Activity on the horizon

Big changes are coming to the Chilkoot River corridor, and they are scheduled to begin this fall of 2019. The changes to be made are the result of years of agonizing on many official levels over the time bomb of increasing tourism in the area, particularly during the season when brown bears (a.k.a. grizzly bears) frequent the area during later season salmon runs.

I have heard through various credible channels of the nuts and bolts of the implementation of the master plan being proposed by various official sources within the Alaska Department of Natural Resources. As such, everything that I have heard counts as “hearsay” and therefore I will not quote any sources. I will bear (no pun intended) full responsibility for any misinformation offered at this point. I do believe it is prudent to share what I have heard, and I will offer some of my own observations and opinions as grist for the mill.

Up front, I will say that I have heard that the current plan of operations to be performed is still in the planning stages and subject to modifications. Apparently, there are a lot of details (perhaps in design) that are still being reviewed in offices removed from the local community.

Background: The Chilkoot River corridor is a half-mile stretch of river that connects the Chilkoot Lake with Lutak Inlet through a glacial moraine. This is a pristine salmon stream that supports runs of sockeye, pink, silver and chum salmon. Bears frequent the river corridor during salmon runs. There is a road that parallels the length of the river allowing easy access to bear viewing for a variety of visitors as well as easy access for sport fishing.

During the upcoming season, changes will include a reduction in parking by about 50%. There will be no parking on the river-side of the road. Parking on the far side of the road will be significantly constrained. This includes the elimination of a traditional parking area just upriver of the weir that has been commonly used by both visitors and tour busses. It is being proposed that tour busses drop their visitors off on the road (perhaps) in proximity to the weir (or other desirable or opportune locations) and then proceed to the lake where the vehicles can be parked until guests rejoin the vehicle.

Late in the season road work will begin, and the corridor road will be limited to one lane of traffic with necessary delays between incoming and outgoing traffic. (Ten-minute delays have been suggested). Currently I have heard this will begin in early September.

By mid-September or October, the corridor and park will be entirely closed for the continuation of road work and the building of bear-viewing platforms. I have heard this closure will apply to both vehicle and foot traffic.

There have been suggestions by several officials that future Park permits may be subject to competitive bids, resulting in future guided tourist visits being handled by a concessionaire.

I see the following issues:

Parking restrictions:

  • 1. Enforcement is likely to be an issue. There is one ranger to cover three state parks in the Haines area. This year the support staff for this ranger is being reduced, and the support personnel have never had the authority to issue citations anyway.
  • 2. Many tour companies do not have extra personnel to allow for a driver and a tour supervisor. Those that do usually have enough guests to strain the ability of one guide to supervise a large group in bear country.
  • 3. Leaving tour guests in the open without a vehicle handy for security (should a bear decide to walk down the road with her cubs) puts both tour guests and bears in harm’s way.
  • 4. Many tour guests are physically challenged and would not be able to easily walk the distance to rejoin a tour vehicle parked up the road. If the vehicle did a turn-around to pick up the guests, the guests would either: a) have a significantly abbreviated visit to the Chilkoot, or b) the vehicle would have to do another turn around to take guests to the lake, thereby further increasing traffic on the road.
  • 5. Current regulations require that sport fishers remove their catch from the river and secure the fish in a container that is secured in their vehicle. If they do not have a vehicle handy, I hope the DNR will have placed secure bear-proof containers along the length of the river. A problem in that regard is the number of stations, the interval between them, and the issue of their smell being an attraction to bears. (Having written this point previously, I now amend my understanding of the likely solution: bear-proof containers that fisherman bring to the river. These are hard plastic containers that resemble depth charges, and bears cannot break into them. We have used these on back-country kayaking trips in Glacier Bay. They can still act at bear attractants, though the bear would not be rewarded for their effort. Also, permitting might have to be required to fish in the Chilkoot to assure that everyone understands and comes properly equipped. Another layer of difficulty in itself, and the reasonable question would be “how is this permitting process and requirements accomplished and enforced?”)

Closure of the park:

  • 1. This will have a tremendous impact on the local economy. Bear viewing (both guided and unsupervised) brings a significant number of guests to town. Additionally, our Canadian neighbors come in droves in the fall to fish for later runs of salmon including pink and silver salmon.
  • 2. What impact will all this road work and construction have upon bears who frequent the area during this time of year?
  • 3. Why is DNR planning this high-impact work during a critical time that will affect tourism, the economy, and the wildlife who take advantage of this seasonal opportunity to prepare for winter hibernation? It seems to me that performing this work in March and April would have minimal impact on all concerned. (The weather is better, too … they are planning on executing this plan during the worst weather of the year, undoubtedly adding cost to the project.)

Previous blogs on the Chilkoot experience:

From a blog in 2018, I shared some documents that might be of interest. These include documents shared at the recent Tourism Advisory Board meeting of 10/23/2018 that reviewed the short term and long term goals as part of a Master Development Plan, and a document detailing concerns, questions, and suggestions made to DNR with their responses: