The Tongass Needs Travelers, Before It’s Too Late
Imagine there’s no Internet. No cell service. No sounds of traffic or other human noise.
Instead, there’s a lake. Water so still it holds the sun on its surface. An emerald forest shimmering on its banks. You’re in a kayak, in the middle of that lake, in a world where pink and orange dusk lasts for hours.
You’re not dreaming. You’re in the Tongass.
I moved here when I was young enough that the forest feels like home now.
Thirty years ago, my mom opened a small salmon smoking-and-canning business that was only supposed to be a weekend enterprise for a little extra money. I worked there when the business and I were both young.
I’ve come and gone many times over the years. These trees have always brought me peace.
I now live in Klawock, a town that takes its name from the sound of a raven’s call. I often hear the big black birds crying “klawock” as they swoop among the old red cedars on my property.
The Tongass is North America’s largest temperate rainforest. But as the national mood shifts and the chainsaws begin to come for these trees, we need people to come here to help ensure it stays that way. We need people who see value in the Earth’s living forests, the salmon in these rivers, the berries that grow along their banks, and the eagles and ravens that call out their cries.
We need travelers.
The Tongass provides a profoundly perfect backdrop for inspiring art, food, music, love, and restoring the inner resources you may have thought had melted away after spending too much time in a world gone dangerously astray. Here’s how to make this place yours.
Prince of Wales Island sprawls at the southern tip of the Tongass, and the bottom of Southeast Alaska’s Alexander Archipelago. It is best experienced unplugged, unwired, and unwound.
Sit with a hot morning beverage on a wooden porch bathed in sunlight and turn up the quiet. Sink into a nap in the afternoon with the sound of summer rain on the roof lulling you to peaceful sleep.
Read. And not the kind of reading where you’re scanning on your smartphone while multitasking, or those fifteen minutes before turning off the light at night. This is where you can deep-read for hours, immersed in words and stories, savoring the feel of real paper in your fingers and the sound of pages turning.
Experience the wilderness.
High bush cranberries, elderberries, cloudberries, salmonberries, gooseberries, blueberries, and blue and red huckleberries glisten in bright glades and sparkle across the forest floor. Pick and eat them raw, bake them into muffins, stir them into pancake batter, or reduce them down in a saucepan on the stove with some water and fireweed honey for a sweet and tangy syrup.
If you fish, you might catch a trout in a pristine stream or lake and fry it up for breakfast, lunch, or dinner with a side of those freshly picked forest berries. Few things are better than a fresh catch cooked over a blazing fire on the beach or beside a wild river or stream.
Trails cross the Island over. Years ago, on a hike along the Harris River Trail, I was resting by the river when it suddenly began to rain ducklings. About five of them fell from the bank behind me, the mother duck quacking frantically in their wake. We got them sorted out, and the little family sailed out of sight down the pristine waters of the Harris. It’s my favorite trail.
Though brown bears have not been present on the Island for many years, you can find a passage littered with the exposed bones of an enormous one long gone in El Capitan, Alaska’s largest cave. Free guided tours can be reserved through the Thorne Bay Ranger District at least two days in advance, and will take spelunkers along a wooden stairway to the cave’s entrance and beyond.
During the deepest part of summer, sunsets last slightly more than two hours as the sky fills with orange, pink, and gold. Winds tend to die down in the evening, creating smooth-as-glass conditions in the many bays and inlets on the island’s edges. Calm water means crystal clear reflections, and evening kayakers frequently find themselves enjoying a double sunset as the colors dance on the combined palettes of water and sky.
Forest bathing, in Japan and Korea, is understood to help improve the immune system, decrease stress levels, reduce blood pressure, increase the ability to focus, and generally improve mood. We don’t call it “forest bathing” in the Tongass, but we know that everyone feels better after sitting under a canopy of trees.
Live like a local.
Forest Service cabins provide comfortable wilderness accommodations. There are 21 of them here and, for between $30 and $60 per night, you can choose from settings ranging from beachfronts to wild alpine meadows. Several of the cabins are accessible using vehicles or kayaks and canoes, but others require a Forest Service pilot to fly you in and pick you up at the end of your stay. Most allow stays of up to two weeks. You can book them here.
Locating services and amenities can be like trying to hit a moving target on Prince of Wales — businesses open and close without warning all the time, and many don’t have an internet presence. When I get my tiny house and yurt resort with botanical rainforest garden up and running sometime within the next five years, I promise we’ll have a website.
I recommend the good people at Hollis Adventure Rentals for your rental needs — they have everything from canoes and cars to cookware, maps, and binoculars. They’re used to working with visitors staying in Forest Service cabins. They’ll know exactly what you need.
In the Tongass, rainy mornings evolve into sunlit afternoons until the rain returns an hour later. Be prepared with layers that are easily removed and put back on as necessary. Sturdy, nonslip footwear is a must.
Unscented grooming products are also necessary. Leave your personal fragrance items at home. In a forest full of black bears, you don’t want to smell sweet like a patch of ripe berries or a hive full of raw honey. Bears can’t really distinguish between scents — they just know that sweet is sweet. (Black bear attacks on the island are rare, just use common sense caution and you’ll be fine.)
Take in the land.
We’re about 70 miles east of the Alaskan southern panhandle city of Ketchikan. To get here, fly via Alaska Airlines or catch the Alaska Marine Highway ferry in Bellingham, Washington. Then, choose between the Inter-Island Ferry, Island Air, Taquan Air, or Pacific Airways.
Whether flying or ferrying, you’ll have a beautiful ride.
By water it takes about three hours. Catch dolphins playfully following behind in the ferry’s wake, huge whales floating in the distance, migrating pods of orcas, and bears, deer, and foxes on the beaches of small islands where no humans have ever lived.
Flying takes half an hour, during which time you’ll be treated to a stunning aerial view of the ocean and then the lakes, rivers, and forests of the island.
There is so much to uncover in the heart of the Tongass.
And we need travelers to help tell its story. To ensure these lands are kept safe.
You could begin your morning enjoying coffee on a covered porch while a cool forest mist sweetens the air with essential plant oils, at noon be filling pails with salmonberries on the sunlit edges of a deep wood, and several hours later enjoy some deep reading in a wilderness cabin during a summer rainstorm before the weather clears and you kayak by the light of a long Tongass twilight.
Last winter, I inherited that old, shabby, run-down smoking-and-canning business. With thousands of salmon on the processing room floor and a new baby son strapped to my back, it became clear that this was destined to be more than a part-time venture. Thirty years after we opened our doors, my own family of fishmongers was born.
We’re now a world-renowned salmon processing plant called Wildfish Cannery. You can find us on Big Salt Road.
If you stop by to visit and mention that you found us through this piece, we’ll be glad to give you some coffee or tea, a piece of smoked salmon, and a chair for forest bathing beneath the shade of my biggest red cedar.