Love Letters: Hoonah, Alaska

A Love Letter To Hoonah, Alaska
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A member of the Huna Tlingit Wolf clan, Donald Dybdahl, age 31, lives in Hoonah, Alaska. He was born and raised in Hoonah, the largest Tlingit village in the state and one of the hidden gems of Alaska's iconic Inside Passage. A jack-of-all-trades, Dybdahl worked for his father commercial fishing as a young man and has been working for Icy Strait Point, an Alaska Native cruise destination about a mile from Hoonah since 2004. When he isn't working, Dybdahl enjoys spending time with his daughter and hiking in the Alaska wilderness with his girlfriend. He believes visitors can take something more special than a souvenir away from a visit to Icy Strait Point - a way of life.

Dear Hoonah,

You are a part of me even more than that I am a part of you. You aren't just the place I was born. You aren't just a dot on the map and a census statistic, which reads population 760.

As an Alaska Native, my relationship with you is tied to the deepest parts of who I am. I didn't put roots down here; I grew up out of the land.

As a young child, my father would take me out on his commercial fishing boat into the clear waters of Icy Strait off your rocky coastline and I learned that you would provide us with what we needed. We just needed to be willing to work for it. Our living came from the ocean and our nourishment came from your bountiful land in plants and herbs and the wild animals we hunted.

I learned a work ethic from you that I think is lost today in other places. Being a fisherman in Hoonah is one of the most prized jobs you can land and as a young boy I spent many of my days trying to impress the boat captains and other fishermen. My dad always taught me to work hard and then when I thought I was working hard enough to work even harder. The days were long. Sixteen plus hours of the most strenuous labor you can imagine in the harshest of weather. It didn't matter how tired I was, at the end of the day my dad and I would just look at each other knowingly and clock in for another shift if the fish were running. It was a badge of honor to be a fisherman and to this day it's still a huge part of who I am.

Hoonah, you are not like other places I have been, not even like our state capital Juneau, just a 20-minute plane ride away. You don't believe in nine-to-five jobs or business suits or neighbors who don't know one another. Because this has always been a community that has depended on the land and preserving our culture, we have learned to depend on one another in ways most people don't anymore. Our community is a family. We all support each other, no questions asked. That's why Icy Strait Point being built down the road has been so important.

For the past 10 years, travelers from all over the world have come to Icy Strait Point to see you and Alaska through our eyes. We have opened the doors to the Spasski River Valley where bears roam through the riverbanks; to the rough trails through the temperate rain forest where deer and eagles make their home; and to your beautiful protected coastline where humpback whales feed. We have welcomed these travelers into the way of life here with Tlingit customs and stories.

I started out at Icy Strait Point more than a decade ago doing landscaping and I have worked several different jobs as I have moved up through the company. I worked harder than everyone else because of what you taught me. Now I am the ZipRider and sign specialist. My specialty took me to Switzerland to oversee the installation of a ZipRider zip line there. The mountains in Grindelwald were breathtaking, and I even got some skiing in, but I was happy to come home to you, where the scenery is equally jaw dropping. There are so many things I can point out when I walk around Icy Strait Point that I helped build -- the bear-viewing platforms and trails, the ZipRider, the chimney at the Landing Zone restaurant. It's all a tribute to you and this community.

Because of Icy Strait Point, we will be able to sustain our community and in turn our culture. It provides steady work and is creating opportunities for our young people. It teaches them expectations and shows them that there are more opportunities than working on a fishing boat. Icy Strait Point is a direct result of our hard work. Again, your land has provided us with endless opportunities.

When I am out hiking in your wilderness and climbing to the tops of nearby peaks, I often find myself standing in places where few people have ever stood before. I climb these mountains because I like the challenge and the feeling of success when you reach the top. I work at Icy Strait Point because it's a thrill to be able to stay so close to you and I believe in supporting a community that appreciates your beauty and sharing it with people from around the world.

There is a new pier being built at Icy Strait Point and I believe this will only continue to bring more travelers to you. When people visit, I want them to walk away with the knowledge that there are still wild and beautiful places like you in this world. There are still places where people encourage and support one another while working to maintain their ideals.

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