email a friend iconprinter friendly iconTongass National Forest
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Rising fast from salty coves to blue ice and black crags, here's a continent edgescape to swell the soul and humble the ego. Storm waves funneling up Stephens Passage can make an aluminum skiff feel awfully small, too, as I realized the day I first set out in June. My traveling companions were Richard Carstensen, from Juneau, and Bob Christensen, who lives on a lonesome island in Icy Strait. I called them the Sen Boys for short. Both are naturalists and experts at interpreting how the lay of the land shapes plant and animal communities. They read the sea well, too, and decided to run for a sheltered inlet.

At anchor with the engine off, we could hear how hard the rain was pelting the roof. Anyone else might have lingered in the boat's little cabin. The Sen Boys hurried out to hike. Anyone else might have chosen the beach and grassy estuary. The Sen Boys headed straight for the drooping, tangled murk beneath giant Sitka spruce, western hemlock, and cedar. They're rain forest guys, and we were on a voyage of discovery through an American frontier.

A high-tech voyage: The Sen Boys' hats had pockets sewn on to hold GPS (global positioning system) devices that pinpointed their locations from satellite signals and sent the data wirelessly to PDAs (personal digital assistants) in waterproof cases on their belts. The PDA screens displayed maps that automatically adjusted to match their whereabouts as they moved. By tapping the screens they could call up map overlays showing plant communities, wildlife habitat quality, geology, and 3-D topography. Their goal was to evaluate forest resources, focusing especially on sites scheduled to be cut.

Carstensen pointed out key plants as he walked. He nibbled the tastier greens. He dropped to his belly to examine obscure mosses and rattled off their Latin names. Petal by frond, he was assembling a portrait of the habitat in his mind. Where I saw the forest floor take an abrupt rise, he saw a former shoreline uplifted since the glaciers began to retreat, relieving the land of their weight—a phenomenon called glacial rebound. It is ongoing. The Tongass stands a smidgen higher by the hour.

Meanwhile Christensen raced ahead, talking into a voice-recording digital still camera. He looked for animal trails and droppings, counted them, mapped them, fingered old bones and snagged hair, and photographed the colossal conifers. He told me that both yellow cedars and western red cedars live at least a thousand years, then led the way to spruces he judged to be about 700 years old. Their trunks were so stout the three of us joining hands couldn't have encircled one.

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