If You Lived Here, I’d Know Your Name
News from Small-Town Alaska






We Are What We Want to Be, Mostly

I have lived in Haines, Alaska, all of my adult life but there are still times, especially winter evenings when the setting sun washes over the white mountaintops, the sky turns a deep blue, and the water is whipped into whitecaps by the north wind, that I can't believe my good fortune. It's so wild and beautiful that all I can do is walk outside my house and stare. Looking south, I can see the red cannery at Letnikof Cove on one side of the inlet and Davidson Glacier on the other. Out front, Pyramid Island breaks the surface where the Chilkat River meets the sea. Behind it, steep mountains rise right up from the beach. On this fading winter evening, standing in the snow in my yard, I think I hear a wolf howl up the Chilkat River Valley and hold my breath, hoping to hear it again. But I don't. Maybe it was just the wind. I turn around and look back at my house–our youngest children moving in front of lighted windows, the teenagers doing homework at the table, my husband, Chip, reading by the woodstove–and my heart swells in my chest like a balloon.

It took us a year to build our shingled home on the beach down Mud Bay Road, a mile and a half from Main Street. From my bedroom window, I've watched bears wading in the channels along the shore in the summer. When I walk the dogs to the cove in the fall, the icy tidal flats are covered with bald eagles. The oily, smeltlike fish called eulachon return to the river in the spring, and the sea lions chasing them are so loud that they wake me up from a sound sleep. I see the light on across the road and, even though it's two in the morning, call my neighbor Linnus. The sea lions woke her up, too.She and her husband, Steve, walked to the beach in their pajamas. The sea lions were having a wild party down there, Linnus says.

John Muir came to Haines in 1879 with a friend, who established a Presbyterian mission where the city of Haines now sits. Muir, one of the first non-Natives to explore this region, afterward advised young people not to come to our part of Alaska. He warned that they'd have to either stay or know that every other place they'd see for the rest of their lives would be a disappointment.

But just because it's beautiful doesn't make Haines an easy place to live. It is isolated, cloudy, and cold. Everything from land to groceries is expensive, and there's little work to help with the high cost of living. There are twenty-four hundred residents in the Chilkat Valley, although I don't think they've ever all been home at once, and probably a third leave in the winter. There's no hospital and the high school has just ninety-three students. There is no shopping mall, no McDonald's, no movie theater–heck, we don't even have a stoplight. Tony Tengs, a friend of mine who grew up here, says there's nothing wrong with Haines "a couple thousand people couldn't cure." Still, half of the residents don't want any changes at all. We have terrible community fights every time there's a local election or public hearing. We usually split the vote on everything, fifty-fifty. I won't sign any more petitions, no matter what they're for.

On a map of Alaska, Haines is up near Skagway, at the northern tip of the Inside Passage, an archipelago that stretches five hundred miles from the southern end of Prince of Wales Island, near Ketchikan, to the head of Lynn Canal, the largest fjord in North America. We call this region Southeast, in the same way some eastern states are called New England. Most of it is very wet, and all of it is covered with big trees. To get anywhere from here you have to drive hundreds of wilderness miles. In the winter the Chilkat Pass into Canada is often closed because of heavy snow. Anchorage is eight hundred miles away. Whitehorse, the capital of the Yukon Territory, is about two hundred and sixty miles. It's possible to keep going past Whitehorse and drive all the way to Seattle, but few of us do. Instead, we take the ferry or fly ninety miles to Juneau, the state capital–a small town by most standards, with thirty thousand people–and catch a plane south. Every time I get on a jet to or from Juneau, I know people. The planes are different from the ones that cross the Lower Forty-eight. They're noisier, because everyone is talking to everyone else.

My sister-in-law came to Haines for Christmas, some years ago, from her home in Virginia. She took a plane from Dulles to Seattle, and then had to wait in Seattle two days for snow to clear in Juneau so the Alaska Airlines jet could land. On the way up it stopped in Ketchikan and Sitka. Each time they screeched to a halt on those short island runways, she braced herself against the seat in front of her. Local passengers cheered when the plane stopped. In Juneau she learned she couldn't fly up to Haines because of snow and fog, and was advised to take the ferry instead. After four hours of cruising by waterfalls, glaciers, and forested coastline she docked in Haines just as the day's six hours of light were being replaced by inky darkness. The first thing she said after walking up the boat ramp to greet us was "People have a lot of nerve living here. Maybe you shouldn't."

Well, it's too late for that. John Muir was right. Chip and I both grew up on the East Coast, met in college, and drove to Alaska when we graduated. This is our home now, and I have a feeling it always will be. In many ways Haines is a place out of time. Chip and I don't lock our doors, or even take the keys out the car. Ever. We don't expect to read the daily papers from Juneau and Anchorage on the day they are printed; they rarely get here on time. In the winter, when snow or rain or lack of daylight limits flights to and from Juneau, they sometimes don't arrive at all. We haven't had TV at our house for months because a new water tower blocked the transmitter for the one free channel we could get from Anchorage. I have never seen "Survivor."

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