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Expedition Log: July 29, 2001

Sheila Nickerson

Yakutat Bay; Hubbard Glacier

After leaving Glacier Bay last evening, the Expedition moved north along the coast, passing Lituya Bay and Mount Fairweather during the night. This is some of Alaska's most spectacular scenery and volatile terrain -- the area where the North American and Pacific plates meet and where some of the strongest earthquakes in the state have occurred. It is also where Europeans first sighted the land now known as Alaska, when Vitus Bering and Aleksei Chirikov sailed by in 1741. It is the country of the Fairweather Range, which stretches in a northwest arc to meet the St. Elias and Chugach ranges. This curve along the Gulf of Alaska contains more than half of the thirty highest mountains in North America. Mt. Fairweather stands at 15,300 feet; Mt. St. Elias, 18,008 feet; and Mt. Logan, in Canada, 19,850 feet.

Soon after entering Yakutat Bay this morning, we were joined by representatives from Yakutat, a Tlingit village of 800. Elaine Abraham, who is joining the Expedition, and her son David Ramos, spoke to us of their homeland and the people who inhabit it. Ms. Abraham, daughter of a chief, has had a distinguished career as the first Tlingit registered nurse, an educator, and a revered elder. She is also a member of the Brown Bear clan to whom the objects removed from Cape Fox by the 1899 Harriman Expedition were recently returned in Ketchikan. Mr. Ramos is director of a cross-cultural business. Together, they presented a talk illustrated with slides on the history of their people, who came in part from northern Athabaskan country by way of Mt. St. Elias more than 1,000 years ago.

In mid-morning, after more Yakutat representatives had embarked, we headed northeast up Yakutat Bay to its head: Disenchantment Bay and the Hubbard Glacier. Disenchantment Bay was named by the explorer Alejandro Malaspina in 1791, when he met the ice of the glacier and was frustrated in his attempt to find an opening to the fabled North West Passage. (Malaspina also removed many crates of objects from the area and took them to Spain.) Disenchantment Bay, though it was disappointing to its first European visitor, has been an important site for subsistence hunting of harbor seals for the Yakutat Tlingits since they first moved to the area. It is known, indeed, as "the House of the Seal" and cannot be entered by ships during pupping season, from May through mid-July. We observed some, but not many, harbor seals among small icebergs.


Yakutat lake

A lake in Yakutat village teems with green plant life, taking full advantage of the short summer. (Photo by National Ocean Service, NOAA).
Click image for a larger view.

As we approached the glacier, Ms. Abraham's daughter, Judy Ramos, provided commentary. The weather pattern for Yakutat, as she explained, calls for 200 inches of snow a year and 100 inches of rain, with 251 days of frost. The average temperature in July is 53 degrees. Ms. Abraham's husband, George Ramos, described the movements of the glacier, the largest tidewater glacier in the world, at 86 miles long, with a face over 6 miles long, and a height of 300 feet. He has hunted seals in front of it since he was a young boy and was able to show us photographs of visits there with his uncle, to Egg Island, in 1938. The glacier has been advancing and retreating since it was first described by Malaspina. It is now in a state of major advance. In 1986, it closed off Russell Fjord immediately to its right, trapping animals behind a rapidly moving wall of ice and creating a challenge for biologists as well as a fascinating study for glaciologists. The ice has since pulled back from the fjord. According to Mr. Ramos, Egg Island has risen approximately 25 feet as the result of recent earthquakes -- another startling view of change in the natural world.

The Abraham-Ramos family made an offering of tobacco to the glacier and the Spirit within the Glacier, and Ms. Abraham gave thanks to the glacier for allowing us to come and visit it. According to Tlingit tradition, spirits inhabit everything within the natural world, and stories abound of their relationship with one another and the people in their sphere. It is said that once Mt. Fairweather and Mt. St. Elias were married but that they quarreled and parted. The mountains between them are slaves, the mountains to the east the children of the couple.

After lunch, young people and elders from the village gave a program of readings and stories followed by a slide show presented by George Ramos and Elaine Abraham on seal subsistence hunting. At five, all members of the Expedition were invited ashore to a welcome reception featuring dancing by the St. Elias Dancers at the ANB (Alaska Native Brotherhood) Hall. Presentations were made by Expedition Leader Tom Litwin to officials of the ANB and the Yakutat Tlingit community. Expedition member and Scholar Rosita Worl departed from the Expedition at this time. In the continuing exchange of hospitality and friendship, members of the community came aboard for dinner -- Dungeness crab and bananas flambé -- before the Expedition set sail for Kayak Island and further discoveries to the north.

Throughout the day, dramatic views of volatile terrain were brought into focus by commentaries from those who know the terrain best. As with adjustment of binoculars, this sharper focus enabled us to see more clearly and with better perspective. A beaded representation of Mt. St. Elias flashing by on the back of a dancer brought new illumination: Here was a mountain of immense and indescribable dimensions commanding the weather and land, and here were its daughters and sons, and here were their visitors, all of us linked in a song of drum and voice.

(View the day's photos)

(Community Profile: Yakutat)


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For information on the Harriman Retraced Expedition e-mail: harriman2001@science.smith.edu

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