ALCOHOL WAS A FACTOR: Weekly Newspapering in Rural Alaska
Haines, Oh Haines, You Slay Me.
I keep a calendar on my desk with pictures of the celestial wonders of Haines.
The Northern Lights are seen here for most of the winter and each calendar month has a breathtaking, no-doubt-time-lapse-photo of the swirling blue-green energy straight from the sun.
They are the pinup girls of Haines.
Haines Alaska has a lot of things you don’t find in many other places. There is a combined joy and pain to life here. One moment you love it, the next you wonder if you are trapped in some backwoods lunatic asylum.
Maybe that’s like anywhere else in out-of-the-way America.
But I don’t know. Haines seems different, in ways both good and bad.
Tom Morphet, the owner of the Chilkat Valley News where I work, winces at images of his chosen home as quaint, full of colorful rustic people with hearts of gold.
It’s not Northern Exposure, he insists.
But there is something valuable to seeing a place with fresh eyes.
Everywhere I look, I see oddball things; Seinfeld-observed things.
If you jettison yourself from an urban environment like Las Vegas and beam down into a place like Haines, everything seems written in a language which everyone understands but you.
Here are some of the “fun facts” the Haines website lists about the place:
Haines, it seems, is home to a 100-year-old mothballed military base, Fort William H. Seward, and is the shortage gateway to popular Glacier Bay National Park. It borders 20 million acres of protected wilderness; the world’s largest such area.
Haines and its sister-town Skagway are 14 miles apart by water and 350 miles by the road known as the Golden Circle Route. The Tlingit Native Alaskans were the area’s first settlers and called Haines “Dei-shu,” meaning “the end of the trail. When whites invaded the natives gave up cold and windy Haines and kept cozy nearby Klukwan for themselves, which is simply brilliant.
White Boy got Brooklyn. Red Man kept Manhattan.
The town’s human population is 2,200. Some 1,897 dogs live here (more on that later), along with 260 species of birds.
This one I don’t get: Haines goes hand in hand with arctic tundra and temperate rainforest.
There are a few best-kept secrets here. There are a large number of artists who sell their world worldwide. The town also has the highest per-capita number of people with advanced degrees, it’s said.
The Dalton Trail, known as the Tlingit “grease trail,” came through Haines to become one of the first routes to the Yukon gold rush. Nowadays, both the Big Nugget Mine and Porcupine Mine, featured in the Discovery Channel’s “Gold Rush” show, are located in Haines.
Well, that’s about it for the Haines website, but I have discovered a few other items that could well be added, but then again maybe not.
In Haines, for example, people watch your alcohol consumption.
Maybe they don’t mean to, but they do. And maybe I am totally imagining this.
There are only a few special outlets for beer and wine and hard liquor. I choose the one located right across the street from the office, where a quiet Chilkat Indian woman always waits on me.
In Vegas, I’m used to the freeing anonymity of buy huge jugs of wine at Costco or the local grocery store, with nary a soul looked over my shoulder.
Not here. Every time I venture into the shop, I am greeted by the same woman — silent, watchful.
After a few times in, I began joking with her. I talked about the high prices for a large bottle of very-and-even-below-average Yellow Tail cabernet ($18). I like a glass (or two) of wine after work, and found myself ringing the buzzer connected to the front door more than I believed I did at home.
I asked if she drank. (She doesn’t.)
I asked if she warned her children about the evils of drink. (she does.)
I asked if I was her most frequent customer.
Some people wander in once a day, or even two or three — so often she has begun to question whether to serve them anymore.
I felt relieved. Still, I’m trying to cut down on my wine intake. I know I could go somewhere else, but I’m beginning to like this woman.
Buying wine from anyone else would seem like cheating.
I guess that’s life in a small town.
Here’s another thing: Apparently there was a checker who worked at the local IGA who had a habit of making a comment on everything people bought.
She’d ring up white bread and talk about eating healthier.
She’d ring up cheese and mention kidney stones.
The comments got so bossy that a few reporters at the paper decided to wage an experiment: They went in and bought the most embarrassing items possible: a pregnancy test, a box of condoms, Kaopectate.
And, sure enough, the woman had a zinger for every item.
I think she eventually got fired. Now there’s a hole in the life of every IGA shopper who got to look forward to what the woman would say next.
Ah, the tortures of small-town life.
Once, in Haines, I hear, 36 feet of snow fell in one storm alone.
The state got mad at Haines when someone in the city painted a school of white fish in the crosswalks around town. People liked the little fish, thought they looked homey.
The state said they were a dangerous distraction for pedestrians.
Before the snow fell and covered them up, I would see them thee in crosswalk, unpainted, fading away, to suit the will of the state.
Ah, tyranny in a small town.
Haines has other funny little facts of life.
Dogs rule here.
One time a dog named Ruby walked down to the ferry terminal in Haines and just walked on board, with everyone thinking he belonged to someone else.
The ferry zipped over the nearby Skagway and Ruby got off with the other passengers and walked around downtown Skagway.
Until somebody recognized her as a Haines dog and sent her home on the return ferry — dressed in a “I Survived Skagway” T-shirt.
You see them riding on the top of pickup truck cabs come summer, their tongues lolling, the happiest four-legged creatures on God’s good green earth.
Some people become indistinguishable from their pooches, who follow them everywhere they go, even to work. A woman down the hall from our office has a big gentle dog who has a bed next to her desk. But since we keep snacks here, the dog takes walks.
I’ll be on deadline and suddenly feel a warm muzzle against my hand and, no matter how pressed for time, I’ll have to walk over the dog chew bottle.
In fact, it’s my pleasure.
The head of the Haines chamber of commerce works in the same building as the State courts clerk, who toils just one floor below of the professional building next door to our office.
Both have take-to-work, never-leave-their-side dogs.
The chamber woman’s dog is so smart, he can open the elongated door handles with his nose and wander around offices on three floors, knowing which people will give him handouts.
Sometimes, the court clerk’s dog will try to hang with the smarter, wilier chamber dog. But the court clerk will find him sitting longingly in front of a closed door, opened by his chamber buddy, but which closed in his face.
A sadder animal has never been seen.
In Haines, the local public radio station, KHNS, does listener-submitted announcements that are also run online.
Some of these submissions are straight out of Green Acres, or Hooterville, if you ask me.
Today, for example, there are these items:
LOST LEASH: Pink leash was lost on Chilkat River Beach. Please call if you find it. The item had 13 views.
THANKS FOR HELPING MIKE: To the Mike who pulled us out of the ditch the day before Thanksgiving: Please call Donna. She has a gift to compensate you for your help.
This scintillating communication had 24 views.
LOST CREEPERS: Lost Nov. 30 on Chilkat River Beach. Please call if you find them. Thanks.
(an amazing 20 views, counting mine, I guess.)
On other days, the library will kindly announce that Gladys Scribbage’s book she’s been waiting for has finally been returned and is ready for pickup.
And rides, lots of rides, to Juneau and Anchorage, Whitehorse and Miami.
My friend Joe Parnell has a few funny stories about the listener submission line.
A few years ago, Joe lived in a cabin near Mile Marker 18 outside town. Once, after he stayed too busy to spay his dog, she gave birth to a litter of seven puppies.
He built them a padded wooden bed, but the puppies tended to wander, as puppies do, and many ended up sitting in the middle the highway into Haines.
One day, a woman who worked at the preschool passed by and scooped up one of the little darlings, worried that she’d be run over.
She brought the pup to the preschool and made a listener submitted announcement.
“Whoever lost their puppy at Mile Marker 18, please come pick it up at the preschool.”
Joe did. But puppies kept getting out and people would pick them up and bring them to town.
More listener submitted announcements were made.
Finally, one day, Joe made his own little radio blurb.
“Will the people who are picking up the puppies out at Mile Marker 18 please leave them alone?
“They live there.”
Joe said he also once heard this announcement. But I doubt its veracity, because Joe is a comedian and he likes to tell talk stories.
He said he tuned in one night had heard a woman’s voice.
“Hey Mountain Man, no need to come back. I burned all your stuff and left it out in the middle of Mud Bay Road.
Have fun with smells-like-salmon.”
Like I said, Joe’s a comedian. In you live in Haines, you have to be.