A 30-Mile Rafting Trip Through Alaska’s Tongass National Forest
At the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, with travel restrictions in place worldwide, we launched a new series — The World Through a Lens — in which photojournalists help transport you, virtually, to some of our planet’s most beautiful and intriguing places. This week, Christopher Miller shares a collection of images from Southeast Alaska.
With my eyes closed, the scent of the forest is sharpened by the lack of visual distraction. I breathe in the musk of a stand of giant red cedar trees, which dominate the landscape, as the seemingly unending forest stretches to the mountain-lined horizon.
I grew up exploring the fringes of the Tongass National Forest, which sits just outside my backdoor in Juneau and stretches for hundreds of miles along the coast of the Gulf of Alaska and the North Pacific Ocean. Encompassing 16.7 million acres of land, the Tongass is both the largest national forest in America and the world’s largest intact temperate rainforest. My earliest memories are instilled with its sights, sounds and smells.
Here on Prince of Wales Island, some 200 miles south of Juneau, I’m immersed in the same temperate rainforest that I came to know as a child. It feels both alien and familiar. I let the fragrant cedar smell wash over me for a few more moments before opening my eyes and shouldering my pack farther into the forest.
It’s late April 2019, and my traveling companion, Bjorn Dihle, and I are on a four-day, 30-mile excursion through the heart of Prince of Wales Island along the Honker Divide Canoe Route, the island’s longest trail. We have forgone the canoes and opted for packrafts due to their size and weight; they’re easier to schlep over logs and across the many short portages.
Because of the sluggish snow melt, our progress is slow. We weave through many shallow rocky sections, inevitably dragging, bouncing and scooching over rocks. Eventually we trudge through ice-cold water that covers our ankles and calves. The travel is unhurried; it allows us to appreciate our surroundings and take in the small lakes, streams and rivers.
Southeast Alaska is inseparable from the Tongass National Forest; they are one and the same, with the mountainous western edge of the North American continent giving way to the hundreds of islands that make up the Alexander Archipelago. The landscape is blanketed with Western hemlock, red and yellow cedars, and Sitka spruce.
On the second evening, we opt not to cram into a small tent. Instead, we spoil ourselves with the roof and bunks of a forest service cabin on Honker Lake. The fireplace is small, but it’s more than adequate to ward off the evening frost, and it infuses the air with the pungent and luxurious smell of cedar kindling and burning logs.
Sitting just outside the cabin at dusk, we hear the namesake of the lake and cabin — the Honker, or Canada goose — on the wing, cackling by the hundred on their migration north.
Canada geese use the lakes and streams along the Honker Divide as stopovers to their summer nesting and breeding grounds. Every day from dawn to dusk we see and hear them overhead as we paddle and hike, a harbinger of the long days of summer.
It’s awe-inspiring to watch the birds, but the crick in my neck from gazing skyward draws me back to earth and to the forest itself.
Prince of Wales Island is slightly larger than the state of Delaware. It’s home to many of the animal species found throughout the Tongass — moose, black and brown bears, Sitka black-tailed deer, beaver and porcupine. We’re also on the lookout for a subspecies of northern flying squirrel and Alexander Archipelago wolf.
Sixty years ago, the forest that surrounds us was alive not with the sounds of cackling geese but with the whir of chainsaws and all the machinations of modern industrial logging. Visually, the most defining characteristics of the island are the inescapable clearcuts that checkerboard the lowlands and mountainsides.
Logging still exists on the island, on a smaller and more sustainable scale. But earlier this year, the Trump administration, with the encouragement of successive Alaska governors and congressional delegations, finalized plans to open about nine million acres of the Tongass National Forest to logging and road construction — by exempting the area from protections provided by a Clinton-era policy known as the roadless rule, which banned logging and road construction in much of the national forest system.
Supporters of the plan point to its economic potential. But the removal of the rule — which drew overwhelmingly negative reactions when it was opened for public comment — could irreparably change the Honker Divide watershed and endanger the oldest living things in the forest.
As Bjorn and I push through thickets of devil’s club and trundle over chest-high nurse logs, the trees seem to grow before our eyes. The forest stands as a witness to the passage of time, and a nearby stream as a lifeline to the past. The saplings at the confluence of the stream mark the present, while the giant spruce and hemlock at its source likely predate the European colonization of the Americas — so that the only humans who could have witnessed the birth of this stand of trees are the area’s Tlingit and Haida peoples.
These trees are among the most ancient in the vast expanse of the Tongass. They may also be among the most imperiled by the abrogation of the 2001 roadless rule. We ponder their immeasurable value, and try to reckon with the thought of them as a simple commodity, as a resource to be extracted.
After meandering through the stand of old growth, we are forced to confront the timeline of our trip — and the arrival, the next day, of our floatplane. We retreat into the shadows of the forest, heading back toward the present with every step. Our boats are waiting for us, and we set off to reach the end of the canoe route at the sleepy former logging town of Thorne Bay.