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TRAVEL JOURNAL INDEX > Wyatt Earp, Sherriff

Wrangell, AK  10/25-28/06 (Day 183-186)
Wyatt Earp, Sherriff

A lot of wide-eyed adjectives get tossed around when you start trying to describe the voyage from Petersburg to Wrangell aboard an Alaska Marine Highway ferry: epic, claustrophobic, white-knuckle. This is because the ferries pass through a stretch called The Narrows—a section of water that becomes so pinched that cruise ships have to go around it and scouts are posted at various onboard vantage points to make sure the comparatively tiny ferries don’t hit the rocky sides that shoot up seemingly inches away from the boats. Passages are also timed to coincide with high tide to avoid running aground.

So, with even more anticipation than usual, we board the MV Taku for our trip to Wrangell via The Narrows. Sadly, this may be one of the few examples of something in Alaska that doesn’t quite live up to the hype. Honestly, most of the trip through The Narrows felt like cruising up the Hudson River if New York City and New Jersey were covered in Sitka spruce trees instead of buildings.

At one point the passage does get dramatically narrow—enough to tempt us to stick our hands out the window and try to touch the ever-nearing rock walls like naughty kids. But, for the most part, the ferry captain negotiates an artful, much-practiced and uneventful slow-motion slalom around a series of buoys planted in The Narrows marking the safest route. Actually, The Narrows may be the safest part of the 3,400 miles of the Alaska Marine Highway system. After all, if the ferry goes down here it’s a pretty short swim to shore.

But, of course, the ferry does not go down and we arrive in the town of Wrangell on Wrangell Island safe and sound and only slightly behind schedule. We decide to stick with our watery theme by staying in Rain Haven, a charmingly restored one bedroom houseboat with a fully equipped galley, modern bathroom and sleeping accommodation for four. During our stay, the Rain Haven is docked in a marina just outside of  town, but Maria, the Rain Haven’s owner, can move it to secluded harbors around the gorgeous coastline for more remote stays. That night in the Rain Haven we sleep like babies, rocked gently by the Alaskan waters beneath us. It’s a feeling we’re getting kind of used to, but Wrangell is no place for sleeping. 

This little town packs a big outdoor punch with everything from world-class bear watching at the nearby Anan Creek Wildlife Viewing Site, fishing (fly and non-fly) in the protein-rich Stikine River, eye-popping flights over the Stikine Ice Field, even golf on Wrangell’s regulation course, Muskeg Meadows where the Raven Rule applies (if a raven steals your ball it can be replaced with a new ball in the original position, with no penalty, as long as there was a witness to the avian theft).
Though the humans around here are always pretty active, every fall, thousands of migrating snow geese, ducks and sand hill cranes take a much-deserved rest in Wrangell. Be there when they all take flight and it’s a bit like being in a huge, squawking snow globe which is either a nightmare or heaven depending on whether you’re a tweeter or not.

We’re do-it-ourselves  kinds of people and we have a lot of outdoor gear in the back of our truck, but we aren’t traveling with a boat or a plane—two crucial pieces of equipment in Wrangell—so we go in search of the best big toy outfitters in town.

Barbara and John, the enthusiastic and knowledgeable couple that owns and operates Alaska Charters & Adventures, prefer custom-fit adventures to what they call “cookie cutter” trips and all outings are limited to small groups. Sadly, their boat is temporarily in dry dock, so we head over to Sunrise Aviation and we’re soon clamoring into a four-seater with co-owner and pilot, Tyler Robinson, for some flight seeing over the Stikine Ice Field.

It’s a crystal clear day and our sky-high tour takes us up and over an icy, snowy world which includes the LeConte Glacier, Shakes Glacier and an eerie formation called the Witch’s Caldron that really does look like it’s boiling and bubbling as clouds swirl over its surface. A fresh dusting of snow is so white and fluffy that it looks like a layer of whipped cream over everything and even though we know it’s well below freezing and windy and wet and full of body-swallowing crevices it looks so beautiful from the air that we want to land and go walk around for a while.   

Our attention is suddenly diverted by a sheer wall of rock in front of the plane’s windshield. Hello Devils Thumb, a 9,000’ spire near the Canadian border that will ring a bell for anyone who’s read Jon Krakauer’s book Eiger Dreams. Devils Thumb is ringing alarm bells for us as it looms closer by the second until Tyler playfully dips a wing and we skirt safely past at about a 45 degree bank. As we make the turn we get a fleeting view of Cats Ears, a neighboring spire that splits at the top creating two pointy bits that, with enough imagination, do resemble feline hearing implements. Sort of.  

We swoop down over the face of the LeConte Glacier and it seems as if the noise and vibrations of the plane should be enough to shake free the precarious-looking hunks of endlessly blue ice hanging on to the face o the glacier. The fast receding LeConte is an enthusiastic calver (that’s part of the reason its shrinking so fast) and can even calve from below, sending huge fast-moving chunks of ice, called shooters, up from underneath the water where the glacier juts out into a fjord.

On our way back to the airstrip, Tyler buzzes low over Chief Shakes Hot Springs which has two soaking tubs (one open air an done with a roof and semi-effective bug screens) that are popular with locals and visitors alike. Vena, an uber-outdoorsy kickass local who works at Sunrise Aviation and got into the plane with us, assures us that the voracious bugs of summer disappear in the fall, so you can safely use even the open-air tub without spending your soak totally underwater in order to escape the biters. For more reasons to visit Alaska in the fall read the Alaska’s Secret Season story we did for National Geographic Adventure.

An hour (and lots and lots of photographs) later, we’re back on the air strip then back in our truck for some solid-ground exploration of Wrangell Island, part of the 17 million acre Tongass National Forest which wraps its arms around scores of islands in Southern Alaska.

About 15 miles south of town we turn onto an old logging road toward a group of US Forestry Service campgrounds called the Nemo Campsites. We’re big fans of Forestry Service campgrounds—they’re usually in gorgeous settings close to ample hiking trails and kayaking routes and climbing walls and almost all of them have the kind of basic facilities and remote locations that keep families, RVers and spring breakers at bay. Not to mention, they’re often free.

We’ve camped in plenty of breathtaking Forestry Service campgrounds on the journey so far, but what we find above Wrangell takes our breath away. First we come to Three Sisters View Point Campsite with stunning views of three peaks across the sparklingly clear Zimovia Straight and just a single secluded campsite. It does not get more private than this. Need more space? Move on up the road to Anita Bay Overlook. It has two campsites as does Highline Campsite a bit further along. Shockingly, all of these campgrounds are empty—even though fall is a great time to set up house on these bluffs which are often buffeted by high wind in the summer.

All the outdoor bliss on Wrangell Island helps explain why half of the island’s population is EMT trained. It also helps explain why John Muir used Wrangell as a base for his explorations of the area in the late 1800s. But not everything in Wrangell requires Gore-Tex and an altimeter. Time your visit to coincide with Halloween and the hard-partying Wrangellites will restore your faith in this “holiday.” We follow our new friend Vena to the Totem Bar for some serious Alaskan drinking and some of the most creative costumes we’ve ever seen, including a pair of sisters, one dressed as a keg and the other dressed as a foaming cup of freshly poured beer—Alaskan Amber, of course.

Impressive human odes to beer do not come as a surprise in a hard working, hard playing town like Wrangell, but the city-owned Wrangell Museum is definitely a surprise—the pleasant kind.

Under the enthusiastic watch of director Dennis Chapman, this compact museum—which opened in 2004—offers a series of displays that cover cultural, artistic, industrial and entertainment milestones of the Wrangell area and Alaska in general. As the fourth oldest town in the state, there’s a lot to cover and highlights include a stand of gorgeous traditional Tlingit-style carved house posts, not-at-all-kitschy re-creations of old timber and mining camps, a vast collection of beautiful hand woven antique baskets and photos from the filming of Timber Tramps starring Tab Hunter, Claude Akins and Cesar Romero which was shot in Wrangell in the ‘70s.

We ultimately find the Wrangell Museum more compelling than the larger and more visited Alaska State Museum in Juneau and it’s about to get even more interesting. In the fall of 2007, a brand new 30’ tall totem pole, that cost $30,000 per foot, is expected be installed in front of the Wrangell Museum complete with a traditional potlatch ceremony. Yes, that’s 30,000 US dollars per foot.
All in all, Wrangell is our new answer to the most common question we get: “What’s your favorite place on the trip so far?” Oh, and Wyatt Earp really was Sheriff of Wrangell—for 10 days.

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