Remote: Tenakee Springs Alaska

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I heard that the word in our ear this week is “remote” and that inspired me to post on Tenakee Springs in Southeast Alaska. This town of about 100 people is remote!

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It is on Chichagof Island, on the Tenakee Inlet. The only way to get here is by water or air.

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There are no roads coming in and it could be argued if the dirt road is maybe just a wide path. It is impossible to get lost because there aren’t any turns – only a bend in the path that follows the curve of the beach.

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Transportation is pretty simple. There are a couple of trucks in town, used for work. Getting a car into town would be expensive and then there isn’t anywhere to take it. Parking is also a problem.

I find the houses in places I visit interesting because they trigger my imagination about the people who live there and what their life is like. The inhabitants of Tenakee Springs are a mixture of full-time and summer inhabitants.

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It seems that this community was built around the hot springs that are in the middle of town. Men and women have different hours at the bath house, but we were asked not to go in to respect their privacy.

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We visited the community on a Sunday morning so it was very quiet, but I passed a couple of people who gave a warm hello. I could tell people are happy here because there were casual and whimsical decorations everywhere I looked.

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It seems that the people who call Tenakee Springs their home like it just the way it is. Some people in Hoonah, on the other side of the island, want to build a road to Tenakee Springs, but people here don’t want it. A car ferry also wants to stop here, but they are fighting that, too – because then they would have to build a parking lot down by the dock.

I fell in love with Tenakee Springs, but there is one last secret – and I am saving that for another post.


One of the delights of our small ship cruise of Southeast Alaska was that it went to the small towns along the coast where the large cruise ships aren’t allowed or can’t reach because of navigational difficulties. Petersburg was one of them. What a delight to wander and take a peek at how they live their lives without the influence of huge numbers of people disembarking from large ships. The sales clerks seemed to welcome our questions and conversations.

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As we left the ship and walked down the dock we were greeted by an eagle, or was the eagle making sure no riff-raft got in? He let us in.

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This looks like a pretty typical main street for a town of about 3,000 people. It didn’t take long, however, to see how living on Mitkof Island, in Alaska, in a town just around the corner from Fredrick Sound, is different. My mind smiled as I observed how the environment shapes their life. For one thing, they know the bodies of waters around the many islands as well as we, in the lower-48, know interstate highway systems. It is these canals, sounds, straits, narrows, and rivers that allow the Alaskan Ferry System to operate, and what people use to visit the neighboring towns. In fact these waterways have been named the Alaskan Marine Highway.

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Fishing is the backbone of the economy in Petersburg. Tourism is also important as the Alaskan Marine Highway ferries, a few small cruise ships and pleasure boats dock there – so the frame shop and the drug store have some Alaskan made items for visitors to buy. There is a very nice gift shop with beautiful items made by Alaskan artisans – I bought some earrings. JB enjoyed our walk down main street because there are two hardware stores (he’s my hardware guy). He noticed the huge sections dedicated to fishing gear and hunting.

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If I lived here I think I would have to switch from photographing old wooden barns on country dirt roads to traveling the waterways to capture old wooden boat houses and ships. There aren’t many roads outside of town and there isn’t any farming – even the “man cave” is all about fishing.

Petersburg is at the northern end of Wrangell Narrows (called The Narrows by locals). This is one of the most difficult navigational stretches in Southeast Alaska because it is narrow and the tides can fluctuate as much as 20 feet. That could be one mighty surge of water as The Narrows fills and empties. Seems to me the people who live here must structure their day around the tides, as most fishermen and captains of larger pleasure boats carry the tide book to track high and low tides.

Waiting for high tide.

Waiting for high tide.

As we were walking around town, we saw interesting evidence of the importance of fishing for the people who live on the narrow strips of land between the water and the mountains.

This town made me wish I was younger so I could travel through the inland waterways using the ferry system so I could stay longer at each place. There was a lot to explore that we didn’t have time for – we were told when the ship would be leaving port.

Ford’s Terror

The ship’s navigational system could be programmed so the captain would know how far it was to his destination and how long it would take at his current speed. He had consulted the tidal charts (very important in these northern waters) and knew the critical window of high slack tide (14:00 to 14:15 hours) to get through the narrow passage and into the beautiful fjord where he wanted to anchor for the night.

Entrance to Ford’s Terror

When we reached the entrance, the captain idled the engines and we sat. Every two or three minutes he would pick up his binoculars and look. Not quite yet. Finally he decided it was safe to proceed. The surface of the water was still, neither moving in or out.

Ford’s Terror is a narrow fjord with very steep, very high vertical walls. It is also very deep and the water very cold. It got its name in 1899 when a naval crewman named Ford saw this beautiful, calm passage at slack tide, and decided to investigate in his dinghy. He rowed around for a little while and when he was leaving, the tide surged and he was caught in the turbulence for a terrifying six hours. Thus the name, and the lesson for boaters wanting to explore this beautiful area.

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Traversing the entrance of Ford’s Terror fjord.

Captain Ron proceeded slowly and carefully because the passage is narrow and shallow. First Mate Tommy sat next to the captain with his eyes glued to the depth meter, calling out five feet, six and a half feet… I cured my tension by stepping out on the bridge deck, so I could get a little exercise – shudder finger exercise.

When the tide is flowing either in or out, there can be as much as a 3 foot drop in levels and the water churns in white-water rapids because of the shallow depth. This is especially deadly at low tide. I would love to see it, maybe experience it, but the smarter part of my brain was happy for our calm passage.

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What a place to anchor – all adjectives I can think of seem inadequate. Those glaciers did a brilliant job of gouging out this peaceful cove.

Captain Ron had to wait for the next day’s high slack tide for our safe departure, so there was time for skiff rides and kayaking – the water toys were lowered. We went on a skiff ride in the evening and also saw a demonstration of kayaking skills and safety. The kayaks would not be available for us until morning because they enforce the rule that no one can get in a kayak in the evening if they had alcohol with dinner.

I was up early the next morning because: a) I still hadn’t adjusted from Eastern Time to Alaska Time (4 hours); b) I wanted to get some photos in the early morning light – but not dawn’s light at 3:00; and c) Crew member Dillon had promised me the night before that he would take me on my very first kayaking adventure. Dillon – my hero!

My reward for getting up was a beautiful mist hanging over the water.

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I later learned that traveling companions had seen a rock slide on the shore close to our ship and this was dust hanging. It reminded me of the constant dangers that are present in Alaska’s wilderness, and the extent of my naivety about surviving in this ‘hood.

My real reward was going in a kayak, relaxed as I explored the differences between canoeing and kayaking – and also taking a few photographs. Dillon did a wonderful job of making me believe I was an important member of our paddling team, as he kept us going straight and steady.

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It surprised me that Dillon was the one who suggested we get back because the other crew members needed him to help with the work. I wasn’t ready to leave the calm and peace of floating on these still waters.

As we were (sadly) exiting Ford’s Terror, I was amazed at the beauty I had missed when we had passed that way before.

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Previous posts about my small ship cruise in Alaska’s Southeast Passageway are Life Aboard a Small Ship,  Dawes Glacier, and  Whoa, Close Enough.

Whoa, Close Enough

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Alaska doesn’t have a shortage of beautiful waterfalls, and we saw plenty in the small area we sailed. This one is depositing fresh water into Endicott Arm, west of Dawes Glacier.

I am intrigued by scale. Taking this in portrait mode gives an idea of how high this rock face is, and how far the water is dropping. It is a beautiful example of the rock walls of a fiord. Even though I know the mountains are huge, these falls still look like small ribbons of water cascading down the rock.

Captain Ron maneuvered the Island Spirit up close, and it was only from this perspective that I could appreciate how much water was flowing from the upper snow fields. People who live here year around said they had a small snow fall this past winter so many of these water falls will probably dry up during parts of the summer – at least until the late summer rains begin.

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This is First Mate Tommy (who wants to own a boat and be captain some day soon), guiding the captain as he moves the bow as close to the falls as he can. When the engines were cut, Tommy and Courtney leaned way over to fill pitchers so we could have a taste.

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If you look at the back of Courtney’s shirt, you will see that this isn’t the first pitcher to be filled. This was her first week on the ship and I think a little initiation rite took place.  Courtney may have revenge on her mind.

Moving close to the falls made it possible for me to appreciate how the course of the water shifts and turns to mold around the carved rock face. I was in awe of how the water spread itself over the smooth surfaces. One of nature’s beautiful duets.

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I could see myself spending many hours lying in a chaise lounge watching the water forming itself over the rocks – but alas there was no dry flat spot available and Captain Ron was looking at his watch because he was concerned about getting to Ford’s Terror for that 15 minute window.