Note from the writer: When I first arrived in the fiords in the early 1990s, I jealously guarded their secrets, fearful that publicizing the place would lead to overcrowding and lost wildness. But I feel differently today. In fact, I now wish more Juneauites knew about this special place. So, once monthly this summer, I'll share my experiences in Tracy and Endicott Arms in the Empire, hopeful that it inspires you to come have a look.
As a wilderness ranger, I have a unique job. First, there aren't many of us left in the woods, due to declining budgets. But working in southeast Alaska brings its own distinctions, even among rangers. For instance, not many forest rangers help capture harbor seals for research, pilot a skiff alongside cruise ships to rate their emissions, or struggle to get a good night's sleep while camping on bare granite beside a booming tidewater glacier. That's not to mention traveling by sea kayak.
I'd be lying if I said it wasn't fun. Or just as often hard.
My job is to take care of the Tracy Arm-Fords Terror Wilderness. As a Congressionally designated wilderness, it's a special part of the Tongass National Forest, established so people can enjoy challenge, solitude, and self-reliant activities like fishing, hunting, hiking and camping. Habitat and clean air are other benefits.
A ranger's job is to protect these values. And no two days are alike. Consider a recent trip, when two rangers spent six rainy hours on their bellies pulling non-native weeds from an old homestead. They likened this effort to protect natural vegetation to picking daisies in a carwash.
Another day, the rangers pulled alongside a 700-foot cruise ship in our 25-foot skiff. One held the skiff steady at five knots-while keeping a sharp eye for ice bergs-as her partner climbed a short rope ladder to board the cruise ship to provide education.
Last trip, I bushwhacked through knotted alders to 500 feet above one of our glaciers, where we take monthly photos and GPS points to mark their rapid retreat.
While the duties are broad, education is often the priority. Howard Zahniser, principal author of the 1964 Wilderness Act, wrote that education is the most profound benefit of wilderness. He believed America's wilderness system, which now includes over 700 areas, provided opportunities to understand our connectedness with the rest of the Earth's community of life.
That vision is central to our approach to education. It's why we spend roughly a third of our time lugging our kayaks aboard tour boats to welcome passengers to the Tongass. During each visit, we try to connect people to their public lands. And we talk a lot about climate change.
We also reach out to teachers, offering a six-day class in Holkham Bay each summer that focuses on ways to connect kids with nature. Each day includes camping and exploring by kayak, and teachers earn three professional development credits from the University of Alaska. Discovery Southeast and Alaska Discovery are partners in the program, which also includes a bears class on Admiralty Island and a whales class in Icy Strait.
We also have an internship for high school students from Juneau and Angoon. This year, two students were selected to join rangers on a nine-day field trip to learn about outdoor skills and careers in the public lands. Watch for their Fireside Chat at the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center this winter.
We support an artist-in-residency program, too, where artists join rangers for a week in the wilderness. Three artists were selected this year: a writer from Juneau, a painter from Wrangell, and a playwright from New York City working on a Perseverance production of The Blue Bear. Each will promote the Tongass through donated artwork and a workshop or other community extension.
But education and outreach are only part of our work. Our rangers also respond to the pressures on Tracy and Endicott Arms brought by the growth in boat-based tourism. It's good that people visit, but tourism's side-effects include conflict and threats to quiet, wildlife, and clean air. Complicating the issues, the narrow marine waterways where much of the activity occurs are outside the boundaries of the national forest wilderness.
But through rangers in the field, the Forest Service was able to broker an unprecedented agreement among tour operators to protect the wilderness. Called the Wilderness Best Management Practices, it's been signed by the ten international cruise lines operating in southeast Alaska, as well as over twenty smaller companies offering guided hunting, kayaking, and tour boat excursions.
The companies have committed to preserving the area's wilderness character. For instance, they're restoring quiet by eliminating most outside announcements. And cruise ships have agreed to concentrate their traffic in Tracy Arm to allow hunters, fishers, campers and smaller boats the experience of a wilder Endicott Arm. Other promises include reduced stack emissions and giving space to wildlife, especially whales and pupping harbor seals.
The agreement keeps our rangers busy. Working with the state and the cruise industry, we drive our skiff alongside cruise ships to read their visual emissions, hoping to keep the air clean. While perched atop rock ledges above the icy fiords, we work with NOAA and the state Fish and Game to assist with seal research and educate boaters about viewing seals without harming them. And while kayaking the arms, we help captains comply with the pledges to reduce outside announcements and focus large ships in Tracy Arm.
The agreement remains a work-in-progress, but I believe it's improved visitor experiences in the area. We welcome public input on the effort.
As the summer begins to wind down, I hope you have an opportunity to visit Tracy Arm-Fords Terror. It's a special place, not far beyond our backyards.
Tim Lydon is a wilderness ranger for the U.S. Forest Service. He spends much of each summer in the Tracy Arm-Fords Terror Wilderness.