Southeastern Alaska is a region of Alaska. Sometimes called the “panhandle”, it is a thin strip of land and islands between Canada’s British Columbia and the northern Pacific Ocean. It contains the Inside Passage, a series of waterways largely protected from the Pacific by islands, providing a safer sea route up and down the coast.
The fishing here compiles a wide range of species to offer the angler and the availability is overwhelming, it is suggested that anglers ‘try’ and decide whether they want to fish fresh or salt water. Salmon is the area’s most popular species and many communities sponsor derbies for the largest salmon caught.
All of Southeast Alaska is land-locked. Due to the high fjords and rocky shorelines, there are very few roads in this part of Alaska. Most villages are linked by State funded ferry service – The Alaska Marine Highway, as well as seaplane and land plane service.
Ferry service from Bellingham links most of the larger villages/towns, however it only operates twice a month in the winter and three times a month in the summer; space fills up quickly so reservations need to be made far in advance.
Home to over half of Alaska’s population, Southcentral is a playground of activities from world-class fishing to hiking and wildlife viewing. With mountains and lakes, South Central offers the advantages of remote wilderness, but is linked via roads. World-class rainbow trout and salmon shimmer brilliantly, beckoning to prospective anglers. Southcentral has the amenities travelers seek, while serving as a gateway to the wilderness experience.
The Gulf of Alaska arcs at its northern edge, forming the rounded northern shore of the Pacific Ocean, a zone of great collisions. This region is where the earth’s tectonic plates collide, spewing forth froths of hot lava from dozens of volcanoes, and fracturing and folding the earth with titanic earthquakes. Here, the ocean’s weather hits mountains jutting miles high from the sea, growing immense prehistoric ice sheets and glaciers that carve the rock into long, deep, intricate fjords. The sea proffers prodigious biological wealth on these shores, including the salmon it unleashes into the rivers in furious swarms of life that climb over the mountains and into the Interior to spawn. Nature seems giant and superabundant along this magnificent arc of land and water.
As a region, Southcentral is something of a catchall. The landforms in this part of Alaska are the most varied in the the state. More than half of Alaska’s residents live in this region of spectacular glaciers, fjords, roadside lakes, salmon streams and ocean beaches. From the jagged Gulf of Alaska coastline, the land rises to the Alaska Range, and Mt. McKinley, the continent’s highest peak. The Gulf Coast is generally mountainous, and is indented by massive Prince William Sound and Cook Inlet. Inland, the land is hilly or mountainous and incised by major rivers, including the Copper, Matanuska, Susitna, Kvichak, and Mulchatna. The Susitna River valley, sculpted by ancient glaciers, is one of the few with a broad floodplain.
Southcentral dominates Alaska, with a more highly developed transportation system than anywhere else, including a network of highways and the Alaska Railroad.
Alaskans living in the Interior sometimes call portions of this part of the state “the banana belt” — a little wry humor, and understandable when comparing winters up north with this relatively moderate climate. The ocean influences Southcentral’s weather, keeping it from being very hot or very cold while the Alaska Range of mountains forms a border at the north side of this region. Not only does the Range block most of the cold air from the interior, but the mountain chain also retains warm ocean air here. Coastal communities are frequently as wet as southeastern cities, but the amount of rainfall lessens considerably just a short distance inland. Summers here tend toward cool and moist, depending on the location. Summer temperatures range from the 50’s to the 80’s, with coastal temperatures being cooler than more inland locations.
Geography endowed this region with several of the world’s great natural places. In the east, near Cordova, the Copper River’s immense, entirely unspoiled delta is the largest contiguous wetlands in the Western Hemisphere. The Copper River Basin lies between the Chugach and Wrangell mountains and during the ice age was once the site of a large lake. Today it is a forested woodland.
Cook Inlet extends north and then east from the Gulf of Alaska. It divides into two arms: Knik Arm on the north and Turnagain Arm on the south, with Anchorage on the peninsula between the two. Cook Inlet and its two arms are noted for their tidal bores – breaking waves rushing upchannel when the tide comes in. They are due to the fact that much of the inlet is too shallow to support normal flow of water when the tide comes in. With 30 to 35 feet between the high and low tides, the Inlet has the second largest range in the world after the Bay of Fundy in Nova Scotia. The reason for this enormous tidal range that is the same in Cook Inlet as in the Bay of Fundy: the length of the bay is such that the resonant frequency of the water sloshing back and forth in it is close to 12 hours, which is the frequency at which tidal forces from the moon and sun are driving it. Cook Inlet is the only place in North America where tidal bores are frequently observed.
When Captain Cook explored Turnagain Arm, he observed the tidal bores, recognized the danger, and told his crew to head back out to sea. That’s how Turnagain Arm got its name. At low tide, miles of mud flats become exposed; if it were not for the occasional quicksand and possibility of tidal bores when the tide comes back in, it would be safe to walk across the entire width of the channel in some places. One would think that Turnagain Arm would be very deep because it is surrounded by mountains. However, the heavily silt-laden glacial streams drop their loads when they flow out into the calmer waters of the sea. Over the eons the silt accumulates into a mud flat which is exposed at low tide.
The Matanuska-Susitna (Mat-Su) Valley consists of fertile farmland against the majestic backdrop of the Chugach Mountains. This is Alaska’s only major agricultural area. Fertile glacial soil, long summer days, and a natural watering system as frozen ground melts, combine to produce such prize-winning vegetables as a 10 lb. carrot, a 42 lb. beet, a bunch of broccoli tipping the scales at 35 lbs., and a 105 lb. cabbage. The state’s dairy industry is also in the Mat-Su Valley.
The 15,000 square miles of Prince William Sound are full of glacially-carved fjords over 1,000 feet deep and mountains that thrust out of the sea to their highest point on Mt. Marcus Baker at 13,250 feet. Waters of the Sound are protected by a series of islands which provide a protective barrier to the ocean swells. A 3,500 mile-long coastline is the boundary to the world’s most northern temperate rain forest. Three million acres of forest are home to western hemlock, white spruce and Sitka spruce, some of which grow to over 100 feet tall. The communities of Whittier, Valdez and Cordova are the gateways to the waters of the Sound. Shipping is focused at the port of Valdez, which is the southern terminus of the trans-Alaskan pipeline. Fishing, forestry, and some mining are prevalent activities in the area. On March 24, 1989, the Exxon Valdez hit a reef nearby and spilled approximately 10 million gallons of oil into Prince William Sound. Clean-up efforts ensued however, much of the region’s wildlife was killed or endangered as a result of the environmental disaster.
The immense Columbia Glacier is the second largest in Alaska. It’s a 440-square-mile river of ice flows into Columbia Bay in the north central portion of Prince William Sound. This “tidewater” glacier emptied directly into the ocean. The Columbia was born in the snowfields of the Chugach Mountains and gradually
meandered 23 miles beyond its ancestral fjord.
The Kenai Fjords are coastal mountain fjords whose placid seascapes reflect scenic ice bound landscapes and whose salt spray mixes with mountain mist. Located on the southeastern Kenai Peninsula, the national park is a pristine and rugged land supporting many unaltered natural environments and ecosystems. This land boasts an icefield wilderness, crowned by the 700-square-mile Harding Icefield, one of four major ice caps in the United States. It’s thought that the icefield is a remnant of the Pleistocene ice masses once covering half of Alaska.
Along the coastline of the Kenai Fjords, steep valleys that were carved by glaciers in retreat. Active glaciers still calve and crash into the sea. Unnamed waterfalls in unnamed canyons, glaciers that sweep down narrow mountain valleys, and a coastline along which thousands of seabirds and marine mammals raise their young each year. Sea stacks, islets, and jagged shoreline are remnants of mountains that today inch imperceptibly into the sea under the geological force of the North Pacific tectonic plate.
Alaska’s Southwest Region is the area in the state which includes the Kodiak Archipelago, Alaska Peninsula and Aleutian Islands, Bristol Bay region, Yukon Kuskokwim Delta, and Pribilof Islands. Alaska’s Southwest is also home to Native American cultures including the Alutiiq, Aleut, and Yup‘ik peoples. This geographically diverse region of Alaska has few roads but offers a wealth of outdoor recreation activities for the independent Alaskan traveler interested in experiencing rural Alaskan lifestyles, traditional Native cultures and the remoteness of this unspoiled wilderness region.
Southwest Alaska also offers world class fishing, hiking, birding and wildlife viewing opportunities. Public lands in this region include the Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge, Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve, Alaska Peninsula National Wildlife Refuge, Izembek National Wildlife Refuge, Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge, and many other state and federally-managed areas.
The main transportation hubs in this region include Kodiak, Sand Point, Dutch Harbor, King Salmon, Dillingham, and Bethel. Several communities in the Aleutian Islands, throughout the southern portion of the Alaska Peninsula, and on Kodiak receive regular Alaska ferry service throughout the summer months and less frequent visits during the off-season. Regular flights from Anchorage can be booked with various Alaska air carriers.
Southwest Alaska communities on the Pacific Ocean experience substantial annual rainfall and a relatively mild maritime climate due to warm ocean currents originating off the coast of Japan. Areas to the north of the Alaska Peninsula, on the Bering Sea, comprise the west coast climatic region and generally experience harsher winter temperatures. For more information about Southwest Alaska, visit www.southwestalaska.com.
The city of Kodiak sits on Kodiak Island, which at 3,670 square miles and more than 100 miles long is Alaska’s largest island and the second-largest island in the United States. Known as the Emerald Isle, Kodiak’s verdant landscape and abundant outdoor opportunities make it a popular choice for nature enthusiasts.
The pulse of Kodiak beats along the waterfront and in its boat harbors: Alaska Marine Highway ferries dock right downtown, next to the Kodiak Island Visitor Center. Nearby is St. Paul Boat Harbor, the city’s largest. More boats dock across the channel at St. Herman Harbor on Near Island, and an afternoon on the docks can lead to friendly encounters with fishermen and the chance to see them unload their catch or repairing their nets.
Once a struggling fishing port, World War II turned the island of Kodiak into a major staging area for North Pacific operations. At one point Kodiak’s population topped 25,000, with Fort Abercrombie built as a defense post to protect the naval base that was constructed in 1939. Today the old naval base is the site of the largest Coast Guard base in the country.
Kodiak’s famed cloudy weather spared it from a Japanese attack during WWII but the city wasn’t so lucky during the Good Friday Earthquake of 1964, which leveled its downtown area and wiped out its fishing fleet. Today Kodiak is among the top three fishing ports in the country and home to 650 boats, including the state’s largest trawl, long-line and crab vessels, and 12 shore-based processors.
Things to do
More than 100 miles of paved and gravel roads head from the city into the wilderness that surrounds Kodiak. Some of the roads are rough jeep tracks, manageable only by four-wheel drive vehicles, but many can be driven to isolated stretches of beach, great fishing spots, outstanding coastal scenery and secluded campgrounds.
The island’s best-known park is the Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge. The 2,812-square-mile refuge encompasses two-thirds of Kodiak Island and includes a diverse habitat that ranges from rugged mountains and alpine meadows to wetlands, spruce forest and grassland. The refuge has outstanding fishing but the most popular activity is bear viewing. The refuge is home to 3,500 bears with males that normally weigh in at more than 800 pounds but have been known to exceed 1,500 pounds and stand more than 10 feet tall. The refuge has no roads, so bear viewing is done as a day tour with an air charter operator or as an excursion from one of many remote wilderness lodges on the island.
Kodiak is a renowned fishing destination that offers access to all five species of salmon along with halibut, rockfish, cod and trout.
Fort Abercrombie State Historical Park is a popular spot for learning more about the island’s World War II history. The fort was built during the war, and along with a campground features the Kodiak Military History Museum, located inside the Ready Ammo bunker. The historic ruins of the WWII coastal defense installation couples with the steep surf-pounded cliffs, deep spruce forests, wildflower-laden meadows and a lake containing trout.
Native Alutiiq people have inhabited the Kodiak area for more than 7,000 years. In the mid 1700s, the island was discovered by a Russian explorer, ushering in the island’s Russian period. Kodiak was the first capital of Russian-controlled Alaska, and was an important location in the lucrative fur trade. A former storehouse of fur pelts owned by the Russian American Company in downtown Kodiak now houses the Baranov Museum, which is a great place to learn more about the area’s history. The building, constructed in 1808, is the oldest standing building in the state of Alaska.