Alaska – The Forest of the Southeast

Please consider all images as copyrighted – thank you. Contact me for use… DEClapp

This is the first of several pages on Alaska. I was just there (May-June 2017) for just over three weeks with a tour group** and then touring/birding with Fran. It was grand – In  the Southeast we traveled from Sitka to Petersburg to Juneau and then after the tour, I flew north to spend time out on the Seward Peninsula (Nome), then down to the Denali (Mount McKinley) area, and finally to the very beautiful and livable Kenai Peninsula. The next ten blogs or so will speak to the various areas of this great state and to the geology, birds, mammals, and scenery of the region.

Sitka Spruce dominate the coastal forest along Alaska’s Southeast peninsula. There are mountains to the east which keep Alaska and western Canada quite separate. There are only three passes through the mountains and only one sort of main road. Most of the Southeast is serviced by ferry lines and float planes. But that only enhances the remote feeling that the state exudes.














Alaska is certainly a state of majesty. The superlatives are unending; 3,000 rivers, 3 million lakes, 34,000 miles of coastline*, 425 times the size of Rhode Island and with a lake as large as Connecticut. But for many it is the scenery and wildlife that compels a visit. The state encompasses about half of the west coast Canada and then runs northward with about one-third of Alaska inside the Arctic Circle. Ever drive across Texas; Alaska is twice as large. As a matter of fact it is a bit larger than Texas, California, and Montana combined. Seventeen of North America’s tallest mountains are in Alaska.

*The 34,000 includes islands; the mainland coastline is about 6,600 miles.

It is our least densely populated state – if Manhattan were populated the same way there would only be 28 people on that island. In the northern city of Barrow the longest night is 67 days and the longest (summer) day is 82 days. The temps have ranged from -80 to +100. Juneau is accessible by road. Neither is the states fourth largest town, Nome. Anchorage has just under 300,000 people, Fairbanks is next with about 31,000. No other town has 10,000 people.  There are several indigenous groups living in Alaska; about 15% of the population is either Indian or Native Alaskan.

Most of the coastline is forested. When you read about bears, and there are a lot of them in these woodlands, feeding in “meadows” in the spring it usually refers to a small silt bank along the edge of the water that is growing grasses and flowers. There are very few large areas of grasslands that typically are conjured up by the world meadow. There are areas of young second-growth (regeneration) where forest clearing/harvesting has taken place.

The Southeast, as the lower section is referred to, is rather mild and forested with a temperate rain forest. It is islands, mountains, and forests. It is also where the glaciers begin. The south central portion has Anchorage and the Matanuska Valley; a quite livable part of the state, though winters can be rather cold and dark. Heading north along the coast there are few towns and very few people. This area is tundra. both dry and wet, and often underlain with permafrost. There is no soil and hence no opportunity for agriculture. The huge central and northern expanse of the state was never glaciated and is almost all tundra where a tree is any woody plant and no woody plants grow waist high.

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This image is looking down on Juneau from the air (note reflections) – there will be a separate blog page on Juneau. But, it helps in understanding Alaska overall, to get a look at how small the cities are and how much land there is between towns. Quite stunning.
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In a wet, lush forest, built on rocks with little soil, there are a lot of trees that topple to the ground. The elevated perch that a downed tree offers is often taken by seedlings and the new sprouts grow quite literally on top of their fallen ancestor. This gives the visitor a chance to anthropomorphize the forest. The base of many trees look like legs, trees look to be moving across the landscape. As the “nurse log” rots away the younger tree will seem to have bow legs reaching down to the earth. The tree then looks like it is standing on short bowed legs. These forests are vibrant but each plant has a story of  danger, opportunity, and evolutionary luck.
Tens of thousands of tons of salmon migrate up the coastal Alaskan stream to spawn. Most die after spawning. The remains of the salmon are very important, essential probably, to the health of the forest. Here I was lucky enough to snap a quick image of a mink dragging a couple of pounds of salmon into and under the roots of a Sitka Spruce. The flesh will feed them (and likely its offspring) for several days, but the remaining bits and the droppings from the mink, will fertilize this and nearby trees some 60 uphill feet from the water.

I had the good fortune to work with the National Geographic/Lindblad Expeditions boat Sea Bird in the Southeast. The naturalists on board were very energetic and excited. There were divers looking at the sea life, botanists looking at the extensive green stuff, water and ice people looking at rain/rivers/glaciers/and floating ice, and (of course) birders and geologists looking at the things that they are interested in. Most importantly, it was then shown and/or explained to our guests.

Perhaps the Glacier Bay National Park & Preserve is better known than the much larger Tongass National Forest (17 million acres versus 3.3 million acres). The glaciers themselves and the dramatic decline in their size gets this area lots of press coverage. The beauty of the area and the rather easy access also help. Maybe the Orca, humpback, fur seals (fur sea lions actually), bears, and mountain goats also attract people. Marbled Murrelet, Tufted Puffin, and the delicate Black-legged Kittiwake bring a smile to everyone’s face and are easily seen in these waters. But likely it is the ferry and cruise boat service that makes a visit to the still-glaciated Southeast rather easy. There is no road access from Canada and only one ten-mile long road that gets you from Glacier Bay to the tiny town of Gustavus – but otherwise it is ferry, plane, or private boat. There are many summer-time cruise ships that enter Glacier Bay, look, and then leave. None of them dock or stay overnight in Glacier Bay.
Glaciers are formed in the coastal mountains. It is the moisture from the Pacific that hits the coastal wall of mountains and then drops rain in lowlands and snow up higher that fed (or feeds) the glacial growth. These glaciers have been, and some still are, tidewater glaciers reaching to the sea. They are now receding and access is up fjords many miles in most cases. The old ice in Alaska, at the terminus of a glacier is rarely 100 years old*. The ice that calves into the sea is often devoid of air due to the weight and pressure of deepening snow as the glacier forms. The weight accumulated over the decades squeezes out the air leaving a lovely blue ice made of nothing but water molecules.                                                                                                          *Antarctica may have ice that is a million years old. In Alaska most glacial paths are short and quite downhill allowing the ice to move quickly. There is ice that may be about 30,000 years old in a basin in an older ice field and the longest glacial flow in Alaska is seen in the Bering Glacier which is about 140 miles in length. It’s ice may be almost 400 years old before it reaches the sea.
The Southeast offer great vistas, wonderful oceanic wildlife, spectacular park lands, and very comfortable towns. It may not be the wilds of northern Alaska but is wonderful countryside to visit.
**I often work for Smithsonian Journeys, the Smithsonian Institution’s travel program. In the case of Alaska, we often use National Geographic and Lindblad Expeditions as a mechanism for our outings. They offer a wide range of travel opportunities and we are pleased to be able to cooperate with them in various spots around the globe.


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