When life gives you lemons, you make lemonade.
Despite meticulously planning every detail of a trip (that’s me—just ask my husband) things don’t always go as planned. This could be disastrous but often it opens the door to experiences you would have otherwise missed.
Ferry budget cuts nearly sank our trip to Southeast Alaska. I had the perfect trip planned. We would fly into Ketchikan, and spend 10 days traveling to Petersburg, Wrangell, and back to Ketchikan by ferry. Partial cancellation of our ferry itinerary led us to skip Petersburg leaving more time than anticipated in Wrangell.
Wrangell is a town of just over 2000 people on the northern tip of Wrangell Island within the Tongass National Forest. It is best known as a gateway to Anan Wildlife Observatory but it really does have hidden gems—more on that later.
We set sail on the M/V Matanuska in the late afternoon en route to Wrangell from Ketchikan. From the observation deck, we could see humpback whales breaching the calm surface. As twilight emerged, the scene was reminiscent of Picasso’s blue period. The glassy water, rising mountains, and low clouds layered shades of silver and cobalt. There was a sense of tranquility and welcome as we sailed into the harbor.
Wrangell is a quintessential Alaskan small town. Everyone knows everyone and the businesses are locally owned. There are no fast food franchises and most people make a living in the fishing industry.
The Nolan Center is the hub of activity. It houses the Visitors Center and the Wrangell Museum. There’s no traditional movie theater in town but the Nolan Center has first-run movies on Friday and Saturdays. We happened to visit on a weekend and went out for a movie complete with real movie popcorn.
We found two nice hikes near town—Mt. Dewey Trail and Rainbow Falls Trail. Both started out in thickly forested areas and led to their own unique payoffs. Mt. Dewey Trail wound up to a lovely overlook of the town of Wrangell and the harbor. Rainbow Falls Trail as you may have guessed ended with a cascading waterfall with the option for a longer hike into the high country.
Chief Shakes Historic Site features a collection of Native Alaskan artifacts. The prominent feature is a recreated Tlingit tribal house surrounded by totem poles that have either been restored or recreated by native artists.
Anan Wildlife Observatory
Anan Wildlife Observatory is what drew me to Wrangell in the first place. Anan Creek has a robust pink salmon migration and where there are salmon, there are bears. We arrived by boat on a tour with Breakaway Adventures. After our safety briefing, the half-mile boardwalk trail to the observation area. As we approached the viewing platform, we saw our first bear. He stood, still as a statue with the water rushing around him, his gaze intent. Suddenly he dove into the water and came up with a salmon flopping in his jaws. He sauntered back to the rocky shore where he enjoyed his meal and then back for more.
The drizzle became full rain but the bears and eagles paid no mind. They continued on their business of survival as we watched from the relative safety of the viewing platform. From the camera blind, we were nearly eye level with the black bears moving in an out of the water and up and down the banks. The eagles perched above, watching for their own opportunity at scraps or an easy fish.
The patience of these animals amazes me. It’s fascinating to see them watching and waiting for the exact moment to pounce.
Who doesn’t love a glacier? You can’t come to Alaska and not be mesmerized by these massive chunks of ice. Millions of years old, constantly moving and changing not only their own mass but the landscape around them. LeConte Glacier is Alaska’s southernmost tidewater glacier and sits at the head of LeConte Bay just a short boat ride from town.
We took a tour with native-owned Alaska Waters. As the jetboat navigated the fjord toward the glacier we were surrounded by all sizes of chunks of ice. A closer look came with the bonus of harbor seals, some with pups hauled out on the icebergs. In the process of melting and tumbling in the water, the ice takes on an otherworldly appearance of bright blue abstract sculptures. And then on to the main attraction—the glacier itself. We could see the ice calving before we could hear it; the glacier was much larger than it appeared and distance the was deceiving. The ice crashed into the water making waves and the seals surfed on their icebergs.
Petroglyph State Historic Site
Just about a mile out of town, there’s a rocky beach that at first glance is not much different than any other northern beach. A closer look at the rocks along the water line tells a different story. Over 40 petroglyphs have been discovered in the area and it is unknown who made them or their age. It is believed they were made by ancestors of the Tlingit and are several thousand years old. It’s hard to believe this ancient art has survived in such a harsh environment.
And now for the story of those hidden gems. In the 1860s, gold miners discovered garnet crystals on the mainland near Wrangell. A group of women from Minnesota acquired the property and formed the Alaska Garnet Mining and Manufacturing Company. It was the first all-female corporation in the United States. The land was later deeded to the Boy Scouts and now to the First Presbyterian Church of Wrangell. According to the deed agreement, only children of Wrangell are permitted to mine the garnets. To this day children collect and clean the gems to sell to tourists in town.
One afternoon, we met a young lady who was selling the stones she had gathered. She had a number of different sized garnets in varying shades of red. I chose one for myself to bring home as a souvenir of our time in her lovely town.
An Unplanned Flight-Seeing Tour
As our time in Wrangell wound down we had another unforeseen complication—our ferry back to Ketchikan was delayed due to mechanical issues. We needed to get back there for our flight home. Remember, Wrangell is on an island—our only other option was to fly to Ketchikan. The commercial Alaska Airlines flight would get us there too late. Our B&B host suggested an option we never would have considered. She called up Dave from Sunrise Air, a local charter flight service who assured us he could get us there.
Flying in small planes is a necessity of everyday life in Alaska, especially in the southeast where the road system is limited or nonexistent. The experience was quite unique for us. There was no check-in, no baggage drop, and no TSA. We showed up a few minutes before our flight time, met our pilot, and climbed aboard the aircraft. The plane had space for 6 but it was just the two of us, our bags and Dave. We used headsets to communicate during the flight and he shared all about his life and work in Wrangell.
The weather was clear so our charter doubled as a flight-seeing tour. The same shades of blue that greeted us ushered us back to Ketchikan. We arrived in time to catch our flight back home, grateful for the extended time and the treasures we found in Wrangell.