SitNews - Stories in the News - Ketchikan, Alaska


Discovering the Nature of Wilderness
By Marie L. Monyak


May 01, 2006

Ketchikan, Alaska - The Southeast Alaska Discovery Center presented their last Friday Night Insight Program of the season until next fall last Friday evening. The scheduled program was "The Nature of Wilderness" presented by U.S. Forest Service Wilderness Kayak Ranger Susan Bliss Jenkins of the Ketchikan Misty Fiords Ranger District.

In her second year with the Ketchikan Misty Fiords District, Jenkins came to us from the Nez Perce National Forest in Idaho where she served for 11 years. Although the program called for the ranger to highlight the differences and similarities of two other wilderness areas in the lower 48 against the Misty Fiords Wilderness area, Jenkins had decided to forego the expected presentation in favor of discussing two particular experiences she had during her previous assignment.

jpg Wilderness Kayak Ranger

U.S. Forest Service Wilderness Kayak Ranger Susan Bliss Jenkins of the Ketchikan Misty Fiords Ranger District talks with some of the audience members.
Photo by Marie L. Monyak

When asked what the biggest difference is between the two ranger districts, Jenkins quickly replies, "Packing!" With a photo of Edna the mule, her previous mode of transportation in Idaho, and Edna the Kayak, her current form of transportation, Jenkins explains that there's a huge difference between packing the two for trips to the backwoods. With Edna the mule, Jenkins never had to worry about keeping her head above water!

Jenkins told the audience that she wanted to talk about traditional tools with the aid of a slide presentation and a short film. "When I go different places, meet different people, they have different ideas of what wilderness means," Jenkins said. "A lot of people give the same answer; air and water quality and habitat for animals. What we overlook is how all of it ties in with our cultural history and traditional tools."

"When Europeans first forged their way across the wilderness they used crosscuts and axes and used skills like dry stone masonry and rigging," Jenkins informed the audience. "As we became more technologically advanced, we lost those skills. In 1964, when the Federal Wilderness Act was drafted, it protected the landscapes from mechanized equipment and modernization. With motorized and mechanical equipment prohibited, people had to use alternative methods. Many saw this as a hindrance, I saw it as a great way to problem solve and honor a cultural history that is rapidly disappearing."

While serving in Idaho, Jenkins was sent to the Juniper Prairie Wilderness Area located in Florida's Ocala National Forest to assist in the reopening of a 6 mile section of wilderness that was virtually shut down by a series of hurricanes in 2004. The U.S. Forest Service that administers the trail and volunteers from the Florida Trail Association were adamant that wilderness standards be adhered to but they didn't have the skills necessary to accomplish the feat. After much research and countless phone calls, Jenkins explained that Forest Service workers from Montana and Idaho were recruited and sent to Florida to teach the skills necessary to the crews assigned to the recovery task.

Jenkins played a short movie for the audience that highlighted the proper use and care of tools such as crosscut saws and axes. Filmed during the Juniper Prairie recovery work, various crew members showed the ease of using these hand tools providing they are well cared for and carefully honed. Also shown was the hand pulley systems utilized in the removal of the countless tress blown down during the hurricanes. Most noticeable was the complete lack of any and all mechanical equipment.

The films narrator said, "In 1983, Juniper Prairie was officially designated as a wilderness area with the intention of maximizing its wild and untouched character. Over 150 years ago, people used tools, wood built this country and trees were the renewable resource. In the last 50 years, power tools, tractors and machinery replaced everything. The forgotten traditional practices are once again becoming indispensable and aside from reducing environmental impact, the traditional practices contribute to good health and preserve a quiet work environment."

Jenkins spent 8 weeks in Juniper Prairie and spoke with admiration as she described the protective attitude shown by members of the Florida Trail Association. Another site of trail reconstruction and rehabilitation that Jenkins took part in was in the Gospel Hump Wilderness Area in the Nez Perce National Forest.

As Jenkins explained, the Ragg Station Trail in the Gospel Hump Area is the only link to Hump Town which was established when gold was discovered in the area over 100 years ago. In 1998, as a backcountry ranger, Jenkins had received complaints about serious water erosion on portions of the trail. Jenkins explained her duties as she said, "I was sent on a condition and prescription detail." She was assigned to scope out the problems and decide on the best course of action for rehabilitating the trail. "I saw that railroad ties had been used, they were being replaced about every three years. I knew we couldn't use them again because the water was actually moving them from the trail, one was even moved 90 degrees by the force of the water."

Noticing that the area had plenty of rock, Jenkins knew they were the solution she was looking for yet they would need dry stone masonry skills to use them for the trail. Researching dry stone masonry on the internet, Jenkins found that it had been used for erosion control in some places over 100 years ago and was still in place. Wanting her "fix" to last that long also, she spent 18 months working on research, funding, gathering volunteers and locating people with masonry experience that would teach her and her fellow Forest Service workers the necessary skills.

With the help of 20 different volunteer groups ranging from historic organizations to foster children's groups, Jenkins and her crew began by dismantling every failed structure. The next phase of the project was to devise a plan to transport the materials to each site. Jenkins had determined that it would take 200 animal loads yet none of the volunteers were trained or skilled in the proper loading of the pack mules they would use. An organization of young horsemen was brought in to teach packing skills and how to balance the heavy loads on the mules. Once accomplished, the volunteer groups were able to finally repair the flooded trail sections with minimal impact to the area by using traditional methods.

Ending her presentation, Jenkins stated, "As a Wilderness Ranger, I would like to do the same thing here, find problem areas in the Misty Fiords area and bring various groups in to effect the repairs."

The Friday Night Insight Program will begin again in the fall but during the summer tourist season the center is open 7 days a week for tourists and locals alike to explore the various interpretive displays on Native culture and the ecosystem and wildlife of Southeast Alaska. The Alaska Museum of Natural History bookstore is also located in the center as is the public lands information center.

On the Web:

Federal Wilderness Act Information:

Nez Perce National Forest:

Ocala National Forest:



Marie L. Monyak is a freelance writer living in Ketchikan, Alaska.
A freelance writer is an uncommitted independent writer
from whom a publisher, such as SitNews, can order articles for a fee.
For information about freelance writing services and costs contact Marie at mlmx1[at]

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