The largest Tlingit village in the Southeast, Hoonah (pop. 900) nestles in Port Frederick, 20 miles south of Glacier Bay. Port Frederick has served as a home for the Tlingits since the last ice age drove them out of Glacier Bay and across Icy Strait to the north coast of Chichagof Island. There they found a protected bay they called Huna, meaning “place where the north wind doesn’t blow.”
The Northwest Trading Company opened a store here in 1880, and missionaries added a church and school the following year. A cannery opened in 1912 and operated until 1953. The attractively restored old cannery still stands a mile north of town at the entrance to Port Frederick, but the old village and many priceless Tlingit cultural items were destroyed in a fire in 1944. The people rebuilt their village on the ashes.
Today Hoonah is far from being the prettiest town in Alaska. The weathered clapboard houses are unpainted, and junk cars pile up in the yards. It’s the sort of town where the eagle calls blend with the sounds of motorboats and mufflerless dump trucks. There are dogs in almost every house and children playing on every porch.
Life in Hoonah follows a slow pace: Residents half-complain that they are unable to go anywhere without meeting someone who wants to talk the hours away. Hoonah’s economy is a blend of commercial fishing, a bit of logging, and traditional activities such as deer hunting, fishing, and berry picking.
The impressive cliff faces of Elephant Mountain (2,775 feet) guard the southern flank of Hoonah. Unfortunately, two Native corporations, Huna Totem and Sealaska, have logged much of their land near town, selling off their centuries-old heritage for short-term gain. Hoonah is now surrounded by a spiderweb of logging roads on both Native Alaskan and Forest Service land, making this a good place to explore by mountain bike, if you’re prepared for all the clear-cuts.
Icy Strait Lodge (907/945-3636, www.icystraitnow.com, $95–105 d) is the main lodging place in town, with a dozen guest rooms plus a good restaurant (daily 8 a.m.–1:30 p.m. and 5–9 p.m., $11–27) with pizzas, burgers, steaks, and seafood. In addition, several Icy Strait Point places serve food in the summer.
Hoonah has two small grocery stores, two bars, a liquor store, a variety store, an ATM, and a laundry, plus showers at the harbor. A few miles southwest of town is the only agricultural commune in Southeast Alaska, Mt. Bether Bible Center.
Getting to Hoonah
Hoonah’s ferry terminal (907/945-3293) is 0.5 miles from town. Across from the ferry terminal is a tiny but interesting old cemetery. Ferries arrive four days a week, stopping for approximately an hour—long enough for a quick jog into town and back. Make reservations through Alaska Marine Highway (907/465-3941 or 800/642-0066, www.dot.state.ak.us/amhs).
© Don Pitcher from Moon Alaska, 10th Edition