Staying Safe on the Tongass National Forest

Punchbowl Lake Skiff

The Tongass National Forest provides a wide variety of outdoor experiences. Visitors can choose to kayak in a designated Wilderness Area, hike to a remote lake, watch bears catch salmon in a stream, or take a floatplane to a secluded cabin. The wildlife, landscape and isolation that fascinate visitors to Southeast Alaska can also pose safety hazards to those that are unprepared. Extra precautions and research can help ensure a safer trip in this challenging environment.

Trapping & Pet Safety - Sharing the Trails

No one wants to see a dog caught in a trap intended for a marten or a wolf, but it occasionally happens. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game and the Alaska Trappers Association have developed a series of videos on how to release pets from specific kinds of traps and snares. 

Wildlife & Bear Safety

Help us keep Alaska’s wildlife wild. Secure your food and do not feed animals. Habituating animals to human food can lead to harmful situations for both people and wildlife. Do not approach wild animals and give them plenty of space. Alaska Department of Fish and Game, Living with Wildflife page is a good resource.

Both black and brown bears call Southeast Alaska home. The Alaska Department of Natural Resources, Division of Parks & Outdoor Recreation has a great deal of very useful bear safety information.

Be Weather Wise

The Tongass is a temperate rainforest, with rain and cool temperatures likely most of the year. Average rainfall ranges from 26” in Skagway to 225” in Little Port Walter on Baranof Island. Summer temperatures average in the 50’s and 60’s. The combination of cool temperatures and wet conditions make hypothermia a risk even in the summer. Be prepared with proper clothing and shelter. Non-cotton clothing worn in layers is best for wet conditions.

Check the weather before you go, but be prepared for change. Weather conditions can shift suddenly and cause unsafe conditions for boating or flying. If your trip depends on travel by a boat or floatplane, pack extra supplies in case your departure or pick up is delayed.

Water Safety

The Tongass boasts 11,000 of miles of coastline, providing many water-based recreational opportunities. Any trip on the water should be done with safety in mind when undertaken in Southeast Alaska’s cold waters. Hypothermia is a serious risk with prolonged immersion in cold water. Personal flotation devices should always be worn as a person’s ability to swim or tread water decreases with prolonged exposure to cold water.

If your trip involves travel on the ocean, knowledge of Alaska’s tides is important. The tides in Alaska have wide ranges. There can be as much as a 20 foot difference between the high and low tides. Be aware of this when choosing a beach campsite, and look to camp above the high water mark. The large tides can also create powerful currents, especially in narrower stretches of water. A tide table is an essential tool for planning a water-based trip.

Read the following link for more tips to stay safe when recreating around water. Alaska Department of Natural Resources, Department of Boating Safety.

Watch What You Eat

Alaska is famous for its wild berries and edible plants, but poisonous plants are found in Alaska as well. Baneberry (Actaea rubra), Water Hemlock (Cicuta douglasii) and False Hellebore (Veratrum viride) can be fatal if eaten. Other plants like Devil’s Club (Oplopanax horridus) and Cow Parsnip (Heracleum lanatum) may cause skin irritation if touched. Learn to positively identify plants if you plan on eating them.

Southeast Alaska’s miles of coastline may make shellfish harvesting seem tempting, but Alaska shellfish have caused fatal cases of Paralytic Shellfish Poisoning (PSP).  The Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation warns against eating any shellfish except from tested sources and beaches. There is a variety of other Alaskan fish and game that is safe and delicious to eat, but first learn what preparation is required. Undercooked bear and seal meat may harbor Trichinosis parasites that can lead to illness.

Water rushing by in a cool, clear stream may look safe to drink, but drinking untreated water can put you at a risk for illness from Giardia. Giardia is a bacteria spread by wildlife like beavers, so it can be found in even remote streams. Always treat drinking water by filtering, using chemical treatments, or by boiling.

Be Prepared

Being prepared and alert is the key to recreating safely in Alaska. Being alert can help you watch for potentially unsafe situations, and being prepared is essential with the changing conditions of Southeast Alaska. It is also advised to let someone know when and where you will be before you head out.

The terrain and conditions in Alaska can be intimidating, but with proper knowledge and planning it can become the trip of a lifetime. Stop by any of the visitor centers or district offices for maps, advice and current conditions before you set out on your adventure.