The mammoth floating communities, otherwise known as cruise ships, have been pulling into Skagway for a couple of weeks now. But on Wednesday, Haines saw its first vessel of the season. The Zaandam lumbered into the Port Chilkoot dock bright and early with visitors eager to step off and explore the Valley of the Eagles.
“It’s wonderful. We’re really enjoying it. I thought I needed my jacket but, I don’t!”
Becky and Lauren Warkentin are from Abbotsford, British Columbia. They’re grinning ear to ear as they walk off the dock and honestly, it was hard not to go over and talk to them.
“First time to cruise, first time to Alaska, first time Haines,” says Becky. “And we are celebrating our 40th wedding anniversary,” added Lauren.
The Warkentins were two of the 1,400 or so people to disembark in Haines. By comparison, in Skagway, four ships were in port Wednesday bringing in more than 9,000 guests.
As travelers walk down the dock onto solid ground, some stop to inquire about various tours or sights, while others just mosey on down the street. Wednesday’s ship originated in Vancouver and despite a still-flailing Canadian dollar, the Canucks were out in force.
Youngsters Amelia and Aaron Brownlee were on their first cruise with their parents from Calgary, Alberta. Amelia says life on the cruise ship is pretty good. She says it’s like a lot of mini houses stacked together.
“And there’s a club for kids,” says Amelia. “And there’s a pool,” says Aaron.
It’s hard to tell who’s more excited about first-ship day. The visitors, or Mayor Jan Hill.
“First ship of the year, look at the weather! I’m excited! I’m anxious and excited!”
Hill greets every ship that comes into port. She says cruise ship days are her “fun days.”
“I get a lot of pictures taken with visitors and it’s a lot of fun for us,” Hill says. “Last year I had a visitor contact me by email to see if it would be okay if they used our picture for their Christmas postcard.”
Up the street from the dock, visitors browse in the shops, snap selfies with Fort Seward in the background, and take in the sun and mountains.
Some were headed over to Skagway to take the train up to White Pass, like British Columbian Marty Goodwin. She’s been to Alaska a few times in the past and, she says, it never gets old.
“It’s always different. And nice people, too,” she says.
Leslie Ross is the tourism director in Haines. She says the first ship day means a sigh of relief. But not for long.
“We get all the kinks out, you know, things that we forgot or didn’t dust off from last year,” Ross says. “So, it’s nice to have this first day to get things moving. We have some of the same crew from last year so that makes it easy to ease right back into it. The flowers are out, the sun’s out … yeah… it’s perfect.”
Ross says typically cruise-ship visitors split their time between taking off on tours, and sticking around in town for shopping and sightseeing. She says she’s glad the Jilkaat Kwaan Heritage Center is now on the list of places to visit.
Back at the dock, the Warkentins from British Columbia say they have nothing in particular planned for the day.
“We’re just going to wing it,” Lauren says. “We’re just going to see what we can see.”
This season Haines will see around 38,000 cruise-ship visitors while Skagway will get nearly 800,000.