Alaska, the land of the midnight sun. I was expecting nothing but snow, ice and huskies and instead I was met with colourful wooden houses, ghostly mountains and beautiful forested isles, all surrounded by a vast expanse of blue.
After 3 weeks on a road trip through British Columbia, our stay in Alaska felt very short in comparison, especially since most of it was spent at sea.
Southeast Alaska (also called the Panhandle) is a thin strip of islands and temperate rainforest that runs along the west coast of Canada. We sailed to Ketchikan, Sitka and Juneau before sailing further North into Disenchantment Bay to see the Hubbard Glacier. It was a unique experience, none of the three towns we visited are accessible by road, only by seaplanes and boats on the Alaskan Marine Highway.
The name Alaska derives from an Aleut word meaning ‘that which the sea breaks against’. The sea breaks against Alaska in all it’s forms, but in the Southeast, that means rain! While we were there, it rained non stop, every single day. However the rain brings the land to life. The green plants and trees look greener and the earth releases its woody musk. Don’t fear the rain, it won’t ruin your trip.
Juneau is the capital of Alaska, named after gold prospector Joe Juneau, but the Tlingit name for the town is Dzántik’i Héeni (Base of the Flounder’s River). I love the names given to places by the indigenous people in America, they’re so evocative. Every time I think of Juneau now, I think of pretty speckled flatfish.
The town is built on a gentle slope and the wooden houses on the streets are connected by dark wooden walkways and stairs. I loved the use of wood instead of concrete, it gave a sense that the town had grown up out of the forest. The walkways are however very slippery in the rain, so watch out!
House of Wickersham
My visit to the House of Wickersham definitely stood out as the best thing to do in Juneau. It was the home of Alaskan District Judge, James Wickersham, and was built in 1898 – as such it is one of the first Victorian house built on ‘chicken ridge’.
‘… No other man has made as deep and varied imprints on Alaska’s heritage, whether it be in politics, government, commerce, literature, history or philosophy. A federal judge, member of Congress, attorney and explorer, present-day Alaska is deeply in debt to him.’
This small little museum is a home to both stuffed native animals, grizzlies, wolves, eagles, and beautiful Tlingit artifacts.
Alaska was a Russian colony from 1784 to 1867 and the Orthodox faith was adopted eagerly by the local people. Many of the Tlingit people experienced a re-ocurring dream in which a short, white-bearded man led them towards Christianity. When they saw an icon of St. Nicholas, they recognised him as the man in their dreams and many Tlingit people coverted to the Christian faith.
Although the Russian missionaries were never sent to Juneau, the church was established by local Tlingit leaders and local languages were used in worship. This church was built in 1893 with architectural drawings, furnishings and money sent from Russia. It’s a pretty little church with painted white wood and periwinkle blue framing the windows.
Sitka is a lot smaller than Juneau, and like Ketchikan, totally enchanting. For those of you who (like me) loved the movie The Proposal with Sandra Bullock, it was set in Sitka, although oddly filmed in Rockport, MA.
Sitka was one of the most important ports of the west coast, it was the seat of the Russian Orthodix Bishop as well as the site of the signing of the Alaska Purchase.
The Cathedral of St. Michael the Archangel was sadly burned by a fire in 1966 and rebuilt, however it was rebuilt sympathetically with the original design and is definitely worth a visit. Some of the icons in the chruch date to the 17th century. The green copper domes and golden crosses lend an exotic air to the town, but remain harmonious with nature.
Ketchikan is yet another stunningly pretty town. I would really recommend a walk down Creek Street, a raised wooden boardwalk with flamboyantly coloured houses.
‘A former red light district where both men and salmon swam upstream to spawn‘ – creekstreetketchikan.com
Look out for seals and otters in the bay then go for a hike up Married Man’s trail – a path for married men to make a quick escape should there be a raid on the brothels!
Named Puerto del Desengano (bay of disenchantment in Spanish), by Alessandro Malaspina in 1792, when he realised that the bay was not the entrance to the Northwest Passage.
However if you’re not looking to sail through the Arctic Ocean to Europe, this bay is anything but disenchanting.
Make sure you have a coat, hat, gloves and most importantly ear muffs or a hat. The air is so cold your ears will ache immediately and chances are you’ll be dusted with snowflakes.
Though I saw a lot of icebergs on my trip, I only saw the tips. I feel like I only saw the tip of the iceberg of Alaska, and I would love to return one day to go deeper into this incredible land of raw natural beauty. Visiting Unalaska and the Aleutian islands will be a dream for me to work towards!