Admiralty Island 2004

In the summer of 2004 I landed a job with the U.S Forest Service as a Wilderness Ranger on Admiralty Island National Monument just south of Juneau Alaska. My duties included monitoring visitor use within the monument and gathering information on changes to plant and wildlife populations to be used by the Monument’s scientist and resource managers. For me personally though this was an opportunity to explore the most remote corners of Admiralty Island with the kind of logistical support, that normally on my own, I could only dream of.

Containing nearly a million acres of old growth rainforest, alpine tundra, and rugged coastline, Admiralty Island National Monument and the Kootznoowoo Wilderness offer outstanding opportunities for solitude and true wilderness adventure. However its enormous size and federally protected monument status make its management and oversight no easy task. Balancing resource protection with visitor access and recreational use requires accurate data and skilled analyses to help chart the direction of U.S. Forest Service policy decisions. My job as a Wilderness Ranger was to contact visitors, gather raw scientific data and compile reports based on our observations in the field for analyses by the Monument’s staff.

A land of rugged mountains and dense rainforest Admiralty Island can be a challenging and often dangerous place to work. When I inquired why I, who had nether a degree in biology or resource management, had been chosen for the job my supervisor informed me that it had been his experience that it “was easier to train an old bushman to be scientist than to try and train an academic to survive the perils and pitfalls of working in the Alaskan bush”. Point taken, I promised him I would do my very best collect the data they needed and to come back in one piece.

After two weeks of intensive training our field seasons work schedule involved a rotation of nine days in the field, one day in the office, compiling our data and writing a report, followed by four days off for R&R. Our transportation to and from Juneau into the field was provided by Ward Air’s experienced pilots flying the DeHavilland Beaver and Otter float planes. Combining a high cargo capacity with a short takeoff and landing ability has made the Beaver and Otter ideal aircraft for transporting personnel and supplies into the Alaskan bush for many years.

Over the past century Admirably Island has attracted many kinds of people for different kinds of reasons. In the past trapping, prospecting, big game hunting and mink farming brought outsiders to the island. But since the creation of the Monument in 1978 the types visitor usage has changed and evolved again as the boomer generation continues to age. Our survey of campsite use and vegetation impact for instance showed a steady decrease in back country camping use. Conversely the visitors arriving in large charter boats with kayaks aboard for day use has continued to increase. Perhaps as the population has gotten older the comforts of returning to a warm bed and a gourmet meal has edged out camping and freeze dried food. As the types of visitor use changes so the Forest Service’s policies must shift to reflect current visitor needs and to protect the Monument’s resources.

A large portion of our time traveling in the Monument was done in a 16 foot welded aluminum skiff with a 70 hp. Johnson outboard engine. It allowed us to quickly cover large distances to contact visitors and gather field data. Before this I had never spent much time using a skiff to explore and camp so it allowed me the opportunity to compare its advantages and disadvantages over sea kayaks. Beyond its greater speed and range some things however came in at about the same or below the abilities of the kayak. After fuel was loaded, two tanks plus ten jerry cans, the room that was left for food and gear was not significantly greater than that of a 17 foot sea kayak. Finding moorage that would not leave us stranded at low tide restricted where we could camp. But most notably, when faced with heavy seas, the skiff would become too dangerous to use in waves over three feet, whereas in a sea kayak three foot waves can be fun and enjoyable.

During our patrols of the island’s coastline we had been instructed to keep careful notes on our observations of the island’s flora and fauna. Upper Seymour Canal for instance has a large population of Sitka Black-tailed Deer that were often seen grazing in grasses at the forest edge. Of particular concern to the Monument’s biologist was the recent decrease in amphibian populations so we made several trips to fresh water lakes and ponds to look for frogs, toads, and newts as well as the Northern and Long-toed Salamanders. Also of concern to monument staff was a number of invasive (non native) species such as Freshwater Mussels in lakes and streams and Garlic Mustard and Hemp Nettle along the shores. All of these when found were dutifully recorded by size, quantity and distribution as well as their GPS location.

The Pack Creek Zoological Area is located in northern Seymour Canal on Admiralty Island and includes Pack Creek, Swan Creek, and Windfall Creek Watersheds. The area has historically been used for the purpose of bear viewing and the resident Brown Bears have become habituated to the presence of humans and can regularly be seen during the spring and summer months. The Pack Creek Bear Viewing Area is so popular with visitors that permits are required between June 1st and September 10th and the Forest Service has rangers on site to regulate activity throughout the summer season. I set up camp here in Windfall Harbor to observe visitor and bear interactions and to gather data on bear population and use in the unregulated Windfall Creek Watershed.

Wild bears avoid humans as a general rule but over time bears can become habituated to human activity to a degree. There reaches a point though that even the mighty Brown Bear can become crowed out by the very people who come to see them. Was that threshold of tolerance being crossed in Windfall Harbor and if so what might be done to protect the bears access to forage and still allow the visitor the pleasure of observing bears in the wild? Our studies focused on how visitors interacted with the bears and how their actions affected the bear’s behavior. I also conducted field surveys such as locating and cataloging bear activity indicators such as bear trails, beds and scat piles that would provide hard data that could be compared year after year. So, yes, I spent lots of time counting piles of bear crap, not terribly thrilling but still very necessary.

Admiralty Island is home to the highest density of Brown Bears in North America. An estimated 1,600 brown bears inhabit the island, one for every two and a half miles of coastline. Outside of the Pack Creek Bear Viewing Area however we rarely saw them and when we did it was usually running away and disappearing into the forest. We knew of course they were there, we could feel their eyes upon us as we worked. Despite their great size they can be incredibly quiet and stealthy and I truly believe that in their world they are as clever as any man. One reason for this is that any bear on this island that grows up to be an adult has done so by not being eaten by the others. The other reason is that outside of the Pack Creek area bears are hunted. Not for food (usually) but for ego and vanity, a trophy on the wall, a rug on the floor or more recently for its gall bladder. A bear gallbladder can fetch more than $10,000 in Asia, where some people use the organ for dubious medicinal purposes. In the end it left me pondering this question, did they run away from us because they were afraid or just plan disgusted?

The Brothers Islands, located several miles off the southern end of Admiralty Island, are a cluster of small islands in the center of Frederick Sound. On one of the smaller of the islands a Steller Sea Lion hall out was the focus of research by a number of US and Canadian agencies. We were requested to be a Forest Service liaison and observe and report on the construction of a hut for researchers and their video recording equipment. I was delighted to be able to spend time on such a beautiful and remote group of islands and have the opportunity to meet the scientist and their staff who would be working for the coming year at the Brothers Islands.

Upon arriving we met with Dr. Andrew Trites and the members of the Marine Mammal Research Unit who, working with other Canadian and U.S departments and institutions, combine their specialties in a coordinated effort to provide independent research on marine mammals.
By 2004 more than 75 percent of the Steller Sea Lion population had disappeared, leaving current wild populations with less than 75,000 individuals. MMRU Scientists were researching why Steller Sea Lion populations were in decline; possible reasons for this included an increase in parasites, disease, predation by killer whales and environmental factors such as nutritional stress caused by natural or human caused changes in their environment.
Their work was obviously of great importance and I was determined, to lend a hand in any way I could, to help make their goal of studying Sea Lions on the island a success. The first challenge was to build their base of operations however there was a false start and some permitting difficulties when we realized that the hut, in its purposed location, would be threatened by an overhanging large tree with a rotting base. Through communication with the Forest Service main office we were able to secure for them a safe location that would allow the MMRU staff to rapidly begin construction. The completed structure became home and laboratory to the two UBC graduate students, living there on a three month rotation throughout the winter and following spring, as they observed and studied the magnificent Stellar Sea Lion.

Upper Seymour Canal is very shallow in many spots and strewn with submerged rocks, tiny islands and narrow channels a perfect excuse for us to continue our patrols via sea kayak. It was a nice change from the skiff and the slower speed allowed us to more closely observe changes in the environment. In the shallow bays and estuarys we were able to see the salmon beginning their journey upstream to spawn and the bears eagerly waiting to intercept them. Flocks of birds had also gathered along the river banks to feast on the discarded carcasses left behind by the bears. The cycles of life, birth, death and renewal were all around us as we floated through the emerald channels of the upper inlet. Of course there were private in-holding properties to check on, visitors to meet and reports to write but then there were moments like this that made it hardly seem like work at all.

As a general rule I have always subscribed to the maxim, never mix business and pleasure, however to every rule there is I suppose an exception. In the past I had always held back in looking for work in the outdoors, not wanting to allow the influence of others into the one aspect of my life that I truly love and was completely mine to determine. However I could not help noticing that many fine people I had known over the years had indeed made interesting and rewarding careers out of going into the wilderness, most notably as guides, scientists or in some area of resource management. I decided the completely unexpected opportunity to contribute as well as to explore was worth at least one summer in the field, without a doubt!
Outdoor seasonal jobs such as the Wilderness Ranger with the Forest Service and Field technician work with the Alaska Department Fish and Game offer an excellent opportunity to learn about local biology and resource management from seasoned professionals while living and traveling in wilderness Alaska. I would recommend the experience highly to anyone who is looking to a career in environmental sciences or resource management, just be ready to work hard, get sun burnt, bug bit and skip regular bathing.

While camping out that summer I very much enjoyed reading; Bear Man of Admiralty Island, the Biography of Allen E. Hasselborg by John Howe. It is a remarkable story of an Alaskan pioneer who became well known as a guide, naturalist and homesteader living a life of adventure on Admiralty Island in the early 1900s.