Chugach National Forest

The 5.4-million acre Chugach National Forest forms a great arc around Prince William Sound. The forest stretches more than 200 miles from the Kenai Peninsula in the west, to the Bering Icefield in the east.

Here, the Gulf of Alaska spins potent storms into the coastal areas and Interior Alaska. This curving coastline connects the narrow Alaska panhandle with the rest of the state and ends on the Kenai Penisula to the west. Large islands like Montague and Hinchinbrook protect Prince William Sound from the fury of Gulf of Alaska storms.

Rocked by Earthquakes

This is a richly disturbed land as the earth plates collide in a geologic push and shove. March 27, 1964, one of the most powerful earthquakes ever recorded in North America shook the Chugach. The earthquake uplifted land as much as 20 feet, shook buildings to their foundations, and flooded villages  with its massive tsunami.

Maps printed with coastline information before 1964 are unreliable. What was shown as land may now be underwater. Earth appeared where the sea formerly ruled. Dead trees, killed by encroaching salt water, are still visible along Turnagain Arm east of Anchorage, sentinel reminders of the fury of the event. The earthquake bore witness to the powerful forces at work creating

Carved by Glaciers

Portage Valley glacier and lake. Portage Valley glacier and lake. Photo by Tom Iraci.

 

Above 2,000 feet, the alpine tundra is snow-free for only a few months each year. This snow contributes to the ice that carves the valleys. Famous glaciers like Portage, Childs and Columbia grind their way through the Chugach to the sea. Maps show hundreds of other glaciers like Harvard and Harriman or Dirty and Surprise.

Vast icefields on state, private, and federal lands feed the glaciers, creating a profound solitude unimaginable outside of Alaska. This is solitude where people enter only by hiking, flying or snow machining.

Where the ice melts, river systems form with amazing deltas that fan across the landscape. Frigid, fresh water lakes and streams dot the map before reaching sloughs and estuaries, then salt water.

On the edges of Prince William Sound, abundant rain and snow nurture a hushed forest of spongy moss, western hemlock, and straight-growing Sitka spruce. The Kenai Peninsula has vegetation similar to Interior Alaska, but also supports thousands of acres of birch, aspen, white spruce, and black spruce. This forest has been under attack in recent years from infestations of spruce bark beetle. The beetle has killed thousands of acres of trees on state, private and federal lands.

A Wildlife Mecca

Dall sheep Dall Sheep photo by Tom Iraci

 

Wildlife takes advantage of the ever-changing landscape. The enormous wetlands of the Copper River Delta near Cordova serve as nesting, staging and feeding habitat for more than 20 million birds each year. In summer, these wetlands support one quarter of the world’s population of trumpeter swans and dusky Canada geese.

The diverse lands and waters of the Chugach provide habitat for many types of birds, including songbirds, shorebirds and birds of prey. Fish and marine mammals such as humpback whales, sea lions and otters swim through the waters and take advantage of the surrounding environment.

Mountain goats and Dall sheep cling to steep hillsides. The Chugach is the only national forest supporting a population of Dall sheep. Moose ramble their way through the Copper River Delta, while a herd of caribou roams the Kenai Peninsula. Sitka black-tailed deer populate the islands in Prince William Sound. Black and brown (grizzly) bears inhabit most of the Chugach, foraging from the alpine slopes to the intertidal zones.

A Rich Culture

The Chugach is a melting pot of indigenous cultures. Chugach Eskimo, Eyak Indians, Kenaitze and other Athabascan Indian peoples continue to live in their homeland. Today they continue traditions extending thousands of years into the past.

Europeans first set foot on Alaska soil on the very eastern edge of the Chugach. In 1741 the Danish explorer Vitus Bering anchored his Russian-owned vessel in the lee of Kayak Island. German naturalist George Wilhem Steller explored the island for a few brief hours before returning to his ship and heading back to Russia. Russian fur traders soon established settlements in Prince William Sound. For over 100 years they harvested the rich bounty of sea otters pelts.

The United States purchased Alaska from the Russians in 1867. In 1888, gold was discovered, and the development of American towns began. In 1892, the one of the first forest reserves was created by a presidential executive order, which would become the Chugach National Forest in 1907. By 1911, railroads were providing access to the area’s copper mines.

A Life Tied to the Land

Begich, Boggs Visitor Center Begich, Boggs Visitor Center photo by Tom Iraci.

 

Today, many rural residents live a subsistence lifestyle, just as Alaska Natives have for centuries. Communities in and around Prince William Sound rely on fishing, tourism and natural resources. Small gold-mining operations are scattered throughout the Chugach and Kenai mountains.

Portage Valley is the state top tourist attraction. Each year, hundreds of thousands of people travel the Seward Highway All American Road to visit the valley and the award-winning Begich, Boggs Visitor Center at Portage Valley. Here they are treated to spectacular views of valley glaciers, an iceberg-filled lake, and exhibits that interpret Prince William Sound and the Chugach National Forest.

Other visitors come to attend shorebird festivals or to lure salmon out of the Kenai Peninsula Russian River. In winter, snowmachining, heli-skiing and dog-sledding are prime activities for residents and an increasing number of tourists.

Less than one third of the Chugach is readily accessible by road from Anchorage or Seward. Most of the forest, and the communities of Cordova, Chenega, and Tatitlek, are accessible only by plane or boat.

Visitors traveling to the Chugach will find remarkable variations in day length. At the summer solstice, the area receives more than twenty hours of daylight. At the winter solstice in December, the sun sets at 3:45 p.m. after just a short six hours of daylight.

The weather in this region varies greatly. A sunny day in Anchorage might turn rainy and foggy after just a short drive along Turnagain Arm. Near Anchorage, the mean high temperature for January is 13 degrees. By July that climbs to 58 degrees; August is the warmest month with a mean high of 64. Rainfall can average as little as 15 inches per year. However, in coastal communities of the Chugach, rainfall can exceed 160 inches per year.

The mountains, glaciers, ocean, and wetlands provide an almost unlimited variety of scenery for the people who live near the Chugach, and for those who come to visit.





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