Wrangell has a strange, slightly ramshackle frontier mood. With only a very rare cruise liner unleashing their human cargo in this Alaskan town, Wrangell has a peaceful easy-paced feeling and none of the fancy jewellery and trinket shops around the docks that towns like Ketchikan and Juneau have.
Outside of the turbulent and wild Stikine River and the exceptional wildlife experience watching brown and black bears fattening on salmon at nearby (50 kilometres away by boat) Anan Creek, Wrangell has two interesting sights in town both related to their Indian past.
Around a mile north of Wrangell is Petroglyph Beach, full of strange carvings in rocks around the high-water mark. Several bald eagles nests line the road to the beach. Estimated to be around 8,000 years old, the area an estimated forty to fifty carvings, some simple spirals or stylised faces and others more sophisticated fish or sea creatures. While some are on rocks out in the open, some remain hidden by the lapping tides and others seek shelter under grassy fringes edging the beach. In a kind of treasure hunt, it is an enjoyable hour checking around rocks on this remote and unkempt beach trying to unearth more of these ancient carvings or to interpret their possible meaning.
A boardwalk area includes reproductions of a few of the better examples to encourage people who take rubbings to use these as a protection for the originals that are slowly being warn away by the inevitable tidal erosion.
Little appears to be known for the reasons behind the local Indian carvings. Various explanations include markings of a good hunting or fishing area, a thank-you to the gods for bountiful hunts, a celebration for a battle victory or the simple joy of artistic expression.
Near to the docks is Chief Shakes Island including a number of totem poles and a central communal hall called the Tribal House of the Bear. The title of Chief Shakes (now largely ceremonial) is handed down with the Tlingit Indians have overseen four separate ruling nations (including the Indians themselves). The Russians signed an agreement with them to trade furs in the area before the British and finally the Americans took control of the area.
The central house is surrounded by a number of grandly carved totem poles, featuring a variety of animals and symbols. My personal favourite are the three frogs peering from their wooden perch through the foliage while a friendly bear lays prone on another pole. The three frogs totem pole represents shame to a neighbouring clan who had three of their young men have sex with three of Shakes clan’s women and yet not support the resultant children.
While best as a base for two superb adventures to Anan Creek bear-viewing and the Stikine River, Wrangell offers a quiet sprawling town with two unusual sights marking the rich Indian cultural history of the area.