Prince of Wales Island: Visit Responsibly
All About the People & Place, Prince of Wales Island, Alaska
It is one of the great ironies of responsible wildlife travel that the biggest problems usually involve people. The solution to these problems is almost always respect. Be sensitive to the way of life and social norms of the communities you visit.
Hunting & Fishing
While we do not support trophy hunting, particularly of threatened species, people from throughout North America come to Prince of Wales Island to hunt record-sized black bears and Sitka deer. Hunting and fishing are deeply a embedded way of life here. And although it may be upsetting to see a bear carcass in the back of a pickup truck, the reality is that hunting and fishing are major contributors to the local economy - from the guide, to the town butcher, to the owner of the boat repair shop, to the local innkeeper, to the taxidermist.
Travel to Prince of Wales Island with an open mind. And know that by spending time and money here, you are part of the process that teaches people wildlife can be worth more alive than dead.
Most of the world, even experienced outdoors types, have never set foot in an old growth forest. And as you walk through the 800-year old trees, it can be hard to understand why anyone would want to destroy such an awe-inspiring place. But logging was the primary driver of the Prince of Wales Island economy for many years. The decline of the industry through both regulation and dwindling supply of old growth forest severely impacted the local economy. The small towns on Prince of Wales Island have faced many of the same problems as towns in the Midwest with their shuttered factories or communities in West Virginia’s mountains where the coal mines have closed.
The reduction in old growth timber harvesting may be a good thing for the planet, but the loss of income certainly hurt the standard of living of many families living on Prince of Wales Island. Logging continues on the island, albeit at a much lower scale. Try to use your trip to show that there is a different way to exploit the old growth forest, one that does not involve cutting it down. Were you amazed by the forest? Tell the folks you meet that you love their magnificent trees and rivers and the wildlife that lives in them, and that you appreciate that they care for them. Be prepared for the smile.
Responsible Wildlife Viewing
Responsible wildlife viewing can be good for both people and wildlife. People are able to enjoy an animal in its natural habitat while the wildlife benefits from another human concerned with its wellbeing. The key is to observe while having a low impact on the wildlife.
Carry In, Carry Out: No one wants to see trash in a pristine wilderness area, and many types of trash are harmful to wildlife. Food trash is especially egregious as it trains wildlife to associate food with humans. It is unfortunate to train a jackal in Namibia; it is dangerous to train a bear in the Tongass National Forest.
Respect Private Property: It is against the law to trespass, and many cultures consider it disrespectful (this includes many in Alaska). Ask first
Keep Quiet: Quiet is the first lesson in seeing wildlife. Noise not only causes wildlife to hide from you, they also hide from other nearby observers. (Hiking in bear country may be the exception, bears do not see or hear well. Do not surprise a bear.)
Leave a Small Footprint or None at All: Minimize your impact on the land and wildlife. Leave it how you found it. If the kids want to look under the log - good. But ask them to put it back after they look.
Wildlife is Wild: Never forget that you are watching wild animals; they are not there for your enjoyment. And remember, many cute animals are not as defenseless as they seem. A rabbit may appear like a fluffy stuffed toy, but their claws can do real damage.
Never Entice Wildlife: Do not use food or other methods to try to get wildlife to move closer. Food is especially problematic. Once an animal begins to associate humans with food, it will continue to approach all humans looking for a handout. Sooner or later, there will be an altercation between the wild animal and a human, often resulting in injury to the human and distruction of the animal.
Give Wildlife Space: If an animal is paying more than casual attention to you, or if it moves every time you move, you are too close. An animal in its natural habitat only pays attention to things that might be a threat, might be food, or might be a sex partner. You should not be considered any of those things by a wild animal.
Do Not Handle Wildlife: In general, wildlife should not be handled. However, handling amphibians, some reptiles, and insects is a great way to instill an appreciation and respect for wildlife that cannot be learned any other way. If you choose to handle (or let your children handle) wildlife, hold it for the shortest time possible, handle it gently, and put it back exactly where you found it.
Pets & Wildlife are Not the Same: Pets of any type, even ones that look like wild animals should not be released into the wild, and wildlife should not be taken home as a pet.
Safety and Responsible Wildlife Travel
Some travelers are active duty members of the "Safety Police" and others need to be reminded to look both ways before crossing the street. But safety is a critical component of responsible wildlife travel.
Before you Begin - Prepare!
The temperate rainforest climate here is more moderate than the extremes of the Arctic north but expect temperature fluctuations and prepare for rain. The damp climate can often cause hypothermia in unprepared hikers even in fairly moderate temperatures.
Mosquitos: Mosquitos and flies are part of the scene. Bring and use repellent or net clothing when hiking or exploring.
Special Tip from Linda at Sunnahae Hotel in Craig: Fill a spray bottle with water and a few drops of peppermint oil for an environmentally and kid friendly mosquito repellant.
Our friends in the Alaska Forestry Service asked us to pass on a few Best Practice tips for exploring Alaska’s rainforest.
1. Use the Buddy System. Always travel with a partner.
2. Advise someone of your itinerary. Where you plan to go, and when you plan to return.
3. Be prepared for sudden weather changes. Unexpected temperature and condition fluctuations mean hypothermia is an issue for hikers inexperienced in this region. Even for short hikes, bring extra layers, dry clothes, and of course food and water (in reusable containers).
4. Proper footwear is essential: Rubber, muck, or neoprene boots are a must.
5. Plan for the Unplanned. Include a good first aid kit, flashlight, extra batteries, and a fully charged phone (but no guaranty that it will have service) in your backpack.
6. Speak to the Experts: Visit the District Forest Ranger Offices at Craig or Thorn Bay. Pick up a wildlife viewing guide, a trail hiking guide, and a map (apps don’t always work in this environment), and ask for suggestions. There are no guided tours except at El Capitan Cave in Thorn Bay, but asking for tips can reveal great local secrets!
And as always: Leave nothing but footprints, take nothing but memories – and photographs!
Prepare your Car
The Department of Transportation recommends the use of a four-wheel drive or a sturdy SUV on the island. Be sure your spare tire is in good shape. Watch the gas gauge and mile markers: Fuel is available in Craig, Klawock, Naukati, Thorne Bay, Coffman Cove and Whale Pass. Bring your cell phone car charger.
Prince of Wales Island is bear country - as in there are lots of bears in lots of places. Anytime you are in a forested area, assume you might see a bear. when viewing bears, you are in their home. An during the salmon run, never forget it is their stream. Here are some safety guidelines from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game: See below!
Never Approach Bears—Give Them Space
Every bear has a “space”– the distance within which the bear feels threatened. If you enter that space, the bear may become aggressive.
Give female bears extra space. Female bears are especially fierce defenders of their young and may respond aggressively if they perceive a threat to their cubs.
When photographing bears, use your zoom; getting close could put you in danger.
Bears, like humans, use trails and roads. Don’t set up camp close to a trail they might use.
Avoid areas where you see or smell carcasses of fish or other animals, or see scavengers congregated. A bear’s food may be near. If the bear is around, it may defend its cache aggressively.
Don't Surprise a Bear
Make noise, sing or talk loudly. Always let bears know you are there.
Avoid thick brush whenever possible. When the terrain or vegetation makes it hard to see, make extra noise.
Hike in a group; groups are easier for bears to detect.
Walk with the wind at your back, if possible. Bears can see almost as well as people, but trust their noses more than their eyes or ears.
Don’t Feed Bears
Bears have only a few months to build up fat reserves for a long winter in dens and are always looking for something to eat. Don’t let them learn that human food or garbage is an easy meal. It is foolish and illegal to feed bears, either on purpose or by not securing food or garbage away from bears.
Keep a clean camp. Wash your dishes. Avoid smelly and greasy foods such as bacon or smoked fish. Keep food smells off your clothing.
Cook away from your tent. Store all food away from your campsite. Hang food out of reach of bears. If no trees are available, store your food in airtight or specially designed bear-resistant containers.
Burn food waste completely in a hot fire. Pack everything else out. Food and garbage are equally attractive to a bear so treat them with equal care.
Remember, pets and their food may also attract bears.
Odorous items such as toothpaste, toiletry items and even gasoline should be stored away from your campsite and out of reach of bears.
Dealing with Close Encounters
If you see a bear, avoid it and give the bear every opportunity to avoid you. If you do encounter a bear, remain calm and try to observe what the bear is doing. Chances are good you are not in danger. Most bears are interested only in protecting food, cubs or their “personal space.” Once they feel there is no threat, they will move on. Remember the following:
If You See a Bear
If the bear appears not to have sensed you, move away without alerting it. Keep your eyes on the bear. If the bear does notice you, face the bear, stand your ground and talk to it calmly. Let the bear know you are human. Talk in a normal voice. Help the bear recognize you. Try to appear larger by standing close to others in your group or wave your arms slowly above your head. Try to back away slowly, but if the bear follows, stop and hold your ground. Prepare your deterrent if you have one.
If a bear cannot tell what you are, it may come closer or stand on its hind legs to get a better look or smell. A standing bear is usually curious, not threatening.
If you take the above actions and the bear continues to focus on you or approach, you should become more assertive: raise your voice, beat on pans, use noisemakers, throw rocks or sticks. Use your deterrent if you have one. Drive a bear off rather than let it follow you. If you are with others, group together to look big and stand your ground.
If you surprise a bear at close distance, it may feel threatened and act defensively, especially if it has cubs or food. Continue to stand your ground.
If the bear moves away, walk away slowly, keeping your eyes on the bear. Increase your distance.
Never Run from a Bear
You can’t outrun a bear. Bears can run much faster than a sprinter and, like dogs, they will chase fleeing animals. A charging bear might come within a few feet before running off. It’s important to stand your ground.
In the Rare Event of an Attack
If a bear makes contact, you have two choices: play dead or fight back. The best choice depends on whether the bear is acting defensively or is seeking food.
In almost all situations, your best defense against an attacking black bear is to fight back. Concentrate on the bear’s face or muzzle with anything you have on hand.
Prince of Wales Island
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Special Thanks to
The U.S Forestry Service at Prince of Wales Island for their time, help, and enthusiasm for this very special place.
Bonnie Christine For use of her lovely images of Klawock, Prince of Wales Island
JFimages01, photography. Follow him on Facebook