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Alaska’s Prince of Wales Island

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Mention Alaska and there are usually two kinds of reactions—a smile from people who have been there and are eager to return, and that wistful look from those who have never been and are looking for an opportunity, or the stamina, to make the journey. And stamina is definitely required, because unless you live in the Pacific Northwest, getting to the Last Frontier takes some serious effort. Direct flights from the east coast can take as long as half a day.

The United States purchased Alaska in 1867 from the Russian Empire for about two cents an acre (Alaska is more than twice the size of Texas); it became a territory in 1912, and the 49th state in 1959. Two-thirds of the state is owned and managed by the federal government as public land holdings, including many national wildlife refuges, national parks and national forests—the part of the state we’re interested in here.

Tongass National Forest—the largest in the U.S.—is a vast, mist-shrouded place of emerald islands, towering ancient spruce, rugged mountains and fast-running rivers teeming with fish. The Alaska Wilderness League, a Washington, D.C.–based nonprofit environmental group, devoted to preserving Alaska’s wilderness, says, “At close to 17 million acres, it is one of the last coastal temperate rainforests left, rising majestically from the deep, clear waters of southeast Alaska’s Inside Passage—a land of bears grown fat on salmon, eagles filling the endless skies, and 500-year-old trees standing silent sentry over a rich and verdant world.”

Because much of the territory in this part of the world is either virgin forest or large bodies of water, the taxis that get you to and from it are mostly of the winged variety, like the De Havilland single-turbine Otter or Beaver floatplane. Another option is a ferryboat ride from Ketchikan.

Much of the accessible old growth forest of Tongass is found on Prince of Wales Island, one of the 100 largest islands in the world. There is no Go-See-Do! mandate on this turf. You’ve got 2,600 square miles of island to explore, 105 miles of paved road girding the shoreline, and 990 miles of shoreline with innumerable rock cliffs, promontories, palisades and beaches to wander over, around and through. Or not. You can choose to watch the daily tidal flow of 16 feet—or you can snooze while the tide does its thing unobserved. It won’t wait for you, either way.

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As in all of Alaska, wilderness rules on Prince of Wales. You’ll see plenty of eagles, Sitka black-tailed deer and bears. Mountains wrinkle the length of the island. Countless coves offer protected water for canoeing and kayaking. Trails lead off into big timber country, where 150-foot-tall trees tower over hikers. A cave system is open to explorers. ATVs can be rented for a trek to the backcountry. You can stake out a remote public-use cabin or a campsite. Bring a dry suit and scuba or snorkeling gear to visit ocean water wonders.

Some wondrous features of the region are man-made. The world’s largest collection of totem poles is in southeastern Alaska, where 20 percent of residents can trace their heritage to northwest coast tribes—the Tlingit, Kaigani Haida and Tsimshian tribes. With 229 federally recognized tribes in Alaska, this is a region rich in American Indian culture and history. Long before Alaska became a sought-after region due to its unparalleled natural resources it was home to indigenous peoples for thousands of years. Eskimo, Aleut and American Indians own almost 10 percent of the state, and American Indians and Alaska Natives make up the largest minority group, at 15 percent of the population. Five percent of the population speaks an American Indian language, and many of these tribes have been telling stories for centuries through totems. Early artists used rudimentary tools such as bone and shell to carve legends out of cedar trees (which were then placed to face the sea), as well as tell creation myths, record historical events and honor family ancestors. Totems often were battered by a century of harsh elements, and many didn’t survive—most of the poles standing today were carved in the 1930s, when Civilian Conservation Corps artists replicated older poles from Native villages to preserve a cultural lineage.

In Ketchikan, poles and clan houses are displayed at two parks and the Totem Heritage Center, a federal historic site housing ancient poles retrieved from long-abandoned villages. On the island, totem parks can be found in the villages of Hydaburg, Kasaan and Klawock, where seven new poles were recently installed.

Some of the best fishing in Alaska takes place on or around Prince of Wales. Captain Jim, who’s at the helm of a 28-foot charter cruiser named Thunder Chicken, says, “Everything in the world swims by here because we’re so close to the big water.” And while most fishermen are prone to exaggeration, he tells the truth when he says a day on his boat can result in a haul of salmon, halibut and a variety of rockfish, as well as sightings of seals, sea lions, dolphins, orcas and humpback whales. “Although anglers have both good and bad days on the water, our lodge records are impressive,” says Brad Steuart, owner of Boardwalk Lodge. “Our largest halibut ran 325 pounds and the largest king salmon hit the scales at 65 pounds.”
While there is almost always something hungry that will give your herring-baited hook a look, anglers in search of the five species of Pacific Ocean salmon stand their best chance from June through October, when kings, sockeye, coho, chum and pinks all head for fresh water to spawn. Fish in the streams and edible vegetation like salmonberry bushes that line the riverbanks are magnets to the river otters that chase spawning salmon upstream, foraging black bears that prowl shorelines for pink and chum salmon trying to answer their call to reproduce, and native Sitka black-tailed deer, visible everywhere until they magically don camouflage and disappear once hunting season begins in mid-August. Thousands of bald eagles also make their home in southeast Alaska, where the sea offers these crafty raptors ample sustenance during salmon spawning runs. Other frequently seen aviators include ravens, great blue herons, loons and trumpeter swans.

This is a place so redolent of a time before all was miniaturized, digitized and encrypted for the Web—before texting, sexting and those iCalendars that relentlessly remind you of errands to run and appointments to keep—that you can start to imagine how good life would be without all that. And that is usually when the inevitable departure time rolls around—just when you’ve grown accustomed to the pace of a life lived mostly outdoors, in awe of nature. And all of the sudden, a three-hour Inter-Island Ferry boat transports you from Hollis back to Ketchikan, and your return flight home to the Lower 48—and life as you know it, where you can start dreaming and scheming about your next trip to Alaska.