Another Southeast Alaska

Stikine River marshes, flats defy region's familiar terrain

Posted: Sunday, October 16, 2005

WRANGELL - A galactic spectacle of snow-capped mountains, black rock and neon blue icebergs serves as a hidden portal to a glacier named after a great war chief.

Shakes Glacier is a castle and the adjacent lake is its moat, which in the fall blocks visitors from nearing its presence with its warehouse-sized icebergs.

But the ever-accessible Stikine River Delta beckons hunters, boaters, snowmobilers and campers to a place equal to Shakes Glacier in might.

The river spreads over 20,000 square miles, much like the Amazon's Pantanal but in a temperate rain forest that keeps the land soggy and moss-covered. It begins flowing in British Columbia from Telegraph Creek 400 miles away and empties in U.S. waters near Wrangell. Naturalist John Muir proclaimed in 1879 that the Stikine was a "Yosemite 100 miles long."

The mint-green water carrying glacier silt meets with chocolate brown streams and sloughs that give life to a muddy ecosystem.

The delta is where most Wrangell-based explorers spend their time; it is a place where the journey, not the destination, becomes the point of the trip.

Tour guides in charter jet boats buck through the maze of sandbars like rodeo cowboys. Eric Yancy of locally owned Breakaway Adventures likes to steer straight into tree trunks and then veer away within seconds of collision.

A luxury-line cruise ship would never fit through marshes and bogs that are only wet enough for small boats. Its passengers would also miss out on the opportunity to pick cranberries growing along the river banks.

"You might need a tablespoon of sugar for each berry, though," Yancy said.

The Stikine is the fastest free-flowing river in North America. But one may never notice the current as most visitors are too busy looking for wildlife.

When the hooligan run through the streams in the spring, they attract the nation's largest concentration of bald eagles.

"It's pretty common to see six, eight, 10 eagles perched on one tree," Yancy said. Visitors who miss them can still take photos of their abandoned nests.

Moose are the natives that reside here year-round, and people even turn out to see calves being born in June. Hunters wait for moose while staying in float houses, either makeshift ones with scrap metal or professionally built boat cabins by the U.S. Forest Service.

"It sure beats pitching a tent," Yancy said.

Boats first have to pass over a submerged sandbar at the mouth of the delta, only three to four feet under in many places and even above the surface in winter.

Here, bushy and grassy fields form the newest life of the delta. It makes one forget about the alpine terrain common to most regions of Southeast Alaska. One opportunist years ago wasn't deterred by the region's northern latitude at all, and raised cattle in the meadows.

The fields are also graveyards of articles washed up from the river. Most of it is timber ripped up from the roots, carried to these far-out places near Farm and Sergiel Island by the river's current.

In the winter, the delta becomes a giant sheet of ice and water retreats even more to expose miles and miles for snowmobiling. Wrangell residents spend entire winter weekends in the delta going back and forth between the snowmachines and a nearby hot springs overseen by the forest service.

"In the winter this place turns into a whole different world," Yancy said.

It takes a real "can do" spirit to reach Shakes Glacier and Shakes Lake any time of the year. With his boat Yancy carefully, and sometimes crudely, nudges smaller blocks of ice out of the way when taking his tourists inside the passage.

Like everything in the Stikine River Delta, the icebergs are a work in progress that can change configurations every 45 minutes. A new puzzle awaits Yancy when he must nudge his way through again when returning home.

• Andrew Petty can be reached at andrew.petty@juneauempire.com



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