Wednesday, November 21, 2012


A world apart...

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.
One thing about rain, clouds and fog – it makes for atmosphere (pun intended) and amazing, Technicolor sunsets, those 20 minutes in the day when the sun is low enough to peek beneath the clouds just before it sinks behind the mountains. If you’re writing about Southeast….don’t forget the sunsets!

--- By Kris Reed


Tiffinie Helmer said...

Great post! Loved all the info and the pictures were stunning!
You made me feel like I was there.

JackieIvie said...

Wow. I so remember the trips I used to take there with the USPS. It was ALWAYS snowing or raining, despite being told they do get sun there. yeah. Right. They had moss between the sidewalks in Juneau. Great article.

Lynn Lovegreen said...

I got to live in a small community on Prince Of Wales Island for a school year--yes it did rain a lot, but it was breathtakingly beautiful. Thanks for the lovely reminder.

DeNise said...

Oh my, what a great picture you painted. I was in logging camp in Icy Bay for a season-A hi-bred of Southeast-there are several places I still want to visit to meet the 'real' people.

vezenimost said...

I've never been to any part of Alaska but reading this wonderful "picture in words" made me want so badly to go there someday and experience this part of the world, this wet beauty. It also inspired a poet (by love of words) hiden within me and a small poem erupted just after reading this outstanding description:

by Vida Zuljevic

You told me, is a rainy place
I hear pitter patter
drip drop, tap, tap plop
The music of the rain wakes me
And feeds me the rhythm
For the day

I start singing and dancing
Singing and dancing
pitter patter, drip drop
tap, tap plop
goes my day

You told me about the nearby rainforest
I imagine a thick cozy blanket over wavy lands
Trees tall with their arms stretched to each other
Bursting with life sharing secrets of the past
So close, so thick.

You told me to watch the sunset if I could
It’s beautiful, you said.
I imagine the sun hiding behind
a heavily coated grayish sky
like a tired fisherman after an exhausting day at sea
going down for a rest
and before giving up it takes one
last peek at the day in full glory
splashing its warmth and array of colors generously
Leaving impression and promise
for another gorgeous day tomorrow.

I imagine this wet, green, colorful place of yours
As beautiful as my desert here
Rattle, rattle, whisper, whisper
WHOOSH, I sing and dance.
Joyful for beauty no matter the place.

Thanks to Lynn's connection to this blog, I got reacher getting to know about your beautiful place...