Point Baker, Sumner Strait

Point Baker, Sumner Strait

by | Dec 21, 2021

Point Baker is a cape on the south shore of Sumner Strait at the north end of Prince of Wales Island in Southeast Alaska, where a small community with the same name lines the shore of a narrow water passage, about 101 miles (163 km) northwest of Ketchikan and 49 miles (79 km) west of Wrangell, Alaska. Prince of Wales Island is 135 miles (217 km) long, 65 miles (105 km) wide, and has an area of 1.6 million acres (667,440 ha). During the Pleistocene glaciation, the island was covered by ice over 3,000 feet (910 m) thick and all but the highest mountain peaks were buried. When the ice retreated, an ancient people inhabited the coast for thousands of years and they were displaced by the Tlingit who migrated into present-day Southeast Alaska from the interior, and their name for the island is Taan, meaning ‘sea lion’. The Kaigani Haida migrated into the area from Haida Gwaii in the late 18th century and occupied the southern half of the island. The Kaigani established themselves primarily at the village of Kasaan, but they also controlled the southwest coast of Prince of Wales Island from Cape Chacon to Suemez Island including Dall Island. The Tlingit groups inhabiting the northern region of the island were known as the Henya or Henyakwan. The Henya had exclusive use of the resources from Point Baker to Suemez Island, including Kosciusko, Heceta, and the other smaller islands that separate Prince of Wales Island from the Pacific Ocean. The area to the east from Point Baker to the Stikine River was controlled by the Stikine Tlingit. In the 18th century, European explorers arrived from Russia, Spain, Britain, and the United States. In 1793, Captain George Vancouver gave the name ‘Prince of Wales Archipelago’ to all the islands of the southern Alexander Archipelago. The name is after George IV, Prince of Wales, who would later become King George IV. Point Baker was named in 1793 by Vancouver after Joseph Baker the first lieutenant on the ship Discovery. Vancouver was sailing southwest in Sumner Strait from the mouth of the Stikine River in search of an anchorage to escape a storm when they doubled the cape at Point Baker and found a safe anchorage at nearby Port Protection. The Tlingit name for the water passage between Point Baker and Prince of Wales Island is X̱aaséedák’u, meaning ‘small pass through which the war party goes at high tide’. At the time of Vancouver’s visit, although not reported in his journals, a Tlingit fish camp was well established at Point Baker and used for trade and subsistence fishing.

Salmon returning mostly to the Stikine River migrate through Sumner Strait and take advantage of flooding tidal currents along the eastern shore. Strong tidal fronts occur at Point Baker creating large aggregations of plankton, forage fish, and whales. This is likely the reason why seasonal Tlingit camps were established here and used for hundreds of years. After the Alaska Purchase in 1867, Americans arrived to exploit the whales, herring, and salmon. Fish traps were built on the Stikine and salmon canneries were established at Wrangell. The Alexander Archipelago Forest Reserve was established by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1902, and another presidential proclamation by Roosevelt in 1907 created the Tongass National Forest. In 1908, the two forests were merged into one unit of 16.7 million acres (6,758,256 ha) encompassing most of Southeast Alaska and managed by the U.S. Forest Service. Additional presidential proclamations expanded the Tongass in 1909 by Roosevelt and in 1925 by President Calvin Coolidge. In 1919, a floating fish packer came to Point Baker to buy salmon from a small fleet of boats using the harbor as an overnight anchorage. During the 1920s, up to 100 tents lined the harbor occupied mostly by salmon fishers. This operation continued until the 1930s when the U.S. Forest Service opened the area for private homesites and many fishermen built cabins along the protected waterways of Point Baker and Port Protection. The first store was built in 1941, and a floating post office opened in 1942. In 1955, Point Baker was withdrawn from the Tongass National Forest. In the early 20th century, timber cutting in Southeast Alaska started as small hand logging operations focusing on high-value trees that were easily accessible from areas surrounding tidal wetlands and fringing protected beaches. In the 1950s, in part to aid economic recovery following World War II, the U.S. Forest Service set up long-term contracts with two pulp mills, the Ketchikan Pulp Company and the Alaska Pulp Company in Sitka. These contracts were scheduled to last 50 years and were originally intended to complement independent sawlog operations in the region. However, the two companies conspired to drive log prices down, put smaller logging operations out of business, and were major and recalcitrant polluters in their local areas. Ultimately, virtually all timber sales in the Tongass were purchased by one of these two companies until the 1990s when they closed. But the management of Tongass National Forest is still one of the most divisive, intractable, high-profile, and longest-running environmental conflicts in the United States.

In 1973, a fisherman and homesteader from Port Protection named Alan Stein, established the Point Baker Association to protest clearcut logging near Point Baker, and in 1975, they initiated a federal lawsuit that stopped the logging operation. The lawsuit spurred Congress into passing the National Forest Management Act of 1976. The main objectives of the legislation were to require the U.S. Forest Service to develop plans for national forests, set standards for timber sales, and create policies to regulate timber harvesting. The purpose of these objectives was to protect national forests from permanent damages resulting from excessive logging and clear-cutting. The U.S. Forest Service is now required to use a systematic and interdisciplinary approach to resource management, and to thoroughly assess and plan for the nation’s renewable resource demand and associated environmental and economic impacts. In 1989, another lawsuit by residents of Point Baker fought for buffer strips on all the salmon streams of the Tongass and for the protection of Salmon Bay, a neighboring watershed with an important salmon stream on the northeast coast of Prince of Wales Island. In 1990, the Tongass Timber Reform Act was passed protecting all the salmon streams in the Tongass with a buffer strip 100 feet (30 m) wide, but only part of the Salmon Bay watershed was protected. Despite the ubiquitous clear cuts, the Tongass remains one of America’s largest natural carbon sinks, and therefore, the long-term health of the forest is critical for mitigating the effects of global warming. But warmer and drier conditions are already causing a widespread die-off of yellow cedar, one of the first species identified to be experiencing effects directly attributable to a warming climate. Hemlock, the most prevalent tree in the region is threatened with an infestation of sawfly, whose larvae feed on its needles. Even as forest health struggles against natural and man-made disturbances, there are many political and industrial interests that want access to clear-cut millions more acres. But the Roadless Area Conservation Rule of 2001 kept around 9 million acres (3,642,174 ha) of the Tongass out of reach of timber companies for years. Those areas hold some of the oldest and largest trees and are among the most important for the broader health of the Tongass. In 2021, these struggles to preserve the largest remaining temperate rainforest on earth were documented in an award-winning film from Point Baker called Understory. Read more here and here. Explore more of Point Baker here:

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This ‘warming stripe’ graphic is a visual representation of the change in global temperature from 1850 (top) to 2019 (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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