Hiking in lush magical forests, responsible encounters with grizzly bears, bald eagles, and humpback whales, kayaking in the stillness of secluded mountain-lined bays and inlets. A land where the population of bears exceeds that of humans, few places on earth can satisfy the wanderlust of the off-the-beaten-path adventurer in search of the wild nature and the cultural richness of the Tlingit Indians like Baranof Island.
Baranof Island, along with Admiralty and Chicagof, compromise the ABC Islands on southern Alaska’s panhandle, part of Alaska’s Inside Passage. Slightly smaller than Delaware, it’s the tenth largest island in the United States, most of which is designated as Tongass National Forest, the nation’s largest national forest. Baranof is remote, rugged and picturesque, from its towering peaks to deep lakes.
We journeyed aboard the Westward with an outfit called AdventureSmith Explorations an eco-adventure tour company promoting responsible and sustainable travel. The Westward is an 8-passenger/3-crew historic wooden yacht, just 86 feet long, which allows it to enter coves in Alaska’s Inside Passage which are too shallow for larger ships to safely navigate. The seldom-explored, secluded bays, channels, and islets are ideal for sea kayaking and whale watching.
Sitka, semi-protected on the outer banks of Baranof Island, just might be Alaska’s most picturesque seaside town. The town is not reachable via roads from the mainland, but serves as the main port for tourism, cruising, and aircraft.
5,000 years ago, Sitka was settled by the Tlingit Indians. A quarter of the residents claim to be descendants who are deeply rooted and celebrate their culture by carrying on the local artist traditions of totem and silver carving and basket weaving.
In 1799, Alexander Baranov established the first European settlement which now bears his name. Until 1867 Sitka was a Russian fur-trading post and hub for Russian activity in North America.
Hiking trails through Sitka National Historical Park wind and zig zag through masses of mossy spruce and hemlock. The trail leads past the information-filled visitor center, whose wooded area is sprinkled with towering, intricately carved and colorfully painted totem poles, and past the Pacific Ocean and shoreline filled with fireweed, a bright pink wildflower abundant in Alaska.
Sitka is more often than not the first glimpse of Alaska’s Inside Passage. It beckons and taunts its visitors to stay and explore the area, flush with wildlife, including brown bears, bald eagles, river otters, owls and salmon.
Frequently nestled in dense fog, Hanus Bay with its still water and rugged surrounding mountains provides perfect conditions and scenery for kayaking. Spotting sea otters in the inlet and bald eagles in the forestry along the shoreline is common.
The three-mile trail to the lake through the Tongass National Forest is considered moderate. It’s relatively flat with some gentle hills, but the wet and muddy conditions make it slippery and potentially treacherous. The rainforest is blanketed in spongy green moss, creating a magical, fairytale look. Bulky specialized rain gear was needed – jacket, pants, and boots, making the trek somewhat cumbersome, but we were rewarded for our efforts when we reached the stunning panorama of Eva Lake. Magenta asters grow wild at the shoreline and forested hills form a dramatic backdrop. The lake is flush with salmon and trout, making it a possible place for viewing bears in the distance.
Bordered on the outside coast by the Gulf of Alaska, Chatham Straight is a narrow passage separating Baranof Island and Chichagof Island. With a little luck, cruising through the channel will be one of the most exhilarating experiences, not just in Alaska, but in the world. Sightings of the mammoth humpback whales are frequently reported in the strait and so it was for us. We felt Westward’s captain slowing our small ship, so everyone clambered out onto the deck. We were surrounded by dozens of whales, lunge diving, breaching, sprouting water, and other acrobatics leaving colossal plops of water on the otherwise still sea. We stood frozen in our spots, cameras clicking and faces beaming, speechless at the privilege of observing nature’s magnificent display. The demostration went on for an hour or so, and it seemed like they were deliberatively putting on a performance for the visiting humans, but of course that can’t be true….. right? The experience was incredible; one of those surreal memories that stays with you long after the original display is over.
Baranof Lake and Warm Springs
Baranof Lake is a large glacially-fed, freshwater lake about a ½ mile hike from the bay settlement, a small seasonal community. The community built and maintains a winding pedestrian-only boardwalk which hikers can use part of the way to the lake.
The warm springs are located on the eastern side of the island, about a ¼ mile hike from the bay, just off Chatham Strait. There are a total of nine hot springs, but the best is arguably the one in a stunning natural setting, nestled in a series of rapids and waterfalls originating from the Baranof River. This spring adds an element of drama and danger to an otherwise relaxing activity. The temperatures of the springs range from warm to an almost scalding 120 degrees Fahrenheit.
There’s also a public bathhouse on the bay, for those who prefer not to hike or participate in a communal soak.
The Alaska Whale Foundation is located in the bay and open to tourists.
There are no roads at the springs, and only way to get to the area is by seaplane or small ship.
The fishing opportunities around Baranof Island are some of the finest in the world, most notably for the variety and quality of salmon, including sockeye, king, silver, pink, and chum. Salmon feed in the nutrient rich water, then make their way upstream to spawn in the hatcheries where the offspring grow and are subsequently released.
There are five year-round hatcheries, two of which we toured – Hidden Falls and Sitka Sound Science Center.
The hatchery at the Sitka Sound Science Center has a permit to raise coho, pink and chum salmon. This hatchery is the only facility training facility in Alaska that provides research for NSRAA and the UAS Fisheries Technology program.
Hidden Falls releases an enormous number of chum, Chinook and coho salmon, making this hatchery the most economically important program in Alaska’s southeast. Alaskan brown bears, a subset of grizzlies, frequent the river at Hidden Falls. Using it as their own personal buffet line, the bears pluck fish after fish out of the water, gorging themselves on the fatty brain and belly and discarding the rest.
Wild and rugged Baranof Island will leave visitors with an insatiable desire to return and to explore more of Alaska’s wild Inside Passage.
Disclosure: The author was honored to be the guest of AdventureSmith during her stay in Alaska, but as always, the opinions, reviews and experiences are her own.