. For many of the smaller communities, small planes serve as transportation, mail carriers, ambulances and a way ‘off the rock’.
Getting off the rock can be important in February when you’re fed up with the freeze, thaw cycle that is winter in Southeast. Up north they complain about breakup – a two or three week period of time when winter is dissolving into an icy, slushy mess that soon blossoms into spring – in Southeast winter IS breakup.
Common dress in Southeast is Xtratuffs (brown rubber boots) and a ‘halibut jacket’ – a heavy woolen shirt that could be either shirt or jacket. If you don’t mind being marked as an ‘outsider’, by all means, wear that suit or skirt and heels, just watch your step on the float – those gaps in the boards will kill a pair of heels faster than a gravel road – which we’ve also got plenty of.
The cool, wet climate grows luxuriously dense forests. Don’t plan on riding your horse through this underbrush (if the skeeters don’t get you, the devil’s club will). If you need to hide from the world, our temperate rainforest is the largest anywhere.
Just don’t let anyone in town see you because (with the exceptions of Ketchikan, Sitka and Juneau) you’ll be that ‘new face’ and easy to point out to the authorities.
Logging still happens, but in very small, family-style operations. We may not have cowboys in Southeast, but we do wrangle a lot of fish and all of it is natural….no farmed salmon here!
Like our neighbors to the north – Southeast has a mystique and rugged beauty all its own. And like our northern neighbors you’ll see the sun here, but only about as often as you’ll see Denali in all its glory – about 30% of the year.
--- By Kris Reed