The passage from Wrangell to Petersburg is dramatic and picturesque, ranging from the expanse of the Stikine River Delta to the protected passage of the Wrangell Narrows. Petersburg is about 40 miles from Wrangell by this route, and the trip by ferry takes about three hours.
The Stikine River is a profound influence on the landscape north of Wrangell. Stikine means "great river" in the Tlingit language. The 400-mile-long river is a corridor between coastal and interior ecosystems. The Stikine has its headwaters in northern British Columbia and drains an area of 20,000 square miles. At the mouth of the river, a 17-mile-wide delta fans out into the sea. This delta is a network of numerous braided channels, three of which are navigable.
Grass flats, shifting sandbars and tidal marshes cover the delta. The area is home to a host of birds and other wildlife, such as moose, brown and black bears, Sitka black-tailed deer and wolves. It is a seasonally important resting and feeding area for vast numbers of migrating waterfowl and shorebirds, and more than 120 different species may be present on the Stikine River Delta in the spring.
The arrival of a small fish called eulachon (or hooligan) in mid-April kicks off an amazing spring convergence of wildlife. These slender, six-inch-long fish, a type of smelt, migrate up the Stikine River to spawn. Eulachon are so oil-rich they will burn like a candle when dried. They were an extremely important resource for Native people of Southeast Alaska, and they fuel a springtime feeding frenzy that draws thousands of birds. Almost 2,000 bald eagles converge on the delta, the greatest springtime concentration of eagles in North America. Steller sea lions, seals and killer whales also move in for the feast, and these marine mammals may be seen in the area throughout the summer.
In mid-April and early May, as the eulachon run is winding down, migratory birds begin arriving at the Stikine River Delta. These birds winter in places like Oregon, California, Mexico and Central America, and most nest further north in Western, Interior or Northern Alaska. These birds have flown hundreds or thousands of miles before they arrive in Southeast Alaska.
Western sandpipers are the most abundant species, and at least 21 other shorebird species stop at the Stikine. The migration on the Stikine usually peaks the first week of May, and bird watchers may see tens of thousands of shorebirds probing the shallows and mudflats for food. Geese, swans and waterfowl feed on the aquatic plants and emerging spring vegetation, and songbirds glean insects. Raptors such as short-eared owls, northern harriers and goshawks hunt small mammals and birds.
The Stikine River itself is a corridor between the coast and the Interior for migratory birds. More than 10,000 sandhill cranes and more than 14,000 snow geese use the Stikine River corridor as a flyway and refuel on the delta before heading north to nest.
Heading west away from Wrangell, the seawater changes color as the gray glacial melt waters of the river mix with the sea. Fresh water is less dense than sea water and tends to float on top. In some areas, it's possible to see the sharp delineation between the fresh and salt water.
The most direct route between Wrangell and Petersburg is through Dry Strait, an aptly named shallow passage that skirts the river delta along the eastern shore of Mitkof Island. But the Stikine River deposits a huge volume of sediment throughout this area, and to avoid running aground, most vessels take the route through the Wrangell Narrows.
The Wrangell Narrows is a relatively shallow but well-marked passage that winds for 22 miles between Mitkof and Kupreanof Islands. Killer whales sometimes hunt this waterway, and the close proximity to the shore makes this a prime area to look for Sitka black-tailed deer, mink and river otters. Eagles are abundant through here. Herons and kingfishers catch small fish in the shallows.
Black bears can be seen foraging along the shoreline, particularly in the spring when they emerge from dens and seek out the lush green grasses along the shore. Lucky travelers may even catch a rare glimpse of wolves traveling along the beach in search of prey. Moose, relatively rare in Southeast Alaska, may also been seen in this area.
Navigating the narrows during the spring and summer months, you may encounter a large concentration of small boats about halfway up the narrows, near the entrance to Blind Slough. There is a chinook and coho salmon hatchery there, and both sport and commercial fisherman take advantage of the salmon runs concentrated at the mouth of the slough as the fish return to the hatchery to spawn. During the winter, tidal action keeps water open in this area, drawing majestic trumpeter swans and other waterfowl. Bird blinds near the slough facilitate bird watching in this area.
Past Blind Slough you'll begin to see homes and lodges on the east shore of the narrows. These are connected to Petersburg by the Mitkof Highway, a road that parallels the water for the next 15 miles. The homes and cabins along the central and southern portion of the narrows have no electricity or running water except as provided by portable generators or cisterns that catch rainfall.
During the fall and winter months, sea ducks including goldeneyes, scoters, harlequins and long-tailed ducks, concentrate by the thousands in the shallow waters of Wrangell Narrows, particularly in Scow Bay and at Hungry Point. These species forage on mollusks and crustaceans, which are plentiful in the fast-moving, shallow waters of the narrows.
The Petersburg Creek-Duncan Salt Chuck Wilderness is at the north end of the Narrows. A salt chuck is a lake or slough that is inundated by salt water at high tides. Saltwater sinks beneath the fresh water, creating a stratified environment of fresh and salt water. This area has a good population of black bears, and is a popular outdoor recreation area for Petersburg residents.