Here Comes Civilization: Alaska's Prince William Sound Braces for Non-Stop Tourism. (Currents)

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The cool mist feels like someone opened a refrigerator, and in the distance appears a tiny rocky island. As you approach closer by boat, however, you can see the brown rocks are alive. Steller sea lions lumber around the rock outcropping, while others lie still, looking like so many long sandbags. A sea lion lets out a single long deep-throated bellow that eerily pierces the air like an elephant's roar.

A sea otter pops its fuzzy head above water in the foreground of this stunning scene at Procession Rocks in Alaska's western Prince William Sound as skipper Alexandra Von Wichman watches from her 58-foot-long charter yacht, The Babkin. Two or three humpback whales swim far off to the right, near shore, their long backs curving above waterline, forcing Von Wichman to ponder an enviable question for people in the tourism trade. Should she give her half-dozen charter passengers a better view of the whales or stay within binocular's view of the sea lions, both rare enough to be listed as threatened or endangered species?

Having already admired humpbacks earlier on this multi-day trip past bridal-veil waterfalls and glaciers as thick as a house, the decision is clear. Sea lions. "They're my favorite," Von Wichman yells over the din of the motor. "They have so much personality. Sometimes, you'll be kayaking and all of a sudden you'll hear a snort, and you'll have four or five sea lions following your kayak. It scares the daylights out of you because you realize this thing is almost as big as you are."

Utter wilderness is what lucky visitors seek--and get--from the western reaches of labyrinthine fjords of Prince William Sound. But the feeling that you're traveling through a series of beautiful landscape paintings may erode now that the remote area expects its first marine gas station. To backcountry enthusiasts, the idea is as incongruous as finding a Starbucks at the bottom of the Grand Canyon.

Some lodges are also expected to go up, breaking the escape-from-civilization hypnotic feel of the place. Builders have sought permits from the state Department of Natural Resources for floating inns and convenience stores. At least eight lodges have received the go-ahead to be built in tidelands, says Pat Lavin, Prince William Sound project manager for the National Wildlife Federation (NWF), which is urging protection of the Sound. Even the idea of a backcountry liquor store has been floated (but declined).

Fueling this interest is tourism, even though people are drawn to the place by its wildness. "I'm hoping it doesn't get so much of a boost that it's not going to be a wilderness experience anymore," says Linda Bassett, an Anchorage resident who works alongside Von Wichman in providing ecotours through Seattle-based Wildland Adventures.

In 2000, when the state completed a 2.5-mile-long road tunnel to the scruffy former military-camp outpost of Whittier (population 300), Prince William Sound suddenly became within a two-hour's drive of more than half of Alaska's 620,000 residents and any tourist landing at Anchorage International Airport. The state expects a 15-fold rise in visitors reaching the Sound via Whittier alone, rising from 100,000 to 1.5 million. Sport fishing is growing by eight percent a year, according to the NWF, and kayak traffic is up 7.5 percent a year. …