Alaska brings in tourists from all over the world to view stunning natural attractions and learn about the 49th state’s history. But how can a small Southeast town compete in the tourism industry? Wrangell tour operators say they can give an intimate and authentic experience unlike other towns.
The Seaborne cruise ship docked in Wrangell on a Tuesday morning. Roughly 400 passengers had a day to get their fill of this tiny island town.
Some tourists wander with a map in hand. I spent the day on a 3-hour group tour with about a dozen folks. Mostly older couples.
“This one intrigued us, because it was on a much smaller ship and we could get into lovely places like Wrangell, that we have not seen before,” says Judy Vineyard. She’s from Arizona and has been to Alaska five times. She loves whale watching.
The cruise passengers tell me they have already been to Juneau and other small southeast towns like Haines and Sitka. Some even started their journey in tourist hot spots like Seward and Denali. So I was curious, what more could Wrangell offer them?
“I thought it was going to be not as touristy. Which is delightful,” Vineyard says. “I’m sure you want it to grow and you want it to get more touristy. But when you’ve been to other places and there’s so many people walking around, and it is just one little tourist shop after another, this is just a breath of fresh air.”
Brooke Leslie is our Alaska Waters tour guide for the day. She’s native and grew up and lives in Wrangell. She’s taking us on the Island Heritage Tour. It’s geared towards the Tlingit history of the island.
Our first stop is at Chief Shakes’ Tribal House. We’re greeted by Virginia Oliver and Arthur Larsen, in partnership with the Wrangell Cooperative Association. They show off their regalia and tell native stories. Oliver tells a funny but gruesome story about Raven getting his guts stripped out and laid on a beach.
Oliver and Larsen aren’t just making a buck off the tourists. They’re active members in the local tribe, and continue to teach and study Tlingit culture in town and around southeast.
After that we head to the city museum. It gives a comprehensive take of the town’s history. Leslie is able to point out something from her own family history in the museum. There is a photo of her grandpa on as a teenager on Wrangell’s basketball team. And another one of him smoking salmon.
“Not everyone gets to say their grandpa is in a museum,” Leslie says.
In a super small town, maybe it’s not that surprising to see your grandpa in the museum, playing basketball and smoking salmon.
But Leslie says this an instance that won’t happen with tour guides everywhere in Alaska.
“[Tourists] are going to be on tours with people that are just college students that are in Alaska for the summer.
Leslie’s a part of the community. And the tourists dig that. They don’t just ask her about Tlingit history, they ask her about her life today.
“We all live a very subsidence way of life, and we actually live in Alaska. So just that in itself is unique.”
Our last stop of the day is at Petroglyph Beach, where native rock carvings are scattered on the ground.
Vineyard is trailing behind the group; she’s interested in something else.
“I’m collecting sea glass. We collect it all over the world wherever we go,” she says. “And I thought well wouldn’t it be something if there was sea glass here, and there is. It’s wherever you know they had a garbage dump.”
Well, trash is a recurring theme of Wrangell’s history.
I ask vineyard what was her favorite part.
“I loved talking to the two people that are native here. That was spectacular,” she says.
And even if Front Street isn’t littered with gift shops, Vineyard was still able to get a souvenir. She buys a few garnet stones from a young girl with garnet gift shop set up by the beach, just outside her house.