For the last 20 springs and summers I’ve had the greatest job—guiding people down the Tsirku and Chilkat Rivers through the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve, the site of the largest gathering of bald eagles in the world. My little town, Haines, Alaska, is in the Chilkat Valley, carved, over the centuries, into a U-shape by thousands of feet of moving ice. The braided Chilkat River is the fertile highway for five of the salmon species: King, Sockeye, Silver, Pink and Chum. Hundreds of thousands of salmon run up the river every year. The salmon provide a buffet line for the eagles and bears. The low lying willow, ferns and marsh plants is an all you can eat salad bar for moose, herbivores that eat 50 pounds a day.
The Chilkat Valley is the home of the Tlingits, the native tribe of Southeast Alaska, master totem carvers and legendary businessmen who once maintained a trading route from Northern California through the Chilkat Valley into the interior of Alaska. The Tlingit’s mother village, Klukwan, a treasure chest of native history, sits along the Chilkat River 25 miles up valley from Haines.
Haines itself sits in the middle of pure beauty, on the tip of a peninsula, the Inside Passage’s ocean waters on one side, the Chilkat River on the other. The postcard shot of Haines most people have seen is taken from Picture Point with the snow packed Chilkat Mountains booming from behind the town.
This blog will look at my 20 years of guiding in Haines and Southeast Alaska. Funny stories and tragic stories. How things have changed and how things have not changed. What I’ve learned and what I haven’t learned. What makes a great guide and an examination of why there are so few great guides anymore, a reflection on where we’re at as a culture and a country.
I am grateful to many people for helping me achieve my goals in Alaska. All of them are great river guides who have been great friends to me. John French (Frenchy), world class international guide who brought me to Haines 20 years ago; Michael Pratt, a great guide who supported me with friendship and guidance; Lorin Hayden, who laughed with me through many a challenge; Joe Ordonez, who mentored me and opened doors of possibility for me; Mike Speaks, who trained me on my first Tatshenshini river trip and set the high bar of great guiding for me; and Bart Henderson, owner of Chilkat Guides, who allowed me the freedom and gave me the platform on which to continually grow and learn.
Also thank you to the hundreds of guides who came and went in the Chilkat Guides system over the last 20 years and, in many ways who I learned the most from, the thousands of people from all over the world and from every walk of life that I’ve rowed down the river.