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Harriman Expedition Retraced

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Community Profile: Yakutat


Gazette

The community of Yakutat is tucked among a collection of striated glaciers at the mouth of Yakutat Bay. The town has one of the few safe harbors along the Alaska Gulf coast, a crescent of wild and unprotected water. In the 20th century, the Hubbard Glacier, located at the northernmost end of Disenchantment Bay, advanced so quickly it created an ice dam in Russell Fjord. Sea animals, including whales, were imprisoned in a large, ice-locked saltwater lake.

Yakutat

Yakutat (Photo by National Ocean Service, NOAA).
Click image for a larger view.

Location: Lat. 59E 33'N, Long. 139E 44'W

Area: 5,875 square miles

Population: 744

Industry: Fishing, fish processing, government, subsistence

Access: Air, sea, summer ferry

Alaska Native Affiliation: Yakutat Tlingit

Alaska Native Regional Corporation: Sealska Corporation

Weather: Average summer temperatures range between 42 and 60 degrees, winter between 17 and 39 degrees. Yakutat has an astounding annual rainfall of 132 inches, and a snowfall of 219 inches. 

Historical Overview

  • The area was first the home of Eyak-speaking people from the Copper River area who were later supplanted by Tlingits migrating northward up the panhandle. The town continues to be the principal winter village of the Yakutat Tlingits. Translated from Tlingit language "Yakutat" means " a place where canoes rest."
  • In the late 18th century, the French explorer Comte de La Perouse and the English explorer George Dixon visited Yakutat. They were followed by Russian and Spanish explorers looking for gold and fur.
  • In 1805, the Russian-American Company, under the command of Alexander Baranof, built a fort at Yakutat and set up sea otter harvesting operations. Baranof staffed the fort with Russian convict labor and enslaved Tlingits.
  • That same year, the Yakutat Tlingits raided and destroyed the fort, killing the men and enslaving some of the women. The Russian-American Company chose not to rebuild and only a handful of European settlers stayed on.
  • In 1887, the American Commercial Company began a gold mining operation on Yakutat's sandy beaches. At its height, mining yielded $40 in gold per ton of sand, but a number of natural disasters, including a tidal wave, stripped the sand of its gold before miners could turn a substantial profit.
  • In 1889, the Swedish Free Mission Church came to Yakutat, opening a school and sawmill.
  • During World War II, the Air Force built a runway that is still in use today. Some of the military equipment can still be found on Cannon Beach.

Harriman's 1899 Experience

  • In 1899, Yakutat, was a small community of about of about one hundred, mostly Tlingit, a few Swedes at a mission. The Harriman party pronounced the community "charming." Hearing that bears were sometimes seen prowling the beaches, Harriman sent out several hunting parties, but all came back empty handed.
  • In ice-choked Disenchantment Bay, an inlet of Yakutat Bay, Tlingit Indians paddled up to the Elder, carrying pelts to sell to passengers. Harriman invited them aboard, and played a wax cylinder recording he had made of Sitka Tlingits.

Economy

  • Yakutat's local economy is a mix of timber, fish, tourism and subsistence. A large cannery closed in 1970, timber is also on the decline. Subsistence now shapes a good part of the local economy and culture, and the Tlingit population harvests salmon, trout, shellfish, deer, moose, bear and goat.
  • Principal industries in the town are commercial fishing, fish processing and government. One-hundred-and-sixty-eight people hold commercial fishing permits. A cold storage plant is a major private employer.
  • Yakutat is accessible only by plane in the winter. Groceries and other supplies, brought by barge, can be delayed indefinitely because of harsh conditions in the Gulf.

Community Issues

  • As cruise ship traffic increases in this part of the Gulf, so does the concern for its effects on the community and the environment. Yakutat made news in 2001 when local officials imposed a "head tax" of $1.50 for every cruise ship passenger visiting Yakutat Bay. The cruise ship industry did not welcome this new cost, but town officials argued that they need the money to maintain the facilities used by the ships and the visitors. Roads, harbor services and emergency equipment will be maintained by the new revenues.
  • A second issue is that of environmental impact. The harbor seal count has declined dramatically in the last 30 years; some counts indicated that the 76,000 harbor seals in Alaska today represent a drop of 85 percent in the population since the 1970s. Though scientist have not found the specific cause for the decline, some worry that cruise ship traffic and discharge are adversely affecting pregnant seals.
  • Currently cruise ship discharge is only minimally monitored Alaska by the Coast Guard; local officials and the cruise ship industry are engaged in negotiations about long-term measures to protects.


(View the Yakutat Village daily log entry)

(View the Yakutat Bay and Hubbard Glacier daily log entry)

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