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Haines: A pretty but tough place to live

By Emily Carlson 5:27 AM February 7, 2014

Come and visit, but Haines residents don’t mind if you can’t stay.

HAINES – We all know Alaska is one of the best places in the world to live, but recently, one Southeast Alaska town has earned some major accolades.

Executive Travel named Haines one of the best small towns in America.

Residents, however, said it’s also expensive and tough to live in such a beautiful environment.

Tucked away in the picturesque Chilkoot Inlet, the small town of Haines is best known for its spectacular views.

“There is no bad day here. Even when you’re shoveling the snow you pause for just a minute and go, ‘Isn’t this beautiful?’” said Haines resident Kris Reeves.

The 2,400 souls who call Haines their home may live in a postcard, but some said they pay a high price for the lack of traffic jams and cell phone service.

“Making it through the winter with your cohorts, I think there’s something to that. We feel that camaraderie,” said Christy Tengs Fowler.

After the snow flies and tourists scatter away, the people who live in Haines are left to fend for themselves. Haines may be beautiful, but it’s no heaven on earth. Residents said it’s tough to live here.

Christy Fowler owns the Bamboo Room and Pioneer Bar. In a town where everyone knows everything about every person, it’s challenging to find help.

Fowler does it all: wait tables, cook, bartend, you name it. She’s used to hard work. Between the tourists in the summer and the high fuel prices in the winter, Fowler said, it’s a constant struggle to break even.

“In the wintertime, we have to work more to pay the bills and in the summer we’re really busy so we’re working all the time,” Fowler said.

But she said she wouldn’t live anywhere else. She said it’s not the mountains or the bar that keep her in Haines. It’s the people who call this small town home.

“The quality of the artwork that exists here in the Valley and has for hundreds of years is really amazing,” said Lee Heinmiller.

Heinmiller grew up at the Alaska Indian Arts Museum, and now he runs the place. The building is part of Fort Seward, the first fort in Alaska. After it shut down in the 1940s, Heinmiller bought a few of the buildings. The first appendectomy in Alaska happened there in 1922.

“The surgeon got on the radio with the surgeon at the Presidio in San Francisco and he’d never done an appendectomy before, but he had a book that showed him how to do it and so they did an appendectomy on this woman and she survived,” Heinmiller said.

Heinmiller is a history junkie. He said if he doesn’t preserve it then no one will. Take his traditional Tlingit pieces. If they weren’t at Alaska Indian Arts Museum, they’d be tucked away and forgotten.

“A lot of pieces still in existence are hidden away in the clan house and rarely get brought out and if they’re brought out, it’s only for major memorials or things like that,” he said.

Then there’s David Olerud. He founded the American Bald Eagle Foundation back in the ‘80s, and changed people’s perspectives about eagles.

“Historically the mentality of our people was to shoot the damn bird,” Olerud said. “All they knew was you can’t have welfare so you shoot the bird and I’ll give you a check.”

Today, Olerud hosts the largest gathering of enthusiasts in the world. But his success didn’t come without trials. While constructing the very building, a mistake changed his life forever.

“We lost control and it started coming down and I backed up,” Olerud said. “A big peak caught my head and put it on my ankle and I got crushed.”

Today, Olerud spends his days in a wheelchair with lots of help from his friends. In the wintertime, those friends gather back at the Pioneer Bar. In Haines, the band rocks out in snow pants, and the required dress code includes flannel and stocking caps. If you don’t like it, they don’t really care.

Not much has changed here over the past five decades. There are no stoplights, no strangers and no secrets here. Good luck making a cell phone call. Come and visit, but Haines residents don’t mind if you can’t stay.


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