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ALASKA (Pt 1)

Updated: 4 days ago

(This blog primarily focuses on Southern Appalachian ecology, but occasionally I travel away from my home region, and report back on my ecological observations of those locales. For the occasion of my 50th birthday, I spent the second half of June in Alaska and will write several posts about this experience.)


Alaska has always loomed large in my imagination, a paragon of wild places. I am lucky to live in one of the wildest corners of the eastern states, deep in the Blue Ridge Mountains, beside a pristine headwaters river, sandwiched between tens of thousands of acres of National Forest, State Park, and National Park lands. Our county has a modest population density of 36 people/sq mile (the rest of North Carolina averages 230). The entire state of Alaska is populated with only 1 person/sq mile. I’ve always wanted to experience a place like that. Now I have, and I’ll never be the same again. 

Tent on the shore
Camped at the edge of the "Gut" - the narrow, kelp-filled entrance to the Hobbit Hole's harbor which is not navigable at very low tides.

We spent the week of solstice camped on the shoreline of one of the richest seas on earth. Sea lions rumbled in the distance as the sun set at 11 p.m., ushering in four hours of twilight. The dawn chorus began at 3:30 a.m. with the haunting notes of varied thrushes, and by 4 the fledgling ravens were cawing and quorking at their parents in the intertidal zone. Such is life at the Hobbit Hole, a tiny outpost of the Tidelines Institute, in the vast watery wilderness of Southeast Alaska. The Hobbit Hole is a hydro-powered homestead tucked alongside a natural harbor of the Inian Islands. The tiny outpost is surrounded by the largest area of protected land in the world, stretching from Tongass NF (more than half of Tongass’ 17 million acres is designated wilderness), through 3 million acres of Glacier Bay NP, through the preserves of British Columbia, to Wrangell St. Elias NP, whose 13 million acres makes it the largest national park in the US park system. 

Hobbit Hole, Inian Islands
View from our campsite back towards the Hobbit Hole compound.

We were there to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the founding of two separate endeavors, the Arete Project (for which I worked from 2015-19) and the Inian Islands Institute. The two nonprofits joined forces in 2021 to become Tidelines. True to the mission of the program, the celebration involved a weeklong work party, where we lived as an ephemeral island community of 16 former and current staff and alumni of the program, ranging in age from 2 to 60+. We did construction projects, split wood, harvested kelp, gardened, cooked, ate, hiked, kayaked, and took saunas and cold plunges together. 

Sauna on the dock. The microhydro can't really make enough hot water for people to take showers, so the best way to get fresh is to fire up the sauna (only takes about 6-7 sticks of soft cordwood to get to 140°), then jump in the 53° water and/or rinse off in the springfed hose (43°).

Tidelines is an apt name for the organization. Ecological education is core to its purpose, and the tides of the Icy Strait – some of the greatest tidal swings on Earth – scribe the border between two great ecosystems. Our tent was nestled against the familiar one – the forest. This temperate rainforest is not all that different from the alpine cloud forests along the crest of the Black Mountains at home. Here, Sitka spruce and western hemlock replace the red spruce and fraser fir of WNC. Many of the mosses are the same – big shaggy-moss and stair-step moss cover the forest floor. It’s a bit rainier and a lot foggier than the mountaintops back home, so the moss grows thicker and covers more surface area. A few wildflowers, like rosy twisted stalk, are the same species as the ones back home. Many more of them are similar species in the same genus or family as the Southern Appalachian versions.



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