Overview of Southeast Alaska

Southeast Alaska is a narrow strip of coastline and offshore islands next to the province of British Columbia, sometimes referred to as the Alaska Panhandle. To local residents it is known simply as "Southeast." The region south of Glacier Bay consists of thousands of islands of various sizes which are collectively known as the Alexander Archipelago. These islands protect the more inland coastal waters, called the Inside Passage, from large waves, making them relatively easy to navigate.

Most areas of Southeast Alaska below 500 meters elevation are heavily forested with conifers. With 100-300 inches of rain per year, the region is a temperate rainforest. Water is everywhere in the form of streams, lakes, bogs, and soggy vegetation. The forest undergrowth is lush with ferns and mosses. The scenery of this coastal paradise is truly spectacular, but local residents complain that living for months without seeing the sun can lead to depression! Most of the land area of Southeast Alaska is encompassed by Tongass National Forest, Misty Fiords National Monument, and Glacier Bay National Park.

Because of the large amount of rain, one of the main controls on the vegetation is drainage. On steep slopes and in karst areas where water can escape, the trees grow very large. In flat areas of poor drainage, mossy bogs and ponds called muskegs form, and trees are stunted or nonexistent (see photo below at right of muskeg boardwalk near Sitka ferry terminal on Baranof Island). These bogs can be extremely acidic--as low as pH 2.4!

The steep, rocky terrain and the many islands and fjords make Southeast Alaska very difficult to navigate. Because of the sparse population, there are only local road systems except for the northern mainland town of Haines and Skagway, which are connected to the Alaska Highway. Therefore travel between the islands and between mainland cities is limited to boat and aircraft. The most economical means of travel is the ships of the Alaska Marine Highway (see the Aurora ferry below at left at Hollis, Prince of Wales Island). But others prefer to explore the Inside Passage from the luxury of a cruise ship (as seen below at left from the On Your Knees Cave beach camp). Tourism is one of the largest industries in Southeast Alaska.

While motored craft of all sizes dominate the scene, paddle-powered skiffs and kayaks can also be seen in abundance (as demonstrated by volunteer Karen Howell at the On Your Knees Cave beach camp below at left). Another icon of Southeast Alaska is the float plane (especially the small DeHavilland Beavers, as seen below at right, and the larger Otters). These provide the fastest way to travel almost anywhere in the remote islands because they can land on the ocean or on lakes.

Fishing is a major industry in Southeast Alaska, and it is done at all scales. Ports are full small vessels for commercial, charter, and private fishing. The reason for this enthusiasm can be seen in the photo below. The husband of a volunteer archaeologist, Roger Kaiyala, caught this 80 lb. halibut and 25 lb. king salmon during a visit to On Your Knees Cave, and it fed the entire camp for most of a week!

The other large industry in Southeast Alaska besides tourism and fishing is logging. Large sections of Prince of Wales Island and other areas of Tongass National Forest have been clear-cut in the last 40 years under a government program to stimulate the local economy. Karst areas are particularly attractive to loggers because of the unusually large trees that grow there. Logging has opened up many remote areas and has even led to the discovery many caves, but it has also caused damage to many caves and sinkholes by filling them with slash and silt. Clear-cut areas are very difficult to traverse because of the rotting wood slash and the sharp young vegetation.

Use of the rich timber of the Northwest Coast has a long history. The Tlingit and Haida natives are famous for their totems, and they also built (and still build) homes and other buildings from the cedar. Parts of this tree are used for many other purposes as well.

Kei Nozaki poses next to a pole at Totem Bite in southern Ketchikan (left). An unusual horizontal totem of an orca is located in Haines (above). Most totem images represent local animals of the air, land and sea.

Many other signs remain of ancient use of the region by humans. Petroglyphs are common along the coastlines, such as these faces (below at left) on a boulder on northern Prince of Wales Island and this bird (below at right) on a beach rock in Wrangell. Usually these petroglyphs are located in places where tidal fish traps were constructed.

Southeast Alaska was not always the rainforest that it is today. Evidence of erosion and deposition by glaciers can be seen almost everywhere. The smooth, polished coastline of Lynn Cannel (below at left) is a result of glacial erosion, as are the striations (scratches) on this boulder near El Capitan Cave on Prince of Wales Island (below at right). Even the overall topography of the landscape is largely glacier controlled.

Glaciers still dominate many of the higher mountains of coastal British Columbia and Alaska, as can be seen in the photo below at left. Several glaciers even reach tidewater and produce small icebergs. But during the Last Glacial Maximum glaciers were so extensive that Southeast Alaska probably looked much like Greenland does today (see photo below at right). It was these large erosive glaciers of the Ice Age that scoured out the fjords and channels, creating island geography that we see today. A question which has been raised, and which is answered by this research, is whether coastal refugia (unglaciated areas) existed along the Alaska coast during the Last Glacial Maximum. Such refugia can be seen as dark land areas in the photo of Greenland below.

Southeast Alaska has a complex sea level history. Sea level rose rapidly at the end of the Last Glacial Maximum from the melting glaciers. But the region had also been depressed under the weight of the ice, so the land gradually rebounded to its present position. Because of these two factors, sea level rose from about 100 meters below its present level to about 10 meters above its present level, then it gradually fell to its current position. These changes are reflected in waved-cut sea caves and sea stacks as well as shell beds above modern sea level.

The modern coast is shaped by waves and tidal currents, which scour the bedrock into interesting patterns and sweep away vegetation. Trees can only survive above the highest winter waves, but seasonal wildflowers can take advantage of the summer sun and smaller waves by colonizing small pockets of soil.

The forests of Southeast Alaska form a tall canopy that shades a dense ground cover of mosses, ferns, and a variety of bushes. Sitka spruce (in center below) and western red cedar (at right below) are two of the most abundant trees. Both have great economic value. The Tlingit culture was so tied to the cedar they spread northward along the coast in unison.

The Inside Passage is teaming with wildlife. The most common whales are humpbacks, which can frequently be seen from shore or from the ferries (at left below). Some travel alone and others in family groups. Orca pods are also seen on occasion. Many types of sea birds spend the summer in these fertile waters. The most diverse group is the auks, who fly through the water like penguins in search of food but struggle to fly through the air. The whiskered auklet below (at right) is carrying a fish in his mouth.

Another common group of marine mammals is the pinnipeds, who feed in the water but like to lounge on rocks where they are safe from orcas. At left is a group of curious but cautious harbor seals, and at right is a Stellar sea lion next to a lighthouse.

Southeast Alaska has a rich geologic and cultural history and an abundance of magnificent scenery and wildlife. It is a wonderful place to visit, and it is a fun and interesting place to do scientific research.

© 2002 by Timothy H. Heaton