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Prince of Wales Island, AK  10/29-30/06 (Day 187-188)
Drama Mine

Alaskans call the Inter-Island Ferry from Ketchikan to Prince of Wales Island the “puke bucket” so, Dramamine at the ready, we board an Alaska Marine Highway ferry called the MV Taku to Ketchikan, then immediately head for the puke bucket prepared for a drama-filled ride. Our three hour passage to Prince of Wales Island turns out to be perfectly calm and smooth and we pass the time sitting in comfortable chairs in the front lounge of the ferry watching the sun slowly set in a fiery ball. It’s better than TV.

Once the ferry docks in Hollis we put our Dramamine away and drive to the nearby town of Craig where we check into the Dreamcatcher B&B, owned and operated by Ken who lives in an enormous, elegant home with his two kids. There are totem poles (and a 56” projection television) in the living room, giant picture windows and a huge deck that makes us wish it wasn’t pitch dark by the time we get there because we suspect the views of the tidal beach and forest that surround the house must be spectacular.

Our room, the master bedroom in a loft above the living room, is spotlessly clean and beyond comfortable (the bathroom has a jetted tub and skylights) and we wake up the next morning to views even more spectacular than we imagined. As we enjoy the breakfast spread Ken’s kids get ready for school and a family friend regales us with tales of the island’s elusive Rain Coast Sasquatch.

Skepticism slowly turns to a kind of raised-eyebrow curiosity as he tells us about one sighting after another until we find ourselves looking out the window a little more often with a brand new mix of apprehension and expectation. Show us the Sasquatch!

From Craig we drive to the ramshackle village of Kasaan which used to be a booming logging town but is now home to about 40 members of the Haida tribe. We see a grand total of four inhabitants as we cruise slowly through the muddy streets looking for the Kasaan Totems Historic District.  

In 1916, a 40 acre area, rich in totem poles and the site of Chief Son-I-Hat’s Whale House, was designated a National Monument. A decade later, many of the poles were so rotted by the wet South Alaskan climate that they couldn’t be saved. Those that could be salvaged were taken to the Totem Heritage Center in Ketchikan for restoration and the site was ultimately amalgamated into the Tongass National Forest, overseen by the US Forestry Service.

By 1981 everything but the Whale House had either been removed or had rotted into the mossy earth. Replacement totems were moved from nearby Old Kassan and new replicas of poles and traditional grave markers were carved and placed at the site. But by the 1990s the Whale House, believed to be the last remaining traditional Haida house in Alaska, was losing its battle with vandals and the constantly damp location.

We finally locate the trailhead out to the Kassan Totem Historic District (no thanks to a weather bleached wooden sign) and head out along the short, meandering ocean side path that winds through lush, dense rainforest and armpit-high bushes that make us start talking in our loud “bear aware” voices, just in case.

At the end of the path we find ten varied carvings arranged in a compact area of rain forest like a secret garden of art and myth, including the 40’ tall Flying Groundhog Pole and the intricate Killer Whale grave marker. Many of the weathered carvings blend into the surrounding forest, dramatically revealing themselves only when we look at them just right. It’s breathtaking and spooky.

Chief Son-I-Hat’s Whale House is nearby, just off the beach with the entrance facing the water and a tall, elegant totem standing between the two like a sentinel. The building has obviously been used for more than one party and there is visible damage throughout. In 2002 the Whale House and Kasaan Totems Historic District were added to the National Register of Historic Places which will, hopefully, qualify the site for some much needed restoration and protection from further vandalism and trespassing.

A short walk beyond the Whale House we discover an overgrown cemetery with a fascinating mix of graves of both the native Haida and non-native in habitants of the area. The mix of Christian angels and animistic carvings on the half-concealed head stones is beautiful.

Not surprisingly, Prince of Wales Island is a fisherman’s paradise, but you don’t have to be into the sport to appreciate the serenity and comfort of South Haven Guest House right on Kasaan Bay. Former rangers Cass and Chuck Klee (and their awesome dog) offer a fully-furnished private two-story house with a full kitchen. The place may not have 300 thread count sheets, but it does have absolutely everything a fisherman might need, including a vacuum packing machine to prep your catch for the return journey home.  

Our visit didn’t involve catching any fish, but we did eat some during a dinner with Cass and Chuck that included great food and even better bear stories. The Klees are knowledgeable and gracious hosts whether you’re a first time fisherman, life-long fisherman or (as in our case) not a fisherman at all. Though if all fishing lodges are as beautiful, relaxing and homey as South Haven Guest House we may consider taking up the sport.

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