Last Frontier

Alaska is a wondrous sliver of the natural world. It’s also another stage upon which the battle between environmental conservation and industrial development is being fought. Ilona Kauremszky followed in John Muir’s wake and sailed up Alaska’s Inside Passage to see the situation for herself.

“When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world.”
–John Muir, The Yosemite.

When the naturalist John Muir sailed the icy channels of southeastern Alaska by steamship in the late 1800s, his purpose was to discover glaciers, the geological formations responsible for carving his muse back in California, the Yosemite Valley. To say that he found his glaciers would be an understatement. What he didn’t find was what exists today — millions of acres of protected land, its native species guarded by law against development and destruction of their ecosystems.

In Muir’s time, Alaska’s natural value wasn’t so clear. By 1867, for instance, the year Russia sold Alaska at a fire-sale price of $7.2 million, sea otters were already well on their way to being hunted to extinction. Fast forward to today, though, and Glacier Bay National Park is a safe haven, a stomping ground for numerous endangered species.

Hemingway House
Stellar sea lions in Glacier Bay National Park. Photo credit Stephen Smith.

It was an international treaty that saved the otters from extinction way back in 1911, and it’s been the work of conservationists and policymakers alike that’s helped preserve the extraordinarily diverse natural ecosystems that exist throughout Alaska. One national policy, known as the Roadless Rule — a directive passed by President Clinton in 2001 — made about half of the Tongass rainforest safe from logging and development. That means safe trees, which means stable streams, which means more salmon and a healthier ecosystem — not to mention more pristine land to attract tourists.

Cruising Alaska’s Inside Passage by boat, just like John Muir all those years ago, has become big business. But as interest in Alaska’s natural wonders grows, so does the need to preserve the habitats. They’ve survived challenges from politicians before, but just this past August, it was reported that President Trump instructed his Secretary of Agriculture to exempt Alaska’s Tongass National Forest from the restrictions put in place in 2001 and to release nearly 10 million acres for “logging, energy and mining projects.”

The changes have the capacity to hurt more than just the environment. As one conservation group points out, tourism provides nearly 8,000 jobs in southeastern Alaska. Mining and logging combine to provide just over a thousand.

With all of this in mind, I hopped on a one-week waterway expedition to see up close an environment laden with undeniable eco-riches.

Humpback whale. Photo credit UnCruise Adventures.

Glacier Bay National Park

I set sail from Juneau in the S.S. Legacy, a 90-passenger Victorian steamship reproduction from UnCruise Adventures that has a real John Muir charm about it. More sea lodge than cruise ship, the vessel had no wi-fi and no cellphone service — whales and the wilderness were the star attractions.

When the skipper announced “whales starboard!” everyone on the ship jumped from the dinner table to feast their eyes on a Mother Nature show of the wildest kind: a pod of killer whales. It was a preview of what was to come. In just seven days on the S.S. Legacy, we managed to tick off a list of rare animal sightings that goes beyond what most people can even imagine.

Our first stop aboard the ship was Glacier Bay National Park, where nutrient-rich tidal pool waters rush in and out at the mouth of the bay like a giant sieve. The ebb and flow of these tides churn out a smorgasbord of organisms, from smelt-like capelins to wild salmon, that feeds sea lions, sea otters, bald eagles, brown bears, and humpback whales — all on either the endangered or the protected list.

Although as the park likes to boast, some species — “threatened outside of Alaska” — happen to thrive within the boundaries of the park.

Glacier Bay National Park. Photo credit Stephen Smith.

Glacier Bay is an ever-changing phenomenon. Two hundred and fifty years ago, what today is a bay was then completely covered with ice. Scientists consider that melting to have been a different phenomenon from man-made global warming, but they do call it “the fastest glacial retreat ever documented.” Still, the ice has left telltale signs — smoothed-out mountain peaks, gravelly beaches, and a bizarre phenomenon called “isostatic uplift.” That means the earth itself is still springing back up, after thousands of years compressed by ice, and supporting plant life.

We sail past South Marble Island. You smell the pungent odor even before you witness it: a colony of endangered Stellar sea lions at the new haul-out, a rocky islet which is the result of deglaciation. Necks craned skyward, some sea lions pose like statues while others dip into the glassy sea seeking pollock and salmon. “The population is doing well, increasing at one point as much as eight percent a year, the most rapid growth anywhere,” says Dr. Jamie Womble, a wildlife biologist who specializes in sea lions and sea otters.

In 1987, when Dan Blanchard first started running UnCruise Adventures to Glacier Bay, he never saw sea otters. “Now they have grown exponentially,” Dr. Womble says about Glacier Bay’s biggest animal comeback. “We see a few thousand in the park, sometimes over a thousand animals in a raft.”

Sea Turtlers
Tongass National Forest. Photo credit Stephen Smith.

Tongass National Forest

Set all around the Inside Passage, the Tongass National Forest is America’s largest national forest, and one of the last temperate rainforests in the world. It spans nearly 17 million acres and contains trees dating back some 500 years. Dripping with life, boreal lichen hangs off trees like Spanish moss in the Deep South. Underneath the cathedrals of towering Sitka spruce and hemlock, little pockets of life seep through the thick vegetation.

Of all the natural wonders in Alaska, Tongass might be the most amazing. It’s America’s golden goose of forests, and it is under threat. Meredith Trainor, Executive Director of the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council — a local non-profit organization tasked in protecting the Tongass National Forest — laments the dangers posed by the return of logging, which accounts for less than 1% of employment in the region. “We’re really talking about a small piece of the economic pie totally dominating,” she says of logging, noting that “the potential impact on all these incredible species in southeast Alaska that are still intact and in many cases thriving” could be heartbreaking.

USS Alligator
Tongass National Forest. Photo credit Stephen Smith.

Our ship plies south past Admiralty Island, said to have more brown bears by concentration than anywhere else on the planet, and we land on Chichagof Island, another brown bear haven. Now stooped over bear scat, it’s hard not to let your imagination run wild. Standing atop a soft mossy carpet, the layers of pine needles and undergrowth like a cushion, we huddle over the fecal matter, berries visibly protruding from the harvest. Lucky for the bears, the Tongass is a cornucopia of natural foods. Will it stay that way?

At Keku Islands, one of the areas to be affected under any changes to the Roadless Rule, there’s a powerful tide that pulls nearly as strong as those off the Bay of Fundy in Canada. Bald eagles rest on gnarly trees atop rocky islets. “The Inside Passage is a huge bald eagle hot spot,” points out ornithologist Gwen Baluss rather symbolically, adding that America’s national bird, which is a threatened species, “has become one of the easiest birds to spot here.”

“The question now is,” asks Meredith Trainor, “Are we going to let them give a rough pull to the Roadless Rule? Are we going to let that happen? Or are we going to continue to protect a system that is unlike any other?”

Ilona Kauremszky is travel writer and digital content producer.

Map and Lighthouse
Sea Otters. Photo credit UnCruise Adventures.