Southeast Alaska has thousands of small rivers and streams that collectively produce millions of salmon. Some rivers are crystal clear; others are milky, tan or gray with glacial silt; and others are tea-brown, stained with tannins leached from the muskegs and low-lying coastal forests.
The largest rivers in Southeast Alaska are (south to north) the Unuk River, the Stikine River, the Taku River and the Chilkat River. These are "transboundary watersheds:" river systems Alaska shares with Canada. All support runs of five Pacific salmon species, as well as populations of trout and other fish. The river valleys are home to wolves, lynx, brown and black bears, fisher, mountain goats, moose, and black-tail deer.
Historically, these large rivers offered the most practical access between the coast and the interior. The ice fields, glaciers and mile-high mountains of the coast range served as effective barriers separating the coast from the lands of western North America. The rivers were important trade routes for Native people and are still migration corridors for wildlife.
The Unuk (pronounce Yew-nuk) originates in the heavily glaciated mountains of British Columbia and flows about 80 miles into Behm Canal north of Ketchikan. The Unuk is the largest producer of chinook salmon in southern Southeast.
The Stikine River flows more than 400 miles through the northern Coast Mountains of British Columbia to its delta in Southeast Alaska near Wrangell. The watershed of the Stikine (and the Iskut River, its main tributary just over the Canadian border) encompasses 13.5 million acres, an area the size of Vermont and New Hampshire combined. The Unuk and Stikine are important stopovers for migrating shorebirds and waterfowl.
The Taku River meets the Inside Passage just south of Juneau, and drains a four-million-acre watershed of largely undeveloped wild land. The Taku supports the largest run of king salmon in northern Southeast Alaska and is an important sockeye fishery as well.
The Chilkat River near Haines is the site of the world's largest annual gathering of bald eagles. Every autumn, 3,000 or more eagles crowd the trees and river flats to feast on a late-season run of chum salmon. Dozens of eagles can be seen roosting in a single tree or along a short stretch of river bank.