Close Encounters Averted

For Alaska’s Anan Wildlife Observatory, Suzanne Jackson designs around the attraction: bears.

By Rachel Dovey

Suzanne Jackson spent nearly 30 years as a landscape architect at the Aspen, Colorado, office of Design Workshop, channeling her passion for backcountry hiking into habitat restoration and open space preservation. But it was when Jackson reconnected with her former colleague Barth Hamberg that things began to get, well, wild. Hamberg manages the landscape architecture program for Tongass National Forest in southeast Alaska, the largest national forest in the nation. In 2014, he offered Jackson a two-year post.

Jackson was charged with creating a master plan for the Anan Wildlife Observatory, which is located on a remote peninsula in Tongass’s Wrangell district and accessible only by boat or floatplane. It’s a steeply sloping temperate rain forest of spruce, hemlock, and huckleberries, and the pools and waterfalls of Anan Creek support one of the region’s largest pink salmon runs. That means a lot of hungry predators gathering to feast: black bears, grizzlies (called brown bears locally), eagles, and otters, to name just a few. That biodiversity has been a tourism magnet for decades, and helps support the economies of two small towns in the area: Wrangell and Ketchikan.

But access and safety both are issues, because many visitors aren’t particularly nimble. Jackson’s job was to employ her design background to both enhance their experience and keep them from falling off trails or coming nose to snout with bears.

Among the problems were the raised wooden boardwalks. Constant moisture made for slippery footing, which is a hazard as well as a distraction. As Jackson’s master plan points out, hikers often feel “unsteady and unable to focus on the surrounding environment.” Instead, Jackson recommended using crushed rock where the terrain is suitable, “to provide a firmer, safer walking experience,” she says.

The region’s drastic tidal shift—a difference of up to 20 feet in some places—also complicated the arrival experience. If a boat or floatplane came in at high tide, visitors were greeted with stairs. If they arrived at mid- or low tide, they had to navigate jagged rocks. That “trailhead” area already was slated for improvements when Jackson began, but the plan points out that the changing water line even makes construction difficult, because materials and machinery can’t be easily off-loaded during low tide.

And then, of course, there were the bears. During Jackson’s tenure, the landscape architecture team had called in ecologists to map the animals’ routes and foraging areas in another part of Tongass, and the plan recommends a similar study at Anan. One section was particularly worrisome; it grazed a tight corner that hikers couldn’t see around, which could lead to a person and a bear coming into sudden and startling contact. “Line of view for approaching bears is very important,” Jackson says. Reconstruction of that so-called pinch point is listed as one of several critical projects to be completed between 2017 and 2030.

Besides creating safe passage, Jackson’s goal was to convey the value of nature and hopefully foster a sense of stewardship, as well as tourism. “In Alaska,” she says, “[tourism] is seen as a benefit to the economy, a way to move away from other things like taking down old-growth forests or mining.”

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