Prince of Wales: the ultimate escape?

Prince of Wales: the ultimate escape? – Prince of Wales Island, Alaska

Herbert E. McLean


Like a thatched skullcap, the spruce-clad mountaintop had caught my attention and held it as we drove north from Thorne Bay through a spectacular recreational paradise that almost no one knows about. As a topographic feature here on Alaska’s Prince of Wales Island, the knob was hardly postcard material: a dense stand of old-growth timber giving way to bare but unimposing cliffs below, with lush regeneration from a previous cut fanning downward from there – more a curiosity than a landmark. Nevertheless I wanted to go there.

“Let’s give’er a try,” ventured Bruce Campbell who works for the Forest Service as a recreation technician.

Bruce pulled his GMC Suburban off the road, unfolded a “Craig (D-4) Quadrangle” topo map, and studied it closely. No such promontory appeared on the map. Nor, I noticed, did the names of at least 30 lakes within a four-mile radius in this remote, largely unnamed land.

But a maze of unimproved rock roads seemed to squirm in every direction. Every quarter-mile or so, the crossed-shovel symbol indicating “borrow pits” showed up on the map in this logging-intensive area. The pits had been blasted out of bedrock to provide material for road construction. With nearly 1,000 miles of logging roads on the island, the quarries number in the hundreds.

In a few minutes we left the main gravel road that runs the 140-mile length of the island, and Bruce nosed the Suburban upward, relying basically on intuition as he moved from road to road. Climbing through regenerating stands of Sitka spruce and western hemlock, we presently found ourselves on a rapidly ascending ridge, and there, dead ahead, was the protrusion.

“Burk’s Knob, we call it,” Bruce announced. “It was named after the Forest Service guy who laid out the timber sale.”

As we neared the 1,000-foot elevation mark on our topo map and rose above the new forest, a spectacular vista of woodlands, summer sky, and outlying islands unfolded in all directions. It was an extraordinary August sight: varying shades of green in a sprawling patchwork of old-growth timber, vigorous regrowth following logging, and temporarily bare clear-cuts logged a year or so before.

And right at the base of Burk’s Knob was a flat-bottomed rock quarry. It would provide excellent camping, I was thinking – shelter from summer winds, welcome open ground in this black-bear-rich area, and plenty of firewood from old logging slash.

“Quarry camping in Alaska!” I exclaimed.

Next day, near Whale Pass on a mountain overlooking Exchange Cove on the island’s northeast corner, we tried out a similar road. This time we found ourselves at 750 feet, surveying an entire archipelago of Inside Passage islands: Zarembo, Etolin, Bushy, Shrubby, and others. Again, a number of handy quarries – plus logging landings – provided camping possibilities.

As peaceful as the scenes appeared from these uplands, Prince of Wales Island (the nation’s third largest, after Kodiak and Hawaii) has been the setting of conflicts and clashes for centuries, if not eons. Born of tectonic disturbances along the North Pacific’s so-called “Rim of Fire,” scraped clean and sculpted geologically during recent ice ages, raked each winter by violent storms coming in from the Gulf of Alaska, the place has been fought over by Haida and Tlingit natives whose cultures converged here. Natives, white people (including Russians, Spanish, British, and Americans), commercial fishermen, fox farmers, and miners have vied with nature and with each other for riches on and around the island.

As for the island’s storm-tossed, 900-mile shoreline, such places as Shipwreck Point, Danger Island, and Eye Opener Rock suggest their own drama.

Fortunately, last year’s Alaska oil spill did not muck up that stormy shoreline. Occuring nearly 600 miles to the northwest in Prince William Sound, the spill had no effect on Prince of Wales.

Large-scale logging, which began here in the mid-1950s, touched off the hottest current battle, an intense national controversy over the Tongass National Forest. Recent passage of a timber reform bill in the U.S. House of Representatives may well slow the pace of timber production here in future years.

Be that as it may, the Forest Service sees the island’s sprawling road system in a different light these days: as an emerging recreational resource.

Says Charlie Streuli, a recreation forester at Thorne Bay ranger station, “We’re seeing a lot of interest in RV-type camping, and we’re working with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game on a number of lakeside ramps and other improvements. We’re also developing several river management plans to make the best use of those resources.”

As J. Michael Lunn, Ketchikan area supervisor for the Tongass Forest, explains it, “Although it will be some time before recreation can match the value of timber and commercial fishing, it’s already contributing to the diversity of the island’s economy.”

Exploring old logging roads is just a small part of an enormous and basically undiscovered recreational experience on Prince of Wales, more casually called POW. Thanks largely to Alaska Ferry service between POW and Ketchikan, three relaxing hours away, the island is now accessible, though few outsiders know it. Some highlights:


Despite claims that logging has damaged the island’s sportfishery, a recent edition of Alaska Fish & Game magazine features 18 lakes and streams on Prince of Wales – a number of them running through previously logged areas – as prime fishing spots for four species of salmon, plus cutthroat, steelhead, rainbow, and Dolly Varden trout. Many sections of the waterways are accessible directly from logging roads.

Bruce Campbell, an expert on the sport, recommends Neck Lake near the tiny community of Whale Pass for cutthroat and Dolly Varden trout and sockeye salmon. He fishes Staney Creek for steelhead trout and coho, pink, sockeye, and chum salmon.


For years the Forest Service has maintained a system of remote cabins.

PHOTO : Many POWept. of Fish and Game streams hold coho salmon weighing up to 20 pounds.

PHOTO : You can rent the cabin for $15 a night.

PHOTO : Father and son at a Thorne River hotspot.

PHOTO : Henry and Betty Yost at Karta R. cabin.

COPYRIGHT 1990 American Forests

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group