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Alaska's kayak rangers.

The Forest Service workboat nudged a couple of granite boulders, then idled just long enough for me to hop ashore in my rubber boots. Backpack on one shoulder, I climbed over a couple of beached logs, parted a curtain of branches, and disappeared.

Here on a forested, glaciated chunk of wilderness that could easily swallow Delaware and Rhode Island, I stood ankle-deep on a moist green carpet of sphagnum moss. Several hundred feet overhead, the massive branches of a half-dozen yellow cedars and western hemlocks locked arms.

I'd come to this remote spot in southeast Alaska to find a couple of Forest Service wilderness rangers. I had heard they spend their summers working in Misty Fiords National Monument--paddling about in kayaks, no less. Here was their camp.

"Back in a few hours," read a note they'd left for me. Whereupon l laid down my pack and scanned the scene: a homemade table supporting a Coleman stove under a plastic rain cover, a 15-foot-high, log-constructed cache to protect edibles from bears, a canvas frame tent. I ambled into the tent, spread my sleeping bag on a vacant bunk, then dozed in contentment.

Soon thereafter, wilderness rangers Jim Case and John Wooten beached their two kayaks and presently were recounting their afternoon adventure. They'd been kayak-exploring near Punchbowl Lake, where a 3,100-foot vertical cliff stands monumentally.

At 5 the next morning, Jim and John were in uniform and officially at work, paddling out to meet the Spirit of Alaska, one of several small cruise boats that penetrate this wilderness. A few early risers on deck greeted them.

"The glaciers were almost a mile thick here," Jim was soon telling them. "John and I and a couple of others are the so-called 'yakin' rangers." The U.S. Forest Service has assigned John and Jim to interpret the resource for visitors; the two other kayak rangers survey the recreation possibilities in Misty--those two paddled some 900 miles of shoreline last year. The national monument is administered by Tongass National Forest.

"Forests? We've got yellow and red cedar, Sitka spruce, western hemlock --and a few pockets of silver fir," he went on in answer to a question from his audience. "By the way, this is the northern limit of the Pacific yew; its bark has cancer-curing qualities."

Then John took the mike. "We have about 1O trails up here. I found a new way up to Punchbowl Lake yesterday." In answer to another question, he added, "Those landslides? They're part of the ecology."

Three hours later we were back in camp for coffee and pancakes enlivened with just-picked wild blueberries. After breakfast I measured the girth of the camp's magnificent, presiding yellow cedar. It was 21 feet at breast height. Like all other trees in the wilderness portion of Misty Fiords, it is protected from logging.

Before long, the cruise boat Emerald Fiord appeared, and the rangers again emerged in their kayaks from the wild shoreline. They played literally to a packed deck during a 12-mile adventure up Rudyerd Bay past spewing waterfalls, towering granite walls, and lush shoreline meadows.

Jim and John, together with the two explorer rangers, are cutting a new wake in forest interpretation here in southeast Alaska. Their audience: summertime tour-boat visitors and recreational kayakers who paddle from Ketchikan, 60 water miles westward. On the interpretive agenda: understanding the forestry, wildlife, glaciology, and early history of this place of drippy splendor (annual rainfall around 160 inches), and helping kayakers stay safe in waterways that can become treacherous suddenly.

The kayak rangers are pioneers of sorts in this emerging recreational paradise. As Kimberly Bown, recreation director for the Forest Service's Alaska region, explains, "Our water-based setting provides for a new kind of forest interpretation."

The paddle-dipping rangers of Misty Fiords are part of a colorful parade of predecessors. Tlingit (pronounced "cling-GIT") natives hunted, fished, and gathered berries along the fiords centuries ago. And Captain George Vancouver, who explored the area in 1793, reported "... salmon in great plenty in all directions."

Salmon still jump, killer whales still frequent Misty's waters, and the kayak rangers regularly feast on Dolly Varden trout and red snapper--and on the admiration of their audiences.

"The public loves it," volunteered tour-boat guide Tina Wickens. "Their knowledge, their perspectives enhance my credibility."

For further information, see a new illustrated guide, Kuyaking Misty Fiords National Monument. Write Misty Fiords National Monument, 3031 Tongass Ave., Ketchikan, AK 99901.


Incongruently, perhaps unbelievably, a 152,000-acre tract in the middle of Misty Fiords National Monument was set aside by Congress in 1980 as non-wilderness to provide a buffer for a 650-acre, privately owned molybdenum mining operation. And thus was born the Quartz Hill alkatross.

U.S. Borax reportedly spent $100 million over the past decade to develop the operation. But the company encountered major problems with the Environmental Protection Agency over plans to discharge toxic tailings into Misty's pristine waters.

Cominco American Inc. recently purchased the land, but the corporation claims that mining development will not come soon. Seems the so-called "moly" market is in a slump.

"We're definitely keeping an eye on the situation," says Chris Finch of the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, one of several environmental groups watchdogging the development.

Like most issues in southeast Alaska, environmental preservation often collides with job-creating projects, with local congressmen leaning heavily toward economic development. Mining, it now seems, may be the next major arena of environmental conflict in Alaska.
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Title Annotation:includes related article; Forest Service wilderness rangers
Author:McLean, Herbert E.
Publication:American Forests
Date:Mar 1, 1992
Previous Article:Conserving biological diversity.
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