Icy Strait Point is located on the Chichagof Island of Alaska. It is within and surrounded by the Tongass National Forest, the second largest rain forest in the world after the Amazon. The Tongass is a temperate rain forest, meaning its average temperature ranges from 39 to 54 degrees Fahrenheit, rather than the sweltering 80 degrees with 75% humidity in the Amazon. Over 55 inches per year of precipitation would classify it as a rain forest, and this rain forest, with its almost 200 inches of precipitation per year, more than qualifies.
The indigenous people of this land, the Tlingit, have long traded with those from other lands, beginning with Russian traders. Today, their trade is much more sophisticated, and may they be blessed with prosperity! Named for the point that juts out from Chichagof Island into Icy Strait in the Inside Passage, Icy Strait Point is the only privately owned cruise destination in Alaska, all of the others being owned by the governments of the cities they’re connected to. Who owns it? The Tlingit people, many of whom live in the nearby town of Hoonah, Alaska. Their floating dock, built in 2016, adds convenience for cruise ship passengers, who no longer need to tender ashore. They have plans to build a second dock, but that’s where the luxury and convenience ends.
The Tlingit people live in humble conditions. Most of the homes are made of tongue and groove cedar or hemlock and are not insulated. They depend on shipments from afar for supplies and medical help. Even pregnant mothers must move away from their homes for a month before their due date to be guaranteed to have a doctor on call for their child’s birth.
The cruise dock of Icy Strait is just as humble as the local living conditions. We felt as though we were walking across a bridge to nothing but beach and a forest. The Tlingit people fiercely work to preserve the nature and beauty of this land and surrounding ocean so that the beaver, otter, whale, bear, and the rest of the totems of the eighteen family groups, can continue to live in safety and abundance.
Once across this simple covered bridge to Icy Strait, we were able to take advantage of a tour offered by the native people here. They call the Coastal Brown Bear Grandfather. A Tinglit never hunts the bear, nor does he leave bait of any kind for the benefit of showing the bear to tourists. “It would be like hunting a relative,” our native guide remarked. But they do observe, study, and protect the bear. It was fun to join our guide on the search for him. She knew exactly where he had been spotted that day, and she wasn’t surprised. He had just emerged from hibernation, and his digestive system was in need of a tall grass that grew along the Spasski River. After all, how could he possibly eat salmon if his digestive system was still coming out of sleep? She also assured us that we were in no danger from these huge animals. “Even if he thought you would taste good, he would probably hold his stomach and say, ‘It looks delicious, but I couldn’t possibly…'” she jested.
We saw lots of evidence of the bear, chiefly in the form of scat that we often had to avoid stepping into. We went to three different overlooks, and the hike was absolutely beautiful and peaceful (thanks to our guide warning the group that noise would send Grandfather Bear away). However, the only bear we saw was the cute one carved for our benefit and placed in the bushes below one of the outlooks.
Disappointed, we headed back to the bus and loaded up. Before we had traveled far on the dirt road, however, my husband Bill cried out, “There he is!” And it was true. The object of our hunt was lumbering across the road in front of the bus! All that time we had stood with cameras poised, only to lose hope and finally pack them away, and this beautiful orangish-brown specimen presented himself, only to escape every lens and every click as he disappeared into the bushes on the other side of the road.
The picture below was taken by Richard Williams of Mikfik photography, not by one of our group, but it gives you an idea of what we saw. The male version of this orangish-brown bear can weigh up to 1,000 pounds (the female 800), similar to its larger cousin, the Kodiak Bear, and its smaller cousin, the Grizzly Bear.
Our bear hunt was disappointing, but we weren’t done trying to commune with Alaskan nature. Our next stop was the whale watching dock. We headed there, hopeful we would be able to capture at least one humpback whale on camera.