Thorne Bay, Prince of Wales Island

Thorne Bay, Prince of Wales Island

by | Dec 2, 2021

Thorne Bay is a small community, and an estuary of the Thorne River on the eastern coast of Prince of Wales Island, the largest of approximately 1,100 islands interspersed by marine channels in the Alexander Archipelago of Southeast Alaska, about 55 miles (89 km) southwest of Wrangell and 42 miles (68 km) northwest of Ketchikan, Alaska. Thorne Bay estuary extends for 6.3 miles (10 km) from the mouth of the Thorne River to Clarence Strait. The bay was named in 1891 for Frank Manley Thorn, who was the Superintendent of the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey from 1885 to 1889. The name of the bay was misspelled when published in the original record and was never corrected. Thorne River is a significant fishery with steelhead and salmon running into the river to spawn. The community name is taken from the bay that geographically divides the community so that the main townsite with most administrative services is located on the north side of the bay, and residential, commercial, and industrial subdivisions are located on the south side of the bay. The community of Thorne Bay originally began as a large floating logging camp for the Ketchikan Pulp Company in 1960 that was moved from Hollis, Alaska. In the 1960s and 1970s, Thorne Bay was the largest logging camp in North America and was home to over 1500 residents at its peak. Today, the economy is slowly shifting from the old logging camp days to a more balanced economy. The largest employers are the U.S. Forest Service that manages the surrounding Tongass National Forest, Southeast Island School District, and the City of Thorne Bay. A barge landing and loading facility accommodates most of the island freight, and two scheduled floatplane services provide daily passenger and mail service to Ketchikan and other island communities. The Inter-Island Ferry provides passenger and vehicle service from Hollis to Ketchikan.

A continental ice sheet covered the Alexander Archipelago during the late Pleistocene, and ice may have reached thicknesses of 3,280 feet (1,000 m) and extended over the continental shelf in the Gulf of Alaska. Cosmogenic nuclide dating indicates that the fjords and straits were deglaciated about 14,900 years ago. Small, remnant ice caps may have persisted in high-elevation areas until the early Holocene. The earliest evidence of human occupation in Southeast Alaska is from the early to mid-Holocene and these sites are often found at elevations of 52-72 feet (16-22 m) above sea level. Sea level in Southeast Alaska rose rapidly at the end of the Last Glacial Maximum from the melting glaciers, but since the region had also been depressed under the weight of the ice, the land gradually rebounded to its present position. Many of the early Holocene archeological sites first identified in Southeast Alaska were discovered during the destructive building of roads and other infrastructure. One of these sites is located at Thorne River where microblades, cores, and flake tools were found dating to around 7,600 years ago. From 900-1400 AD, a series of northward mi­grations occurred of ancestral Tlingit people who originated from the Pacific coast between the Nass and Skeena Rivers. Most of Southeast Alaska eventually became occupied by the Tlingit, with 17 trib­ally distinct groups known as kwaans. At some time prior to contact with Europeans, the Kaigani from Haida Gwaii in British Columbia settled the southern half of Prince of Wales Island, displacing the Tlingit who retained the territory north of the Haida village at Kasaan, including Thorne Bay.

Tongass National Forest is the world’s largest remaining intact coastal temperate rainforest, however, over the last century, logging has changed the ecosystem by removing about 50% of the rare old-growth trees. Today, the forests of Prince of Wales Island, which occur primarily below elevations of 1500 feet (450 m), consist mostly of second-growth Sitka spruce, western hemlock, and western red cedar with an understory of low-lying early blueberry and Alaska blueberry, copper bush, devils club, and salal. Red alder grows along streams, beach fringes, and recently disturbed areas, and black cottonwood is found within major flood plains. From the mid-1950s until 1997, Thorne Bay was the main site used to store logs destined for the Ketchikan Pulp Company pulp mill at Ward Cove. The former Thorne Bay log transfer facility covered roughly 200 acres (81 ha) of benthic habitat at the northern end of the bay bounded to the southwest by the delta of the Thorne River, and to the east by the community of Thorne Bay. Higher grade logs were sent to a sawmill that operated in Ward Cove from 1989 through 2000. Logs also were sent to a veneer mill that operated in Ward Cove briefly in 2000-2001. Log storage and transfer activities ceased in Thorne Bay after 2001. A large volume of logs, estimated at 4.5 billion board feet, moved through the Thorne Bay site. Many of the trees logged on Prince of Wales Island were trucked to the Thorne Bay log transfer facility to be sorted and graded, placed in the water, and formed into log rafts. Logs rafted elsewhere were towed into Thorne Bay, removed from the water, sorted and graded, and placed back into rafts. Prior to the mid-1970s, logs apparently were ‘flat rafted’ as single floating logs enclosed within rafts. After that time, logs were cabled into bundles of 10 to 15 logs before placement into water and remained in bundles until they reached destinations. Bundles prevented single waterlogged logs from sinking. All log rafts were towed to destinations by tug boats. In 1988 and 1990, dive surveys were conducted of the benthos to assess bark accumulation in the log storage area. Those surveys found approximately 55 acres (22 ha) of bark waste covering the bottom and varying from 6-24 inches (15-61 cm) in thickness. By 2003, another dive survey found that silt discharged by the Thorne River had buried the bark and wood waste that remained since the cessation of logging storing. The extent of logs and other large wood pieces buried within the sediment is unknown, however, an estimated 16,000 sunken logs exist on the bottom of Ward Cove, and a reasonable assumption is that many logs and wood debris sank in Thorne Bay and were subsequently buried. Read more here and here. Explore more of Thorne Bay here:

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This ‘warming stripe’ graphic is a visual representation of the change in global temperature from 1850 (top) to 2021 (bottom). Each stripe represents the average global temperature for one year. The average temperature from 1971-2000 is set as the boundary between blue and red. The color scale goes from -0.7°C to +0.7°C. The data are from the UK Met Office HadCRUT4.6 dataset. 

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