A 30-Mile Rafting Trip Through Alaska’s Tongass National Forest

At the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic with worldwide travel restrictions, we started a new series – The world through a lens – in which photojournalists virtually transport you to some of the most beautiful and fascinating places on our planet. This week, Christopher Miller shares a collection of images from Southeast Alaska.

With your eyes closed, the scent of the forest is enhanced by the lack of visual distraction. I breathe in the musk of a stand of huge red cedar trees that dominate the landscape as the seemingly endless forest stretches to the mountain-lined horizon.

I grew up exploring the edges of the Tongass National Forest, which is right outside my back door in Juneau and extends for hundreds of miles along the coast of the Gulf of Alaska and the North Pacific. With 16.7 million acres of land, the Tongass is both the largest national forest in America and the largest intact temperate rainforest in the world. My earliest memories are filled with its sights, sounds, and smells.

Here on Prince of Wales Island, about 200 miles south of Juneau, I immersed myself in the same temperate rainforest I came to know as a kid. It feels both strange and familiar. I let the fragrant cedar smell wash over me for a few moments before I opened my eyes and shouldered my backpack further into the forest.

It’s late April 2019 and my travel companion Björn 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 did without the canoes and opted for packrafts because of their size and weight. They are easier to drag over logs and over the many short portages.

Because of the slow melting of the snow, we are making slow progress. We meander through many flat sections of rock and inevitably pull, hop and shovel over rocks. Eventually we trudge through the ice-cold water that covers our ankles and calves. The journey is unhurried; It allows us to appreciate our surroundings and admire the small lakes, streams and rivers.

Southeast Alaska is inextricably linked with the Tongass National Forest. They are one and the same, and the mountainous western edge of the North American continent gives way to the hundreds of islands that make up the Alexander Archipelago. The landscape is covered in western hemlock, red and yellow cedar, and sitka spruce.

On the second evening we decide not to crowd into a small tent. Instead, we pamper ourselves with the roof and bunks of a forest service hut on Honker Lake. The fireplace is small but more than enough to hold off the evening frost, and it fills the air with the pungent and luxurious smell of cedar and burning logs.

At dusk, we sit right in front of the hut and hear the namesake of the lake and the hut – the Honker or Canada goose – on the wing, cackling by the hundreds on their hike north.

Canada geese use the lakes and streams along the Honker Divide as stopovers to their summer nesting and breeding areas. Every day from morning to evening we see and hear them above us as we paddle and hike, a harbinger of the long summer days.

Bird watching is amazing, but the tingling sensation on my neck when I look up at the sky pulls me back to earth and into the forest.

Prince of Wales Island is slightly larger than the state of Delaware. It is home to many species of animals found throughout the Tongass – elk, black and brown bears, Sitka black-tailed deer, beavers and porcupines. We are also looking for a subspecies of the flying squirrel and the wolf of the Alexander Archipelago.

Sixty years ago the forest that surrounds us did not live with the sounds of cackling geese, but with the whirring of chainsaws and all the machinations of modern industrial logging. Visually, the inevitable clearcuts that shape the lowlands and the mountain slopes are the most characteristic features of the island.

The island is still being felled on a smaller and more sustainable scale. Earlier this year, with the encouragement of successive governors and congressional delegations in Alaska, the Trump administration finalized plans to open approximately 9 million acres of the Tongass National Forest for logging and road construction – by clearing the area of ​​protection by a Clinton. Era policy known as the Roadless Rule, which banned logging and road construction in much of the national forest system.

Proponents of the plan point to its economic potential. But the repeal of the rule – which caused mostly negative reactions when it was opened to public comments – could irreparably change the watershed of the Honker Gorge and endanger the oldest living things in the forest. From Thursday the administration will open the Tongass for logging.

While Björn and I push our way through the thicket of the Devil’s Club and roll over chest-high nurse trunks, the trees seem to grow before our eyes. The forest is a witness to the passage of time and a nearby stream is a lifeline from the past. The saplings at the confluence of the stream mark the present, while the giant spruce and hemlock at their source probably predate the European colonization of America – so the only people who were able to witness the birth of these trees are the Tlingit of the region and the Haida peoples.

These trees are among the oldest in the vastness of the Tongass. They could also be among the most vulnerable from the 2001 roadless repeal. We reflect on their immeasurable value and try to reckon with the thought that they are a simple commodity, a resource that needs to be extracted.

After winding our way through the state of old growth, we are forced to face the timeline of our journey – and the arrival of our seaplane the next day. We withdraw into the shadows of the forest and return to the present with every step. Our boats are waiting for us and we make our way to the end of the canoe route in the sleepy former logging town of Thorne Bay.

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