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Friday, August 31, 2012

Day 68: Haines, Alaska

We only spent one night in Haines, but it is the kind of place that stays with you long after you and your rig have boarded the ferry, traveled up the Lynn Canal past seals basking on rocks and waterfalls tumbling down the steep cliffs that rise up on either side of this fjord-like ribbon of water, and disembarked at Skagway. It stays with you, perhaps, because you can't quite work out what it wants to be: a wild west frontier town? a fishing village? a busy little port? a military fort? an artsy mecca? a redneck squat? a Rio de Janeiro wannabe celebrating mardi gras in August.

To say that Haines is all of these things probably gets closest to the truth. To say that Haines is eclectic probably says it all. Add a bald eagle or twenty into the mix - the town is a recognized nesting and congregation area for these imperious raptors, and you barely look up or out without spotting one spotting you - and you have yourself one unusual little Alaskan outpost.

Oh, and let's not forget the grizzlies which have right of way across the roads when the salmon are leaping, nor the al fresco waiting lounge that doesn't seem to have got it quite right at the ferry terminal. Haines, in short, is a hoot. It's also a visual delight.

Our RV park was billed as "oceanside" - an accurate description of the thin strip of gravel into which Carmella was expected to slide herself alongside 15 or so other rigs, no doubt, though hardly what we had pictured in our minds prior to arriving in Haines. No matter...We set Carmella up and went off on a self-guided walking tour of the town, passing the intriguing Hammer Museum on our way, climbing up and up to Fort Seward - a former US military settlement that sits on the hill above the rest of the town, and that was established in 1903, following the American purchase of Alaska from Russia in 1867.

Today, the buildings that have not been converted into private homes, a hotel, and some artisan workshops are, for the most part, rotting away. If this lends a ghostly feel to the place, 'civilian' Haines does more to reinforce this feeling than to counter it. True, there are a couple of bustling restaurants keeping the place on its toes...Not to mention some fabulous totem poles to stumble upon (and sometimes over)...As well as an enterprising artisanal smoked fish shop. But on the whole, one sees more 'closed' signs than 'come on in!' signs during a casual gander round town.

But still, it manages to have something to recommend it, this town that time seems to have forgotten as it sits there all alone on the tip of a salty Pacific peninsula - accessible only by ferry or by that long and twisting one-way-in-one-way-out mountain road known as the Haines Highway. Just what that something is, is hard to say. But what is clear is that if time has forgotten Haines, you don't. It's there, long after all those other towns with their wild west false fronts and their lonely saloons have blurred into one.