It is eleven minutes between Wrangell and Petersburg by jet. But Wrangell Island and the South End of Mitkof Island are much closer by boat from Banana Point.
A while after I first came to Southeast Alaska, myself and the future Alaskan Seafood Guys headed south on Mitkof Highway intending to launch from Banana Point. We would skiff to Wrangell to find a few distributors for “The Crown of Shakes”. My book on the legendary history of the Wrangell area. I didn’t know, that the Stikine River delta; flooded out of Canada in the spring; channels shifted location at any time; ever lengthening sandbars and tidal swings as much as -4 foot to +22 in six hours. I didn’t know to check the tide book, available at every gas station and marina, before going to sea. When we got to Banana Point, the tide was out and the waters of Sumner Strait were 1/4 mile off. We carried the skiff and then the outboard to the water. It would have been easier, if I hadn’t wore flip-flops! I didn’t know to always wear my “Extra-tuff “ boots. They’re called “Southeast Sneakers” for a reason. The jade green waters of the Inside Passage were “like glass” according to my oldest son. It was summer and the Stikine River ran white with glacial run-off. The islands at the mouth of the Stikine hide mystery among their shaggy Sitka spruce forests. The baying of the sea lions on their rookery excited the boys. And from there it was a straight shot to Wrangell. I hawked my book at the tourist shops. The boys found an arcade. I thought the trip back pleasant enough. The boys thought of it as the adventure of a life time
Another time my wife and I departed Banana Point for a tour of the Stikine. I knew a guide in Wrangell who would pick us up. To quote my wife the Stikine “is like a different world”. A warm breeze blows constantly down-river out of Canada. Within a few miles of the delta the rain and clouds of Southeast Alaska disperse. The wide flat valley is warm even in the fall. I’ve seen schools of seals sunning themselves on sandbars and majestic moose grazing in the muskegs along the river. My wife says fall on the Stikine can take your breathe away. When I first got here, I didn’t know how different a world it was. Back in the day the Stikine Valley was a major transportation corridor. Enormous hydrofoil barges kicking “rooster tails” 50 feet in the air and Hercs (Lockheed C-130 Hercules) ferried ore from the gold mines daily. It was not unusual to see two helicopters parked at Chief Shakes hot springs and the crews enjoying the tubs. Seismic survey ships flew across Southeast Alaska, their torpedo-like survey tool dragging behind the helicopter. Five air charter operations flew out of Petersburg and one in Wrangell. It was a different world. Since I arrived, the glaciers retreated enough that getting up close and personal with Chief Shakes Glacier in a boat is now possible, an eerie out of this world experience.
I escorted some bigwigs through Southeast Alaska one time. They wanted to go to Wrangell first thing in the morning, but the jet comes from Wrangell in the morning. I knew some people in Wrangell that would pick us up, so we drove to Banana Point. The Bigwigs thought it would be wonderful opportunity to spend time with the locales (their drivers) and visit highlights of Miktof Island like; the Falls Creek fish ladder, the Swan Observatory on Blind Slough, the new picnic shelters at Blind River and the newly renovated campground at Greens Camp. As we left Petersburg they asked questions of general interest and barely heard our replies as emails on their phones kept them distracted. After ten miles they began lifting their phones to get the fading reception. We explained that phones didn’t work this far out the road and there wasn’t any reception until Wrangell was insight. Suddenly, the fish ladder was too muddy, there probably wouldn’t be any swans this time of year, they had seen picnic tables before, and renovations probably weren’t finished at the camp ground. At Crescent Beach they were relieved to get coverages, only to lose it at Banana Point due to a small ridge there. They were happy to wade out to the boats from Wrangell when we promised they’d get reception again once on the water.
In 1940 Wrangell celebrated the Last Great Potlatch. Fifteen hundred people attended the rededication of Chief Shakes Hall, on an island named for the chief in Wrangell harbor. The clan house was rededicated early in this millennium. My wife and I were some of the 100’s to attend. We took the now daily early morning boat to Wrangell. Others came in Tlingit inspired canoes paddling from places all over Southeast Alaska. (Actually three canoes didn’t make it. A storm swept them away and their crews were rescued by support vessels.) Of all the events scheduled the first major one was the speeches inside Chief Shakes Hall. I knew there was no chance we’d score seats in the hall or hear anything from outside. But I knew of a similar occasion when John Muir and Rev. S.H Young visited the Chilchat.
“A cracking sound could be heard as they tore off the hand hewn planks forming the sides of the building”. (The Crown of Shakes, Wm Hamilton)
The Stikine followed the Chilcat example pulling the upper planks from the hall before the ceremony. Being taller than most the crowd we had a fine view of the speakers in ancient regalia or three piece suits reciting the ritual welcome in Tlingit. The next major event was the traditional dance in the community gym. People, by clan and community, entered the gym one at a time dancing and singing. Presenting the more ornamental side of their button blankets. They danced up and down with a sporadic jerking of their legs, their feet kept apart, turning from side to side. All the dancers keeping time to the beat of the drums with the stamping of their feet and shake of the rattles. In time the singing and dancing in the crowded room gave rise to emotion and sweltering heat. The people kept coming and the bleachers got more crowded and uncomfortable. We escaped the hall and went to landing above where the air was cooler. Below us the swarming dancers continually entered the hall with excited streaming faces packing together forming a moving mass of color. The tumult rose higher and higher. Sadly we had to leave the ceremony at its height. Our boat to Banana Point awaited. And more importantly I knew tide waits for no man.
One last story to tell about Banana Point, probably the last time I flew by helicopter in the area. It was winter and our mechanic was returning to Banana Point from Wrangell. The day dwindled rapidly. On a falling tide he ran ashore on one of the Stikine’s every growing sand bars. I knew the rescuers coming from Wrangell. I knew the helicopter pilot and the helicopter so I could vouch for them to the newAviation Officer. It was a short trip for us to rescue him in the twilight of my helicopter career.
Author - William Moulton