Alaska's Tongass National Forest: Hiking and Bear Watching
Wrangell: Conquering the Coastal Rainforest of Southeast Alaska
By Jessica Pickett
Alaska. The name itself conjures up visions of dogsleds cutting across windswept valleys, brilliant colors dancing through the night sky, and rugged snowcapped peaks towering over iceberg-studded rivers. John Muir, the father of our national park system, once mused, “To the lover of wilderness, Alaska is one of the most wonderful countries in the world.”
I just so happen to be a lover of wilderness.
And Wrangell tucked deep into the heart of the Tongass National Forest, provided the perfect base to immerse me in the Alaskan wilds.
Entering Bear Country
We stood frozen in place, quickly recalling the “bear etiquette” rules instructed to us by Denny Strom, retired Yukon Fish and Wildlife Director and our Alaska Vistas Guide.
The rushing waters of AnAn Creek drowned out the sound of the two black bear cubs feasting on their still-flopping salmon.
The keen eyes of the mother surveyed us through the stair’s handrail slats. After the briefest of moments, she turned and stalked away into the forest, urging her young offspring to follow.
Mere hours ago, we pulled away from Wrangell’s docks on one of Alaska Vistas’ 30-foot, covered jet boats, heading for the mouth of AnAn Creek. The hour boat ride brought us through the mist-ladened Eastern Passage and Blake Channel (Back Channel to the locals) before arriving at the trailhead.
Lichen-covered firs and spruce trees loom over the half-mile boardwalk leading to the AnAn Wildlife Observatory. We stick close together on the trail, occasionally yelling out, “Hey, Bear!”
Finally, the roar of the falls indicates our arrival at the observatory. The platform stands on the precipice of the falls, looking out over the sloped mountainsides and boulders lining the creek.
“It’s the only place in Alaska where the eagles fly under you,” remarks Denny with a chuckle. From the upper observation deck, stairs lead down to the covered photo blind situated inches above the rushing water.
The normally bright creek turns black as thousands of salmon embark on Southeast Alaska’s largest run.
Swimming furiously, the salmon leap the cascades, dodging the massive paws and snapping teeth of gorging bears in hopes of spawning upstream.
For hours we stood in awe as both black and brown bears silently emerged from the trees to feast. Bald eagles and harbor seals wait patiently for injured fish and casualties that wash down the falls. Never before have I witnessed such a raw, untamed spectacle.
Hiking the Trails
Everywhere we turned, the richest shades of green saturated the woods. Following in the footsteps of John Muir, we stepped away from Third Street onto the Mt. Dewey trail rising above Wrangell.
For a little less than half a mile, we followed the undulating boardwalk trail. The sounds of town faded away, replaced only by the pattering sounds of our feet along the trail. We climbed 300 feet in elevation over the course of the quarter-mile trail to find ourselves silently looking out over the daily comings and goings of Wrangell and the Zimovia Strait.
We then headed south of town in search of the Rainbow Falls Trail Head. This eighth-of-a-mile-long trail proved to be slightly more strenuous then Mt. Dewey. We followed the gravel and boardwalk trail around ancient hemlocks and along burbling streams as we climbed up 500 feet.
A shaded platform opened up onto a panoramic view of Rainbow Falls and the valley below. Each breath brought the crisp fragrance of evergreens, clear mountain water, and the earthy scents of a decaying rainforest. We sat, drinking in the magnificent view for much of the afternoon.
Of all the dynamic landscapes in Alaska, few remind you of just how small you really are like coming face-to-face with glaciers. My first encounter came from the back of another Alaska Vistas jet boat.
Terry Buness, a lifelong resident of Wrangell, renown marine mechanic, and jet boat captain, masterfully maneuvered us around icebergs dotting Shakes Lake. Pristine blue ice spires towered over the boat as we drifted closer to the glacier’s face.
Fisheries Biologist and Alaska Vistas owner, Sylvia Ettefagh, slowed as the spray of surfacing orcas caught her eye.
As we drifted, harbor seals safely lounged atop icebergs crowding LeConte Bay. Carefully she picked her way through the iceberg congested bay to bring us to the massive face of LeConte Glacier.
LeConte remains the longest-studied glacier due to its frequent “calving”. As we watched a section of glacier collapse, Sylvia explained that the fjord’s 800-foot depth was a major contributor to the glaciers constant calving.
But in order to really grasp the Stikine Ice Field’s magnitude, we needed a bird’s eye view. Michael Lane with Sunrise Aviation banked our Beechcraft Bonanza plane left to point out a swirling white foam and a massive iceberg.
“Looks like we just missed a large calving!”, crackled his voice through the headsets. For an hour we marveled at the vast expanse of ice and snow winding through the peaks, feeding the glaciers.
Fishing the Rich Alaskan Waters
With one in every ten jobs depending on fish in Southeast Alaska, fishing is more than a way of life.
Most everyone in Wrangell fishes both commercially and personally, so when they offer a bit of advice on fishing their waters, you listen. Better yet, you let them guide you.
The mist hugged the tops of the trees and the water was flat and smooth the morning we left the docks with John Yeager, owner and guide of Alaska Charter and Adventures.
After baiting the lines with chunked salmon and fish stomach, we tossed them out. We sipped our coffee while bobbing the bait on the sandy river bottom, hoping to attract the attention of halibut.
“My favorite to fish for is King Salmon, but I really like Halibut as well, especially in shallower water. They fight differently. Instead of fishing in 200 feet, where they can just dive and pull, they are forced to swim out, fight harder. They can do some pretty cool stuff,” explained John as we patiently watched the end of our poles.
The telltale bump-and-tug brought the conversation up short. The pole bent over and the line whining as the fish ran with the bait. Fish on.
A short but physical tug-o-war pursued before I landed the 40-pound halibut. My arms shook from the effort when I high-fived John. Before the day was over the final count tallied five halibut, with the largest weighing in at around 90 pounds. Halibut may now be my favorite sport fish.
From Three Frogs Totem adorning the town’s newspaper masthead to the gorgeously wrought jewelry, carvings, and paintings found in most of the shops, the beauty of Tlingit culture permeates every aspect of Wrangell. Wandering the streets, masterfully carved totems punctuate the landscape at every turn.
While most of the totems and house poles are replicas carved in the accustomed Tlingit traditions, the originals can be viewed in the Cultural House and Carving Facility.
They tell stories of historic floods and monumental hunts. Of prominent chiefs and mystical heroes.
In order to hear more of these stories, we visited Chief Shakes Tribal House, told from Tlingits themselves.
Ducking through the small oval door fashioned as a bear, we entered the dimly lit chamber.
An intricately carved cedar panel - painted yellow, blue, and black - towered over the sunken hearth, hand-carved orcas, and the stage where the storytellers wove tales of their Tlingit ancestors.
With drums and rattles made from deer hooves, the narrators brought their lore to life.
The residents of Wrangell will be the first to admit how fortunate they are to have daily jet services. Twice a day, Alaska Airlines leaves Seattle heading north to Ketchikan, then Wrangell, then on to Petersburg and Juneau.
Charter services, such as Sunrise Aviation located at the Wrangell Airport, also provide flight services as well as sightseeing flights. The Alaska Marine Highway System provides yet another option for traveling to and from Wrangell and beyond.