I used to think that much of Southeast Alaska was wilderness, distinctly separate from the lives of the people living in the towns, villages and cities that dot the coastline. The more I read and listen to other people’s stories, particularly those of Tlingit, Haida and other Native folks, the better I understand this perception is flawed at best. Our woods have been home to people since the end of the Pleistocene, 12,000 years ago, when massive glaciers receded from our region.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act. Written by Howard Zahniser and signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson, it offers a legal definition of wilderness and a means in which to try to preserve some of the remaining wild places. The word “untrammeled,” meaning “not deprived of freedom of action or expression; not restricted or hampered,” is key to how Zahniser defines wilderness. He goes on to say that wilderness is “where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”
While I’m grateful steps have been taken for the preservation of wild areas, and recognize the act as a landmark and critical for future of the natural world, I still have difficulty with the definition. When I use the word — and I frequently do — I feel as uncomfortable as if I were swearing around nuns.
It really struck home earlier this week when I was riding the ferry back from Petersburg. It was nearly flat calm in Stephens Passage and the rainforest and mountains rose into the haze from forest fires burning elsewhere. Besides the occasional variation in the forest — evidence of logging — the coastline seemed, from my distant perspective, to fit Zahniser’s definition of wilderness.
I finished reading John Muir’s “Travels in Alaska” as we were nearing Port Snettisham. Many things struck me about Muir’s narrative, but what I found most interesting was how he constantly described his encounters with Tlingit people in canoes, hunting and fishing camps and large villages. From his narrative, it seemed almost every nook and cranny along the coastline was someone’s home. I’d heard other people speculate that Southeast Alaska’s population was made up of around an estimated 50,000 Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian people when Aleksi Chirikov arrived at what was likely Yakobi Island in July of 1741. His arrival ushered in an era of extreme change.
We passed Taku Harbor, 20 miles or so south of downtown Juneau, where the colorful and iconic character “Tiger” Olson lived for decades. A trapper and prospector, he’s become most associated with the harbor. But before Olson, there were Taku Tlingit families living in the snug cove — a census taken in 1880 tallies 269 Taku people living there. In 1840, the Hudson’s Bay Company established a trading post. In the early 1900s a salmon cannery was built. Now the Tlingit villages, the trading post and the cannery are gone or slowly being reclaimed by the land.
I often find signs from past times elsewhere in Southeast, as well. In many of the woods surrounding Juneau I stumble across cables, pipes and other by-products from the early mining era. In salt-chucks and coves I’ve found petroglyphs carved by ancient Tlingits, the mossy ruins of hermit cabins, the beached and rotting remains of float houses, the ruins of abandoned canneries and the fishing boats of people whose lives might have been the stuff of legend.
Sometimes, through research or word of mouth the story behind an owner of a particular structure or relic will emerge — most often making me wish I could hear more.
Though I often feel heavy, even uncomfortable, when I’m examining these ruins, they are a good reminder that so many different people have lived in these woods and on this ocean. They also remind me that so many more will wander these woods, fish these waters and hopefully feel a similar awe and appreciation.
As we motored around the southern tip of Douglas Island and I studied the familiar forest and mountains of Admiralty Island, I felt only gratitude toward the so-called wilderness movement. In 1978, after the lobbying of many locals and visitors who understood the island was worth a lot more with its trees than without, Congress designated much of the island the Kootznoowoo Wilderness and a national monument.
• Bjorn Dihle is a writer based out of Juneau. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.