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

On the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, with journey restrictions in place worldwide, we launched a brand new sequenceThe World Through a Lensby which photojournalists assist transport you, nearly, to a few of our planet’s most lovely and intriguing locations. This week, Christopher Miller shares a group of photographs from Southeast Alaska.


With my eyes closed, the scent of the forest is sharpened by the dearth of visible distraction. I breathe within the musk of a stand of large pink cedar timber, which dominates the panorama because the seemingly never-ending forest stretches to the mountain-lined horizon.

I grew up exploring the fringes of the Tongass Nationwide Forest, which sits simply exterior my backdoor in Juneau and stretches for tons of of miles alongside the coast of the Gulf of Alaska and the North Pacific Ocean. Encompassing 16.7 million acres of land, the Tongass is each the biggest nationwide forest in America and the world’s largest intact temperate rainforest. My earliest reminiscences are instilled with its sights, sounds and smells.

Right here on Prince of Wales Island, some 200 miles south of Juneau, I’m immersed in the identical temperate rainforest that I got here to know as a baby. It feels each alien and acquainted. I let the aromatic cedar scent wash over me for a number of extra moments earlier than opening my eyes and shouldering my pack farther into the forest.

It’s late April 2019, and my touring companion, Bjorn Dihle, and I are on a four-day, 30-mile tour via the centre of Prince of Wales Island alongside the Honker Divide Canoe Route, the island’s longest path. We’ve got forgone the canoes and opted for packrafts as a result of their dimension and weight; they’re simpler to schlep over logs and throughout the numerous brief portages.

Due to the sluggish snow soften, our progress is sluggish. We weave via many shallow rocky sections, inevitably dragging, bouncing and scooching over rocks. Finally, we trudge via ice-cold water that covers our ankles and calves. The journey is unhurried; it permits us to understand our environment and take within the small lakes, streams and rivers.

Southeast Alaska is inseparable from the Tongass Nationwide Forest; they’re one and the identical, with the mountainous western fringe of the North American continent giving solution to the tons of islands that make up the Alexander Archipelago. The panorama is blanketed with Western hemlock, pink and yellow cedars, and Sitka spruce.

On the second night, we decide to not cram right into a small tent. As a substitute, we spoil ourselves with the roof and bunks of a forest service cabin on Honker Lake. The fireside is small, however, it’s greater than enough to chase away the night frost, and it infuses the air with the pungent and splendid scent of cedar kindling and burning logs.

Sitting simply exterior the cabin at nightfall, we hear the namesake of the lake and cabin — the Honker, or Canada goose — on the wing, cackling by the hundred on their migration north.

Canada geese use the lakes and streams alongside the Honker Divide as stopovers to their summer season nesting and breeding grounds. Each day from daybreak to nightfall we see and listen to them overhead as we paddle and hike, a harbinger of the long days of the summer season.

It’s awe-inspiring to observe the birds, however, the crick in my neck from gazing skyward attracts me again to earth and to the forest itself.

Prince of Wales Island is barely bigger than the state of Delaware. It’s dwelling to lots of the animal species discovered all through the Tongass — moose, black and brown bears, Sitka black-tailed deer, beaver and porcupine. We’re additionally looking out for a subspecies of northern flying squirrel and the Alexander Archipelago wolf.

Sixty years in the past, the forest that surrounds us was alive not with the sounds of cackling geese however with the whir of chainsaws and all of the machinations of contemporary industrial logging. Visually, probably the most defining traits of the island are the inescapable clear-cuts that checkerboard the lowlands and mountainsides.

Logging nonetheless exists on the island, on a smaller and extra sustainable scale. However earlier this 12 months, the Trump Administration, with the encouragement of successive Alaska governors and congressional delegations, finalized plans to open about nine million acres of the Tongass National Forest to logging and road construction — by exempting the realm from protections supplied by a Clinton-era coverage often known as the roadless rule, which banned logging and street building in a lot of the nationwide forest system.

Supporters of the plan level to its financial potential. However the removing of the rule — which drew overwhelmingly negative reactions when it was opened for the public remark — might irreparably change the Honker Divide watershed and endanger the oldest residing issues within the forest.

As Bjorn and I push via thickets of devil’s club and trundle over chest-high nurse logs, the timber appears to develop earlier than our eyes. The forest stands as a witness to the passage of time, and a close-by stream as a lifeline to the previous. The saplings on the confluence of the stream mark the current, whereas the large spruce and hemlock at its supply possible predate the European colonization of the Americas — in order that the one people who might have witnessed the beginning of this stand of timber are the realm’s Tlingit and Haida peoples.

These timbers are among the many most historical within the huge expanse of the Tongass. It might even be among the many most imperilled by the abrogation of the 2001 roadless rule. We ponder their immeasurable worth and attempt to reckon with the considered them as an easy commodity, as a useful resource to be extracted.

After meandering via the stand of previous development, we’re compelled to confront the timeline of our journey — and the arrival, the following day, of our floatplane. We retreat into the shadows of the forest, heading again towards the current with each step. Our boats are ready for us, and we set off to succeed in the tip of the canoe route on the sleepy former logging city of Thorne Bay.

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