Stretching nearly 600 miles southeast from the mainland of Alaska, the Southeast Region is a narrow strip of land with some of the most spectacular scenery and mild temperatures found in the state. In the north, between Icy Bay and Cross Sound, the coast is regular, with a coastal plain largely covered by glaciers; settlements are sparse. South of Cross Sound, the Alexander Archipelago consists of hundreds of mountainous islands interlaced with deep fjords. The mainland, with even higher mountains ranging up to 10,000 feet in height, has major river systems originating in Canada.
Southeast has a maritime climate, with small temperature variations, high precipitation, and considerable cloudiness. Precipitation ranges from 80 to 200 inches in the region. The cool, moist climate produces a lush forest growth, mostly spruce and hemlock, with some red and yellow cedar.
The wealth of fish and fur-bearing animals contributed to the relative prosperity of the Tlingit and other Northwest Coast Indians who settled in this area. The highly sophisticated architecture developed by the Tlingit reflected the ready availability of lumber. The region also attracted the Russians, who, after stiff resistance from the Tlingit, finally established their capital at Sitka in 1808. The Russians found the rest of Southeast unprofitable, however, and essentially ceded control of the trade here to the British and the Americans in the 1820s.
After the acquisition of Alaska by the United States, Southeast received little notice except for gold strikes in British Columbia, reached through Wrangell. Discovery of gold in Juneau in 1880 produced the first Alaskan stampede, and with the gold strike in the Klondike in 1896, Alaska was on the map. Thousands of would-be miners poured into Skagway, the closest port. Although there were subsequent strikes in the early twentieth century, the fishing industry became increasingly important to the economy, the first cannery having been built in Southeast in 1878. Although lumber did not become an export industry until after the Second World War, the lumber of Southeast did go into much of the construction within the region. More than 70 percent of the land of Southeast is administered by the U.S. Forest Service as the Tongass National Forest. Within the Tongass are twelve designated wilderness areas where logging is not permitted.
The lack of roads in Southeast underlies its dependence on boats for transportation and reinforces the maritime character of the region. Only two major towns, Skagway and Haines, are linked to the rest of Alaska by road, and both of those go through Canada; other roads join some towns, but by and large, each is fairly isolated.
Settlements hug the shoreline, where the land is flat. The grid plan is usually forsaken because of the irregularity of the coastline and the terrain. The buildings face the water, not only to see incoming traffic but also for the spectacular views.
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