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Harriman Expedition Retraced

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Expedition Log: August 9, 2001

Debbie Chalmers and Natashia Dallin, Young Explorers Team

Unga Island

We woke to gray skies and choppy seas anchored off the coast of Unga Island across from Papof Island and Sand Point. Zodiac excursions were scheduled for 8:30 a.m. The shore excursion options included a five-mile beach walk to find the remains of a petrified forest or the opportunity to explore the beach and treeless terrain on your own. The Young Explorers Team opted for the longer hike with the hopes of finding large petrified logs that were reported on the beach. We were prepared with our "Alaska sneakers," more commonly known as mud boots, to execute a wet landing on the wind-swept beach. It was truly a wet landing and our Zodiac guides were up to their chests in water as they helped us disembark. A pair of nesting bald eagles swooped overhead. They hovered above us as if to determine the potential threat our presence might have. A member of our group pointed to a potential nesting site along the grass-covered, treeless cliff. Numerous red fox tracks substantiated the history of fox farms established on the islands and abandoned when fur prices dropped. Although foxes have decimated the Aleutian bird populations, I thought I might catch a glimpse of a few silhouetted along the grassy cliff.

We eagerly headed down the beach stepping around dark boulders left from the ancient volcanic eruption and were immediately rewarded with sightings of petrified wood chunks scattered along the shoreline. Our on-board geologist, Kristine Crossen, enthusiastically shared her knowledge of the geologic events that created this petrified island wonderland. The trees were from a 20 million year old Metasequoia forest that was buried by a volcanic mudflow. This forest is a clear indication of previously warmer forest environments prior to glacier advances during the last ice age. Groundwater mixed with the volcanic mudflow provided minerals that precipitated within the tree cells to produce petrified wood.

petrified wood

Petrified wood stump. (Photo by Natashia Dallin).
Click image for a larger view.

Unlike driftwood, these logs permanently settled both above and below the high tide mark. When we picked up a log chunk we were surprised by the weight and the realistic details preserved from the original wood. Each piece retained the grain and appearance of wood but definitely had the texture of stone when examining and touching it. The first large log we found was a stump with 200+ growth rings. Another log base further down the beach was projected at being at least twice the number of rings with a diameter of about 8 feet. We estimated the length of another massive petrified log, with a 90 foot diameter. It was amazing to imagine a forest of massive trees once stood on this treeless grass-covered island. The Odyssey soundlessly glided by Sand Point to our next stop on the southeast side of Unga Island, where we planned to anchor and explore an abandoned fishing village.

abandoned village

Abandoned fishing village on Unga Island. (Photo by Natashia Dallin).
Click image for a larger view.

Our afternoon expedition surpassed most of our expectations as we combed the village for clues to when and how this charming village might have been abandoned. This end of the island was blanketed in blue harebells, wild blue geraniums, vivid fuschia fireweed and a beautiful cluster of variegated pink and white fireweed I'd never seen before. Spectacular rock cliff formations completed the ever-changing panoramic view. Unlike other hastily constructed sites of historical interest, these sturdy buildings indicated a past prosperous effort to establish a permanent community. It was easy to imagine how this place must have once been an intriguing and impressive sight to passing fishing vessels in the same way that Sand Point intrigued our fellow passengers on the Clipper Odyssey. An exhilarating Zodiac ride back to the ship capped off our day of discovery. Images of the Harriman Expedition scientists shifting roles to scholars after changing into their dinner dress mingled with our transition back to shipboard life as we deliberated over the selections of Mahi Mahi or roast duckling for dinner.

(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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