There's still plenty of gold out there, too. Back in 1998, we were nearing the confluence of the Stikine and the Iskut, when a low drone came from over the hillsides, and a fat airplane, barely clearing the treetops, appeared.
"Flying out ore from the Snip Mine," Sylvia Ettefagh, the guide from Alaska Vistas, said over the sound of the first motor we'd heard in days.
That mine has closed, but there are still more than 35 claims that can be reopened at any time. As the price of gold goes up, the attraction of these mines increases. There are also tentative plans to cut a road into the area.
Meanwhile, the Tahltan tribe's fish camps dot the Stikine's banks, as do old miners' cabins and the occasional abandoned fuel drum. Somehow, these do not detract from the river's beauty, but rather accent it. To remove these traces, clean it as shiny as a Disneyland wilderness, would simply be to lie.
The Stikine is wild and changeable, never in quite the same place two days in a row. Although much of the upper reaches of the river have been turned into Canadian Provincial Parks, the lower river is a balancing act. If the mines start up, or fishing and logging boom again, people will have better jobs, but maybe there will be a bit less beauty.
If this makes the tourists go away -- the same people who use lumber products, buy gold jewelry and eat fish dinners, yet may not want to know where these things come from -- life in Wrangell will get a little harder, but the place and the people are not about to change.
And that means the town is free from the pressures of conforming that some other Alaska towns feel. Wrangell is Wrangell, take it or leave it.
For those who fall under the town's spell, says longtime resident Carol Rushmore, "they get the same friendliness we get living here."
That's the secret of Wrangell: No matter what, it remains itself, and no matter what, the river will still roll along, and the bears will keep fishing at Anan.
During my time in Wrangell, a local dog decides it's his job to take my evening walks with me. Each night we go along the shoreline, where the Stikine's mud outflow stretches past Deadman's Island, out into the main channel, clear over to a mountain formation called the Nose miles away. Ravens mob up for the night, seals catch a last few euchalon, a fish so rich in oil it can be used as a candle. Great blue herons stand next to petroglyphs so old nobody is sure who carved them.
I look down at the dog, scratch his wet black fur. I ask him: "So can a town hit that balance point? Make a living without giving in to mass tourism?"
Except for the wild world around us, the dog and I have the place to ourselves. It's all the answer I need.
Everything Muir saw is still here. Wrangell's making sure of that.
Wrangell is 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.
An ideal day
9 a.m.: Grab a coffee at Java Junkie on the waterfront, then walk over to Chief Shakes Island and check out the totem poles and ravens making their morning rounds in the harbor.
10 a.m.: Book a day-trip on the Stikine. You'll see seals basking in the rain on the mud flats as you make your way into the main channel. Along the way, you'll see moose, bears, maybe wolves and plenty of bald eagles.
4 p.m.: It's a 10-minute hike to the summit of Muir Hill, where the man built his fire. Look out over the harbor, the town, the channels beyond, and wonder where conservation and pyromania meet.
6 p.m.: Dinner time. Wrangell was the only town in Alaska ever ruled by the British -- they leased it from the Russians for 2,000 otter skins a year. Their fort stood roughly where the Hungry Beaver -- best pizza in town -- is now, overlooking Chief Shakes Island.
8 p.m.: Walk to Petroglyph Beach, past the ferry terminal. If a ferry is in, check with the local kids who sell Wrangell garnets, a deep purple gemstone. Along the shoreline are dozens of petroglyphs, probably carved by bored sentries watching Zimovia Strait. Now it's the perfect place to watch the sunset, which can be as late as 11 p.m. in midsummer.
9:30 p.m.: Discover what really happens in an Alaskan town after all the tourists have gone home: perfect silence, and peace and quiet in the most beautiful setting in the world.
-- Ed Readicker-Henderson
When you go
Getting there: The only ways into Wrangell are via Alaska Airlines (800-252-7522; alaskaair.com), with flights from Juneau or Seattle, or by the Alaska Marine Highway ferry system (800-642-0066; alaska.gov / ferry).
Bruce Harding's Old Sourdough Lodge, 1104 Peninsula St., Wrangell, AK 99929
Rustic lodge with native Alaskan art and views of the harbor. Rooms from $95.
Stikine Inn, 107 Stikine Ave., Wrangell, AK 99929
A 33-room inn built in 1969 that's a block away from the ferry terminal. Rooms from $85.
Wrangell has a museum containing some of the best artifacts in Southeast Alaska, including the oldest extant house poles -- like totem poles, but meant to be displayed indoors. Information: 907-874-3770.
Try these outfitters for a variety of guided trips: Alaska Vistas (907-874-3006; alaskavistas.com) or Breakaway Adventures (888-385-2488; breakawayadventures.com).