After our unforgettable experience in Tracy Arm, we sailed northwards, heading for our northernmost destination on this journey – Glacier Bay. Glacier Bay is a National Park and in an effort to keep it as pristine as possible, the number of visitors is restricted. Entry can only be gained by applying with the Rangers at the ranger station in Bartlett Cove – just before the entrance to the Bay.
The park allows twenty-five leisure boats, two cruise ships and three other commercial vessels in per day. Twelve of the twenty-five leisure permits can be reserved up to two months before arrival. The other thirteen are on a “first come-first served” basis. The thirteen slots can be booked by telephone up to forty-eight hours before arrival. We had no idea when we would get here – so we couldn’t reserve ahead of time. We have to hope that we can get one of the thirteen daily passes.
We’re worried that we won’t be able to get in. All the boats we have met that are going there have reserved an entry and are telling us that the only available dates are at the end of the summer. Not good for us since we have to be heading back towards the continental US by the end of July. We want to be in Port Angeles, waiting for a weather window for the trip down the west coast of the US by the end of august at the latest. So there is a certain time pressure on us.
Carsten has spoken with the Park Rangers who have advised us that we should try to get here before the 4th of July. The Park’s busiest season starts then as many Americans start their summer holidays. Because of that advice, we decided not to visit Juneau, bypassing it and making for Auke Bay. Juneau will have to wait until after we have visited Glacier Bay. After a one-night stop in Auke Bay we head out for the last town with a dock before the Alaskan Gulf – Hoonah.
Hoonah lies only twenty-five nm across Icy Straits from Glacier Bay. We’ve reserved a slip in the marina for three days, since we are dependent on the telephone net in Hoonah to be able to contact Glacier Bay Ranger station. The Rangers are apparently off for the weekend when we arrive, the answering machine noting that the office will reopen on Monday. That gives us the weekend to explore Hoonoh and the beautiful surroundings.
Hoonah is a true frontier city, marking the end of the civilized world. Populated by 832 souls, most of whom belong to the Tlingit clan. The locals call Hoonah Xunaa; which in the Tlingit language means; protected against the northwesterly wind.
As the sign says, the town was founded (by Europeans) in 1754 but didn’t become a real incorporated town until 1946.
The first humans in Alaska migrated from northern Asia when Asia and Alaska were connected by a land bridge. The remains of this land are what we today call the Aleutian Islands. These were the ancestors of the Tlingit Indians. The first Tlingit lived in the mountains in Glacier Bay until the middle of the 1700’s until the glaciers suddenly began expanding. The oral lore of the tribe says the glacier expanded at the “speed a dog can run”. The Tlingit moved across the straits and found a spot that was protected from the winds and where they could find clean water – Hoonah.
The largest Tlingit settlement in the world is Hoonah and the town radiates their cultural heritage. Much is done here to preserve the old traditions, both the crafts and the ceremonies. The children are taught Tlingit in school and apparently, many of the young people stay in the town and don’t flee to the cities. The local population has facial features that resemble the Inuit, which shows that they have intermarried with many non-tribal members.
The town has many Totem poles and the “totem pole carver” is still active and teaching his skills to younger craftsmen and women.
Totem poles are seen everywhere in Alaska as well as western Canada. What is their history?
Totem poles are generally carved from cedar trees and therefore deteriorate quickly. There are only a few poles left that are more than 200 years old. Historically, the poles were carved with utensils made of bear bones or claws, mussel shells and the like, therefore a soft wood was used. Inuits had no metallurgy and possessed no metal tools. The few older poles still in existence are small; historians assume they were house poles, used to hold up the roofs of the common house. When the Europeans arrived, they brought metal axes and knives and thereafter the poles became much larger and more expressive. Previously, poles typically measured ten to twelve feet – now they were up to sixty feet.
There are six basic types of poles:
Town yard pole – this pole is normally anywhere from 20 to 40 feet high and found in from of the village or the clans chieftain house. It tells a story about either the clan or the village. When totem poles are pictured, it is usually one of these poles as they are the most decorative.
House pole – These are located inside houses, tell a story about the family or the owner and function as roof supports.
Grave pole – These poles are rare. They can be over sixty feet high and are used to mark an important persons grave. The deceased’s ashes are deposited in a small chamber at the top of the pole.
Honor pole – Are found in many size and types. Many times, they are raised in the center of the village and are a memorial honoring a deceased chieftain. They are, however, sometimes used to honor or commemorate something that happened. The best-known example of this is the Lincoln pole, raised to honor the American warship USS Lincoln. The ship stopped a long and bloody war between two clans. The pole, which stands in the museum in Ketchikan, is a carving of Abraham Lincoln.
Shaming pole – This pole is always raise in a prominent setting, the better to be seen, and is carved with the face of a person who has either done something wrong or not paid his debts. The larger the pole and the more exact the representation of the person – the greater the shame. The premise for these poles is that the person will not be able to live with being publicly shamed and quickly do what needs to be done to erase the shame. The pole is taken down when the debt has been paid. A famous Shaming pole is one that has the face of Lee Raymond, the CEO of Exxon Corp, when Exxon Valdez, one of their crude oil tankers, ran aground in Prince William Sound, spilling millions of gallons of crude oil into the fragile environment. The Tlingit do not feel Exxon has paid off their debt yet.
Welcome pole – Typically 35 to 40 feet high and very decorative, this pole is erected at the entrance to the village and welcomes guests
But what do the carved figures mean? As noted above, each pole tells a story, typically the clan is somehow named. The Tlingit are divided into two clans, the Ravens and the Eagles. Every pole will have either a Raven or an Eagle carved on it, sometimes both. Then there will be other animals, symbolizing a subclan or village or a person. Some poles have only a few figures at the top, others are carved from top to bottom. Most poles that are carved today are extremely decorative, as the carver uses modern carving tools.
While we’re waiting for permission to enter Glacier Bay, we wander about the town (this only take 2-3 minutes) or the long and pretty trek along the water out to the old cannery where the cruise ships dock.
Hoonah has been known for its fishing industry since the start of the 1900’s. At that time, fishing for salmon or halibut was from small rowboats or canoes out in Icy Straits, feared for the strong currents and drifting icebergs created by the glaciers in glacier bay. The local fishermen also fished at the mouth of the Straits where it empties into the Alaska Gulf. This stretch of water is known as the “washing machine” due to the constant turbulence there. No one but the Tlingit has the skills to fish these waters. Only much later, when modern fishing boats with powerful engines became the norm did others begin fishing here. The tides here run over twenty feet and the current easily reaches seven to nine knots.
At times, there were as many as 400 rowboats and canoes in the pass fishing. The fleet was known as the “million dollar fleet” due to the enormous profits they made.
The Indians also needed to find a method to ensure they caught the right size fish. A halibut, or even a very large salmon, can weigh up to five hundred pounds. A fish that size can easily capsize a canoe or a rowboat. The biggest fish are typically female, loaded with roe, so harvesting them, means that there will be fewer fish next year. If they are too small, they are also useless. The small fish should become big fish.
Ingeniously, the Indians devised a special hook. It was made with two types of wood, one heavy and one light shaped like a “Y”. When dropped in the water, the heavy wood oriented itself towards the bottom and the lighter wood the top. Inside the “Y” they mounted a sharpened piece of bear bone. By adjusting the space between the upper, lighter piece of wood and the lower, heavier piece of wood, they could determine the size of fish they would catch. The very large fish that tried to bite bit over the entire hook arrangement, but didn’t get their mouths inside to be caught on the hook. The smaller fish has a mouth that could get into the hook either; therefore, they always caught the size fish they wanted.
Enough of Hoonah – we’ve gotten permission to enter Glacier Bay