Written by Ryan Morse.

Nestled along Lisianski Inlet, SCS founder Gail Denny Corbin can see the West Chichagof-Yakobi Wilderness, a place she played a part in protecting, from the comfort of her home. Like the migratory birds flying along these shores, Gail returns every summer to her house in K’udeis’x’e Pelican. The lands and waters of the Tongass National Forest are deeply special to her, and this place is all the better for it.

Gail moved to Sitka in 1964 to take up a physical education teaching position at Sitka High School. An avid outdoorswoman, Gail hiked and bushwhacked throughout the forests and mountains of Sitka. She shared her enthusiasm for this place with her friends and her students, and can fondly reminisce about the adventures she had taking the Sitka High Girls Athletic Association camping at Shelikof Bay, on day trips to Pirates Cove, and skiing down Harbor Mountain Road.

Gail Corbin. Photo by Ryan Morse.

Gail lived in Sitka during the days of the pulp mill, as forests in town and across the region were being logged in pursuit of short-sighted profit. She remembers during this time seeing Starrigavan valley, a beloved hiking and foraging spot, being devastated by logging. Her voice still trembles when she thinks back on it. “I remember thinking somebody should do something,” she says.

At the time the timber industry was popular in Sitka, and environmental opposition was risky. The pulp mill employed many in the community, and those who didn’t support it were seen as “anti-progress” and in danger of retaliation. Gail found kindred spirits among her fellow teachers in Bob Adkins and Tom Johnson. Through hushed conversations at a parent-teacher conference, they met and shared their ideas with Chuck Johnstone, a local pulp mill worker concerned about its environmental effects. Chuck and his wife Alice Johnstone connected the teachers with Jack and Sasha Calvin, and together became the founding charter members of the Sitka Conservation Society. 

The teachers and Jack knew of the recently-passed Wilderness Act, and sought to establish a designated Wilderness area on the Tongass. Through doing this, their dream was that future generations would be able to hunt, fish, forage, and explore an intact ecosystem that wasn’t devastated by logging. The group talked about protecting areas of the Tongass in secretive meetings, pouring over maps and charts as they decided which area to protect, and chose to focus on the West Chichagof-Yakobi Island area. With their eyes set on an area to designate as Wilderness, Jack and Gail used their conservation connections across the state and the country to get this movement started, and the rest as they say is history; through tireless advocacy and lobbying, the West Chichagof-Yakobi Wilderness Area was established in 1980.

SCS founders out in the West Chichagof area. Archival photo.

In 1968, after marrying Paul Corbin, they moved to the homestead at Sunnyside on the shore of Lisianski Inlet, two miles northwest of Pelican. They raised their children on their remote property and on their commercial fishing boat as they trolled for salmon across Southeast Alaska, sharing and enjoying all that the Tongass has to offer. 

Now Gail spends the winter months in Mt. Vernon, Washington, but still travels back to Lisianski Inlet every year for the summer at her cabin by the Lodge, now run by her son and daughter-in-law. There, she enjoys from her house the majesty of the Wilderness Area that she helped establish, where she hikes, picks berries, and occasionally gets out on the water. To this day, she remains active in Alaska’s environmental causes and continues to advocate for the Tongass, Southeast Alaska trollers, and the future of this place she calls home.

We honor Gail Corbin and the legacy of Sitka Conservation Society’s founders through our Living Wilderness Fund, to continue their legacy to protect and support the people and places of the Tongass National Forest.

Gail Corbin looking out from her home in Pelican. Photo by Lione Clare.