The Milk Run

Travelers forging a passage between Southeast Alaska’s main settlements – most of them cut off from the main road system by a mixture of water and wilderness – are left with two transportation options: ferry or airplane.

The ferry has its advantages (wild watery vistas), but flying, as well as being faster, is just as much fun, especially if you get to partake in the so-called ‘milk run’, a daily Alaska Airlines flight between Seattle and Anchorage that stops at Ketchikan, Wrangell, Petersburg and Juneau en route (another milk-run plane serves Juneau, Yakutat and Cordova).

What the milk run lacks in directness, it makes up for in unscripted flightseeing opportunities. Since many of the Panhandle’s airports are located in close proximity to one another, airplanes don’t have time to gain much height, meaning (weather permitting) you can look down with silent awe on the arboreal beauty of the Tongass National Forest spread out like a satellite map beneath you. The route’s shortest hop, between Wrangell and Petersburg, registers only a brief 9½ minutes and is purportedly the shortest jet flight in the world. Grab a window seat for close-up views of the braided Stikine River Delta and the frigid LeConte Glacier.

One of the other joys of the milk run is that it gives crowd-weary travelers the opportunity to experience the calm of Alaska’s small, laid-back airports, where check-in agents double up as baggage handlers and the coffee bar is often just a giant flask with an honesty box. The tiny terminal at Petersburg is about as big as the toilets at New York’s JFK, while Ketchikan’s wind-lashed runway is located on a separate island to the rest of the city, necessitating a short ferry ride into the center.

Totem Poles: A Beginner's Guide

There is no finer manifestation of coastal Alaska’s indigenous culture than its intricately carved totem poles adorned with ravens, killer whales and carved countenances from native mythology.

Totem poles are peculiar to the Pacific Northwest region, in particular coastal British Columbia and Southeastern Alaska, where they have been sculpted for centuries by the Haida, Tlingit and Tsimshian people. Although the presence of totems predates the arrival of European explorers, the poles became grander and more artistically accomplished when native people gained access to iron tools in the late 18th century.

Usually fashioned out of mature cedars found deep in the forest, totems have a natural lifespan of around 75 years before the sodden Pacific Northwest climate takes its toll. Traditionally poles are rarely touched up. Progressive deterioration is seen as a part of the natural life cycle. Ideally, they are left to rot and return to the earth.

Totems were never intended as objects of worship. Instead, they serve several nonreligious functions. ‘Welcome poles’ are designed to greet visitors to houses and communities, ‘memorial poles’ honor the dead, ‘mortuary poles’ contain the remains of deceased ancestors and ‘house poles’ have a structural function, while ‘shame poles’ ridicule public figures accused of a transgression.

Totem poles reached their artistic zenith in the mid-19th century. However, by the beginning of the 20th century, their presence had nearly died out. Carving was first rediscovered during the Great Depression when the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) were tasked with carrying out work relief programs in Alaska’s national forests. The practice was revived more enthusiastically in the 1960s amid a renewed appreciation of America’s indigenous culture, primarily as a means of artistic expression.

Ketchikan, Wrangell, Haines and Prince of Wales Island are the best places to immerse yourself in totem art.

Tongass – A Forest the Size of Ireland

In many ways Southeast Alaska is the Tongass National Forest. Welcome to the largest national forest in the US, a tract of land almost the size of Ireland and significantly larger than adjacent Wrangell-St Elias National Park (itself the second biggest national park in the world).

Dedicated in 1907 by President Teddy Roosevelt, the forest encompasses most of the Alexander Archipelago’s 1110 islands as well as some mainland areas. Around 75,000 people live in the forest in a series of small towns and villages, all of which, bar Haines, Hyder and Skagway, are cut off from the main continental road network. Notwithstanding, the protected area gets one million annual visitors, nearly 14 times its actual population, most of whom arrive on cruise ships.

Despite being the largest temperate rainforest in the world, packed with Sitka spruce, western hemlock and red cedar, 40% of the Tongass isn’t actually forest at all, but is comprised of wetlands, ice and high mountain terrain.

For adventurers, rustic off-the-grid accommodation is available in 150 scattered USFS cabins, most of them only accessible by boat or floatplane. There are also 13 campgrounds, four of them free of charge. Offering an extra level of protection in the forest are two national monuments, Misty Fiords and Admiralty Island.

As a national forest, the Tongass is notably different to national parks such as Glacier Bay, which it surrounds. National parks are all about preservation. National forests, while highlighting protective environmental measures, are designed for multiuse. In the Tongass you can hunt, fish and take your dog for a walk on a trail. Agriculture and controlled logging are also permitted, and the forest hosts a number of important towns including the Alaskan capital, Juneau, with a population of 33,850.