Alaska's Past - Regional Perspectives
Southeast Alaska is sometimes called the panhandle because it stretches away from the rest of Alaska just as a handle does from a pot or pan. It is separated by great glaciers north of Yakutat from direct overland travel to the rest of Alaska. Overland travel to the rest of Alaska, by going east across the coastal mountains and then northwest through Canada, is made more difficult by the limited number of passes from Southeast Alaska through the mountains into Canada. Only the valleys of the Stikine, Taku, Taiya, Unuk, and Chilkat rivers provide reasonable corridors through the Coast Mountains which run north from the southernmost boundary of Southeast Alaska until they give way at the northern end of the region to the St. Elias Mountains which have no good routes piercing them. This geographic isolation from Alaska's other regions distinguishes Southeast Alaska from them, as does its internal geography.
Southeast Alaska is comprised of a 600 mile long narrow strip of mainland coastline that is an average of 120 miles wide on the east and hundreds of islands in the Alexander Archipelago on the west. Six of these islands are over 1,000 square miles each in area. These are Prince of Wales, Chichagof, Admiralty, Baranof, Revillagigedo, and Kupreanof islands. Mainland and island areas of the region share mountainous topography, and a maritime climate characterized by high levels of rain and snowfall and mild temperatures. There are nearly 10,000 miles of shoreline along the islands and mainland which are separated by sounds, straits, canals, narrows, passages, and channels. Many of these are protected waters. Others are treacherous passages with unmarked navigation hazards such as pinnacle rocks and can change quickly from calm to stormy waterways. Despite these conditions, the waters of Southeast Alaska are sources of abundant food.
Its environment has made Southeast Alaska good habitat for creatures of the land and sea, including humans. However, the mountainous terrain limits settlements to the coastline. Overland travel within the area is very difficult because of the dense forests and overland travel out of the area is limited by the routes through the mountains. As a result, efforts to control Southeast Alaska's resources and travel corridors began in prehistoric times and have continued through modern times. This continuing struggle, for control of Southeast Alaska's lands and waters, is the theme of this unit.
As you trace that theme through the years of Southeast Alaska's history, you will also learn about the area's inhabitants, exploration and trade competition, economic and social development, and land use.