You can overdose on spectacular scenery in these parts, yet the Haines Highway still won’t disappoint. Boreal forests, high mountain peaks, glaciers, rivers, lakes, you name it and you’ll see it along the Haines Highway. To the west of the highway is a vast expanse of mountain wilderness, home of the “glacier bear,” a rare form of black bear that has smoky-blue fur. Well, I suppose the glacier bear has got to live somewhere, and condos are so expensive.
After nearly three hours driving through this wonderland we reached the summit of Three Guardsmen Pass. On the other side of Three Guardsmen Pass the Haines Highway descended steadily into a lush coastal forest. Halfway down the grade were the Canadian and US Customs posts. I was back in Alaska again, but only because of cheating Russian map makers and traitorous Brits.
On the Alaskan side of the border there were road works. The Haines Highway was undergoing major repairs and every few miles or so a flagman controlled the traffic. It was rough going and after clearing the last of the stretches of road works we were following the flats of the Chilkat river; and that’s when I got a puncture. It was the first flat tyre on the trip. The rear on the driver’s side was the casualty. I glanced at the mileometer and did a quick calculation. The Yukon Queen had travelled more than 10,000 miles from Savannah, over some of the roughest roads in North America, until here, in this beautiful spot, she finally needed use of one of the six spare wheels we’d brought along with us.
Certainly a beautiful spot, but it was also probably the worst place to have to change a wheel. Most of the valley floor was taken up by the broad flats of the Chilkat river. On either side were very steep hills that in the west rose to the Takhinsha Mountains. The road clung to the side of the valley. It was narrow. There was nowhere to pull off the road.
I switched on the hazard warning lights. They didn’t work; the pounding up in the Arctic had seen to that. The Haines Highway is one of the main routes from the ferries to the Alaskan interior. There was quite a lot of traffic about. To safely jack up the car I would have to remove its contents, but there wasn’t anywhere to put a gearbox, suspension arms, six spare tyres, etc, etc. On one side of the road lay the fast flowing Chilkat river, on the other side a rock wall.
I lit-up a cigarette and watched an eagle hovering high above the valley. The Chilkat river is fed by underwater springs that keep it at a constant 40 degrees fahrenheit. The warm water keeps sections of the river ice-free during the early winter and supports a late run of chum salmon. Eagles migrate here from all over the north west to feast on the salmon. Nowhere else in the world do eagles gather in such numbers. Of course, I was back in Alaska, the land of superlatives.
There seemed no choice. To unload all the spare parts from the car and lay them out in the road would present too much danger to other traffic. Due to the peculiar suspension on a 2CV they are extremely difficult to jack up when fully loaded. The car is so near to the ground that you have to lift it twice as much as you would with an unloaded 2CV. I found two flat rocks and put them under the car. I then placed the hydraulic jack on the rocks, hoping they’d give me the extra lift required. I began pumping on the jack and wished I hadn’t just had a cigarette. After five minutes the drivers side of the car sat so high off the ground it looked like the car was going to topple over, but the rear punctured tyre was just above the road surface. I grabbed the tyre spanner. At that moment I heard an almighty crack and the car dropped back a short distance. The head of the jack had gone through the underside of the car, but the thicker part of the jack arm beneath the head still held the car up. I decided to risk continuing and began pumping again. This time there were no further relapses and as quickly as possible I put the spare wheel on. Now, the moment of crisis: – as I released air from the jack, and the car began lowering to the ground, would the damaged chassis give way when the full weight of the car rested on the ground..? No, it settled down quite comfortably without any ominous creaks or cracks. I could get moving again. Haines lay just short distance down the road and it was early evening as I rolled into town.
Haines sits on a narrow peninsula between Lynn Canal and Chilkat Inlet at a spot known to the Tlingits as Dei shu or “the end of the trail”. Two principle bands of Tlingits inhabited this area, the Chilkat (translated as “basket of many fish”) who inhabited the valley to the north, and the Chilkoot (“basket of large fish”) who lived to the east along Lynn Canal. The Tlingits had quite an advanced culture, based on fishing for salmon and trading seashells and eulachon oil inland for furs, hides, and meat. They lived in large dwellings made of cedar planks and were renowned for their artistic abilities, which included totem poles, intricately patterned baskets and the distinctive Chilkat blankets.
Explorer George Vancouver was one of the first Europeans to visit this area. He named the deep fjord east of town Lynn Canal, after his home port of King’s Lynn in England. In 1879 the Chilkats invited naturalist John Muir and Presbyterian minister S. Hall Young to establish a mission and school at the current site of Haines. The settlement soon grew, with clapboard Victorian houses and tidy, fenced yards. Nowadays it’s the venue for the Southeast Alaska State Fair and Music Festival, which is held each August. You can sometimes see humpback and killer whales in the deep waters of Lynn Canal.
Yup, Haines looked a real dandy place, yet I drove straight on through to the ferry terminal, which was a few miles further up the Lynn Canal. I then received the bad news: an extremely pleasant young lady behind a sheet of glass told me that all the southbound ferries were booked solid. Well, how solid is solid, I asked? She tapped away at her computer terminal and frowned. The next available space for a car going south was in eight days time. By way of an apology she told me that next week the tourist season was almost over and there’d be more space on the ferries.
Beautiful as Haines is, I couldn’t afford to spend eight days there. Hmm… maybe I could spend the winter in Haines, and get my masterpiece written? I pondered on this idea, but not for long. Haines is a very small town and with the tourist season over it seemed an unlikely place to find work for a down-on-his-luck Englishman without a work permit. If I was going to stay on in North America for the winter I needed to earn some money. I’d left the golden opportunity for this behind in Fairbanks. Therefore I needed to head down south, back to civilisation and a job market.
I’d spent the best part of the day driving down the Haines Highway, and spectacular as the scenery was, I had no desire to spend most of tomorrow driving back up it. I consulted a big area map on the wall of the ferry terminal. Skagway seemed to be the answer, just ten miles further up at the end of the Lynn Canal. From Skagway I could drive back to the Alaska Highway, thereby saving hundreds of road miles.
The pleasant young girl said there’d be no problem taking the ferry to Skagway. That was northbound. At this time of the year everyone was heading southbound at the end of their Alaska vacations. The northbound ferries were largely empty. The next one left at 5am the following morning. I booked myself and the car on the ferry and asked if a sex doll could be taken on board at child rates.
Back in Haines I found Saturday night in full swing. There are only three bars in the town. I avoided the rowdiest one and the quietest one and went for the mid option, a joint called the Blue Lobster. I had a steak there and watched the Saturday night rituals taking place around me. You know that feeling you have, when you just eaten a big and satisfying meal, and are sipping beer, or whatever? That’s how I felt, an outsider in this small community in the middle of nowhere. It was the night of the full moon. A huge golden globe hung over the fjord, throwing twilight across the surrounding mountains and forests. The juke box had been playing all night, and then someone put on Neil Young’s Harvest Moon…
Come a little bit closer
Hear what I have to say
Just like children sleepin’
We could dream this night away
But there’s a full moon risin’
Let’s go dancing in the light
We know the music’s playin’
Let’s go out and feel the night
If interested you can find my book about the Alaska trip here.