Off the Beaten Path: The future of Berners Bay and the east side of Lynn Canal

Juneau, Alaska’s capital city, has a population of 31,000 and is unique in that it is cut off from the rest of world by a 1,500 square mile icefield, rugged mountains and ocean. Juneau and other Southeast Alaska communities rely upon ferries and planes for transportation. For many years a battle over whether or not to try to build a road out of Juneau, through one of the wildest tracts of temperate rainforest left in the world, has been raging. Currently, construction of a 51-mile road extension through Berners Bay and up the east side of Lynn Canal to the Katzehin River Delta, where a new ferry terminal would be constructed, is on the verge of becoming a reality.

 

 

It was early February, 12 years ago when I first visited Berners Bay. I’d been out for a week exploring the woods and mountains surrounding the bay when I came upon the fresh tracks of a wolf and a young moose on the frozen Gilkey River. Droplets of blood, contrasting sharply with the white of snow, lay in splatters every few yards. I checked my gun — an over-under .22 hornet-20 gauge shotgun I’d brought along for adding ptarmigan to the dinner pot — then followed after. Mountains, covered in wind-sculpted ice, rose out of the snowy valley. I followed for hours, hoping that around each river bend I’d come upon the animals. In the dim twilight, as storm clouds blotted out the mountains and heavy snow began to fall, I looked after the tracks disappearing into the white gloom. I slogged through alders and willows and made camp in a stand of spruce trees. Since then, I’ve come back to the region numerous times to kayak, hike, hunt mountain goats and black bears, guide a vodka czar and his cronies (one of the stranger experiences of my life), fish and sometimes just to find a bit of quiet.

I try to avoid political and contentious debates, but a deep uneasiness comes over me when I think of the future of the wildlife and the wild country of Berners Bay and the east side of Lynn Canal. Governor Sean Parnell has earmarked $35 million in the state’s budget to extend a road through Berners Bay to the Kensington Mine. From there, the state claims it plans to use around 500 million taxpayer dollars to continue road construction up the east side of Lynn Canal to the Katzehin River Delta, where a new ferry terminal will be built. Building could begin as early as September 2014. I’m not sure how driving an additional 77 miles north of the existing Auke Bay Ferry Terminal — much of the proposed road would wind along cliffs and cross beneath 36 avalanche paths — to another ferry terminal will make traveling in and out of Juneau that much easier or cheaper.

I understand why some people want the road. We’re the only capital city in North America that is not connected to a greater road system (even if the proposed road is built we’ll still not be connected). I understand that mining is a vital part of Alaska’s economy and that a road would greatly aid production for the Kensington Mine and help develop new mining claims. I understand the need for jobs; building the road would provide a limited and short term construction boom.

But if the Legislature approves Parnell’s budget, the road will invade one of the most ecologically intact sections of temperate rainforest left in the world. I used to assume Alaska would always have expanses of untrammeled landscapes, healthy populations of wildlife and ample opportunities for solitude. A similar belief was prevalent in the rest of our country’s states at one point or another in history. The passenger pigeon once blackened the sky. Bison herds once stretched beyond horizons. Brown bears once roamed the Sierras. Now, there are few, if any, truly wild places left in the contiguous United States. There’s no shortage of roads, strip-malls and people, though. With Parnell and many of our politicians in league with big business who think of the land in terms of what they can exploit, I know my assumption about the future of Alaska’s wildness was shortsighted and wrong.

One of the last times I visited Berners Bay was with a kayak class offered by the University of Southeast Alaska in mid-October 2013. We paddled past a dad with his young son returning from the public cabin before making camp at the head end of the bay. Next morning, in a downpour, Mary, an 18-year-old student from Connecticut, joined me to fetch water for breakfast. We hiked through a meadow covered in decaying mushrooms, past the skeleton of a moose and giant piles of bear poop.

“I don’t believe there are any bears in Alaska,” Mary said after I yelled “hey bear” before entering the brush. “I’ve been here since August and haven’t seen one.”

Along the forest floor there was a trail where bears for generations had stepped in the same place. While I filled water jugs and bladders in the creek below, I watched Mary thoughtfully pace out the paw impressions in the earth. Here was a world she never imagined. I cringed when I thought of pavement, traffic and throngs of people displacing the brown bears, wolves, moose, mountain goats and other wildlife that live here.

The wildness and wildlife of Berners Bay and Lynn Canal possess something incredibly unique in relation to the rest of the world. Building the road will greatly change that and mark another major loss of a wild place. I hope we and the Legislature really consider what’s at stake during the next few months. I hope for generations to come people will be able to walk bear trails, follow wolves and moose and know the intrinsic value of a landscape we were was wise enough to leave roadless.

 

• Bjorn Dihle is a writer based out of Juneau. He can be reached at bjorndihle@yahoo.com.

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