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Location/Climate: Base of St. Elias Mountains on the Gulf of Alaska, 210 miles northwest of Juneau. Heavy precip., 17°F60°F.
Population: 801 (55.1 percent native, mainly Tlingit and Eyak).
Travel Attractions: Recreational fishing, sea kayaking, access to Russell Fiord Wilderness, access to WrangellSt. Elias National Park, glacier viewing.
Getting There: Scheduled air service from Juneau and Anchorage; air-taxi and charter plane, monthly A.H.M.S. ferry.
Information: City and borough offices, P.O. Box 160, Yakutat, AK 99689, 784-3323; Tongass National Forest/Yakutat Ranger Station, P.O. Box 327, Yakutat, AK 99689; 784-3359, www.fs.fed.us/r10/tongass/districts/yakutat/yakutat.html.
The word "Yakutat" means "the place where the canoes rest." Eyak Indians, driven from the Copper River delta by Tlingits, were probably the original settlers. The Russian-American Company built a fort here in 1805, though it was later destroyed by Tlingits fighting for access to traditional fishing grounds. Beginning in the mid-1880s, gold mining, fishing, and timber harvesting entered the economic picture. Later, World War II troops came and went, leaving a military airstrip for civilian use. Fishing and fish processing employ most workers today.
Adventurers can use Yakutat as a base for exploring the Russell Fiord Wilderness, the St. Elias Mountains, and the southeast corner of WrangellSt. Elias National Park and Preserve. Several Forest Service cabins are scattered in the "Yakutat Foreland"the lowland strip between the mountains and the sea. Fishing the Situk River, glacier hiking, and sea kayaking are all excellent possibilities.
Several tidewater glaciers meet Disenchantment Bay and Nunatak Fiord in Russell Fiord Wilderness. The edge of Malaspina Glacier is 20 miles from town, across Yakutat Bay. In general, Russell Fiord and Icy Bay (up the coast) offer the best chances for truly wild access to amazing, glacier-fed fjords. If you can afford the flights, consider investigating further. Service providers are listed in the appendix.
Where to Stay and Eat in Yakutat
Glacier Bear Lodge, P.O. Box 303, Yakutat, AK 99689, 784-3202, www.glacierbearlodge.com. Rooms are $90 and up. BL
Russell Fiord Wilderness
Location/Size: North of Yakutat, arms of Yakutat Bay, at the feet of the St. Elias Mountains, 349,000 acres.
Main Activities: Sea kayaking, wilderness camping, mountaineering, glacier access.
Gateway Towns/Getting There: Yakutat/scheduled regular and small-plane air service from Anchorage and Juneau monthly A.M.H.S. ferry. Wilderness access by air and boat drop-offs, extended sea kayaking, 1-mile trail from road-accessed trailhead.
Facilities, Camping, Lodging: No facilities. One Forest Service cabin at Situk Lake, one near wilderness boundary at Harlequin Lake. Primitive camping.
Headquarters and Information: Tongass National Forest, Yakutat Ranger Station, P.O. Box 327, Yakutat, AK 99689, 784-3359, www.fs.fed.us/r10/tongass/districts/yakutat/yakutat.html.
WrangellSt. Elias National Park, the Yukons Kluane National Park, British Columbias Tatshenshini-Alsek Wilderness Park, and the Russell Fiord Wilderness of the Tongass National Forest meet at the most fantastic wilderness "four corners" on the planet, intersecting at the summit of Mount Jette in the St. Elias Range. The fifth corner is a de facto wilderness sliver of the Tongass that includes massive icefields and glaciers.
Pristine and little-visited, Russell Fiord Wilderness protects the narrow, 30-mile-long Russell Fiord, and the 15-mile-long Nunatak Fiord, which branches off to the east. The peaks of the St. Elias Range tower over the water. Russell Fiord opens into Disenchantment Bay right at huge Hubbard Glacier. A road from Yakutat provides access to a 1-mile portage to a good kayak put-in at the southern tip of Russell Fiord, as well as to Harlequin Lake in the southern tip of the wilderness. Alaska Discovery, Inc., leads several kayak trips annually (see the Appendix). Reservable lakeside Forest Service cabins are available at Harlequin Lake and at Situk Lake not far from the fjord. There are great hiking possibilities on beaches and along recently glaciated valleys.