Category Archives: Tourism in Alaska

Farewell…for now

Emily and I are taking off to Juneau this evening, and our flight leaves on Monday morning at 6:05 AM. It feels like we’ve been here for forever and for not much time at all–but summers always feel like that.

I’ve been warned by several people that the reverse culture shock that kicks in once you hit the Lower 48 (I’ve given up on being worried about sounding like a poser and have just adopted some of the local lingo) can be rough. The owner of the coffee shop next door, who has lived in Haines for 22 years, said that being here is like living in suspended animation. I believe it. I feel like I’m in the process of stepping out of the slow motion part of a movie.

While I’m looking forward to being back in DC–chiefly for friends and familiarity–it’s sad to leave the beautiful scenery here, the slower pace of life, the openness, the fresh air, and the wonderful/quirky people I’ve met. I don’t especially look forward to living off North Capitol Street again and hearing sirens go by several times each night, or having to deal with actual rush hour, or not being able to see a mountain every which way I turn. There are no traffic lights in Haines. Not only is it a small town, it’s remote. The Haines Borough extends all the way up to the Canadian border, and beyond that, there’s nothing for 150 miles. There’s a road through town, but you have to circle around and go through Canada, unless you get on a ferry or fly up from Juneau.

I’m glad I took the leap and tried something different this summer. This was my fourth and first successful attempt to come to Alaska, and I’m fairly sure it won’t be the last one.

As for the Hammer Museum? They just found out that there will be two to three large cruise ships per week docking here next year, which will double to triple the attendance at the museum. This means they can afford to actually hire someone, and they don’t have to rely on interns to run the place. Dave and Carol have put in 13 years of volunteer work, and they’re tired. I can’t blame them, and I admire everything they’ve accomplished here. It’s not many people who can say they’ve opened a museum for their own collections, and all in all, it’s a pretty neat success story. While yes, there are major frustrations involved with working on a $20,000 budget and having zero paid staff, they’ve pulled off something extraordinary.

The biggest testament to the museum’s success are, of course, the visitors. The comments from the guest books speak for themselves.

“Brings back memories.”

“From Wisconsin–home of the Mustard Museum. We enjoyed the Hammer Museum immensely. What a collection!”

“Truly amazing. Wonderful history!”

“Very interesting museum. I really had no idea how many different uses there are or have been in the past, for the humble HAMMER! A most useful tool for mans tasks.”


“Great. Not just a ‘boys and their toys’ museum. Great to see the medical hammers plus so much more.”

“Loved it. Top ten museum of all time! Hammer time.”

“Amazing and unique!”

“Fascinating! Thank you for preserving these pieces of history.”

In addition to the written comments, we’ve talked to almost all 3,600 visitors who’ve wandered through here this summer, and they’re genuinely impressed/delighted/befuddled. They want to share stories with us, and because we’ve spent a lot of time researching the collections, we share stories with them. Call me a hopeless romantic, but to me, this is what museums are all about. Surprising people, engaging with them, teaching them something new, making them laugh, making them think, and bringing up old memories. So while I received some questioning comments from the GW internship coordinator about coming here, I’m glad I came here.


Sexism at the Museum

Drink Hammers

IMG_0089 Drink Hammers and Glass Hammers

Thirteen years ago, when the Hammer Museum was getting its start, Carol, who is Dave’s wife, wanted to attract women and children into the museum. So she started up her own collection of hammers. While Dave focused mostly on workhorse hammers, like our 36 pound claw hammer, the maritime hammers, or the railroad hammers, Carol focused on novelty hammers. There’s a large collection of drink hammers in the museum (used at nightclubs to call for applause for the band) as well as a display of glass hammers. There’s also a couple of hammers that were used to break the clay shell off of Beggar’s Chicken (a recipe that calls for baking chicken in 11 pounds of clay).


Her idea worked–while a fair number of visitors are elderly men who previously worked as carpenters, blacksmiths and other hammer-wielding professions, a number of women and children make positive comments about the range of the collection. Everyone makes a connection with at least one hammer.

I have to say though, the fact that we have novelty hammers in order to appeal to women bothers me. I wanted to work at this museum because I like hammers–and not in the theoretical sense–I actually like using them! Aside from that, I would never want a curator of any museum to tell me, “Well, here’s the part of our collection that we think women will like…” It’s a similar reaction when I see floral-patterned hammers at the hardware store, or pink bicycling gear, for that matter.

But I suppose it’s the job of any museum professional to make sure that their institution can appeal to folks of all ages, genders, races, orientations, etc., and to present history in an honest but compelling way.

And sometimes, visitors unwittingly remind me why it’s so important for museums to do this. Yesterday, Emily and I (who are, I would like to point out, the only paid staff at the museum, and we’re two females) were sitting behind the counter when an older woman from Southern Virginia walked up to us and said, sotto voce, in a not un-judgmental tone, “This really seems like more of a man’s thing to me.” Rather than laugh and agree with her so I didn’t have to make further conversation and justify my life decisions to a stranger, I walked her to the front room and talked to her for 10 minutes about all of the hammers that apply to women.

For example! Our Hammer of the Week this week was put out by a company that made “Ball-Bearing Bicycle” shoes, so they manufactured a hammer made of ball bearings to advertise their shoes. The shoes for women were especially uncomfortable-looking, and it was recommended that women wear these shoes while hiking the 33-mile Chilkoot Trail (which they had to do over 40 times in order to bring all of their stuff North for the Gold Rush). Which is just a reminder that women in that era got to hike in heels and dresses–pretty cool, right?

I don’t think I changed this woman’s mind about anything, because she mostly just nodded and then made some disparaging comment about how unimpressive this museum was going to look on my resume (“Well at least you have a job…”). But I felt better.

Two-handled hammers

Not just for women!

We also have a two-handled hammer in our collection, and Emily overheard some man comment that it was a hammer designed for a woman to hammer straighter. And then the other day, a kid (about 10 years old) asked me and Emily where our boss was. She said, “Well what makes you think we couldn’t be the bosses?” The kid got really quiet for a second, and his dad said, “Jimmy, are you being a chauvinist?” To which Jimmy responded, “What’s that?” But yes, Jimmy was implying that he wasn’t expecting a Hammer Museum to be staffed by two women.

It’s true that I might be a little overly sensitive to this sort of thing. What I view as blatant sexism is often (maybe) more innocently intended, and I do need to bear this mind before I jump down people’s throats. Especially when those people are museum visitors.

Of course, a majority of our visitors understand what we’re trying to do here, and I have met some truly awesome individuals. In fact, one woman from Fairbanks was telling me how her mother taught her how to use a hammer as a concealed weapon.

But the occasional sexist comment is a nice, though sometimes annoying, reminder of why I choose to work in this profession. While I don’t expect people to leave a hammer museum with their entire worldview changed, it’s fun to challenge assumptions and persuade people to consider another perspective. And this current runs both ways–I learn quite a bit from visitors, too!

A Day in the Life at the Hammer Museum: A photo essay

So many tourists on Wednesdays...

So many tourists on Wednesdays…our way of tracking visitors. Very accurate.

Laugh it up.

Laugh it up. (Donations nearly doubled after we put these signs up.)

Sheep sorrel from the front yard

Sheep sorrel from the front yard

Fruit and nut bun from Rusty's Compass!

Fruit and nut bun from The Rusty Compass, the coffee shop next door.

Too much receipt tape

Too much receipt tape

Too much museum

Too much museum

Patented claw hammers (new exhibit)

Patented claw hammers (new exhibit)

Another "high tech" hammer display

Another new “high tech” hammer display

Emily has fun with the camera

Emily has fun with the camera

We opened the blinds to see this outside.

We opened the blinds to see this outside. Alaska, man.

Hammer Museum paper fortune teller

Hammer Museum paper fortune teller

Stage 1

Stage 1–Many different ways to spell “peen.”

Stage 2

Stage 2


Stage 3

Stage 3


For My Dad

All of my readers get a twofer post today! My dad, the very inquisitive engineer, had a list of questions for me. I have endeavored to answer them.  Feel free to chime in with additional questions in the comments.  If you’re an Alaskan and you’re reading this and I have said something erroneous or horribly offensive, please feel free to correct me.

1.    What is the demographic makeup of the town?

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, as of 2013, there were an estimated 2,592 residents. 83.2% of the population is white, Alaska natives (primarily Tlingit here) make up 9.5%, 5.8% identify as two or more races, Hispanic or Latino make up 2.2%, .9% of the population is Asian, and .5% of the population is black.

2.    Are most residents transplants and from where?

In my estimation, yes. A lot of folks moved here from somewhere else, whether on vacation or in search of the outdoors, and they decided to stay.

3.    Why the hell are they there?

Because it’s the most beautiful place in the world.  Aside from that, Haines is a very friendly town for artists, do-it-yourselfers, and black sheep from all over America.  You can live as on or off the grid as you choose, but living on the grid will be costly. Growing and catching your own food, building your own house, and living a more subsistence lifestyle is less expensive–and, I’m beginning to believe, more satisfying for a lot of people.

I have also been told by a fisherman that if you’re a fisherman, there is something inherently wrong with you.

And perhaps it’s anecdotal, but this place seems to attract a lot of New Englanders.

4.    What occurs during the winter months?

Well, the library puts on free events a lot. People play music. There’s an indoor community pool and gym. Folks seem to enjoy snowshoeing, downhill skiing, cross-country skiing, skijoring (like dogsledding but on skis), and pretty much anything involving snow because they get a lot of it.  It’s not as cold here as places further inland, but because it’s on the coast, they get more annual average snowfall than a lot of places–over 10 feet per year.  That being said, I’ve talked to a few people who have lived here for many winters, and they say it gets old. In fact, a lot of people (I’ve heard as much as half the population) leaves for the winter.

5.    Because the climate is temperate, does life change that much even though it is dark?

It snows a lot here, so, yes.

6.    Is seasonal distress order real and do the residents get it?

I am guessing so.  Seasonal Affective Disorder tends to get to everyone in the winter even at home in DC.

7.    If so, what do they do?

They drink. There are sun lamps. St. John’s Wort and vitamin d are pretty helpful in cheering people up.  They also have potlucks, jam sessions, read a lot, make art, and also, they drink.

8.    Is fishing the only main industry in town?

Tourism is another major industry. The cruise ships that dock in Skagway send over visitors, and Haines gets about 1,200-1,500 visitors per week on cruise ship day (Wednesday).   But fishing is the largest private employer in Alaska.

9.    Has the region experienced a natural disaster in recent history?

The area sits on a major fault line (possibly more), so little earthquakes happen often. Landslides are common–just a few weeks ago, a rock the size of a car landed in the middle of the Haines highway, and earlier in the year, the road was blocked by landslides in both directions. Since the way was blocked to both the ferry terminal and the airport (which are the only options for getting to Juneau, the nearest major city), residents were stuck until they could clear the roads.

There is also a mountain near Klukwan, the nearby Tlingit village, that started eroding rather rapidly. According to our tour guide from the boat tour, Klukwan used to be located right at the base of this mountain, but a chief had a dream that the mountain fell, so he moved the village.  It was after that that the mountain started to erode.

10.    Is there a town alert system for whatever disaster it may be?

The local radio station is the primary form of communication here, and there is a siren that always sounds at noon that sounds a lot like a tornado warning. Maybe it’s used for natural disasters?

11.    Do residents qualify for oil subsidies and how much do they get?

Yes, and anywhere from $100 to $1500 a year.

12.    If one is going to live there, do they pretty much need to know how to do everything?

Yes. It’s not a culture of “let’s go get the oil changed,” it’s a culture of, “let’s go change the oil.”

13.    How many auto mechanics are in town?

See above. That being said, there is a gas station and car wash that probably has a mechanic. I’ve met a few folks, including Dave (the museum’s founder) who have dabbled in auto repair. There are also a few bike mechanics because there are two bike shops–and that’s almost as important because the town is so small that lots of people bike (and just leave their bikes unlocked outside).  And if all else fails, you can probably ask a neighbor to help. Folks are big on volunteering here.

14.    What is the one staple that, if not available, would be a big problem?

I’m going to guess fish.

15.    What is the town’s water source?

There are two small glacial springs nearby where locals get drinking water, but tap water is supplied from Lily Lake. According to one of my new friends, the tap water here often tastes weirdly like lettuce. I can’t explain that (neither can he), but its better than tasting like sulfur and chlorine, which is what I’m used to at home.

16.    Does it have a sewer plant?

Probably. A lot residents have septic tanks, though. I’m not sure what the breakdown is.

17.    Where does power come from?

Hydroelectric power.

18. What are the things that, if taken for granted, would cause you to die?

“Nature is unforgiving here,” according to one guide. Death seems to be a very big part of life (how’s that for paradoxical) here.  There are fishing accidents, swimming accidents, heli-skiing accidents (both pilots and customers), and if something that the clinic can’t handle happens, you need to be airlifted to Juneau. They won’t deliver babies in Haines anymore.


Earthquakes and Rainbows


You can just barely see the top rainbow.

In the last week, Haines has really opened itself up…both literally and figuratively. Last Wednesday, I woke up to a jolt from a 5.8 magnitude earthquake that set the ground rumbling for a startlingly long amount of time. A quote in the local newspaper put it at 40 seconds. I’m not sure it was quite that long, but it’s hard to gauge when you’ve snapped from a REM cycle to being tossed around in your bed (I exaggerate—it wasn’t quite that powerful).  The San Andreas Fault runs all the way up here, so there are pretty regular small earthquakes, but it’s somewhat rare for them to get above a magnitude of 4.  Later that day, there was a sunshower and a double rainbow formed right over the boat harbor. It ended in front of the cruise ship–a great marketing shot if I’ve ever seen one.

Rainbow on cruise ship

Cruise ship = pot of gold?

Homemade rhubarb pie, courtesy of Emily and me

Homemade rhubarb pie, courtesy of Emily and me

In terms of figurative “opening up,” we’ve been busy almost every night. There have been multiple jam sessions, sporting events, open-mic nights, a letter-writing party at the library, bonfires, trips up to Chilkoot Lake (9 miles out of town), and pie-making parties.  Hence the infrequent updates—because it stays light so late here, it’s pretty easy to stay out until midnight or 1 AM.  And there’s a barn dance this Saturday. In spite of my confusion of left and right, and general inability to dance, I’m really excited.

Emily and fire

Emily drags some tinder like the awesome woman she is.

Anyway, the day of the earthquake turned into a sunny, 62 degree day, plus it was cruise ship day, so the museum was packed with 179 visitors over the course of 9 hours. Hate on tourists all you want, but I rather like them. If you think of people like books, everyone has their own unique setting, plot and story, and I almost always enjoy learning what those stories are. And since the cruise ship folks are primarily older, they’ve had more chapters written—they also come from all over the place, so that keeps it interesting, too. You might also be surprised at what a display of 2,000 hammers draws out of people. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve heard someone delightfully exclaim that their dad had this or that hammer in his toolbox, and that prompts other stories about where and when they grew up, other museums they’ve seen with interesting collections, and so on.


Daisy and Jason and their bikes

We’ve also met a bunch of non-cruise tourist folks that have passed through, and they’re just chock-full of interesting stories.  After we came back from a jet boat ride on Friday (more on that later), we had the pleasure of meeting Jason and Daisy, who are on their way from Anchorage to Argentina…by bicycle. They had left their Long Haul Truckers parked next to the giant hammer, and Jason caught me gawking at them. When he came over to ask if he should move them, we wound up chatting with them for about an hour. They were both quite gracious in allowing us to interrupt their lunch with dozens of questions.  They have a year and a half of time to kill, and Daisy is also writing her dissertation in statistics as she pedals her way down the continents. What a pair. Check out their website and/or their Crazy Guy on a Bike journal.

Speaking of capturing stories–yesterday, the Haines library held a day-long workshop (free for folks from non-profits in town) about creating small documentaries. It was taught by Travis Gilmour of Indie Alaska, and I highly recommend that you check out his work.  He threw around the phrase “democratization of media” a couple of times, so Emily and I are excited to try our own small project (with a Canon PowerShot and an iPhone…we’ll see) about Dave and Carol and the Hammer Museum.

Most of the people attending the workshop were a part of the Haines community, and I was once again struck by how tight-knit this town really is.  People are so supportive of each other, whether they’re from here or moved here just a couple of years ago (in Eastern Canada, the term for that is “come-from-away,” and there’s a lot of folks like that here).  The radio station got a special dispensation from the FCC to broadcast “Listener Personals,” which are sort of fun to listen to. I mentioned that there was an ad about a lost necklace last week—someone found the necklace. Also, someone named Dan had a package at the airport for four days, and he eventually picked it up.

Some collaborative art on Main Street

Some collaborative art on Main Street

Of course, on the flip side, I get the sense that everyone is in everyone else’s business in a town this small, which can be both good and bad. The police blotter in the Chilkat Valley News is hilarious because they have to write down every call they get. My personal favorite was something along the lines of, “A caller reported a missing box containing a stuffed penguin. Police responded and the box was found down the road, still containing the penguin.” Another reported a “juvenile” plugging in a device outside the library. When police responded, the juvenile could not be located.  My host, Eric, is on the local EMS crew, and they got a call from someone about a cruise ship passing by with its lights off.  People leave their cars open and their bicycles strewn everywhere because it would be really, really difficult to get out of town if you stole one. You’d either have to go through Canada or get on the ferry, and someone would be likely to catch you before you managed to do either.

Wooden bike rack = super secure. They should definitely adopt these in DC.

Wooden bike rack = super secure. They should definitely adopt these in DC.



Gus, the dog of the baker at the Rusty Compass. He tries to charm tourists out of their food.

I also can’t talk about living here without mentioning the dogs. Along with knowing each other, everyone knows everyone else’s dog. People tend to leave their dogs in their truck beds or their cars, and they park these cars outside the bars, so especially on Friday or Saturday nights and weekend mornings, I’ll see dogs roaming up and down the streets. They’re not strays; they have collars, so I suspect that they get tired of waiting and venture out on their own. No one seems too concerned, so I’m guessing that these pups usually find their way home.

Contrary to popular misconceptions about moose roaming free on the streets here, dogs are the most frequent wildlife we’ve seen. We were given free spots on a jet boat tour on Friday, and although we spent 2 hours looking for moose calves, we didn’t see a single one. The scenery was beautiful, though, and we did manage to see some trumpeter swans (they’re huge). Once the tour was over, they had scopes set up so we could see some mountain goats on a nearby mountain, so that’s something. And up at Chilkoot Lake the other day, we saw an eagle sitting in the river patiently awaiting dinner, while another one devoured its kill on the shore nearby.  We’ve also seen two active eagles’ nests, and on a run the other day, I saw eagles burst out of the trees just above my head. It appeared that they were chasing a hawk. Though once the salmon start running, there will be bears aplenty along the river, and people keep promising me that if I spend enough time out of town, I’ll see a moose (I don’t know how I feel about that). Plus, there are 260 species of birds here. So despite the lack of megafauna, it hasn’t been disappointing.



Trumpeter swan

A trumpeter swan taking off

This dog outside the Fogcutter Bar has had a long day.

This dog outside the Fogcutter Bar has had a long day.

3 dogs

3 pups in a car.

We were both woken up by a loud, "YOU NEED TO GET DOWN TO THE DOCK NOW!" in order to get on this tour. Totally worth it.

We were both woken up by a loud, “YOU NEED TO GET DOWN TO THE DOCK NOW!” in order to get on this tour. Totally worth it.



FIRSTLY, thanks to Rootchopper for shipping 2 Frisbee-sized apple fritters across the country. There is not enough gratitude in the world.  Rootchopper seems to be in favor of cheering people up with sugar-loaded pastries, and as a fellow junk food lover, I am deeply appreciative.  He is also an inspiration to those of us who might sometimes have a hard time prying ourselves off the couch in order to bike a mile to the store–in spite of his back problems, he bikes. A lot. And he loves every minute of it.  And I always get the impression that he’s a super cool dad to his two kids (Rootchopper, if you need anyone to talk your daughter out of majoring in anthropology, let me know). So thanks, Rootchopper, for being an all-around swell human and for reminding me why I love and miss the folks of #bikedc so much.


I’m not sure how the internet companies are getting away with murder up here, but they are. The data plans for in-home usage (we’re not even talking cell phones) cost a lot, and you get very little out of them—mostly, slow connection speeds, unreliable connection, and incredibly low data limits. Just something else to toss on the pile of things in Alaska that cost a lot.

And as cranky as I’ve been about the general lack of connection, mostly because it means less contact with my friends and family, I can’t say it hasn’t improved my quality of life somewhat. When holing up and watching Game of Thrones for hours on end because you’re tired and homesick isn’t an option, you have to go find something else to do. And in spite of my last post (I hope you all got that that was a joke), there is a fair amount to do here. You just have to know where to look and who to talk to, and people will talk to you because almost no one has a smart phone here, at least not that they regularly use in public.  Information about local traffic, weather, and local businesses’ open hours is all on the radio station. If you’ve watched Northern Exposure (“And for the traffic report….Maggie O’Connell just drove too fast down Main Street”), yes, it’s a lot like that.


On my first day off, I found the Mt. Ripinsky Trail. It’s so steep and muddy that they built stairs along the first mile. It was fun!

Why, just yesterday evening, we were invited to a gallery opening at the Sheldon Museum. We stayed for a couple of hours because the art was nice, the food was plentiful (people make a VERY BIG DEAL about events with free pizza here in town, probably because it costs $25 a pie), but mostly, the people were so darn interesting. I’m starting to see a lot of the same faces around town, and I’ve met many of them (it’s a town of 2500, so it’s not that hard), and just to give you an idea of the folks in attendance…

The gallery featured the art of local photographer John Hagen who doubles as a tour guide in the on-season. His black-and-white prints of nearby landscapes were on display, and they were beautiful. Many were of snowy landscapes, as you can imagine.

The London-educated Sheldon Museum conservator is among the smartest people I’ve met, and her husband and kids are fun, funny, and interested in all sorts of things, from trumpet music to dragon books.

An older gentleman asked us if we had spiked the punch, adding that it would be better with the addition of some local gin (there’s a new distillery in town).

I met another woman, originally from North Dakota, who teaches piano and voice, plays the ukulele, and knits, but she has also worked part-time as a museum assistant at the Sheldon for 19 years. She explained the museum’s halon gas system to me.

Michael, who is on the board of the Sheldon and the Hammer Museum, used to draw Bert and Ernie for Sesame Street. He greets each cruise ship that docks (while wearing a Hammer Museum t-shirt), rides an electric bicycle around town, and has genuine, contagious, exuberant enthusiasm about everything. His wife is the majorette for the local marching band (not affiliated with the high school, mind you), and her beaming face is on the front cover of the Haines Visitors’ Guide.

I also met a woman who invited Emily and me to bring our fiddles to a weekly gathering of musicians at the local assisted living center, and through the Hammer Museum board president, we’ve gotten involved in an ongoing restoration of the Anway cabin, which is just a couple of miles up the Haines Highway. Last Sunday, we helped weed a strawberry patch and planted some of Charles Anway’s heirloom berry plants.


These strawberries grow to the size of chicken eggs.

The local historical society is restoring a cabin from the early 1900s.

The local historical society is restoring a cabin from the early 1900s.

I’ve also taken to drawing, reading, cooking, and writing. And playing Bananagrams with Emily at the Fogcutter Bar, like all the cool kids. Honestly, I might just lose my data plan on my phone when I get back.

Homemade pizza on homemade bread. Take that, $25 pies.

Homemade pizza on homemade bread. Take that, $25 pies.


So there is no shortage of stuff to do here, and I’m grateful, because when we get off work at 5 PM, there’s still about 6 hours of daylight left. Which reminds me—if you want a Hammer Museum or Haines postcard, and haven’t already, send me your address and I’ll send one along (I wrote six this week, I just need to stamp ‘em). I’ve got time.