Alaska is bigger than you think but has a view

Published 7:41 am Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Due to a blunder by the baggage-handling department, my luggage had accidentally been sent to the same location where I had flown.

That would have been bad enough, but the airline didn’t even apologize for the convenience.

I was in Alaska. Haines, to be precise.

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Alaska. It’s roomy and the weather is not always good-natured. The famous snowman is named Permafrosty. No shirt, no shoes — you not only get no service, you freeze to death. The blue water is matched by the blue lips.

Everything in Alaska is farther apart than you think. The state is about one-fifth the size of the lower 48. Weather and geography are travel challenges.

There is a lot to find in Alaska, but there is a lot of Alaska to find it in. Alaska is so big, that when I went to an echo point and yelled, “Hello,” it took 8 hours and 32 minutes for it to reply. Alaska is where brooks babble and glaciers are the size of Rhode Island.

MapQuest told me that it is a 2,662.25-mile, 47-hour and 29-minute drive from my home. I wouldn’t have had to change the oil along the way, but I decided to fly from Minneapolis to Seattle to Ketchikan to Juneau.

Haines is a remote community located in the Chilkat Valley with a population of 2,300 (considerably fewer folks in the winter), north of Seattle and south of Anchorage. It is in the Inside Passage famed for cruise ship traffic, about 800 miles from Anchorage. It is roughly 70 miles northeast of Juneau as the crow flies, 30-40 minutes by a small commuter plane, or three to five hours by ferry.

Juneau is the state capital of Alaska and has 40 miles of roads and 30,000 people. Each road carries a sign reading, “Road ends.” The only access to Juneau is by boat or plane. From Seattle it is 1.5 hours to Ketchikan and then another half hour to Juneau. Ketchikan receives 151 inches of precipitation annually on average. Seattle, notoriously drizzly, receives only 39 inches of precipitation each year. New York City gets 42 inches.

“Twilight” fans probably already know Forks, Wash., is the wettest place in the Lower 48. It gets 121 inches.

The ferry is a delightful method of travel. It’s a way to add nautical miles to my life’s travels. A nautical mile is approximately 100 yards longer than a land mile. A float through the Lynn Canal (an enormous fjord) with other passengers, vehicles and breathtaking scenery took me to Haines.

I drove a Subaru while in Haines. The Subaru should be the state car of Alaska. They are everywhere.

Haines has no malls, no fast-food restaurants, no big-box stores, no traffic jams and no traffic lights. I never considered employing the cruise control of my vehicle. Haines is small, but not squished. Haines has glaciers, mountains, bears, five kinds of salmon and bald eagles. I like mountains. Neighborhoods with “hills” in their names sound pleasant.

The Good Book says, “I lift mine eyes unto the hills from whence cometh my strength.”

Haines features whiskered faces and hat hair. Men with 8 pounds of beard are able to walk upright. Outside magazine placed Haines on its Top 10 most desirable small towns in America. There are those who feel differently. One woman remarked, “This country is fit for only bears and bachelors.”

Like Minnesota or Iowa, the weather in Haines is intermittently dreadful. The record high temperature is 90 degrees and the record low is minus 17. The winter temperature is typically in the 20-30 degree range. The summer temperatures are in the 50s to 70s.

As one who believes that the secret to surviving cold weather is to dress like a dork, I feel right at home in Alaska. People in Haines dress for the weather, not for style. If a man attempted to dress for the weather in Haines, he would need nine suitcases. The weather conditions changed rapidly. Snow, rain, cold, wind, sun, clouds, and ice each take a turn. Weather in Haines is a beast spewing moisture. A storm dropped 19 inches of snow on me during my recent stay. Carhartt is the dress for any occasion and backpacks replace briefcases.

John Muir, who came to Haines in 1879 and was one of the first non-natives to explore the region, advised young people not to visit the area. He warned that they’d have to stay or realize that every other place they’d see would be a disappointment.

I believe that each place has its own beauty, but Haines is a gem.

My humble opinion is that some of the best views in the world are framed by windows in Haines, Alaska.

Still, it’s good to be back to my little grass shack in Hartland, Minnesota.

Hartland resident Al Batt’s columns appear every Wednesday and Sunday.