The upper regions of North America’s West Coast have always been noted for high mountains and tall trees; as well as their fertile, well-vegetated rainforests. Traveling up the coast, the climate becomes gradually colder and more precipitous, the mountains somewhat higher, and the glaciers grow into large, expansive rivers of snow & ice. Eventually, the setting becomes a distinctively Alaskan one – rugged mountains, glaciers, fjords, ocean; but the lush vegetation and tall trees are still a predominant feature. This stretch of coast, along with the accompanying Alexander Archipelago, is known alternatively as Southeast Alaska or “the Panhandle.”
The Panhandle, identified as one of Alaska’s seven distinct regions, is the south-eastern arm of the state (hence “Southeast Alaska”)...everything east of longitude 141. Latitude-wise, the Panhandle stretches from just below the 55th parallel to just above the 60th, making it one of the most southerly portions of the Alaska. The region is boxed in by British Columbia to the east and the Gulf of Alaska to the west, occupying only the narrow strip of mainland between the ocean and the major peaks of the Coastal Mountains. Much of the land in Southeast is located on the Alexander Archipelago; which includes such large islands as Admiralty, Baranof, Chichigof (referred to collectively as the “A.B.C. Islands”), Kupreanof and Prince of Wales. Through this large network of islands runs an expansive mesh of channels and glacier-carved fjords.
As a whole, settlements in Southeast Alaska tend to be very small (most have populations of less than 1,000); and since most of them are located on various islands, they also tend to be rather isolated. The three largest towns in the region are Juneau (pop. circa 30,000), Ketchikan (15,000) and Sitka (8,000). Although Juneau is on the mainland (the other two are on separate islands), it is interesting to note that none of the three towns can be accessed via road. In fact, only three towns out of the 30 or so that dot the Panhandle have any sort of road access. However, the larger towns have regular jet service, making them far less isolated than most of the Panhandle. For the majority of communities in Southeast, the only access is via either boat or small plane (usually floatplane). The Alaska Marine Highway (Alaska’s public ferry system) pays regular visits to most towns in the region. Still, places like Pelican get only one ferry every two weeks; while others (Elfin Cove and Yakutat) get none at all.
Most of the Panhandle is part of the Tongass National Forest, the world’s largest temperate rainforest. A good deal of Tongass is filled with large, fertile evergreen trees – primarily Sitka Spruce, Western Hemlock, Mountain Hemblock, Red Cedar (in the southern Panhandle), Yellow Cedar, and Lodgepole Pine (found mainly in muskeg areas). Red Alder and Black Cottonwood are the only full-sized deciduous trees common to the area, although Paper Birch can be found in a few areas, such as northern Lynn Canal. Because much of Southeast’s terrain is steep and can be avalanche-scoured, green alder shrubs are extremely common in places where evergreens cannot grow. Some have even ascribed the designation “weed” to the alder; and indeed, travel through alder-thick areas can be quite discouraging. However, most would much rather travel through alder growth than through patches of devil’s club – a spiny member of the ginseng family which is also common in the Tongass.
But interestingly enough, despite the verdant reputation of the forest, the lush evergreens comprise only about one-third of the forest’s total acreage. The majority of the Tongass is an assortment of muskeg, rock, ice, alpine tundra...and I suppose the dreaded alders would be included here as well.
The Panhandle’s rich biology is expressed through wildlife as well as flora. Deer, brown & black bears, mountain goats, and even some moose are all to be found among the varied terra. The marine environment is home to halibut, Pacific Salmon, sablefish, ling-cod, and countless other fishes; not to mention mammals like humpback whales, Orcas, porpoises, sea lions, and harbour seals. While puffins and other sea-birds are also common in the Panhandle, far more fuss is made over the abundant bald eagle population. Often, river valleys in Southeast (the Stikine, Taku, Chilkat, and Alsek are the main ones) can be the best areas for seeing the fauna in action.
Southeast Alaska is very mountainous. Its islands are filled with low, thickly forested mountains; the mainland is dominated by the high, barren rock & ice of the Boundary, Chilkat, Fairweather, and St. Elias ranges. The Fairweather/St. Elias, located in the northern panhandle directly on the Gulf of Alaska, are among the highest coastal mountains in the world. Mt. Fairweather rises to a height of over 15,000 feet; Mount St. Elias – 18,008. These mountains are noted for their sheer jaggedness and raw beauty; they are feared among alpinists for their horrible weather. Jon Krakauer’s “The Devil’s Thumb” tells of his attempt to climb one such mountain in the Wrangell area.
All of these mainland mountain ranges contain extensive networks of icefields and glaciers; especially in the northern Panhandle. Glacier Bay, in particular, is noted for its many large tidewater glaciers. The icefield covering much of the Fairweather Range is said to be the most expansive in North America, although the Juneau Icefield and Stikine Icecap are also quite impressive. The Malaspina Glacier (north of Yakutat) is the largest glacier on the continent; while its neighbour, the Hubbard Glacier is the longest. Like their counterparts in much of the world, almost all these glaciers (but not the Hubbard!) are retreating at a steady clip, usually leaving behind long valleys and fjords. When John Muir visited Glacier Bay in the 1890s, it was a small bay dominated by one massive glacier. Today, it is a long inlet that branches into many fjords, each one containing a calving, retreating glacier.
Weather & Climate
Southeast Alaska is notorious for the amount of rain it receives. Ketchikan, the southern “Gateway to Alaska,” gets over 150 inches of precipitation each year! Most of this is a result of the warm weather fronts that cycle in from the Pacific Ocean. Because of this, the Panhandle has relatively a relatively mild climate – it never gets very hot in the summer or very cold in the winter.
Northern Southeast receives a large amount of snow, however. The town of Haines will often have three or four feet of covering the ground during the winter. In fact, the surrounding Chilkat Mountains are becoming very popular among the heli-skiing crowd. Juneau used to receive about 100” of annual snowfall, but much of this seems to have been replaced by rain in recent years. (Actually, snow-rain-freeze is a common winter weather cycle in Juneau. This often results in large burms of refrozen, cement-like snow & ice).
As is the case in most of Alaska, the Panhandle’s economy has traditionally been resource-based. Timber, mining, and fishing have all been important players in the region’s infrastructure.
In the past 50 years or so, however, mining just hasn’t been as essential to Southeast as it once was. In the earlier part of the century, for example, the world’s largest silver mine (the A.J. Mine) operated out of Juneau. Although there are still big mining operations around (Admiralty Island’s Greens Creek Mine, for instance), the overall contribution to the economy just isn’t very significant anymore.
Timber is likewise becoming a thing of the past, owing in large part to environmental concerns. In a sense, it could be said that the 1994 closure of the Ketchikan Pulp Company’s sawmill marked the end of the big timber era. Yet although the issue does concern logging, it is not as clear-cut (heh heh) as one might think. It is still very heated; and many people, such as Alaska governor (and former Ketchikanite) Frank Murkowski, have promised to bring the timber industry back to what it once was. But others have seen the mess that logging has made out of Prince of Wales Island, and would like to spare the remainder of the Tongass from suffering the same fate. It is also worthwhile to note that at no point in the region’s history has timber been able subsist as an industry without the aid of government subsidies.
Commercial fishing still plays an extremely important role in the region’s economy; particularly gillnetting, salmon trolling, seining, and longlining. It, too, has been fallen upon hard times, however, thanks to dwindling fish prices. Sitka, Petersburg, Wrangell, and even Ketchikan (not to mention dozens of smaller towns in the region) are all highly fishery-dependent economies. Petersburg, Alaska’s “Little Norway”, is the largest halibut producer in the entire state.
As the traditional base of natural resources has slowly declined, tourism has steadily increased in the past 15-20 years. Alaska is among the most popular cruises for the big cruise lines, meaning that Ketchikan, Juneau, Skagway, and Glacier Bay all get hit with hundreds of giant cruise ships each season.
Many Southeasterners have expressed dismay at the cruise ship proliferation, while others are glad for the increased commerce. Negative aspects relate to concerns about the Panhandle’s economy being run by multinational tour corporations; as well as the intense traffic generated by the thousands of cruise ship tourists – some of whom tend to view the Alaskan experience as little more than a quaint, rugged sort of “Disneyland”. There has also been some concern about large cruise ships dumping their wastewater within the archipelago (which isn’t flushed nearly as well as the open ocean).
Usually much more valued by locals are the independent tourists – kayakers, sport fishermen, and even heli-skiers, all of whom give the area a fair amount of traffic; as do motorists touring the inside passage via the Alaska Marine Highway. These sorts of folk tend to have more of an actual interest in the area; and will generally end up putting far more money (per capita) into the local economy.
In Juneau (being, as it is, the capitol of Alaska), the economy is largely government-based. Every few years, Anchorage devises a new plot to snatch the capitol up to South-Central Alaska (about half of the state’s population is clustered around the Anchorage area), and panic ensues in Southeast...Perhaps all the anti-capitol move campaigning gives an additional boost to Juneau’s economy.
Prior to Western contact, much of the Panhandle was dominated by natives of the Tlingit ethnicity, although the Haida also had a strong presence in the southern parts of the region. The Eyak natives also had a minor presence in northern Southeast, but their tribe was actually centred around the Yakataga area (a bit further northwest). The Tsimshian tribe is indigenous to British Columbia; but Metlakatla (southern Panhandle) has become a major Tsimshian center in the last 100 years or so.
The Tlingit tribe is not technically related to those of the Haida or Tsimshian (the Tlingits are distant cousins of the Eyak and Athabaskan tribes). However, Tlingit, Haida, Tsimshian, and Eyak all have many cultural features in common. In fact, a number of the cultural traditions of the Southeast Alaskan tribes were also common among natives further down the Pacific coast, namely the Kwakuitl and coastal Salish.
All of these tribes have long attracted the curiosity of anthropologists due to their unique economic system. The tribes of the Northwest Coast (including those of Southeast Alaska) were of the forager economy in that they did not develop any sort of horticultural or agricultural activities. As a result, they relied on hunting/gathering/fishing for all of their resources. But these cultures also lived in sedentary (permanent) establishments, and had complex social order – features which are almost never found in foraging cultures. The reason for this anthropological fluke has to do with the resource-abundance found in the Pacific Northwest. The extremely high availability of resources in the Panhandle (and the BC/Washington coasts) made complex social organisation possible without the development of agriculture or pastoralism.
A related phenomenon (among the Southeast Alaska/Northwest Coast natives) that has also sparked the curiosity of ethnographers is the cultural tradition of potlatching. A potlatch would generally occur when a clan with a surplus of resources at a given time, would offer a very large feast for a neigbouring clan that was resource-strapped (the outward reason for a potlatch was usually an event such as a birth or a death). Anthropologists see this phenomenon largely as a way for the clans to reciprocally share the widely fluctuant resources of this region. In other words, affluent Clan A might offer struggling Clan B a potlatch; knowing that in a year or two, the resource tides may turn, leaving Clan A dependent on Clan B’s altruism. Of course, potlatching also served to boost the social status of the benevolent clan. Though it obviously no longer serves these purposes, potlatching continues even today as a cultural ceremony among Souteast Alaska's natives.
In 1741, Russian Aleksei Chirikov and Dane Vitus Bering set out as the leaders of an exploratory voyage on behalf of Czar Nicolas II. In July of that year, land was spotted, and the captains approached what was probably either Lituya Bay or Lisianski Straits (both places are in northern Southeast). Though it seems the voyage never really made any contact with the Tlingits in the area, tensions sprung up almost immediately. Chirikov had sent a party ashore to scout out the entrance to this body of water. When the party disappeared, some natives (who were present in the area) were blamed. Bering and Chirikov spent a number of days looking for the missing crewmembers, but eventually abandoned their efforts and set sail for Kamchatka. On the voyage home, Bering’s ship was lost and he was killed. Much of his crew survived, however, killing and eating seals during the course of their efforts. In this way, the crew were able to save a number of seal pelts, which turned out to be really hot items back in Russia.
In the next 40 years or so, the Panhandle was visited by Juan Perez of Spain, and LaPerouse of France. Neither country ended up having any further dealings with Alaska, however.
But in Russia, fur seals were becoming extremely popular, compelling the Russians to move into the newly-charted territory that was Alaska. Russian Alexander Baranov landed in Sitka in 1799, establishing it as the second European settlement in Alaska (the first had been in Kodiak).
The Tlingit, resentful at the Russians’ colonialistic attitude, staged a major attack on Sitka in 1802, massacring Baranov’s settlement and leaving only a few survivors. Tlingits struck Sitka again two years later, and gained much ground; but this time they were eventually forced to retreat. The following year, a different Tlingit clan succeeded in wiping out the entire Russian population of Yakutat during a similar raid.
Despite these early deterrents, the Russians quickly got their operations underway, and the area’s fur seals were hunted en masse. So fast was the rate of harvest that by 1850, the seal population was on the verge of extinction. Meanwhile, Russians back in Europe had been suffering devastating losses in the Crimean War, and their government quickly lost interest in the territory. In 1867, the United States arranged to purchase Alaska from Russia, and the deal was carried out at Sitka (which was, at that time, the Alaska’s capitol).
By this time, the Tlingit infrastructure had been flooded with European goods traded from the Russian colonialists. Their foraging economy, which had been adapted to conditions of relative isolation, had trouble dealing with the rapid influx of resources and technology. The potlatch ceremony, which had always been associated with displays of wealth and status, became exceedingly decadent. The clans hosting the ceremony, in addition to feasting the visiting clan (a traditional part of the ceremony); would wantonly burn vast amounts of their own resources, solely as a display of prestige.
In the early days of U.S. ownership, the Panhandle (and indeed the entire territory), attracted very little interest or attention from the American public. “Seward’s Icebox” it was called as a smear against Secretary of State William H. Seward (who had been involved territory’s acquisition). But as the later 1800s wore on, things slowly began to change.
Gold was gradually being noticed in a number of different places, and it began to creep its way into the affairs of the territory. In 1880, miners Joe Juneau and Richard Harris were to the northern Panhandle on a prospecting expedition, and discovered a large amount of gold in Silverbow Basin (near what is now downtown Juneau). Within only a few years, the area was home to some of the largest industrial mines in the state.
Most significant, however, was the 1896 discovery of gold in the Dawson – a remote outpost in the eastern part of the Yukon Territory. These finds captured attention across the United States after the Steamship Portland pulled into Seattle carrying a large number of successful prospectors and an estimated $1 million in gold. Ship after ship full of gold-famished prospectors unloaded in Skagway (at the northern end of the Panhandle), and soon the tiny settlement was a tent city of an impressive 15,000 – all waiting to pounce on the Klondike goldfields like a dog on a bone.
Not surprisingly, the entire Klondike affair ended in disappointment for most; and the harsh Alaskan/Yukonite conditions would spell death for some of those who attempted to traverse the rugged mountains and frigid boreal forests up to the goldfields. The mining situation down in Juneau, however, was in a somewhat more stable state of prosperity (although it, too, would eventually bust). So successful, in fact, were the Treadwell, Alaska-Gastineau, and Alaska-Juneau mines, that the territory’s capitol was moved from Sitka to Juneau in 1900, where it has remained ever since.
But though the mining affairs were undoubtedly rather exciting for those in northern Southeast, the rest of the region had been finding more stable sources of economic development. Timber harvest and commercial fishing were both underway by this time.
In many ways, little changed within the Panhandle for most of the 20th century. A number of small towns – Pelican, Gustavus, Petersburg (originally a Norwegian colony) sprung up and prospered through the fishing industry; while on Prince of Wales Island, logging camps like Thorne Bay had their heyday. It has been mostly in the past 15-20 years that these traditionally profitable industries have slowly began to wane. Along with them, once-thriving towns have lost both population and vitality...As the sawmills and canneries close down, so, too are the bars forced to shut their doors.
Like all of Alaska, Southeast is having to adapt to the fact that natural resources can no longer sustain it single-handedly. Unfortunately, many Alaskans (led by Gov. Murkowski) still deny this; and so the place is in a bit of a rut right now. Lacking in creativity, the public has only repeated its stale cries for more ore!, more timber! – sadly, they fail to see the Tongass for its trees.