Exploring nature, industry on Alaska's Rainforest Islands

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Fishing boats and tenders waiting to bring in their catch in Petersburg on Alaska’s Mitkof Island.
Fishing boats and tenders waiting to bring in their catch in Petersburg on Alaska’s Mitkof Island. Photo Credit: Wild Iris Photography

Each spring, birds migrating on the Pacific Flyway feast at the mouth of the Stikine River, in Alaska's Inside Passage. By the time this year's Stikine River Birding Festival kicks off on April 30, attendees can expect to spot hundreds of thousands of snow geese, sandhill cranes, gulls, bald eagles and other birds.

The event coincides with the unofficial start of the travel season in Alaska's Rainforest Islands.

The Rainforest Islands is an umbrella term for hundreds of southeast Alaska islands within Tongass National Forest. Covering approximately 16.7 million acres of wooded landscapes, ice fields and waterways, the Tongass is the largest remaining temperate rainforest in the world.

The rugged scenery along Alaska’s Inside Passage.
The rugged scenery along Alaska’s Inside Passage. Photo Credit: Re Johnson for Wrangell CVB

The main population centers in the Rainforest Islands are on Prince of Wales Island, the fourth-largest island in the U.S.; Kupreanof Island, home to the Tlingit village of Kake; Mitkof Island, anchored by the community of Petersburg; and Wrangell Island. Commercial flights and Alaska Marine Highway System ferries serve Petersburg and the town of Wrangell, with charter flights and local ferries branching off to surrounding destinations. Various small-ship cruises also visit the region.

Carol Rushmore, Wrangell's economic development director, called the region "an Alaska capsule" that's just two hours from Seattle by air.

"This is bite-sized, bucket-list Alaska," she said. "You're surrounded by mountains and trees and the spectacular beauty of the ocean. There are glaciers, bears, whales and culture. It's all those iconic things that you want to see, all in one spot, without the crowds," she said. 

Wrangell

The Stikine River draws birders and recreation seekers who embark on kayaking, canoeing, rafting and boat tours. Some Wrangell-area hiking trails overlook the river, while others lead to pretty waterfalls and public-use cabins.

"Some climbers hike in the mountains of the Stikine Icefield, but for the most part, folks here enjoy soft adventure," Rushmore said. "They want to be active and see the surrounding environment and wildlife, but they appreciate the friendly, casual atmosphere."

Spotting bears from the viewing deck at the Anan Wildlife Observatory.
Spotting bears from the viewing deck at the Anan Wildlife Observatory. Photo Credit: Wild Iris Photography

Besides birds, the wildlife-watching checklist here includes black and brown bears that feed in Anan Creek each July and August. Visitors can watch by following a half-mile trail to the viewing deck at the Anan Wildlife Observatory. The U.S. Forest Service offers a limited number of permits to operators who take groups to the facility by boat or floatplane.

The Anan Wildlife Observatory recently completed trail, viewing area and outhouse improvements; observation deck expansion work and additional trail updates are scheduled to begin later this year.

Other Wrangell attractions incorporate local history. Petroglyph Beach State Historic Park sits on a stretch of coastline at a site believed to be some 8,000 years old. More than 40 depictions of birds, whales, faces and other petroglyphs are carved into the rocks here. 

A restored Tlingit tribal house stands on Shakes Island, in Wrangell's boat harbor. A small totem park is located a few blocks away, on Front Street. The Wrangell Museum at the Nolan Center details the community's history under Tlingit, Russian, British and American rule, including visits by lawman Wyatt Earp and naturalist John Muir. Other exhibits chronicle the region's Gold Rush days and the development of the fur trading, logging and fishing industries. 

The Wrangell Visitor Center, a good starting point for visitors, is also housed in the Nolan Center.

Hikers on the Raven’s Roost Trail near Petersburg on Mitkof Island.
Hikers on the Raven’s Roost Trail near Petersburg on Mitkof Island. Photo Credit: E.M. Thompson

Petersburg

Fishing also shaped the evolution of Petersburg, located northwest of Wrangell on Mitkof Island. Tlingit communities hunted and fished here when Norwegian businessman Peter Buschmann arrived in 1897 and later established a town. Today, Tlingit totem poles and buildings adorned with rosemaling, a type of traditional Norwegian folk painting, honor Petersburg's heritage. 

Each May, the four-day Little Norway Festival features traditional Scandinavian food, crafts, costumes and traditions.

"It's very much local families celebrating their heritage in the way that their grandparents did," said Petersburg Community and Economic Development director Liz Cabrera.

Like Wrangell, Petersburg is a jumping-off point for outdoor recreation. A wall of glaciers and snowy peaks frame Frederick Sound to the east of town. LeConte Glacier, Alaska's southernmost tidewater glacier, flows from the Stikine Icefield to an Inside Passage fjord. Flightseeing tours showcase the area, and kayaking adventures offer a closer look at icebergs and the seals and humpback whales that gather near the glacier at various points of the season.

Visitors can catch halibut and salmon on guided fishing trips near Petersburg, but it's also easy to experience the industry from the shore.

"Petersburg is located in a beautiful wilderness area, but it is a hardworking commercial-fishing town first," said Cabrera. "You can walk along the harbor and watch crews empty nets as fishing boats come in and out."

The Clausen Memorial Museum maintains more than 5,000 artifacts and 45,000 photos related to Petersburg's commercial fishing and cultural history. There and at the nearby Petersburg Visitor Center travelers can pick up a book about the labels created by Petersburg-area canneries.

A free, downtown walking tour map explores the same topic. The city has outfitted a dozen trash bins around town with replicas of the vintage labels. A new pocket park has additional displays that document salmon-processing methods and canning history.

Travelers engage with Petersburg on a deeper level when viewing the destination through the lens of its canning-industry and Norwegian roots.

"People often come to Alaska to take a cruise, to take the train and to see Denali and other icons," Cabrera said. "Once you've done that and you want to get a better sense of what these places are all about, Petersburg and Wrangell offer a completely different experience."

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