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Cruising off the Beaten Path in SE Alaska

Beth Cooper

Sarah Jean II
Saga 43
December 18th, 2017

You have no doubt heard of these popular destinations in SE Alaska; Ketchikan, Juneau, Glacier Bay and Sitka? Perhaps you’ve heard of Tracy Arm as well? They are all amazing places and not to be missed when planning a cruise to SE Alaska. But have you heard of Tenakee Springs? Pelican? or Baranof Warm Springs? We highly recommend you head off the beaten path and explore these unique communities. You can meet the colourful locals at Tenakee Springs and soak naked in the public hot springs; walk the boardwalk in Pelican and watch the sports fishermen haul in huge halibut; and anchor beside a waterfall in Baranof Warm springs and soak your sore muscles in a private tub overlooking the anchorage. In a series of three articles, I’ll take you to these three destinations off the beaten path in SE Alaska.  This first article is about Tenakee Springs.

Tenakee Springs

Our friends, Cinda and Fred on Songline from Juneau, told us, “Don’t miss Tenakee Springs.  It’s very funky!”  Tenakee Springs is a community of about 60 people, who enjoy an alternative lifestyle. There is no cell reception and it is accessed only by ferry, float plane or boat. It lies on the north side of Tenakee Inlet, which is on the west side of Chatham Strait, about 70 nm SW of Juneau. When we left Juneau in mid July, we were headed west out Icy Strait for Sitka. But we decided to make the detour down to Tenakee Springs to check it out. We stopped at Pavlov Harbor in Freshwater Bay, a popular spot to observe bears catching salmon in the waterfall in August. We were lucky to see two bears on the beach as we raised the anchor, but it was too early for salmon in the stream.

We saw whale spouts in the distance as we headed south down Chatham Strait. As we rounded the point into Tenakee Inlet, we were treated to an hour or more of humpback whales bubble-net feeding. This behaviour of humpback whales is unique to Alaska. The whales gather together in a circle under the water, surround a school of fish and blow bubbles, causing the fish to flee. The fish are surrounded by the whales, which surface all together with their huge mouths open and gulp down the fish. It’s an amazing sight to see, often a dozen whales surfacing all together.

We spotted many colourful houses on stilts as we approached the Tenakee harbour.  There is a small marina, so we tied up at the dock after contacting the harbour master on VHF 16. We learned from a local couple living on a boat in the harbour that payment is by the honour system. Simply put your money in an envelope and push it through the slot at the top of the dock. It was a short 10 minute walk into town. A dirt road runs behind the houses on stilts. Norm took photos of the eclectic homes as we walked the length of the road and back.  Some were run down with a multitude of fishing floats adorning the porches and yards. Others were very upscale; modern recreational homes for people from Seattle. Many had beautiful vegetable gardens for sustenance living.

The ferry had just arrived, so there was a handful of people congregating by the bakery.  A local woman asked us, “Did you just get off the ferry?” We replied that we were on our own boat moored in the harbour. “Watch out for the bears!” she cautioned. “There was one spotted by the harbour and one at the other end of the road this morning!” Great, we thought! Well, at least we had our bear spray with us!

The bakery had a sign in the window, “Pizza Night, Sat. Night”.  It was Saturday so we thought we would treat ourselves to pizza. But first we needed to check out the public bath house.  Tenakee Springs is best known for its hot springs. The spring flows into a concrete bath at 107 degrees F. The change rooms in the building have recently been renovated, and are a source of pride for the locals. Bath hours, separate for men and women, are posted. It’s free, but there is one condition: you must bathe naked! Norm took his turn during the men’s hour while I waited outside the museum, watching the locals drive to and from the store in the village on their ATV’s. One very large man had his dog on his lap on the ATV!

We enjoyed our pizza at the bakery and then it was my turn for a bath.

As I approached the bath house a woman said, “There’s a man still in there!” So I thought it would be prudent to wait. A local woman approached and asked why we were waiting. When she was informed about the man being in the bath house during women’s hours, she proceeded to storm in and give him what for! He came out with his tail between his legs, half dressed! I was then free to enjoy my bath with two other local women, who used the time as a social opportunity to gossip and catch up with each other. The hot water felt heavenly and the nakedness seemed perfectly normal in this situation.

On our way back to the boat, we passed a very cute little building that housed a free book exchange. I perused the titles but decided I had enough unread books on the boat. Luckily we didn’t meet any bears  along the road, but we we did have quite a few encounters with interesting locals in this colourful community in SE Alaska!

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  1. Chain Plate says:

    Great article! I want to hear more!

  2. Donna Sassaman Donna Sassaman says:

    We visited Baranof Warm Springs when cruising Alaska in 1998. Tenakee and Pelican are now on the list if/when we head north again! Thanks, Beth, for the delightful article.

  3. Stan Homer says:

    Very interesting. Actually visited there in 1989 & plan to return in 2018 with a different boat. Would love to correspond since we have not been up that way since 1991.

    Homers’ Odyssey

  4. Stuart Weibel says:

    My rainy day visit to Tenakee was a big disappointment. The “hot springs” was a dank, concrete well that doesn’t merit mention in the same universe as, say, Baranoff Warm Springs , or White Sulfur Springs, facing Bertha Bay on the outside of Chichigof Island. It was not a hospitable stop. Glad to hear they rebuilt the concrete well, but still… alternate hours for men and women? Be serious.

  5. John Chase says:

    Beth and Norm – I really enjoyed reading this article! How exciting and such a wonderful experience. Thanks for sharing this with the group!!