Pure Alaska

Wrangell, the small town that fascinated naturalist John Muir a century ago, has managed to retain its charm and natural beauty.

Cover Story

August 22, 2004|By Ed Readicker-Henderson | Ed Readicker-Henderson,Special to the Sun

On the hill just behind town, John Muir got a little wild. It was 1879, and he had come to Wrangell, Alaska, for the simple reason that "all the wild north was new to me."

And one night in Wrangell, the founder of the Sierra Club, our nation's first great naturalist, indulged his dark side. He pushed his way through the berry bushes and devil's club to the hill above Zimovia Strait.

There, "I gathered abundance of wood, and kept adding to the fire until it had a strong, hot heart and sent up a pillar of flame thirty or forty feet high, illuminating a wide circle in spite of the rain, and casting a red glare into the flying clouds. Of all the thousands of camp-fires I have elsewhere built none was just like this one, rejoicing in triumphant strength and beauty in the heart of the rain-laden gale. It was wonderful."

Meanwhile, down in the village, "Some wakeful Indians, happening to see it about midnight, in great alarm aroused the Collector of Customs and begged him to go to the missionaries and get them to pray away the frightful omen."

I've come to Wrangell to see what Muir saw, and to find out what Muir saw that's gone, because there are some omens around Southeast Alaska -- where I grew up, and the place I consider home -- that I'm finding frightful myself.

In Muir's day, you made your living in Southeast by fishing, logging or mining. But during the past decade, the fish have gotten scarce, much of the logging has been outlawed and mines have closed. What's left to sell is what's left: the scenery.

This year, the landscape of mountains, trees, fog and whales in quiet fjords will draw more than a million tourists, three-quarters on cruise ships, to the Inside Passage. Traveling through more than 500 miles of sheltered waterways, most of the ships stop at Ketchikan, Juneau and Skagway, passing by smaller towns like Wrangell that are, perhaps, more like Alaska and less like a port in the Caribbean with jewelry stores and T-shirt shops.

Yet a healthy percentage of the travelers are clutching copies of Muir's Travels in Alaska.

So here's the question, what I think Muir himself would ask today: Can a place survive without selling its soul to the tourists? How accessible can you make beauty and still have it be beautiful?

Juneau can get 15,000 cruise ship passengers in a day; Skagway's 800 year-round residents can be outnumbered a dozen to one by tourists. Residents are OK with this, because according to one study, the average cruise ship passenger spends $175 per day in port.

Or, as one Skagway resident said: "In the gold rush days, we had 20,000 people walking the streets with guns. Now they have credit cards." Get the right job in the summer, and you don't have to work in the winter.

But Wrangell, Muir's old town, has decided to try something else. It's a working town, and as soon as you set foot on the lone main street, you know it's the kind of place where the hardware stores stay open late and the restaurants close early.

The 2,000 or so people who live here like what they have. They keep working to make a living off the traditional industries, but expand the town's economy by encouraging not mass tour-ism, but people who would come and stay for a while.

In Wrangell, you can book a trip to scenic places beyond your imagination, but you'll have trouble coming up with a souvenir T-shirt or a genuine Alaskan-made-in-Bali totem pole carving, so the cruise ships pass the town by.

Where's the balance point that will let the town survive?

"Wrangell was a tranquil place," Muir wrote on his arrival, only a dozen years after the United States bought Alaska from Russia. "I never heard a noisy brawl in the streets, or a clap of thunder, and the waves seldom spoke much above a whisper along the beach. In summer the rain comes straight down, steamy and tepid. ... The islands seem to drowse and float on the glassy water, and in the woods scarce a leaf stirs."

A welcoming place

Today, it's not much different. Muir would still recognize the place, as would Wyatt Earp, who strolled down the main street on his way to the Klondike gold rush. The buildings he saw are still here, too.

Wrangell's a town that hides its pleasures, but then, with a stray detail -- say, the loopy optimism of almost every house having a sun porch, despite the town being in the middle of a rain forest -- Wrangell opens in welcome.

People take care of each other here. When there's no fish for sale in the grocery store, the clerk offers to go home and get my wife some from his freezer. Tourists show up and say, "Wow, this is the only spot we've been where the guides are actually from here."

The town smells like fresh air and ocean and photosynthesis and fish. When I rent a house 50 yards from the beach, it turns out I don't exactly have a street address, but if I just say who lived there last, everybody knows right where I am.

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