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Harriman Expedition Retraced

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Expedition Log: August 3, 2001

Aron Crowell

Kenai Fjords National Park

From a passing ship, the Gulf of Alaska coastline is mere scenery, an unrolling scrim of mountains, forest, and glaciers, too outsized for human connection. Magnificence must have a foreground of detail, seen close inshore - dark banks of ancient trees, banded blue ice, boulder beaches streaming with foam, flowers up high in the fractures of a weathered cliff.

All along our journey we are learning to comprehend such particulars in new ways, both aesthetically and analytically. Everywhere there are subtle patterns that reveal the long history and interwoven complexities of this environment.

As an archaeologist, my eyes are most attuned to the faint traces of human history. During our excursions on shore I notice clusters of shallow house depressions that mark old Alaska Native village sites, bands of shell midden in eroding banks, and living spruce trees with scars left hundreds of years ago by indigenous bark harvesters.

Today the expedition visited Harris Bay in Kenai Fjords National Park, where the remains of an old Alutiiq settlement can be seen. Radiocarbon dates from previous research at the site, carried out under my direction in 1993, indicate that it was used between about A.D. 1200 -- 1750. Now called the Northwestern Lagoon Site, the settlement was probably a camp that was used each spring to hunt harbor seals on the ice floes near Northwestern Glacier. The outlines of about 35 houses and several food storage pits are scattered across a beautiful seaside meadow. With permission from the National Park Service, our group went ashore in Zodiacs at the site to explore the site as well as nearby beaches and spruce forest.


Chiswell islands

Two Zodiacs return to the ship after exploring the Chiswell Islands. (Photo by National Ocean Service, NOAA).
Click image for a larger view.

Many such camps and villages were once occupied along the outer coast of the Kenai Peninsula, but the Alutiiq population dwindled due to epidemics and the exploitative pressures of the Russian fur trade. The last outer coast village, Yalik, was left behind in the 1880s, when survivors resettled in the present-day Cook Inlet villages of Nanwalek, Port Graham, and Seldovia.

Radiocarbon dates from the Northwestern Lagoon Site, however, suggest that it was abandoned before there was a strong Russian presence in the Kenai Fjords area. The nearest Russian outpost, Alexandrovsk, was established in 1786. There are no glass beads, iron, or other imported European artifacts at the Northwestern Lagoon site that would indicate contact with fur traders. If disturbance by outsiders was not a factor, why was the camp left empty after it had been used for so many hundreds of years?

The answer appears to be the advance of Northwestern Glacier. The glacier grew larger as the result of colder temperatures during the Little Ice Age, which began about A.D. 1200. As the glacier expanded down its valley it came closer and closer to the camp. By the late 18th century, the wall of ice was only 200 meters away. Living at the site any longer may have simply been too dangerous. Fortunately, the ice advanced no further and the camp was not actually destroyed. With warmer temperatures since A.D. 1900, the ice has retreated about 12 miles up its valley.

The Northwestern Lagoon Site illustrates how important changes in climate and the environment can be to coastal hunting and fishing populations. Earthquakes, changes in relative sea level, and shifts in the marine food chain can also have dramatic effects (see the lecture "Living on the Edge: People in the Gulf of Alaska Environment"). Understanding human history is an interdisciplinary effort in which archaeologists work with historians, geologists and environmental scientists.

Oral traditions can also play an important role in site interpretation. In future work, Alutiiq Elders from the villages of Nanwalek, Port Graham, and Seldovia will work with the Arctic Studies Center to record ancestral stories of migrations and traditional ways of life along the outer Kenai coast.

(View the day's photos)


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

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