Big Hit for Far North

The welcome is warm at Icy Strait

By: Mike Miller

At first blush the site adjacent to the Tlingit Indian village of Hoonah must have seemed an unlikely locale for a major new $22 million Alaska visitor development. Could a closed-down near-century-old cannery complex on a wilderness island really make it as a visitor destination?

he year was 2004. The cruise season was about to begin, and the naysayers and doubters shook their heads in unison.

“Oh boy, were there ever naysayers. And did they ever doubt,” said Johan Dybdahl, president of Icy Strait Point, the Alaska Native-owned corporation that converted the historic old cannery into a new purpose-built cultural center and excursion base.

Icy Strait Point is reserved exclusively for cruise-ship passengers, explained Dybdahl, and by the end of the first day that the first ship dropped anchor, virtually everyone agreed that a hot new cruise attraction had been born on the Alaska scene.

More important, for two seasons now cruise visitors have been equally positive all season long about the experience. A silver-haired woman, caught on camera for an informational video disk (available to agents), spontaneously said, “It’s amazing ... I’m so glad we stopped here.”

Teenage cruisers giggled and called it “awesome.”

A 30-something woman said: “We travel a lot, and we never get an experience like this.”

What happens is this: A visiting cruise ship no more than one per day enters Port Frederick Bay and drops anchor just off shore from Icy Strait Point. The view is one of tranquil bay waters, lush green forests, sky-piercing mountains and inland from the gravel beach the freshly painted red buildings that formerly housed Hoonah Packing Company, established in 1912.

From morning arrival until late-afternoon departure, continuous tenders haul passengers from ship to dock. There they meet their Tlingit hosts, many in full regalia, who offer more than a dozen excursion options ($26 to $179) available for the day.

Then the fun begins.

Fun like whale watching aboard a comfortable sightseeing vessel in the unexcelled marine menageries off nearby Point Adolphus.

Fun like flightseeing over the mountains, bays and massive ice rivers of Glacier Bay National Park.

Fun like fishing from a small boat for bountiful salmon just offshore, or helicoptering to a remote, wild forest locale for guided stream angling.

There are also remote wildlife spotting tours for brown bears and other Alaska forest critters. For “rough riders” there’s a forest drive over logging roads and trails in two-passenger Kawasaki “Mule” ATVs.

Add to the list bike tours to and through Hoonah; authentic dances plus storytelling and songs in the Heritage Center theater; and a visit to Icy Strait Point’s centerpiece museum. Here visitors find displays that chronicle the history of both the native peoples hereabouts and the rise and fall of the cannery era in Southeast Alaska. There’s also the fascinating old cannery line of authentic machines and cooking ovens.

In addition to paid excursions there are free and spontaneous options. There’s a forest nature trail of considerable merit, said Dybdahl. Hundreds of visitors walk the gravel road 1½ miles to Hoonah where they shop and meet the locals.

“Some passengers bring their own fishing gear and cast off from the dock for whatever will bite,” said Dybdahl. “And lots of visitors enjoy just lazing on the dock, reading a book or strolling the beach. Amazingly, a few plunge in the water for a quick swim. Believe me, it’s cold.”

Clients find three dining choices: the Timberhouse bar and grill located on the beach (burgers and seafood are specialties) and the Chowder House restaurant housed appropriately in the cannery’s old cookhouse.

“Many a lousy meal was served here,” quipped the video disk’s narrator. “But that isn’t the case now. The restaurant specializes in salmon and chips, halibut and chips and other seafood. And, of course, chowder.”

There’s also a snack bar for sandwiches and coffee in the Departure Lounge.

In the remodeled cannery warehouse passengers find 12 shops specializing in Alaskan carvings, basketry, paintings, beadwork and jewelry, plus even some Eskimo ivory, baleen and soapstone creations.

In 2004, three vessels from two cruise lines Celebrity Cruises and Royal Caribbean International called at Icy Strait Point 32 times. The same lines increased port calls to 37 in 2005. For 2006, additional calls from Holland America Line’s Friday-departing Gulf of Alaska cruises and at least one selected cruise aboard Princess Cruises will join Celebrity and RCI to swell next year’s total to 73.

“Cruise line interest,” said Don Rosenberger, vice president for tourism development, “is very high.”

Approximately 55,000 cruise passengers visited Icy Strait Point in 2004. About 70,000 came in 2005, and Rosenberger expects a whopping 120,000 in 2006.

Not bad for an outfit that some had doubts about just two years ago. Suffice to say, the naysayers are now saying “yea.”


To obtain the 18-minute informational video disk travel agents may contact Icy Strait Point by e-mail. The company also has a 10-minute video available for viewing on its Web site.

Here is a sample of additional cultural attractions.
Mt. Roberts Tram is an aerial tramway rising from sea level on Juneau’s cruise ship dock to an elevation of 1,800 feet at the upper station.
Adult Admission: $23.95
Commission: 10 percent

The nonprofit Alaska Native Heritage Center has become a “must-see” attraction in Anchorage. The center features the cultures of five Alaska Native traditions in a large theater and exhibit hall, and at five “village” sites around a central lake.
Adult Admission: $23.50
Commission: 10 percent

Alaska Heritage Tours, a subsidiary of the CIRI Native Regional Corporation, operates three day-cruise companies in south-central Alaska’s Prince William Sound. Seward-based Kenai Fjords Tours takes clients to glaciers and wildlife haunts to view whales, sea lions, sea otters and more. Mariah Tours, also based in Seward, offers birding, photography and other specialized day cruises. Prince William Sound Cruises and Tours calls Whittier home and provides glacier and wildlife viewing as well.
Fares: From $59
Commission: 10 percent