I’m dying to meet you

Dustin piloting a raft on the Chilkat River (Provided photo — Jack Drury)

I love Alaska. I’ve been there three times and each trip has been special. In 2005, I got to spend a week in Haines with Phyliss while visiting my son Dustin, who was working as a river guide.

Lately I’ve been thinking about Haines, a picturesque coastal community in southeastern Alaska. Fishing boats line the docks and there’s a spectacular backdrop of the Chilkat Mountains. Moose wander the edges of town and brown bears (the term used for Grizzlies who live on the coast) stroll the coastline in the evenings. Few locals sportfish using a fishing pole; instead, they use a net or a fishwheel. A fishwheel, also known as a salmon wheel, is a waterwheel-like device used to catch fish in rivers. The wheel, powered by the river’s current, rotates paddles and passes wire baskets through the water to scoop up fish. Both nets and fishwheels are incredibly efficient ways to fill one’s freezer.

No one starves in Haines. Everyone has a freezer filled with fish, moose or some other game animal. Even those who live off the grid rent freezers in town to store their meat.

Our days in Haines were filled with rafting trips down the Chilkat River, short hikes up nearby peaks, visits with Dustin, his uncle and their friends. We even played extreme tourist and took the ferry over to Skagway, 15 miles up the Taiya Inlet.

The Chilkat River takes you through the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve, where on a slow day you’ll see 30 or so Bald Eagles. We took the half-day trip three times (having a son for a guide has its privileges) and never tired of it.

Haines Harbor (Provided photo — Jack Drury)

Skagway is a historical mining town famous for being the take-off point for the Chilkoot Trail. The trail is a 33-mile route through the Coast Mountains that leads to Bennett, British Columbia and was a major access route from the coast to the Yukon goldfields in the late 1890s. So many sourdoughs went up the trail unprepared that the Canadian Mounted Police finally only allowed prospectors to enter Canada if they had at least one ton of gear, enough to supply a prospector for one year. And I thought I had a heavy pack in my heyday.

One of my most enjoyable experiences was taking a day hike up Mount Ripinski. Ripinski is to Haines as Baker Mountain is to Saranac Lake. It has spectacular views and has what I call a great view-for-energy expended ratio. But that’s not the only reason it was so enjoyable.

I hiked the mountain solo and as I came over the ridge toward the summit, I met a friendly local couple named Annie and Paul. Annie was tall and outgoing; Paul was a bit older but athletic with a spring in his step.

“We own the hardware store in Haines,” said Annie. “You’re from the Adirondacks? We’re planning on visiting the Adirondacks this fall, and we want to hike Mount Marcy.”

I gave them my business card and said, “Give us a call and you can stay with us.”

View from the top of Mount Ripinski (Provided photo — Jack Drury)

They jumped at the idea. After a few more minutes of small talk, we headed in opposite directions.

As they walked away Annie said, “Have you read Heather Lende’s book ‘If You Lived Here, I’d Know Your Name?’ We’re mentioned in the first chapter.”

I’d seen the book, a bestseller, in all the local shops. I purchased a copy, put it in my daypack and promptly forgot about it.

Our trip ended all too quickly and before we knew it, we were home. Soon after, I got a postcard from Annie and Paul: “We’re going to be in Saranac Lake in a week. We hope your offer still stands.”

Annie called a few days later and I told her that it did. Then I suggested they might want to hike Algonquin Mountain instead of Marcy. “It has great views, won’t be quite as crowded, and is a shorter hike, more like Mount Ripinski.” That sounded good to them, and they said they’d arrive in two days.

Haines Harbor (Provided photo — Jack Drury)

For some reason I remembered Heather Lende’s book and thought about Annie’s comment that they were mentioned in the first chapter. I thought I ought to read it and learn more about them.

The book is a thoroughly enjoyable read about life in the small remote town of Haines. Lende writes for Haine’s Chilkat Valley News, the weekly paper for the 2,500 hardy folks who live in the Chilkat Valley. When I told Dustin I had bought the book he said, “Instead of If You Lived Here, I’d Know Your Name it should have been titled, If You Died Here, I’d Know Your Name.”

“Why’d you say that?” I said.

He said, “Read it and find out.”

When I read the first chapter I understood his comment. The author writes the obituaries for the weekly paper. I also learned more about Annie Boyce and Paul Swift.

You see, in an average year seven people die in Haines, hardly enough to support a funeral parlor. Plus, Haines isn’t close enough to anywhere anyway. A family would have to hire a plane to transport the body to Juneau 75 air miles away. Worse, while Juneau’s the state capital, there’s no highway to it. And even worse yet, when bodies have been sent there, believe it or not, they or their ashes have sometimes been lost and never made it back to Haines.

This is where Paul and Annie come in. In addition to owning the local hardware store they have an intriguing side job. They fill the funeral home void by selling caskets and by preparing the deceased for burial. They do it in their makeshift morgue — a garage with a walk-in cooler.

When they arrived at our house, I told them, “I finally read the book and know a bit more about you.”

Annie said, “What do you think?”

I said, “I think I might be happier knowing a bit less.”


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