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Tebenkof Bay
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Tebenkof Bay Wilderness Area
By Kerry Brophy
NOLS Southeast Alaska Sea Kayaking courses hone their paddling skills near Kuiu Island in the Tebenkof Wilderness.
© Lon Riesberg

Wilderness Profile

Name: Tebenkof Bay Wilderness Area
Year Designated as Wilderness: 1980
Size: 66,812 acres
Location: Kuiu Island in Southeast Alaska
NOLS Classroom: Southeast Alaska Sea Kayaking courses

Located on southeast Alaska’s Kuiu Island, the Tebenkof Bay Wilderness is a land where ocean meets forest, often with surprising results. One minute you’re paddling swift tidal currents in and around small islands and bays, and the next instant you’re standing on shore, a mere 100 yards from some of the thickest, tallest trees imaginable. Here, beaches jut right up against dense temp-erate rain forests where giant spruce and hemlock rise to neck-craning heights.

Where trees greet the sea: Tebenkof lies within the largest intact temperate rain forest on the planet.
© Scott Harris
This is the Tebenkof Bay Wilderness, a designated Wilderness area within Alaska’s Tongass National Forest, which at 17 million acres is the largest intact temperate rain forest left on the planet. Each year, NOLS students on Southeast Alaska Sea Kayaking courses get a rare glimpse into the ancient forests of Tebenkof Bay.

Once in the forests, says NOLS Instructor Nicholas Ferlatte, “you’re in this primeval thing that seems like it’s been that way forever.” In fact, the Tebenkof Bay Wilderness is a remnant from a primeval wilderness 2,500 miles long, which flowed from California north to Kodiak, Alaska. Sitka spruce, a familiar tree in the Tongass, can grow to more than 200 feet and live for up to 1,000 years.

While Tebenkof Bay is filled with water and trees, it’s also filled with wildlife. NOLS Instructors who have taught sea kayaking courses here report resident pods of orcas that swim underneath their boats; huge rafts of more than 60 sea otters linked together for a leisurely float; and humpback whales feeding less than 100 yards away. The annual salmon spawning sends thousands of bright orange fish flapping and thrashing through the streams, oftentimes right underneath students’ boats.

NOLS Instructor Patty Cuevas-Harris says it’s great learning about wildlife while they’re right in front of your eyes. “Sometimes we have to wait in our kayaks for the [black] bears to move on,” she says. “So, we’ll just stop and have a class on bears, right then and there as the bears are staring at us from shore.” One night, she says, her group heard humpback whales breaching near by. “Everybody dreamed of whales that night,” she remembers.

Wildlife are a guarantee in this part of Alaska, where natural history lessons wait around every corner.
© Brien Sheedy
NOLS students traveling in the Tebenkof Bay Wilderness often feel like they’re the first ones to discover this area. But the reality is that southeast Alaska is a land of multiple use, a place where wildlife coexists with fishing boats, tourists and, increasingly, logging interests. While a certain amount of logging has happened for years in southeast Alaska, the future may bring more impact than ever before on the ancient forests that surround the Tebenkof.

On December 23, 2003, President Bush reopened the Tongass National Forest to logging, exempting it from the Clinton-era “roadless rule” that banned building new roads in 60 million acres of national forests. While from the kayaker’s viewpoint there might not be much difference between the Tebenkof Wilderness and the surrounding Tongass National Forest, there are striking differences when it comes to how the two areas are managed. Since the Tebenkof Bay Wilderness is set aside in accordance with the Wilderness Act, it won’t be seeing any chainsaws. But this isn’t the case for its neighboring forests in the Tongass, where giant old-growth forests could yield a tempting supply of pulp for a variety of paper products. Removing protections from roadless areas in the Tongass will allow logging on over 300,000 acres of old growth forest.

There’s a lot at stake in the Tongass National Forest. As NOLS Instructor Scott Harris says, “The Tongass seems like one of the most heavily litigated forests in the world.” For NOLS students learning about issues facing public lands today, this area has some big lessons to teach. Visiting the Tebenkof Wilderness, says Harris, is a good chance for students to talk about what wilderness with a capital “W” really is. It’s also an opportunity to compare that designation to the different management options for the Tongass, one of which is to set it aside as Wilderness so it receives full protection.

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