Just a taste of Kodiak’s island life or the summer hustle of the fishing towns of Southeast Alaska leave most people wanting more. With busy fishing fleets, thriving art and food scenes, vibrant Native communities and quirky little museums, it’s hard not to fall deeply, madly in love with Alaska’s largest island and coastal communities.
You can drive to a few towns in Southeast, but those road trips require many, many miles. For a first visit, your best bet is to travel by boat or plane. (Note: Travel by boat has become more complicated lately due to the beleaguered state of Alaska’s ferry system; if you’re hoping to travel the Alaska Marine Highway System, be sure to check updates at dot.alaska.gov/amhs.)
One word of advice — pack some waterproof layers. Known as the Alaska Panhandle, Southeast Alaska is part of the world’s largest temperate rainforest. There’s a reason for all that lush greenery you’ll see as you travel through. Ketchikan normally gets just under 23 inches of rain between June and August — but some years, it blows that average out of the, um, water. From May to August 2001, Ketchikan residents (grudgingly) welcomed 57.12 inches of rain to town.
Famous for its sizable namesake brown bears, Kodiak should be just as well known to outsiders for its ever-so-green landscape — its nickname is the Emerald Isle. Between Kodiak City and the villages, there are around 13,000 year-round residents on the island. Hike the local trails. Launch a kayak or stand-up paddleboard in Anton Larsen Bay. Keep watch for whales or, often just as thrilling, puffins speeding by. Drive out Anton Larsen Bay Road to see the island’s famed wild bison. (Just slow down as you approach them. You don’t want to startle a herd of something so sizable.) Dig into Kodiak’s history at the Alutiiq Museum — home to more than 250,000 artifacts, recordings and documents — or the Kodiak History Museum (formerly known as the Baranov Museum). Get ideas for the next day’s adventures over a brew at Kodiak Island Brewing Co.
It could be the mist or fog that often hugs Sitka. Or perhaps it’s the insane sunsets that take over the entire sky. Maybe it’s just the really good coffee at the local bookstore. Whichever “it” of Sitka grabs you, the place sticks with visitors forever. Ignore the rain and keep on paddling during a guided kayak trip around the islands off Sitka. Walk the pathways and take time at each totem pole at Sitka National Historical Park. The park, where Russians invaded and fought the Tlingit people, offers an immersion course in the Russian occupation of the town.
Sitka served as the capital of Russian America from 1808 until Alaska became part of the United States 59 years later. Open the drawers in the exhibition space of the Sheldon Jackson Museum — first opened in 1887 — to see antique children’s toys, jewelry and more beautiful artifacts. It’s quite the intimate and peaceful museum experience. Classical music fans would do well to time their visit to the annual Sitka Summer Music Festival (May 31-June 25), when some of the world’s best chamber music groups perform. For a locally made treasure, head straight to the Island Arts Gallery, a co-op run by 24 of the town’s artists.
Ketchikan tends to be all hustle and bustle in the summer when cruise ships are in, but there’s more to the town than just that. Ketchikan has one of Southeast Alaska’s most colorful art scenes. Get the lowdown on who creates what on the Ketchikan Area Arts and Humanities Council site. The city’s best-known artist, Ray Troll, is the talent behind the punny T-shirts you’ll see everywhere from airport gift shops to festivals across the state. Check out Troll’s work, along with pieces by Evon Zerbetz and many of Ketchikan’s other fine artists, at the Soho Coho art gallery (5 Creek St.). But the art goes on … from the docks to the school buildings, the island community celebrates local artists at every turn. Turn a walk around town into a public art treasure hunt. Or, for art that’s equal parts craftsmanship and storytelling, visit the Totem Heritage Center — or just keep your eyes open for some of the many, many totem poles around town. Prefer learning about the, ahem, saucier side of olden times? Stop in at Dolly’s House Museum (24 Creek St.) to learn about Ketchikan’s Prohibition-era red light district. Then, take a flight trip out to Misty Fjords National Monument for the chance to kayak among whales.
This is Klondike Gold Rush territory, flat out. Skagway has its modern bits — Glacial Smoothies & Espresso, the breweries Skagway Brewing Co. and Klondike Brewing Co. and gift shops that sell things that aren’t made in Alaska — but at its core, it’s a town-sized Gold Rush museum. Home of the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park, visitors intent on camping should consider staking their tents in the former town of Dyea, home to ruins and cemeteries that include gravesites of many a person who once moved to the area to strike it rich. Of course, there’s plenty more to explore here, with trails to hike and, after a helicopter ride out, glaciers to dog sled on. One of the only Southeast towns accessible by road (via the Klondike Highway), visitors can also get to town by air, ferry or cruise ship.