In sharp contrast to Alaska's mythical image of a land of ice and snow, Southeast Alaska has -- at least, since the Little Ice age 10,000 years ago -- provided a veritable bounty for the Native tribes inhabiting it. The thousands of square miles of the Tongass National Forest are spread among mountainous stretches of the "mainland" and hundreds of islands, some larger than several Eastern states.
The rainforest itself is a dense wilderness that has only been slightly touched by the large-scale logging that took place in the latter half of the 20th century. It also remains the untouched, living forest that nurtured the Tlingit and Haida tribes over the last several millennia in which everything has living spirits and must be treated with respect and ceremony to ensure its continued bounty.
The greatest of the ceremonies have always been the "potlatches" in which the Natives showed how favored they were by giving away what they had themselves received. The potlatches not only reinforced the "communal" life of the Natives, but were also a strong showing of their belief in the future and that it would bring them more than they had given up.
The Native presence remains strong in Southeast Alaska. The bounty from the sea helped create strong, wealthy tribes, and nowhere is that more apparent than in the art created by the Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian tribes. Even the most utilitarian items were turned into works of art that continue to be treasured by collectors worldwide. The totem poles and long houses were spectacular community creations, and the tribal subsets, called moeties, were honored with beautiful masks, beadwork, and blankets.
Although Southeast Alaska has been "settled" longer than many other parts of the state, it still remains "unknown" compared to many parts of the United States. As visitors travel from town to town, they understand how the communities are "islands" in the greater wilderness, and they imagine if they were to step ashore on an isolated island or wander up into the dark woods, they could indeed be the first human being to do so. The islands themselves have mountains soaring up to 5,000 feet above sea level. When you add the density of the forest and the lack of roads, they just might be right.
The lack of roads in Southeast Alaska also creates some challenges in traversing the region. To get from Ketchikan to Juneau, for instance, you have two options, boat or plane. The airports are small, the flights are short, and the Alaska Airlines 737s are filled with local folks commuting from town to town for meetings, school events, and shopping. For those with more time, the Alaska Marine Highway System is used instead of Greyhound or Amtrak. When you ride the ferries, or "Blue Canoes," as they are affectionately called, you will find yourself sharing a ride with everyone from the governor to loggers and fishermen lugging their gear to the next job. The informal chats you will have with your shipmates will teach you more about Alaska than a library of guidebooks.
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