During Patrick Druckenmiller’s not-so-restful sabbatical year of 2015, he flew to museums around the world. In Alberta and then London, the University of Alaska Museum of the North’s earth science curator looked at bones of dinosaurs similar to ones found in northern Alaska.
The more he squinted at them and chatted with experts, the more he concluded far-north dinosaurs are like Alaskans compared to other Americans: kind of the same, but a little off.
“When we really re-examine the fauna, (northern Alaska) is a very weird place,” said Druckenmiller, who today is also the museum director.
The mini tyrannosaur, duck-billed swamp-stompers, armor-headed plant-eaters and other dinosaurs found in northern Alaska hint of a story that is theirs alone. That tale is separate from the one we learned as kids, told by fossils found in Montana, Alberta, Mongolia and other more exposed and easier-to-get-to places.
Druckenmiller’s examinations of the duck-billed… read more
The mushers were gone, and so were the 640 dogs that pulled them out of town. A few days earlier, the volunteers who gave life to Iditarod had climbed into their single-engine planes and lifted off the ice, carrying their noise along with them.
Iditarod City was now quiet, except for the whoosh of ravens scanning for frozen morsels in piles of straw. And (Could it be? Yes!) the melancholy howls of a half-dozen wolves, wafting from the derelict buildings 100 yards across the slough.
Iditarod is a lonely place. A century ago, for a few years it was the largest city in Interior Alaska.
A few weeks ago, Bob Gillis and I were the only humans in town, having skied and tundra-walked to Iditarod from the village of McGrath. Moving along on the Iditarod Trail, we had not seen anyone else in four days. It would be three more days before we did, in the village of Shageluk, 60 miles away.
Trying to figure out Iditarod’s story while we were there was like trying to… read more
This week marks 30 years since I turned my pickup left onto a North Pole road and noticed the clutch pedal did not return to my foot. In a panic, I reached down with my mittened hand and pulled. The frozen plunger oozed back into position.
Driving at minus 50 degrees Fahrenheit is not a smart thing to do. But I was in my mid-20s and had a firefighting class to attend on Badger Road. That location, fuzzy with ice fog, was dark-side-of-the-moon cold during the last time Alaska had a genuine statewide cold snap — one that lasted 14 days.
Late January 1989 featured a low temperature of minus 76 degrees F in the village of Tanana. That’s just four degrees off Alaska’s (and America’s) all-time low of 80 below zero, recorded at Prospect Creek on January 23, 1971.
Those are old numbers, but Brian Brettschneider, @Climatologist49, recently tweeted that when today’s wind-chill formula is applied, McGrath residents on Jan. 27, 1989 experienced a world-record windchill for… read more
Two-hundred and thirty-six years ago, when General George Washington marched back into New York City as British troops were walking out, a volcano erupted in Iceland.
For eight months of 1783, Laki volcano spewed lava and belched noxious fumes into the atmosphere. One-quarter of the residents of Iceland died, and the sulfur-rich gases that spread worldwide reflected the sun’s rays, making many places on Earth cooler.
Using evidence held in white spruce trees, researchers think the Laki eruption was a catastrophe for northwest Alaska residents, who had no idea why their July turned into November that year.
Rosanne D’Arrigo of the tree-ring lab at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in New York recently told the story of Alaska’s year without a summer. She attended the fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union last month in Washington, D.C.
On a poster in a cavernous meeting hall there, she displayed a photo of tree rings from a white spruce tree from… read more
In 1908, a colossal blast incinerated a swath of wilderness deep in Siberia, at about the same latitude as Anchorage.
The explosion that July day registered on seismic recorders all over the world. Within minutes, 80 million trees lay flat and scorched in a circle 60 miles wide. Scientists calculated the shock was more than 1,000 times stronger than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima.
What happened? That’s a great question. Nineteen years after the event and 91 years ago, Leonid Kulik, curator for the meteorite collection at the St. Petersburg Museum, traveled to the Stony Tunguska River to find out. From the distant evidence, he expected to see a crater where a meteorite crashed into Earth.
He found none. Those that have followed him over the years have not found expected nickel or iron deposits. Nor have they collected any space rocks like those fired into the snow when the Chelyabinsk meteorite exploded above the Ural Mountains in 2013.
If the… read more
Stone spear points from Serpentine Hot Springs on the Seward Peninsula hint that ancient people may have migrated northward between ice sheets from warmer parts of America, bringing their technology with them.
Heather Smith, an anthropologist at Eastern New Mexico University, wrote a recent paper based on spear-point fragments she and others found near Serpentine Hot Springs during the summers of 2010 and 2011.
In her study, she wrote the stone points represent “either Clovis groups moving north through the ice-free corridor to northern Yukon and Alaska, or the interaction of Clovis groups with humans already present in the northwestern Subarctic and Arctic.”
Found only in North and South America, fluted points were part of a famous find near Clovis, New Mexico, that scientists radiocarbon dated to be about 13,000 years old. Anthropologists have found fluted points in several places in Alaska, including near… read more
Floating down the Fortymile River, we saw a cut in the green hills that hinted of a creek. My canoeing partner and neighbor, Ian Carlson, 13, wanted to see a ghost town. The map told us one should be dead ahead.
There, up a path of floury soil, was Franklin, Alaska. Like many Alaska ghost towns, it was a less-than-ideal place for kids and dogs: rusted nails, jagged edges and punky wood floors that can no longer bear weight. The four kids and two dogs in our party were all over it.
No one was there to meet us at Franklin, population zero, the site of the first major gold strike in Interior Alaska. It was a living town from 1887 to 1948.
We noticed stone steps fitted into the hillside with care, a shed with an intact roof, and a dozen spruce-log buildings on their way to becoming soil.
In the early 1900s, gold miners and other river travellers called Franklin “Dogtown” because so many were staked… read more
Thanks to her six-year-old grandson, Janet Klein of Homer recently hosted a few interesting house guests.
Five experts on ancient creatures slept in Klein’s Homer house last month as they searched local cliffs for another chunk of a mammal that lived in Alaska millions of years ago. Her guests were Patrick Druckenmiller of the UA Museum of the North, Grant Zazula and Susan Hewitson of the Yukon government, paleontologist Analia Forasiepi of Argentina, and Ross MacPhee, curator of mammology at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.
Along with Klein, a Homer resident and naturalist, the scientists were looking for a rock that might fit into the petrified jawbone of a tapir Klein’s grandson Kai found about a year ago on a beach near Homer.
Kai Reising, then 5, was beachcombing in July 2017 with his grandmother; his mother, Deborah Klein; his father George Reising; and his younger brother Silas. In an… read more
One year before Alaska became part of America, 21-year old William Dall ascended the Yukon River on a sled, pulled by dogs. The man who left his name all over the state was in 1866 one of the first scientists to document the mysterious peninsula jutting toward Russia. He is probably the most thorough researcher to ever ponder this place.
On his first, three-year trip, Dall gathered more than 4,000 specimens from the hills and valleys of Alaska, from sea shells to great gray owls to a human skull. He sent them back by steamship to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., where he later processed them all.
Dall wrote his own summaries of Native people and their dialects, made weather and climate observations, and catalogued all the fish, birds, mammals and plants he saw. His “Alaska and its Resources” was published in 1870.
Dall came to Alaska as part of a mega-project that did not go as planned. The Western Union Company… read more
Using the tiniest of clues, scientists have determined what probably killed the woolly mammoths of St. Paul Island — thirst.
“It looks like climate did them in,” said Matthew Wooller, the UAF scientist who in 2013 went to St. Paul as part of a diverse team and brought back lake cores for analysis. “The smoking gun looks like access to freshwater resources was the coups de gras.”
Wooller and other researchers have been working on the mystery for a few years. They used tools that help them analyze tiny things like ancient pollen grains and fragments of a fungus that lived on animal dung. Their research, in which they "solve the puzzle of extinction" of the St. Paul mammoths, just became public in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Some background of the woolly mammoths of St. Paul:
The Bering Sea island that could today fit within the limits of any Alaska city was beachfront property during the height of the last ice age. As… read more
COS JACKET — On a canoe trip down the lower Tanana River, we've scrambled up a sandy bank to explore a place that is less populated now than it was a century ago.
No one, in fact, lives at Cos Jacket anymore. There is a cabin-size cache with a tin roof. A few sagging log structures sit on a ledge overhanging the Tanana. One of the cabins has lost its door and front wall to the river. Its fallen ridgepole points like a finger over the Tanana.
With no noise except the whisper of breeze through poplar leaves, Cos Jacket has the Alaska ghost town feel. Across the state, there are dozens of similar places. Some, like Kokrines, Birches, Kallands and Grant Creek, are not far from Cos Jacket, which is about a half mile downstream from where the Cosna River dumps iced-tea water into the Tanana.
In a brief tour of Cos Jacket hastened by terrific mosquito density, Alison Beamer, Jason Clark and I notice the following: treeless areas that may have been gardens, a wooden… read more
About 1,000 years ago, Norse explorer Leif Ericson bumped into the New World at Newfoundland. The old world was filling up, with 300,000 people living in the Roman capital of Constantinople. Up here in Alaska, the ancestors of today's coastal Natives were quietly having one of the more successful runs in human history.
The Thule people of Alaska's west and north coasts lived a good life for centuries, perfecting technologies that traveled with them across the northern Arctic all the way to Greenland. This April is Alaska Archeology Month, a time to think about people who mastered life in the far north before anyone in the more populated world knew about them.
How do you thrive so far from the equator and all its edible plants and animals? The Thule hunted the largest animal to be found up here, the bowhead whale.
Thule people invented the umiaq, a boat of sewn walrus hide. Umiaqs allowed Thule people to intercept the slow-moving whales and harpoon them. When a… read more
Ships with no humans aboard have long ridden the seas, often floating with supernatural stories of being piloted by dead crew members or becoming visible to sailors and then vanishing.
Alaska has its own ghost ship. Workers for the Hudson Bay Company abandoned the S.S. Baychimo just offshore of Wainwright 85 years ago. Sea ice trapped the 230-foot cargo steamship during an early winter in October 1931. The captain and crew abandoned the ship, which carried furs from Canadian trappers and a variety of other cargo.
Following the ice's capture of the Baychimo, the captain and 14 men built a wooden hut on the sea ice to keep track of the ship. One month later, they weathered a great windstorm in that shelter. When they peered out after the storm, the Baychimo was gone.
The Hudson Bay men figured the ship had sunk. Most of them returned to Vancouver. But the Baychimo was not on the bottom of the Beaufort Sea.
A few weeks later, Inupiat hunters saw the… read more
On a damp island far out in the Aleutian chain, a secret weapon of Japan's World War II Navy sinks into the sod. A Type-A midget submarine the shape of a killer whale was one of six the Japanese carried to Kiska Island in 1942.
Debra Corbett, an archaeologist who spent five weeks on Kiska last year, has imagined the plight of elite Japanese seamen assigned to operate the subs. Two men squeezed into the ship, which historians compared to torpedoes that could fire smaller torpedoes at ships from point-blank range.
"I don't know if you're claustrophobic, but I couldn't imagine a worse job," Corbett said.
Corbett and graduate student Richard Galloway have highlighted the Kiska midget sub on their blog for the Aleutian Island Research Group, a collection of scientist who share ideas about a unique place on Earth. Corbett, now operating a consulting business, retired in 2013 from her position as archaeologist with the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge, the… read more
Dave Klein was 47 when he kicked into a scree slope in Atigun Canyon and saw something unusual in the rocks below. He reached down and picked up a three-inch wedge of bone or antler that had been worked into points on each end. One half of it had notched barbs.
Klein was 88 when he was hiking near Atigun Canyon with students on a field trip through the Brooks Range in June 2015. As he scanned the ground beneath his feet, the UAF emeritus professor of biology and wildlife again saw something foreign. This time it was an arrow with a carbon-fiber shaft and a metal broadhead sporting three blades sharp as a razor.
Picking up the arrow, Klein thought back 41 years, to 1974. Industry prospectors had discovered oil near Prudhoe Bay. An 800-mile pipe and the road needed to build it were coming soon. A possible pathway was through Atigun Canyon, rocky high country preferred by Dall sheep. Bob Summerfield, a graduate student advised by Klein, was studying the sheep before the… read more
One of the quietest places in Alaska was temporarily home to a few hardy people when the Mayflower landed at Plymouth Rock. An archaeologist has fleshed out what life might have been like during a winter on St. Matthew Island in the 1600s.
In some ways, St. Matthew, more than 200 miles from the nearest Alaska settlement (the village of Mekoryuk) is a great place to live: lush with plantlife (some of it edible); miles of coastline offering access to seabirds, their eggs, walrus, seals and fish; ample fresh water in lakes and streams.
In other ways, Alaska's most remote island is a grim outpost. Alone, treeless and exposed in the Bering Sea, St. Matthew becomes surrounded by sea ice in December and remains locked in its frozen grip until April. Cold winds blast the island all months of the year. Because of dampness and thick fog, "summer is not really noticeable," a Russian writer once wrote.
Dennis Griffin has visited St. Matthew twice. The archaeologist with… read more
In spring of 1946, five men stationed at the Scotch Cap lighthouse had reasons to be happy. World War II was over. They had survived. Their lonely Coast Guard assignment on Unimak Island would be over in a few months.
But the lighthouse tenders would never return to their homes in the Lower 48. In the early morning of April 1, the earth ruptured deep within the Aleutian Trench 90 miles south. An immense block of ocean floor rose, tipping salt water across the North Pacific.
The earthquake was giant: at least magnitude 8.1. The tsunami that resulted killed 159 people in Hawaii, drowned a swimmer in Santa Cruz, banged up fishing boats in Chile and wrecked a hut on Antarctica. The curve of the Aleutians protected much of Alaska, but the five at Scotch Cap had no chance.
A 130-foot wave struck the lighthouse at 2:18 a.m, leaving nothing but the foundation of the reinforced concrete structure. Though scientists long thought the wave was due to the earthquake rupture… read more
On April 1, 1946, the sea floor ruptured just south of Unimak Island in the Aleutian Islands. Seawater displaced by the giant earthquake sent a 100-foot wave into the Scotch Cape lighthouse on Unimak, destroying the concrete structure and killing the five men inside. They never knew what hit them in the 2 a.m. darkness.
The residents of Hilo, on Hawaii’s big island, were also unaware of the danger surging across the North Pacific. Four hours and 20 minutes after the big earthquake in the Aleutians, the first of several tsunami waves reached Hawaii.
Jeanne Branch Johnston, then six years old, was in living in Hilo in 1946. She remembers a lush neighborhood of coconut trees and brackish ponds that would rise and fall with the tide. People earned their wages at the surrounding sugarcane plantations.
On the morning of April 1, 1946, Johnston was staying over at her grandparents’ house in Hilo. She was in her pajamas getting ready to go to school and playing with… read more
A long, long time ago, a hairy elephant stomped the northland, wrecking trees and shrubs as it swallowed twigs, leaves and bark. These mastodons left a few scattered teeth and bones in Alaska and the Yukon, reminders of an immense mammal that lived as far south as Honduras. A recent look at far-north mastodons shows the creatures vanished from the Arctic thousands of years earlier than researchers thought. New carbon dates of mastodon fossils confirmed the doubts of Grant Zazula and others who study vanished landscapes of the north. Zazula is with the Yukon Palaeontology Program in Whitehorse. Co-authors on the recent mastodon paper are Alaskans Patrick Druckenmiller, Pam Groves, Dan Mann and Michael Kunz. Zazula got interested in what he thought were way-too-recent dates on mastodon bones when Earl Bennett of Whitehorse donated a partial mastodon skeleton in 2007. Miners had found it in the early 1970s when a gold dredge clunked into it on a Yukon creek. Zazula doubted earlier… read more
The revival of the virus responsible for the 1918 Spanish flu, the killer of millions of people, was the end of a long journey for Johan Hultin. Hultin, 90, twice retrieved samples of the virus from the lungs of flu victims preserved by permafrost in an Alaska village. Molecular pathologists used the latter of those samples to reconstruct the virus and discover that it jumped from birds to humans.
Hultin visited the village of Brevig Mission, on Alaska’s Seward Peninsula, on two separate missions nearly half a century apart. He wanted to find what he describes as "the most lethal organism in the history of man."
Hultin was studying microbiology at the University of Iowa in 1949 when a virologist there mentioned that the key to understanding the long-gone Spanish flu of 1918 may be frozen in the bodies of flu victims buried in permafrost. Those victims could possibly be found in Alaska, where "Spanish influenza did to Nome and the Seward Peninsula what the Black Death… read more
"Rectal Temperature of the Working Sled Dog."
"Cleaning and Sterilization of Bunny Boots."
"Comparative Sweat Rates of Eskimos and Caucasians Under Controlled Conditions."
These are some of the studies completed by scientists who worked for the Arctic Aeromedical Laboratory from the late 1940s to the 1960s. Developed during the Cold War to "solve the severe environmental problems of men living and working in the Arctic," workers for the lab cranked out dozens of quirky and sometimes controversial publications in its two decades of existence.
Based at Ladd Air Force Base in Fairbanks, which later became Fort Wainwright, the Arctic Aeromedical Laboratory was a group of about 60 military and civilian researchers charged with finding the best way to wage warfare in the cold. At the time, U.S. political and military leaders feared a nuclear war with the Soviet Union and thought Alaska a likely battleground.
Studies from the Air Force lab in Fairbanks… read more
It is a very remarkable fact that a region under a civilized government for more than a century should remain so completely unknown as the vast territory drained by the Copper, Tanana and Koyukuk Rivers.
So wrote Henry Allen in a government report on his muscle-powered journey from the mouth of the Copper River to the mouth of the Yukon, from where he returned by steamship to the civilized 48. Pushing on when Native guides wouldn't join him for fear of starvation, Allen and a few tattered comrades traveled from near present-day Cordova up to what is now Bettles. They then turned around and then beat winter to St. Michael, where they jumped the last boat for San Francisco.
The U.S. Army lieutenant executed the journey from spring equinox to early September in 1885, completing an epic his commanding officer, General Nelson Miles, compared to the Lewis and Clark expedition of 80 years before.
After he visited Alaska one year before to check the progress of another… read more
One foggy day on St. Paul Island, a woolly mammoth stepped onto a trapdoor of greenery. It plunged thirty feet to the floor of a cave. There was no exit.
A few thousand years later, a scientist who descended by ladder found the mammoth's tooth amid the bones of other mammoths, polar bears, caribou, reindeer and arctic foxes. Radiocarbon dating showed the mammoth died about 6,500 years ago. Here was proof that mammoths lived on the Bering Sea island thousands of years after the creatures vanished from mainland Alaska.
There began a detective story that attracted a widespread team of scientists. They were curious about what finished off the resilient St. Paul mammoth: People with spears and clubs? Polar bears? Disease? Starvation? A volcanic eruption?
Mat Wooller was part of a group that visited the island a few years ago to pull a core from a crater lake. In the cylinder of mud, which dust and pollen from thousands of years ago, the scientists hoped to find… read more
During our planet's most recent cold period, a slab of ice smothered Manhattan. Canada looked like Antarctica but with no protruding mountains. When the last glacial maximum peaked about 20,000 years ago, most of the continent — from the Arctic Ocean to the Missouri River — slept under a blanket of white.
Alaska was different. Anchorage and the rest of Southcentral, Southeast, and the Alaska Peninsula were under ice, but interior Alaska was green. Why, when blue ice buried North America, was Fairbanks ice-free?
First, another question: how do we know what the planet looked like 20,000 years ago? Answer: curious people who spot rock aprons draped over mountainsides and see tongues of extinct glaciers. The same types squint at cylinders of muck pulled from lake bottoms and envision maple and oak parklands where tundra ponds sit today.
One of these people, Dan Mann, offered an answer to the question of why central Alaska did not, in the literal sense, participate… read more
One hundred years ago, a group of men sailed to the northern coast of Alaska to find a land mass rumored to protrude from the Arctic Ocean. They did not find the land. After wintering in the north everyone hurried back to warmer places. Except for Ernest Leffingwell.
Leffingwell, a geologist, teacher, and a veteran of the Spanish-American War, stayed behind on Flaxman Island, a sandy wedge of land north of Alaska’s coast and 58 miles west of Kaktovik. He lived for nine summers and six winters in a cabin made from the ship that brought him there in 1906.
From that lonely base, Leffingwell made 31 trips around the area by sled and small boat, covered about 4,500 miles, and camped in a tent “about 380 times.” This detail he included in a 250-page report for the USGS that reads like a manual on how to live and perform science in the far north. The work has gained him some fans.
“He wasn’t a traditional scientist,” said UAF permafrost scientist and world traveler… read more
On March 27, 1964, California geologist George Plafker was attending a research conference in Seattle when news came of a big earthquake in Alaska.
“It was almost quitting time for the day at the meeting when some guys came back from the Space Needle and said they felt rocking,” Plafker said recently at his office in Menlo Park, California. “We said, ‘That’s a serious earthquake.’”
It was, of course, the second-strongest earthquake in the era of instruments able to measure them, one that would change the direction of Plafker’s career and what people thought about great earthquakes on the Pacific basin’s Ring of Fire.
Plafker, now 84, was then a 35-year-old U.S. Geological Survey researcher who knew a lot about basic geology and mapping, but very little about earthquakes. Then assigned to the “Alaska Division,” he was one of three scientists from the Menlo Park office sent northward right after the earthquake to see what had happened.
He flew to Alaska… read more
George Schaller has studied gorillas in Rwanda, lions on the Serengeti, pandas in China, antelope in Tibet, and many other animals in wild places around the planet, but he thinks the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is unique among them. He visited there in 2006 for the first time in half a century.
“On the Sheenjek (River), we climbed the same cliff I climbed in 1956, and looking out there was no difference—no roads, no buildings, no garbage dumps.
“I’m sure there are rain forests in Brazil where you can walk for a few days without seeing people or big changes to the landscape, but sites like (the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge) that are ecologically whole are extremely rare.”
Schaller, possibly the most recognized biologist in the world, traveled to Alaska seven summers ago from his home in Connecticut for a trip through the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge with author Jon Waterman, University of Alaska Fairbanks students Betsy Young and Martin Robards,… read more
While pounding nails on a roof extension for his shed this summer, Scott Rupp heard a roar that almost scared him off the roof. Three planes with bellies full of fire retardant swooped low, then banked over the mountain behind his home.
“I looked up and saw this big smoke cloud,” said the part-time farmer and leader of an organization devoted to studying climate change. “That was my first sense that this was something that was going to personally affect me.”
“This” was one of the largest wildfires in Alaska during the hot summer of 2013. It came close enough to Rupp’s homestead that he felt smoky heat on his face, a sensation that will now be on his mind every time he tweaks a computer model that simulates future fire scenarios in Alaska.
Rupp, 46, leads two lives in his home of interior Alaska. By day, he heads the Scenarios Network for Alaska & Arctic Planning, a group of about 20 scientists and staff who try to predict the future of Alaska climate so… read more
Like a bright yellow contour line painted above the Steese Highway, the Davidson Ditch now reveals itself by the flagging autumn birches and poplars that clog its path.
The 90-mile system of canal, pipeline and tunnel becomes harder to see with each passing day, but the engineering triumph once helped prevent Fairbanks from ghosting out. The 1920s-era aqueduct provided the water needed to float dredges the size of apartment complexes and power hydraulic giants that firehosed water at Tanana River valley hillsides, stripping them to bedrock.
In the early 1900s, migrants from the Klondike gold rush were splashing through every creek around Fairbanks. By 1920, those men had panned much of the near-surface gold, and many were looking to move on to the next action. That’s when a college-educated stampeder saw a way to mine the low-grade deposits with massive machines and more efficiency.
The United States Smelting and Refining Company, a Maine corporation with… read more
On a small hill surrounded by boggy muskeg in the Tanana River Valley, prehistoric skin scrapers made of schist, polished slate tools and glass beads were uncovered in the last week.
Based on the design of the tools and the way the animals were butchered, it appears to be an Athabascan campsite from the turn of the 20th century.
“These are very typical Athabascan tools. But you usually think of polished stone tools with the Eskimo area, not in the Interior, so it’s very interesting,” says Chuck Holmes, the archaeologist who first discovered the site several decades ago.
He’s leading a team of 10 graduate students and volunteers at the excavation through June.
Swan Point is just north of Delta Junction. You can see the Alaska Range to the south, the Yukon-Tanana Uplands to the north, and Donnelly Dome just across the valley.
Fourteen thousand years ago, long before the boreal forest of today, the views were even better.
“It was an open… read more
As she scraped cold dirt from the remains of an extinct bison, Pam Groves wrinkled her nose at a rotten-egg smell wafting from gristle that still clung to the animal’s bones. She lifted her head to scan the horizon, wary of bears that might be attracted to the flesh of a creature that gasped its last breath 40,000 years ago.
In the type of discovery they have dreamed about for years, Groves and Dan Mann, both researchers at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, in summer 2012 found in the thawing bank of a northern river almost the entire skeleton of a steppe bison that died during the last ice age.
In adventurous work sponsored by the Bureau of Land Management, Mann and Groves have been boating down lonely northern rivers for 15 years looking for scattered bones of ice age mammals, always hoping to find a complete skeleton or mummy of a mammoth, horse, or American lion. In mid-June, on a familiar stretch of river that flows northward on Alaska’s North Slope… read more
The room smelled of a smoked moosehide covering a table that held birch-bark baskets and a white box rimmed with beadwork flowers. Inside the box were the smooth bones of an adult man, a teenager and a child dug up within sight of the McGrath School.
The discovery, recently announced in the Morris Thompson Cultural and Visitors Center in Fairbanks, is unique because bones don’t often last long when buried in the acidic soil of the boreal forest, and because the Native Athabaskans of the region have traditionally cremated their dead.
“This is an archaeologist’s dream,” said Vicke Otte of MTNT, Limited, the local village corporation and the owner of the land in McGrath that held the remains. “They’ve hit the jackpot.”
In October 2012, a worker on an erosion-control, ground-clearing project was walking over the site in his off-duty time and saw a human skull. He told his boss and the stripping of soil from the site stopped. Some locals thought the skull was… read more
“Cleaning and Sterilization of Bunny Boots.”
“Comparative Sweat Rates of Eskimos and Caucasians Under Controlled Conditions.”
These are some of the studies completed by scientists who worked for the Arctic Aeromedical Laboratory from the late 1940s to the 1960s. Developed during the Cold War to “solve the severe environmental problems of men living and working in the Arctic,” the lab cranked out dozens of quirky and sometimes controversial publications in its two decades of existence.
Not too long ago, I passed a milestone that doesn’t really mean much, but is a nice round number. Twenty-five years ago, I drove a Ford Courier pickup from upstate New York to Fairbanks, Alaska. I rolled into town in August, started college in September, and have lived here ever since.
Twenty-five years isn’t such a long time, but it’s longer than I’ve lived anywhere else. Scientists consider one-quarter century a long-term study, and I wish I followed that professor’s advice long ago when she urged I stake out a forest plot and measure its changes through the years. And I should have picked up a few pounds of gold then when it was $326 per ounce instead of $1,600.
Other things have… read more
Spoken by only a few dozen people, a language uttered in river villages 3,000 miles from Alaska is related to Tlingit, Eyak and Athabaskan. This curious link has researchers wondering how people in the middle of Siberia can be related to Alaskans and other North Americans, and what it means to the populating of the Americas. When he visited Kellog Village in central Siberia a few years ago, Edward Vajda stirred the coals of what has become a bonfire in the world of anthropology and linguistics. Vajda, a linguist and professor at Western Washington University, is the person who perhaps knows the most about Ket, spoken by fewer than 50 people who live along the Yelogui and Yenisei rivers in central Siberia. Fascinated by how their language did not fit in with others of the region, Vajda was compelled to meet the people who spoke Ket. In 2008, he ventured to the village of Kellog, population 342. Like many Alaska villages, Kellog has no road connection to other villages and the… read more
More than a century ago, Roald Amundsen and his crew were the first to sail through the Northwest Passage, along the way leaving footprints in Eagle, Nome, and Sitka. Pioneering that storied route was a dream of Amundsen’s since his boyhood in Norway, but he also performed enduring science on the three-year voyage of the Gjøa.
Amundsen, from Norway, was 30-years-old when, in the early 1900s, he envisioned and then executed this plan: “With a small vessel and a few companions, to penetrate into the regions around earth’s north magnetic pole, and by a… read more
Alfred Brooks was a geologist who traveled thousands of miles in Alaska and left his name on the state’s northernmost mountain range. Twenty years before his death in 1924, he also left behind a summary of what Alaska was like over a century ago, when “large areas (were) still practically unexplored.”
To see what Brooks had to say about the Alaska of 1906, I pulled a copy of his Geography and Geology of Alaska: A Summary of Existing Knowledge from a shelf of rare books in a Fairbanks library.
In his government report, Brooks pointed out misconceptions about Alaska that endure today. He wrote in his introduction:
“If facts are presented which may seem elementary, it is because even well-informed people have been known to harbor misconceptions in regard to the orographic features, climate, and general character… read more
From space, the Nogahabara Dunes are a splotch of blond sand about six miles in diameter surrounded by green boreal forest. Located west of the Koyukuk River, the dunes are the site of an uncommon discovery.
In 2001, biologists for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service were walking the dunes when they noticed the sand was infused with black rocks. Looking closer, they saw the rocks were obsidian, attractive pieces of black volcanic glass.
Before the days of metal tools, prehistoric hunters worked obsidian into points sharp enough to penetrate animal hides. Many a bison and caribou fell to spears and arrows tipped with obsidian, which can be worked sharper than a scalpel.
A few years after the find in the Nogahabara Dunes, archaeologists Dan Odess and Jeff Rasic landed in float plane on a lake at the edge of the sand. They hiked to the site described by the biologists and saw an accumulation of obsidian pieces like nothing they had ever seen.
Within an area… read more
For many Alaskans, January 1989 is a month that still numbs the mind, because of the cold snap that gripped much of the state for two weeks. In Fairbanks, fan belts under the hoods of cars snapped like pretzels; the ice fog was thick and smothering, and the city came as close as it ever comes to a halt, with many people opting to stay home after their vehicles succumbed to the monster cold.
The 14 days of bitter cold were not a strictly Fairbanks phenomenon. Every region except the Aleutians and Southeast was nailed by a combination of meteorological quirks that resulted in what some called a good old-fashioned winter.
… read more
The year is 1905. You are a prospector in Alaska relaxing in your cabin after a chilly day of working the tailings pile. Craving a cup of joe, you pull a tin of coffee off the shelf. Though you can’t imagine it, that distinctive red can, the one you will later use for your precious supply of nails, will long outlive you. And it will give an archaeologist a good idea of when you made your Alaska home.
The coffee was Hills Bros. The can was vacuum-sealed. For more than a decade, no other coffee company mastered this technique that was first used with butter. This made Hills Bros. of San Francisco the primary choice of early Gold Rush cabin dwellers. The pungent beverage was so popular in Alaska it inspired a local archaeologist to produce a field guide, the “Hills Bros. Coffee Can Chronology.”
Steve Lanford of the Bureau of Land Management in Fairbanks finds Hills Bros. cans valuable because he finds the sturdy cans at old cabin… read more
Could ancient mammoth hunters have warmed the planet? A trio of scientists presents the idea in a new study.
The far north landscape was changing about 15,000 years ago. Trees and shrubs were invading the great grasslands that hosted woolly mammoths and horses. Around that time, the mammoths, horses and other grass-eating animals disappeared.
In a recent study published in the Geophysical Research Letters, three scientists wrote that a great increase in birch shrubs at the time was because of a lack of mammoths to browse them down, caused by hunters that wiped out the mammoth. This increase in woody plants changed the color of the landscape, darkening it to absorb more heat.
“The basic idea is that a small number of humans with primitive technology could have had a detectable impact on climate,” said Chris Field, head of the Department of Global Ecology at the Carnegie Institution for Science in Stanford, California. Field is one of the authors of the paper.… read more
About 150 years ago, U.S. Secretary of State William Seward was taking some heat for his significant role in the purchase of Alaska. On the day the Russians received the $7.2 million check, a group of white travelers were at Nulato, getting ready for an upriver trip to Fort Yukon to explore this strange land.
Among them was Frederick Whymper, an adventurous English artist who had signed on to help document a telegraph project across North America. In his book “Travel and Adventure in the Territory of Alaska,” he left behind some insights into what America was getting itself into.
In his 20s, Whymper left what must have been a comfortable life in London to travel to British Columbia, where he gained the position of artist on the Vancouver Island Exploring Expedition. That experience may have whetted his appetite for wild and uncomfortable, because he soon became the artist for the Russian-American Telegraph Project. His job was to document an attempt to string a wire… read more
One hundred years ago, a group of men sailed to the northern coast of Alaska on an expedition to find a land mass rumored to exist in the Arctic Ocean. Sea ice disabled the ship, they didn’t find the land, and after wintering in the North everyone hurried back to warmer places. Except for Ernest Leffingwell.
Leffingwell, a geologist, teacher, and a veteran of the Spanish-American War, stayed behind on Flaxman Island, a sandy wedge of land north of Alaska’s coast and 58 miles west of Kaktovik. He lived for nine summers and six winters in a cabin made from the ship that brought him there in 1906.
From that lonely home base, Leffingwell made 31 trips around the area by sled and small boat, covered about 4,500 miles, and camped in a tent “about 380 times.” This detail he included in a 250-page report for the U.S. Geological Survey that reads like a manual on how to live and perform science in the Far North. He gained some fans from the works.
“He wasn’t a… read more
About 150 years ago, a few days after summer solstice, the gray skies above the Diomede Islands were heavy with smoke from whaling ships set ablaze by Confederate sailors who didn’t know the Civil War had ended.
“The red glare from the eight burning vessels shone far and wide over the drifting ice of these savage seas,” wrote an officer aboard the Shenandoah, a ship commissioned by Confederate leaders to wreak havoc on Yankee whalers harvesting bowhead whales off the western and northern coasts of Alaska.
Though their timing was off—the Civil War was over for two months when the Shenandoah reached Alaska waters from England (after an eight-month trip around the southern capes of Africa and Australia)—the captain and crew of the Shenandoah succeeded in destroying the Yankee fleet, burning 22 whaling ships and capturing two others.
“It was the last hurrah of whaling—the place where commercial whaling died in the U.S.,” said Brad Barr,… read more
In 1973, Elden Johnson was a young engineer working on one of the most ambitious and uncertain projects in the world—an 800-mile steel pipeline that carried warm oil over frozen ground. Thirty-five years later, Johnson looked back at what he called “the greatest story ever told of man’s interaction with permafrost.”
Strung over and beneath the surface of Alaska from Prudhoe Bay to Valdez, the trans-Alaska pipeline, at 31 years old, is entering its second lifetime. The four-foot in diameter, half-inch-thick steel pipe had an original design lifespan of 30 years. The State of Alaska and the U.S. Department of the Interior recently gave the pipeline the green light for another 30 years of operation.
“It’s like a car,” said Johnson, who works for Alyeska Pipeline Service Company, while standing under the pipeline near Fairbanks during a recent permafrost conference lecture. “As long as you maintain it, it’ll continue to work.”… read more
The trans-Alaska pipeline was a boon for welders, truck drivers and thousands of others who in the ‘70s helped string the silver tube across Alaska. A permafrost scientist also saw in the bonanza a great opportunity for science.
Tom Osterkamp realized that a road traversing Alaska from north to south (to enable building and maintaining the pipeline) would allow a permafrost scientist easy access to the different types of frozen ground in Alaska—the rock-hard soil hundreds of feet thick on the North Slope, the thinner but still plentiful frozen ground north of the Yukon River, the hit-and-miss permafrost south of the Yukon, and the southernmost reaches of frozen ground near Gulkana.
Osterkamp was a permafrost researcher with the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska Fairbanks at the time of the pipeline’s construction. He received funding for a network of 100-to-200-feet-deep holes in the soil from Prudhoe Bay southward. Osterkamp drilled most of the 16… read more
On any clear, dark night you can see them, gliding through the sky and reflecting sunlight from the other side of the world. Manmade satellites now orbit our planet by the thousands, and it’s hard to stargaze without seeing one.
The inky black upper atmosphere was less busy 50 years ago, when a few young scientists stepped out of a trailer near Fairbanks to look up into the cold October sky. Gazing upward, they saw the moving dot that started it all, the Russian-launched Sputnik 1.
Those Alaskans, working for the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, were the first North American scientists to see the satellite, which was the size and shape of a basketball, and, at 180 pounds, weighed about as much as a point guard.
The Alaska researchers studied radio astronomy at the campus in Fairbanks. They had their own tracking station in a clearing in the forest near Ballaine Lake on the northern portion of university land. This station, set up to… read more
On a late summer evening a few years ago, a scrap of birch bark caught William Manley’s eye as he walked along the edge of an ice field in the Wrangell-St. Elias Mountains. The geologist yelled to nearby archaeologist Jim Dixon and Ruth Ann Warden of the Ahtna Heritage Foundation.
“When I pointed it out to Jim and Ruth Ann, they immediately saw that it was something special,” said Manley, who works for the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research at the University of Colorado at Boulder.
Dixon and Warden noticed stitching holes in the bark fragment that lay among recently exposed rocks and moss. After later dating the birch-bark basket, they found an Alaskan had left it at the site about 650 years ago.
The basket is one of many artifacts scientists are finding on ice patches—dying fields of snow and ice that are too small to flow like glaciers. These ice patches, located in the mountains of Alaska and Canada, are shrinking to reveal at their edges arrow shafts,… read more
Thirty years ago, about 100 miles south of the Arctic Ocean, a welder fused a section of 48-inch pipe with molten metal. When he snuffed his torch, the trans-Alaska pipeline was an 800-mile tube of steel.
On June 20, 1977, oil began flowing from the bowels of the earth at Prudhoe Bay, through Pump Station 1, and into the trans-Alaska pipeline. At the time, an editorial in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner heralded the pipeline as the world's largest private construction project. Others had grander analogies, comparing the pipeline to the Egyptian pyramids and the Great Wall of China.
More than 28,000 Alyeska Pipeline Service Company workers and contractors worked on the pipeline at the peak of activity in 1975, and 31 people died in activities related to pipeline construction, according toAlyeska Pipeline Service Company.
The pipeline almost wasn't built. After ARCO and Humble Oil and Refining Co. (now Exxon) announced the Prudhoe Bay discovery well in March 1968… read more
The Thule people who lived in the High Arctic 1,000 years ago left behind spruce carvings that intrigue archaeologist Claire Alix because the Thule lived hundreds of miles from the nearest living tree. Their only source of wood was what drifted in from places unknown.
“Wood is well preserved in archaeological sites,” said Alix, an archaeologist with the Alaska Quaternary Center at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. “It’s really plentiful in sites of (the Thule) period.”
Driftwood logs have tales to tell about past river and ocean circulation and climate, and Alix is one of the few scientists who study driftwood. When trees fall from the bank of a great river like the Yukon, Mackenzie, or the Anadyr in Siberia, they sometimes travel thousands of miles to the ocean. Once in the ocean, a Yukon spruce log can reach the eastern Arctic via Fram Straight, riding ice floes for a good portion of the way and taking many years to complete the trip.
Alix once traced a… read more
During the first International Polar Year of 1882-1883, an American stole food from his comrades, and it wasn’t the first time. The act was all trip leader Adolphus Greely could stand. He ordered three other men, two with bullets in their guns and one with a blank cartridge, to aim at the chest of their comrade and pull the trigger.
“This order is imperative and absolutely necessary for any chance of life,” Greely wrote. His men carried out the command, and Greely’s scientific party, conducting a scientific mission in Canada’s high Arctic and starving on the retreat, was down to seven men. Two years earlier, when the group had set out for the Arctic, it numbered 25.
The first International Polar Year in 1882-1883 had a mission similar to the fourth, which began March 1 and extends to March 2009: An effort of scientists to monitor the Earth’s polar regions.
A lieutenant of the Austro-Hungarian Navy, Karl Weyprecht, thought up the first polar year. A polar… read more
Alfred Brooks was a geologist who traveled thousands of miles in Alaska and left his name on the state’s northernmost mountain range. Twenty years before his death in 1924, he also left behind a summary of what Alaska was like one century ago, when “large areas (were) still practically unexplored.”
In his 1906 government report, “Geography and Geology of Alaska. A Summary of Existing Knowledge” Brooks pointed out misconceptions about Alaska that endure today. He wrote in his introduction:
“If facts are presented which may seem elementary, it is because even well-informed people have been known to harbor misconceptions in regard to the orographic features, climate, and general character of Alaska. Those who read about the perils and privations of winter travel and explorations are apt to picture a region of ice and snow; others, again, who have personal knowledge of the tourist route of southeastern Alaska, regard the whole district as one of rugged mountains and… read more
Three recent studies show links between Alaska and birds in California, air quality in Texas, and icebergs in Antarctica.
Spring 2005 was the first time in decades that Cassin’s auklets nesting on the Farallon Islands didn’t have baby auklets, and some scientists think weather in the Gulf of Alaska might be part of the reason why.
Russ Bradley works for PRBO Conservation Science in Petaluma, California. The organization devoted to, among other things, preservation of the Farallon Islands that are 27 miles west of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. In May 2005, biologists noticed that a species of small gray sea birds known as Cassin’s auklets abandoned their breeding colony on the southeast island. “For the first time in 35 years, reproductive success was zero,” the scientists wrote in a recent issue of Geophysical Research Letters.
The auklets also did poorly in British Columbia. Bradley said the timing of a shift in location of the Aleutian… read more
On an August day 15 years ago, a dozen people crowded around a computer in Fairbanks and saw what they hoped to see—islands and ice rafts north of Hudson Bay, Canada, transmitted to them from a satellite 500 miles overhead. After letting out a collective whoop, they compared the snapshot from above to maps of northern Canada, marveling at the view Alaska’s newest scientific tool provided them.
From that beginning in 1991, the Alaska Satellite Facility at the University of Alaska Fairbanks has received millions of data bits from orbiting satellites, and scientists have used the view from space to study things that are hard to view any other way. Those things include the amount of sea ice that forms on the northern oceans, or the slight inflation of an Aleutian volcano that may hint of an eruption.
All of this action takes place through one of the most noticeable features of the Fairbanks landscape: a 10-meter dish that looks like a birdbath sitting on top of the Elvey… read more
An obituary for the man whose bones are the oldest ever found in Alaska might read as follows: He died on Prince of Wales Island around 9,200 years ago. He was in his early 20s. He was adept at using tools, many of which he crafted with imported stone. The man ate as much seafood as a seal or a sea otter. He explored Alaska's coast, probably in a boat made of skins. He leaves behind a jawbone, right hip, scattered teeth, parts of his backbone, a few ribs. Cause of death is unknown, but a giant bear that lived on the island may have killed him.
Paleontologists Timothy Heaton and Fred Grady discovered the oldest human remains ever found in Alaska in 1996. Heaton, who works at the University of South Dakota in Vermillion, was looking for mammal bones at the time. When he recognized the bones as human, Heaton stopped digging. He contacted Forest Service archeologist Terry Fifield, who called in Native representatives from local tribal governments, the Klawock Cooperative and… read more
On a midwinter night almost 40 years ago, an American B-52 bomber carrying four hydrogen bombs crashed into a bay near Thule, Greenland. From that event came an opportunity for a would-be rocket range in Alaska.
“The Danes were not happy with the U.S. military at that point because the Danes thought that the United States had promised not to deploy nuclear bombs in Greenland,” Neil Davis wrote in his new book, Rockets over Alaska: The Genesis of Poker Flat (Alaska-Yukon Press). “An immediate consequence of the bomber crash at Thule was that Denmark essentially threw the U.S. military out of Greenland.”
A later consequence of the bomber crash was the creation of a facility to launch rockets in Interior Alaska. When the Danish government wouldn’t let the military launch rockets from Greenland as part of a study of how nuclear blasts affected the upper atmosphere, a plan was waiting on deck.
Davis and his colleagues at the Geophysical Institute of the… read more
Seventy million years ago, northern Alaska was farther north than it is today. How then, did the locals—northern dinosaurs—survive, and what might they tell us about the future?
A team of scientists from Texas and Fairbanks will try to answer those questions this summer on Alaska’s North Slope, the treeless plain north of the Brooks Range. There, protruding from banks of the Colville River, are some of the richest fossils beds of northern dinosaurs.
Paul McCarthy will be one of the scientists heading north. McCarthy, a geologist and assistant professor at the University of Alaska’s Geophysical Institute and College of Natural Sciences and Math, studies ancient soils to see what the climate might have been like in the time of the dinosaurs.
“I’m hoping to learn something new about the dinosaurs’ environment by the dirt between their toes, so to speak,” McCarthy said.
Alaska’s North Slope was home to eight types of dinosaurs during the period they lived… read more
With a death toll of more than 226,000 people as of mid-January 2005, the December 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami will probably be the worst natural disaster in our lifetimes. Some longtime Alaskans remember a similar terrible event.
On March 27, 1964, a magnitude 9.2 earthquake ripped through the sea floor in Prince William Sound and generated local and Pacific-wide tsunamis that killed 106 people in Alaska and others as far away as California. Though the death toll in 1964 is miniscule compared to the Indian Ocean disaster, quotes from Alaska survivors on a new video and DVD are similar to those from India, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Sumatra.
In “Ocean Fury: Tsunamis in Alaska”, produced by Alaska Sea Grant along with the Geophysical Institute’s Alaska Earthquake Information Center and the Alaska Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, Tom Gilson of Valdez remembered when a local tsunami caused by an underwater landslide killed several people on a dock that… read more
Lituya Bay in southeast Alaska is famous for a giant wave that swept the bay in 1958, but throughout history another hazard there has proven more fatal.
The pull of the moon and the sun drive Lituya Bay’s most deadly feature: a tidal current that scours the narrow mouth of the bay. Lituya Bay is located on the Gulf of Alaska coast about 120 miles northwest of Juneau and 100 miles southeast of Yakutat. I recently visited the bay on a trip to make GPS measurements with a group of scientists.
We hiked to the mouth of the bay one afternoon to view the current. During the middle of low tide, waves broke in all directions at the narrow mouth of the bay. As we looked out to the Pacific Ocean, we saw a lane of breaking waves extending from the bay for a half-mile or more.
Lituya Bay lies perpendicular to the Pacific Ocean coastline, is about seven miles long and varies from three-fourths of a mile to two miles wide. The entrance to the bay is about 1,000 feet across… read more
Tim Heaton has his summer plans set—crawl through rainforest caves wearing raingear and a headlamp, unearth hundreds of ancient animals, and, possibly, bump into the remains of Alaska’s first human visitors.
Heaton is a caver and paleontologist from the University of South Dakota who discovered the 9,800 year-old bones of Alaska’s oldest man on Prince of Wales Island in 1996, and the 40,000 year-old bones of black and brown bears in the same cave. The bones had a lot to say about how the first people populated the Americas and the extent of ice during the last glacial period. In summer 2003, Heaton and a team of students will explore more bone-filled limestone caves in southeast Alaska and the Queen Charlotte Islands.
The ancient human and animal bones Heaton has found in southeast Alaska support the notion that the first people in the Americas may have been boaters who skirted the huge ice sheets on land by paddling from bay to bay on what is now Alaska’s outer… read more
The saber-toothed cats of ancient Alaska had a taste for wooly mammoth. Lions preferred bison. The giant, short-faced bear let other animals kill its food.
A University of Alaska researcher has used the bones of animals that roamed the dry Pleistocene grasslands of Alaska to flesh out the interactions between the creatures.
Paul Matheus, of the Alaska Quaternary Center, is a paleobiologist. Part scientist, part detective, he studies the bones of animals that died many thousands of years ago, then pieces together how they lived. Matheus uses collagen, a component of bones, to determine the favorite foods of such animals as the short-face bear and the scimitar cat, a saber-toothed creature smaller than today’s African lion.
Matheus and his colleagues have separated collagen, a protein, from fossilized bones that came from Alaska’s north slope, the Fairbanks area, and an area near Dawson City in the Yukon. The Bureau of Land Management has aided Matheus’ study… read more
Eighteen-thousand years ago, while New York and Chicago were silent under tons of glacial ice, the grasslands of Alaska echoed with the roar of the American lion. In those days, a vast, dry belt wrapped the northern part of the globe, providing a home for lions, bison, and woolly mammoths. Stretching from France to Whitehorse, the only apparent interruption in that belt was near Alaska.
Dale Guthrie has spent much of his professional life studying the animals that lived in that ice-free zone, also known as the Mammoth Steppe. Guthrie is a retired biology professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. In the late 1970s, Guthrie excavated and preserved a 36,000-year-old bison from Walter Roman's Fairbanks mining claim. That bison, known as Blue Babe, is now one of the star attractions of the University of Alaska Museum.
The Mammoth Steppe that stretched over the northern part of the globe was dry, cold, and rich with grasses, sedges, forbs and sages. According to… read more
A few summers ago, archaeologist Joanne McSporran saw a sharp black rock in a pile of gravel pulled from the seafloor off British Columbia. The rock, an ancient knife, is another hint that the first Americans may have funneled onto the continent along the Pacific coast.
Anthropologists have long argued that the first human residents of North America scampered between two massive ice sheets through the interior of North America, moving from the Bering Land Bridge to the Great Plains of Canada and the U.S. Some researchers now believe that the Pacific coast in Alaska and British Columbia may have been free of ice before the end of the last ice age, allowing humans to pick their way along the coast from Asia to the New World.
McSporran found the stone tool when she was working as a volunteer on a project led by her husband, Daryl Fedje, an archaeologist with Parks Canada in Victoria, B.C. They were searching the sea bottom off the Queen Charlotte Islands, just… read more
Marked by metal cones and a clear-cut swath 20 feet wide, Alaska's border with Canada is one of the great feats of wilderness surveying.
The boundary between Alaska and Canada is 1,538 miles long. The line is obvious in some places, such as the Yukon River valley, where crews have cut a straight line through forest on the 141st Meridian. The boundary is invisible in other areas, such as the summit of 18,008-foot Mt. St. Elias. In the early 1900s, workers cemented boundary monuments made of aluminum-bronze and standing 2.5-feet tall along much of the border's length.
The country that makes up the border is some of the wildest in North America. Spanning a gap equal to the distance between San Francisco and St. Louis, the border intersects only two settlements; Hyder in southeast Alaska and Boundary in the Fortymile country. Starting in 1905, surveyors and other workers of the International Boundary Commission trekked into this wilderness to etch into the… read more
Dune Lake is a mile-long apostrophe in the boreal forest located about 25 miles southwest of Nenana. The lake, popular for its rainbow trout, is now luring scientists who have discovered that it has a story to tell about Alaska's past.
Dune Lake's name hints of its birth. At the height of the last Ice Age, glaciers in the Alaska Range pulverized rock into sand. More than 11,000 years ago, wind carried that sand northward, creating a field of dunes surrounding a bowl that slowly filled with water to become Dune Lake.
Scientists determined the age of Dune Lake by pulling up cores of muck from a 15-foot sediment layer on the lake bottom. This mass of goo is like gold to Jason Lynch, a graduate student at Duke University in North Carolina. While working on his Ph.D. degree, he spent many hours looking at Dune Lake's sediment cores, which scientists retrieve by jamming a pipe into the lake bottom. The cores from Dune Lake are packed with information about Alaska's… read more
Experts say it is hard to measure mankind's current suffering as a result of climate change. However, they do know that Alaska was once the setting for an environmental shift so dramatic it forced people to evacuate the entire North Slope, according to Michael Kunz, an archaeologist with the Bureau of Land Management.
About 10,000 years ago, a community of people lived on Alaska's North Slope, the treeless tundra that extends north from the Brooks Range to the sea. These people, known as Paleoindians, used a thick backbone of rock west of the Colville River as a hunting lookout. Kunz first discovered stone spear tips at the site, known as the Mesa, in 1978.
The people of the Mesa lived at a time when the Arctic was undergoing a change not unlike the changes some scientists are documenting today. As the world emerged from the last ice age about 15,000 years ago, grasslands covered much of the Bering Land Bridge, a wide chunk of land that mated Siberia with… read more
Years before the birth of the Iditarod, 20 mushers teamed up for a relay race in which first prize was saving the lives of children in Nome, not a Dodge truck and a big check. In 1925, the Serum Run was a race against the spread of diphtheria, an often-fatal contagious disease.
Diphtheria is now a rare disease in the U.S., with only 41 reported cases in the last 15 years. Doctors vaccinate most newborns to prevent the disease, which is still prevalent in some developing countries. Symptoms of the disease include a swollen throat and a dirty white membrane that forms within the mouth. When Nome's only doctor, Curtis Welch, saw this symptom in a six-year-old Eskimo boy, he knew the people of the town-especially children and Native Alaskans, who were vulnerable to introduced diseases-were in danger. Dr. Welch had enough vaccine for perhaps five people. Nome's population during January of 1925 was 1,429.
In his book on the Serum Run, titled The Race to Nome,… read more
Introduction (February 25, 2001)
Recipients of the Alaska Science Forum soon will receive an extra column about my trail experiences as I attempt to ski from Nenana to Nome with Andy Sterns. Andy and I began the trek on Feb. 24th, 2001, and we expect to arrive in Nome about one month later.
During our ski, we will follow the path of the 1925 Serum Run, during which 20 mushers carried diphtheria vaccine from Nenana to Nome in relay style, covering almost 800 miles in less than six days. From Nenana, the route parallels the Tanana River for 125 miles up to the village of Tanana. From Tanana, the trail heads west on the Yukon River for 260 miles until Kaltag, where it goes overland 74 miles to Unalakleet on the Bering Sea coast. From there, it's 287 miles on the Iditarod Trail to Nome.
An obituary for the man whose bones are the oldest ever found in Alaska might read as follows: He died on Prince of Wales Island around 9,200 years ago. He was in his early 20s. He was adept at using tools, many of which he crafted with imported stone. The man ate as much seafood as a seal or a sea otter. He explored Alaska's coast, probably in a boat made of skins. He leaves behind a jawbone, right hip, scattered teeth, parts of his backbone, a few ribs. Cause of death is unknown, but a giant bear that lived on the island may have killed him.
Paleontologists Timothy Heaton and Fred Grady discovered the oldest human remains ever found in Alaska in 1996. Heaton, who works at the University of South Dakota in Vermillion, was looking for mammal bones at the time. When he recognized the bones as human, Heaton stopped digging. He contacted Forest Service archeologist Terry Fifield, who called in Native representatives from local tribal governments, the Klawock Cooperative and… read more
Seventeen miles long, three miles wide and carpeted with green tundra, Amchitka Island does not resemble a place that absorbed a nuclear explosion 385 times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Thirty years ago, this uninhabited island in the Aleutians was the site of three underground nuclear blasts. Today, researchers are trying to figure how the nuclear tests are affecting Alaska.
In 1964, officials with the Department of Defense and the Atomic Energy Commission needed a place to test nuclear devices that were too large for the Nevada Test Site. They chose Amchitka Island, vacated by Native people more than 100 years earlier and used as a military base in World War II.
In 1965, the Department of Defense drilled a deep hole in the island and set off an 80-kiloton nuclear blast to determine American seismologists' ability to detect bombs other countries might be setting off underground.
Four years later, the Atomic Energy Commission… read more
While exploring a cave in Southeast Alaska a few years ago, Tim Heaton found the leg bones of a large brown bear and a black bear. He expected the bones to be like others in the area-fossils from animals that lived about 10,000 years ago-but these bears were different. Radiocarbon dating showed they lived about 40,000 years ago.
Heaton's discovery, made with his caving buddy Kevin Allred, has changed a few people's views of Alaska's character during the last ice age. Did glaciers and sea ice bury the coast of ancient Alaska, or did Southeast feature areas with enough land exposed to support bears, caribou and foxes? The discovery of ice-age bear, seal, fox, and caribou bones suggests the latter.
Heaton, a paleontologist at the University of South Dakota in Vermillion, has explored caves since he was a teenager. As an adult, his spelunking skills have allowed him to wriggle into dark passages where the clues of ancient history rest. Such a place is On Your Knees… read more
Sig Levanevsky’s final resting place remains a mystery.
While attempting a 1937 flight over the North Pole to Alaska, the Russian aviator crashed near Alaska’s north slope. During a recent search, historians and scientists failed to find the plane using a clue discovered during an oil drilling survey.
Sigismund Levanevsky was a pilot and adventurer known as “Russia’s Lindbergh.” On August 12, 1937, he flew a four-engine bomber from Moscow. His goal was to reach New York City; the flight was a test in which Levanevsky hoped to prove the viability of commercial flights over the pole. He and five crewmen were to stop in Fairbanks and Chicago along the way, but they never reached Fairbanks. Shortly after Levanevsky disappeared, pilots in small planes searched from the Brooks Range to the North Pole without seeing anything that resembled a downed plane. The pilots assumed Levanevsky’s aircraft crashed into the Arctic Ocean and sunk to the bottom.
In March 1999,… read more
In a 1938 National Geographic article, explorer Sir Hubert Wilkins detailed his search for Sigismund Levanevsky, a pilot and adventurer known as "Russia's Lindbergh." "Somewhere in the Arctic wastes, probably in the Arctic Ocean, lies the wreckage of an airplane in which, on August 12, 1937, six Russians led by Sigismund Levanevsky set out to fly across the North Pole from Moscow to Fairbanks, Alaska."
As they searched an area larger than Montana, Wilkins and his crew squinted out the windows and repeatedly called to Levanevsky on the radio. Levanevsky never answered, and Wilkins never found Levanevsky's plane. For more than six decades, neither did anyone else.
In March 1999, Dennis Thurston of the Minerals Management Service in Anchorage noticed an unusual shape on a sonar image of the sea floor during an ARCO pre-drilling survey. In the shallows of Camden Bay, between Prudhoe Bay and Kaktovik, was something shaped like a 60-foot cigar. Thurston thought the… read more
Alaska's prehistoric people appreciated a good piece of rock. When they found a workable stone, they made an arrowhead, a knife, or a scraper to remove meat from an animal hide. Using tiny fragments of obsidian rock and some high-tech equipment, Alaska scientists recently teamed up to locate a prehistoric munitions factory, a spot where Native people went to find obsidian to make their tools and weapons.
Obsidian is volcanic magma that cooled too fast to mineralize; instead it turns into glass that's black as a raven. This rapid volcanic cooling-going from molten rock to glass in just a few hours-leaves behind a field of obsidian fragments. The smallest of these fragments are called "Apache tears" in the Southwest. Larger bulbs of obsidian were the real prize. Prehistoric people broke them apart and shaped them into tools with a sharp cutting edge. Fields of obsidian were a major discovery for ancient people, as they are today for archeologists.
For thirty years… read more
Troy L. Péwé once discovered an interesting patch of woods near Ester, about nine miles east of Fairbanks. The spruce and birch trees of this forest were underground, sandwiched between layers of earth. Each tree was 125,000 years old.
Péwé, with the geology department at the University of Alaska Fairbanks from 1953 to 1965 and now with the department of geology at Arizona State University, found the forest when he worked for the U.S. Geological Survey in 1949. At the time, the U.S. government had assigned Péwé and other scientists to study permafrost. Péwé examined hillside cuts made by gold miners in Ester and found trees frozen between layers of loess. Loess, pronounced "luss," is silt produced from the grinding action of glaciers that has been picked up by winds and carried elsewhere.
Because the trees were buried about 45 feet below the present-day forest at Eva Creek, Péwé knew they were old. How old he didn't find out until 50 years later, after methods… read more
One hundred years ago, a man traveled north on a mission most people thought was ridiculous--to see if crops would grow in the frozen wasteland known as the Territory of Alaska.
That man, Charles C. Georgeson, was a special agent in charge of the United States Agricultural Experiment Stations. The secretary of agriculture charged Georgeson with the task of finding out if crops and farm animals could survive in the mysterious land acquired just 21 years earlier from the Russians. When he landed at Sitka a century ago, Georgeson set in motion agricultural studies that are still carried on today at the University of Alaska Fairbanks' Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station.
Georgeson was not a man easily discouraged. In 1898, the experimental station site was in the middle of a swamp. Until he could clear and drain the land, he borrowed patches of land from Sitka settlers, as he explained in an interview in Sunset magazine in 1928.
"My plots… read more
Life at sea was no picnic for those who hunted for whales or explored the Arctic in the 1800s and early 1900s. Crewmen were far from home, in a seemingly lifeless environment, with food and drink supplies that dwindled when wooden ships became frozen in sea ice. To cope with these physical and psychological challenges, sailors north of the Arctic Circle resorted to a number of strategies to keep themselves from jumping overboard.
Peter Suedfeld, a psychology professor at the University of British Columbia, has read the diaries of seafaring men and women who journeyed to the Arctic in the nineteenth century. To search for clues about how sailors adapted to life on northern waters, Suedfeld recently visited the University of Alaska at the invitation of Judith Kleinfeld, with the University of Alaska Fairbanks Northern Studies program.
Unlike other researchers who focused on the families arctic workers left behind, Suedfeld and Phyllis Johnson, a professor in the… read more
In the days when Alaska was a vast grassland, a massive bear hunted the treeless plains. Walking on four lean legs, the giant, short-faced bear loomed larger than the biggest brown bear today. A researcher once described the extinct bear as "the dominant predator of North America."
Stirring as that description is, Paul Matheus had a problem with it. Sure, the giant bear was huge, but it seemed to be too big for its own good. Part scientist and part detective, Matheus is a paleobiologist at the University of Alaska Museum in Fairbanks. His job is to reconstruct the lives of animals that roamed the planet thousands of years ago. The giant, short-faced bear disappeared from its turf in Alaska and the Lower 48 about 12,000 years ago. Every now and again, the giant bear will make a reappearance, usually when a gold miner finds a skull or leg bone clunking around in a sluice box.
Using bones donated from miners and the research of others who have studied the bear,… read more
Forty years ago, the middle of October saw Americans divided into two general classes. There were the people looking up, scanning the sky for a tiny moving testimonial to technological progress, and there were the people looking down for places to hide from what that object threatened. Sputnik was orbiting the earth, and so were innumerable jokes at the expense of U.S. science. ("Soon there really will be a man in the moon," as one quip put it, "and odds are good his name will be Ivan.")
As it turned out, the tiny Sputnik was about as threatening as the washing machine to which commentators compared its size, and American science rallied to the Soviet challenge so well that within a few years the man in the moon was named Neil (Armstrong, that is). Discussions of all that history have clogged the airwaves and filled newspapers recently, in honor of the anniversary of Sputnik's launch. These accounts have been loaded with interesting details and fascinating characters… read more
The white spruce has surrendered. My dog Jane and I walked north of the last white spruce a few days ago. As we climbed a hill onto Chandalar Shelf, we passed the last balsam poplar. The alders and willows duked it out for a while, but the willows triumphed as the farthest north shrubs on the trans-Alaska pipeline corridor.
No one would ever insult white spruce by labeling them as shrubs, no matter how short they grew. White spruce trees are always trees, and University of Alaska Fairbanks graduate Erika Rowland recently studied Alaska's northwest stands of the conifers in order to find what their movement might say about climate change.
Rowland journeyed to the Noatak River valley to find pockets of white spruce trees thriving along the Kelly and Kugururok rivers. Both rivers drain into the Noatak River, which flows through the western Brooks Range well north of the Arctic Circle.
To see where the white spruce were going, Rowland first looked at where… read more
Now that the Alaska Science Forum is old enough to vote, it's time to look back over the column's history. That seems only fair, since at the beginning was a historian.
Claus M. Naske, then, as now, a professor of history at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, was concerned about the growing gap between progress in the sciences and what the public knew about science. Fellow members of the board of the Alaska Humanities Forum shared his concern and encouraged him to do something about it. Naske approached Neil Davis at the Geophysical Institute, suggesting initially that he undertake a weekly television show to explain how the university's researchers were nudging the boundaries of what was known about the north.
Davis liked the idea, but not the television part. Producing a show would take too much time and energy, detracting from his main business of scientific research and teaching. But, he thought innocently, he could write the column evenings and weekends,… read more
Twenty years ago, about 100 miles south of the Arctic Ocean, a welder fused a section of 48-inch pipe with molten metal. When he snuffed his torch, the trans-Alaska pipeline was an 800-mile tube of steel.
On June 20, 1977, oil began flowing from the bowels of the earth at Prudhoe Bay, through Pump Station 1, and into the trans-Alaska pipeline. At the time, an editorial in the "Fairbanks Daily News-Miner" heralded the pipeline as the world's largest private construction project. In "The Trans-Alaska Pipeline Controversy," Peter Coates wrote that others had grander analogies, comparing the pipeline to the Egyptian pyramids and the Great Wall of China.
More than 28,000 Alyeska Pipeline Service Company workers and contractors worked on the pipeline at the peak of activity in 1975, and 31 people died in activities related to pipeline construction, according to Trans-Alaska Pipeline System Facts a palm-sized book distributed by Alyeska Pipeline Service Company… read more
For years, scientists envisioned the Bering land bridge as a dry grassland where mammoths and bison grazed, attracting hungry humans who may have migrated back and forth between what is now Alaska and Siberia.
A new study suggests the land bridge instead looked remarkably similar to the tundra hills and plains of today's arctic Alaska. In the same study, Scott Elias, of the University of Colorado in Boulder, and his coworkers also found evidence that the land bridge was open for travel much more recently than previously thought. Elias's study was featured in the July 4, 1996, issue of Nature.
The Bering land bridge, thought by some scientists to be the pathway for the ancestors of all the Native people of North and South America, was a chunk of land more than twice the size of Texas, Elias said. He believes the entire west coast of Alaska was landlocked, from north of Barrow all the way south to the Aleutian chain.
The land bridge rose… read more
Imagine it's the year 1500 A.D. Alaska is a true wilderness, populated only by scattered bands of Native people. Russian frontiersmen haven't even explored Siberia yet; they won't hit the Alaska coast for another 200 years. On Kodiak Island, 1 to 1.5 million sockeye salmon nose their way up the Karluk River to spawn in Karluk Lake. Now imagine counting those sockeyes. In effect, that's what Bruce Finney and his colleagues at the University of Alaska's Institute of Marine Science did recently.
Finney, an assistant professor of marine science at IMS, tallied the salmon that lived in the lake 500 years ago by using traces of nitrogen found on the lake bottom. When salmon spawn, die, and decompose, their bodies release nutrients, such as nitrogen, that were stored in living flesh and bone. Salmon collect a unique type of nitrogen in their bodies called nitrogen-15, which is easy for researchers to identify in a lab.
After salmon dissolve and release nitrogen-15 into… read more
While mapping the rocky features of Alaska's Lime Hills in 1992, geologist Tom Bundtzen and a few colleagues rested at the mouth of a hillside cave.
With a panoramic view over the tundra plains to the north and west, Bundtzen mused at what a great spot it would be for caribou hunting. Realizing he might not be the first to dream about steaks while gazing out the cave, he called an archaeologist when he got back to Fairbanks, where Bundtzen works for the Alaska Division of Geological and Geophysical Surveys.
Following Bundtzen's tip, Washington State University Anthropologist Robert Ackerman visited the cave in the summer of 1993. Inside, he found unique bone arrowheads used by hunters 7,500 years before the birth of Christ. The find represents the earliest appearance of the bow and arrow on the North American continent, according to Ackerman, who wrote about the discovery in a field report. Bundtzen got his hunch while mapping the area's geology as part of the… read more
Year's end is a good time for looking back, and the pit of winter is a good time to curl up with a substantial book. Putting the two together lets me pass along an odd anecdote, and share some musings on its meaning.
I've been reading Neil Davis's latest book, The College Hill Chronicles, which---at 600-plus pages---is certainly substantial. Subtitled "How the University of Alaska Came of Age," this account of the youth and adolescence of the university is the least science-centered of his publications. Yet science has a prominent place in the book, because the practice of research has also been important in shaping the university.
And I've thought about this column, what I've written down, what I've left out. One point I've wanted to convey is that science is a human activity. Sometimes it involves sophisticated equipment or brilliant ideas, but the real work of science always involves real people. So, like all human endeavors, science sometimes… read more
Suppose I told you that Gerry Shields spent his sabbatical in Utah working on family trees; you'd probably think he was studying the genealogy records kept by the Church of Latter Day Saints. You'd be wrong. Then if I commented that Professor Shields recently upset some folks because of what he said in Washington, D.C., you might suspect he was testifying at one of those federal hearings in which Alaskans always seem to be on both sides. You'd be wrong again.
Shields is a faculty member of the Institute of Arctic Biology at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. For the past several years he has been studying animal populations by means of mitochondrial deoxyribonucleic acid---that is, the DNA that does not get shuffled during sexual reproduction. Nuclear DNA comes half from the father, half from the mother, but only mothers can contribute mitochondrial DNA. This unshuffled DNA changes only by mutation, and the rate at which mutation occurs is fairly regular. (That is,… read more
Last week I came across a good justification for saving old issues of National Geographic: The opening photo spread of a year-old article on the Bering Sea featured the University of Alaska Fairbanks' former research vessel Acona.
But only her name was the same. The 85-foot ship had been subsumed into a much bigger, industrial-strength fishing vessel. Financial and legal advantages adhere to ships built in the United States to such an extent that refurbishing an old and water-worn US vessel at a foreign shipyard instead of building a new fishing factory ship anywhere was the most profitable choice for the ship's new owners. Apparently just enough of old Acona remains to keep the fish processors on the right side of the laws.
It wasn't the first time Acona underwent plastic surgery to suit new management. Virtually all university-operated research vessels are owned by the federal government, and they are transferred about among… read more
I'd thought the quincentennial of Columbus' first voyage to the Western Hemisphere could pass without comment in this column. Other media were covering the anniversary thoroughly. Besides, the Caribbean landfall of the little Spanish flotilla happened both long ago and far away from here.
But how could I forget the north is inevitably the true center of action? Thanks to the October issue of Natural History magazine, I've discovered that the real reason Columbus made it to the Americas in October of 1492 was the weather in Alaska, the Yukon, and Labrador.
Author Edwin O. Willis doesn't put it quite that way. He begins with a famous anecdote: Columbus and the birds.
Thirty-one days out from Spain, the expedition's sailors were near mutiny and the officers near despair. Columbus and his captains disputed which tack to take, and per- haps even whether to turn back. Then, on October 7, the vessels sailed into a sky-blackening flow of birds. By the… read more
One day in November 1934, distinguished anthropologist Nels Nelson received a little box that had traveled a long way from the Territory of Alaska to reach his office in New York's American Museum of Natural History. Inside the box lay an array of small stone artifacts, and the corroboration of a controversial theory. As he wrote later, some of the implements "...are identical in several respects with thousands of specimens found in the Gobi desert." It was the first concrete evidence supporting the hypothesis that humans had crossed the Bering Land Bridge from Asia to populate the Western Hemisphere.
That is one of the often-surprising details I learned while copyediting a manuscript for the University of Alaska Press recently. The author is Charles M. Mobley, probably better known as Chuck to the oil cleanup workers he herded away from prehistoric and historic sites on the shores of Prince William Sound throughout summer 1989.
Mobley's manuscript isn't about… read more
Roger Powers gave a seminar at the Geophysical Institute a few weeks ago. His topic was evidence of past global climate changes. Climate change--past, present, and future--is a common subject for talks at the institute, but not from his particular perspective. Dr. Powers is a member of the University of Alaska Fairbanks department of anthropology, and he's an expert on northern archaeology.
Some of what he had to say and show was tough going for the assembled meteorologists, glaciologists, and geologists (not to mention at least one science writer scribbling away in the back row). Slide after slide illustrating stone tools appeared on the seminar room screen, while Powers explained changes in form and technology in characteristic points, scrapers, and the cores from which the tools were made.
The audience needed to understand that the suites of implements were diagnostic. They're nearly all we have to understand and categorize cultures that rose and fell in the… read more
Recently I had the chance to spend an afternoon in the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia, home of a splendid collection of Pacific Northwest Native art. It's a place worth a pilgrimage. The spectacular building, designed by Canada's famous architect Arthur Erickson, echoes themes borrowed from a Haida longhouse; it's constructed so that one gallery is tall enough to house full-size totem poles.
Despite the magnificence of the many gigantic carvings, my attention kept turning to carvings of a smaller sort--the raven rattles. Superbly detailed, always beautiful though often highly stylized, these captivating objects looked to my untrained eye like variations on a theme, but I couldn't decipher what the theme actually was.
Fortunately, I found a slim publication at the museum gift shop: The Raven Rattle, UBC Museum Note No. 6, by Marjorie M. Halpin. From it, I learned much about raven rattles and what some specialists think… read more
People often think of science as a recent activity of humankind, a way of dealing with the world that emerged only a few centuries back. At best, we grant some roots to the Greeks and Romans, but it's mostly taken as a European discovery--never mind Chinese technology or Arab mathematics.
Yet the truth is that science belongs to no single culture or time. What we now call science, an activity with mathematics at its core, is only one face of the endeavor. Wherever and whenever people have pursued knowledge, they've stumbled on science.
As an example, I offer a wonderful example of indigenous northern technology: the kayak. First, consider the nature of the scientific endeavor. A scientist observes, and from the observations generates a hypothesis. The hypothesis is challenged by experiment and further observation; for the hypothesis to be validated, the experiments must be repeatable, yielding the same results when done by others under similar conditions.… read more
The first question many people apparently had after the oil spill at Bligh Reef was, "How soon will Prince William Sound again be normal?" Most scientists interested in the sound and its complement of living creatures have another question to consider first: "For this body of water, what's normal?"
If it means natural, unaffected by human impact, then Prince William Sound hasn't been normal within living memory. It hasn't been itself, so to speak, for the two centuries since Russian fur traders drove sea otters to the brink of extinction.
Unlike other sea mammals, the otters don't keep warm with a layer of blubber. They have those splendid pelts that caused the species such grief, and they have a prodigious metabolism that they fuel by eating great quantities of food. A furry but lean sea otter must eat the equivalent of about a third of its own body weight each day, while a fat seal can make do with only five per cent.
Because sea urchins are among the… read more
Early journals sometimes recorded weather information, and particularly information on extreme weather events, that escaped official records. This week's column describes an early Fairbanks flood as seen by Archdeacon Hudson Stuck, who was not only a prominent Episcopal missionary, but also the first official weather observer in Fairbanks. It seems possible that the flood interfered with regular weather observations, as rainfall measurements for June and July of 1905 have not survived. The journal entries on the flood start with observations made as the Archdeacon and some friends returned from a day's walking trip to Ester:
Friday, June 30, 1905 ... The main city bridge was in the greatest peril, with a jam of acres of drift and logs up against it. The upper bridge was already gone out, and even as we reached the bank a large section of it came whirling down the current and added itself to the jam. A number of men were tearing the planks from the bridge… read more
Imagine yourself in a spaceship approaching the earth, eighteen thousand years ago. The ice-covered Arctic Ocean is blindingly white in the early June sunlight, but not just the ocean -- all of Scandinavia and parts of Europe and the British Isles lie under a glittering sheet of ice as well. Drift ice fills the northern Atlantic, and the warm blue waters of the Gulf Stream, which you expect to see swinging north of Norway, flow directly across to Spain. As you continue westward, Long Island and Cape Cod are mere piles of rubble at the edge of an ice sheet that rivals the one in Antarctica today. A massive lobe of ice pushes south of what will someday be the site of the Great Lakes, and Canada is an unbroken wasteland of ice, bounded on the south by rushing summer meltwaters that will someday become the Missouri and Ohio rivers.
The North Pacific and Alaska come into view -- more ice? Yes, but not only ice. While the Coast and Alaska ranges are massive bastions of white,… read more
Much of Interior Alaska, including the Tanana Valley, was ice-free during the last Ice Age, and Alaskan Native people have been utilizing this area since the first human migrations from Siberia to the New World. Over the last ten years Dr. W. R. Powers has been investigating several sites in the Nenana Valley where evidence for human occupation is dated to over twelve thousand years ago. The first movements into Alaska surely were considerably earlier than that, and await archaeological rediscovery. We are looking -- and have been looking -- in some likely places.
In the Tanana Valley two prominent bluffs near Fairbanks were used repeatedly by groups of Native peoples over at least the last ten thousand years. The Campus Site in College, now buried beneath the Bunnell Building and a road on the UAF campus, produced tiny blade tools which had been inset into bone or antler points, along with the small cores from which they had been removed. Nels Nelson, famous for his… read more
Oscar J. Noel of Fairbanks recently brought to my attention a matter about which I am sure few are aware. It involves a border dispute between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. that has existed ever since the purchase of Alaska.
First, it would be well to define a couple of terms. A "great circle" is the path around a sphere that would be described by the cut of a knife slicing through the center of the sphere. The surface path would be the shortest route to any other point along the cut, but to follow a great circle route at sea, you'd have to change your magnetic heading constantly, unless you were sailing directly toward one of the poles.
The difference, particularly at polar latitudes, is considerable.
The Russians claim that the northeast-southwest trending boundary between the two countries in the Bering Sea is a rhumb line. The Americans claim it is a great circle. The difference in area involved is over 20,000 square miles. To quote in part from Mr.… read more
There has been much in the news this past season about the plight of seals and porpoises in Russell Fiord owing to the closure of its outlet to the sea by Hubbard Glacier. A similar, but much more profound glacial-damming episode occurred just to the northeast of Russell Fiord over a hundred years ago.
Oscar J. Noel of Fairbanks recently brought to my attention that, as late as 1850, a section of what is now the Alaska Highway southeast of Kluane Lake was under water due to glacial damming. He states: "What first attracted my interest to this phenomenon were the old beach lines seen on the left when driving into Haines Junction from Whitehorse." Oscar also enclosed some literature from the Kluane Park headquarters describing what happened 200 years ago.
Geologists reckon that around the year 1725, Lowell Glacier, 40 miles south of Haines Junction, crossed the valley of the Alsek River and blocked the river's drainage to the Gulf of Alaska. Water was impounded… read more
I have just finished reading an extraordinary book: History of Kamtschatka (which we now spell Kamchatka), by Stephan Petrovich Krasheninnkov. Krasheninnkov was a young Russian scientist who participated in Vitus Bering's exploratory voyages to Alaska and Sibera in the early 1700s. His book on Kamchatka (the Russian peninsula extending just off the western end of the Aleutians) was published in 1755, the year of his death. It was translated into English by the British medical doctor James Grieve in 1764.
Grieve explains in the introduction to his translation that Krasheninnokov has made some brilliant observations, but he feels duty-bound to note: "The Russian language in which the original of the following sheets was written is rude and unpolished: other nations have with great care improved and refined their languages by giving proper encouragement to men of learning and genius, but in that country literature has, on the contrary, been until very lately rather… read more
The woolly mammoth was recently named by the Alaska State Legislature as the state's official fossil. That would probably provide slight consolation to the great long-gone animals, especially if they could know of a recent study showing that our ancestors probably wiped them out in the first place.
Over the past 15 million years, the Bering land bridge has been repeatedly opened during ice ages when the sea level dropped. Over this causeway, the giant herbivores passed from Asia to enjoy the good life on the North American continent. About 600,000 years ago, the woolly mammoth crossed over and joined the mastodon and the host of other exotic ice age mammals that are now extinct.
Then, some disaster struck and 10,000 years ago, the last one disappeared. Paleontologists and archeologists have long been aware that the demise of the mammoths and mastodons occurred about 1,000 years after Paleo Indians arrived in North America by the same route taken by the animals.… read more
On July 9, 1958, an event occurred on the Alaska Panhandle that was so spectacular that it is still talked about among boaters and fisherman and the scientists who studied it. It was the generation of a wave that reached a level of over a quarter of a mile above sea level in Lituya Bay, about 100 miles northwest of Juneau. It was, by an enormous margin, the largest wave ever to have been documented in human history.
The magnitude 8.0 earthquake that shifted the opposite sides of the Fairweather fault (which passes near the head of Lituya Bay) by about ten feet was not extraordinary by Alaska standards. But the jolt dislodged an entire mountainside which crashed into the bay at 9:15 that evening and changed a lot of things. The trees around much of the coast of the bay were swept clear, and a new topography was created. Three small boats were in the harbor at the time, and some of the people who were in those boats are still around to tell the story. One of the boats was… read more
When the name Billy Mitchell is mentioned, most people think of the general who was court-martialed in 1925 for openly criticizing the Army's lackadaisical interest in aviation. Aviation buffs know that there was a World War II bomber named after him. These same people would probably be surprised, as I was, to learn that this same Billy Mitchell played a large part in establishing Alaska's first telegraph.
Melody Webb, in an article in the January 1986 issue of American History Illustrated, traces the development of the Alaska telegraph system, in which another familiar name pops up. General Adolphus Greely, namesake of Fort Greely near Delta, was chief of the Army Signal Corps in 1900, when communications between Washington and Alaska took two to six months to reach their destination. There were administrative problems arising from the flurry and disorder of Alaska's gold strikes, and growing friction with Canada and Britain over the international boundary.… read more
If the stampeders of 1899 had followed Johnny Horton's directions to the gold in the 1960 movie "North to Alaska," they would have found themselves treading the cold, salty waters of Norton Sound. In the song from that movie, Horton places the paydirt "beneath that old white mountain, just a little southeast of Nome." That puts the "mountain" in the water. But in the real story, that's actually where the gold was.
As most Alaskans know, most of the gold taken from Nome was found on the beach. Curiously, thousands of stampeders walked over it on their way to the creeks before they knew it was there.
Most of the credit for the Nome gold rush goes to the trio of John Byrnteson, Erik Lindblom and Jafet Lindeberg, who became known as the "The Three Lucky Swedes," although Lindeberg was actually a Norwegian.
In 1898 Byrnteson had been a member of an exploration party prospecting the Seward Peninsula. Weather had driven their ship into the mouth of the Snake… read more
The 1890s were a period of deep crisis in the United States. The economic crash of 1893 precipitated the worst depression the country had endured since the Revolution. The American Dream had turned into a nightmare for many immigrants on the eastern seaboard, and the promise of free land and wealth for all in the Golden West was becoming a reality of poverty for most. What this country needed was a good gold rush. It came during the winter of 1897-98, but except for a very few, it did not develop into what the doctor ordered.
History records that the first paydirt on the Klondike River, a tributary of the Yukon, was made by Robert Henderson in 1896. (In the end, Henderson profited little from the strike because he made it known that he did not want his Indian wife's relatives staking claims. They retaliated by making the big strike near his initial find and cutting him out.)
When word of the bonanza leaked out, the rush was on. The rich man's way to reach the… read more
As the American colonists used the slogan "Don't tread on me" to inform the British of their intentions, so the Tlingit Indians of southeast Alaska might have notified intruders of the 18th and 19th centuries. They were not to be taken lightly, as their massacre of a Russian garrison in Sitka Sound proved in June of 1802. True, the Russians had infuriated the Tlingit by seizing hostages, and there were even claims that British traders may have incited the Indians in order to eliminate Russian competition, but it was no simple tribe of primitives with whom the Czar's men had been dealing.
According to the State of Alaska series Alaska Regional Profiles, the Tlingit had come a long way to get to the southeast coast where they found themselves 2,000 years ago. To be specific, they had to come all the way from Interior Canada, migrating across the coastal mountain ranges through river valleys that had been largely glaciated until about 4,000 years before they arrived… read more
This past spring, we were repairing the ditches that breakup had left in our driveway, when the plow turned over a rusty object that had the general configuration of a horseshoe, but was unlike any horseshoe that I had ever seen.
In the first place, the "shoe" measured over 7 inches in width and almost 9 inches from heel to toe. I couldn't imagine a horse big enough to wear it, except perhaps as a galosh. Further, it had odd-shaped protuberances sticking down from around the bottom unlike anything that I remember from my days as a farm boy in Nevada.
My inexperience in such matters began to show when I took the object to the university experimental farm, where I was told that it was indeed a horseshoe, and that the protuberances were intended to give the horse traction in muddy or slippery footing, for much the same reason that we utilize snow treads or tire studs on our car.
For further information, I was directed to several local experts on the use of horses… read more
Most Alaskans can reel off a string of facts and figures about Alaska and the Arctic designed to impress the newcomer, but which can become stale after too much repetition. Just about everybody knows by now the awesome dimensions of the state, the fact that it has more miles of coastline than all the others combined, that it is both the furthest east (Attu Island) and furthest west state, and that it lies only two miles from Russia--the distance between Alaska's Little Diomede Island in the Bering Strait and Siberia's Big Diomede Island.
The distinguished scientist and author, Isaac Asimov, includes in his Book of Facts (Bell Publishing Company, 1981) some other particulars bearing on the state and its environs which are probably not as well known. These include:
- At their peak, Alaskan oil wells in the Prudhoe Bay field produced 10,000 barrels per day, as contrasted with about 11 per day from a typical well in the lower forty-eight.
- A sure… read more
Driving north from Fairbanks on the Steese Highway, it is possible to see two pipelines. One is bright and shiny and carries oil; the other is old and rusted and carried water years ago. They are both remarkable examples of engineering for their day.
The rusty pipe, almost exactly the same diameter (46 to 56 inches) as the Trans-Alaska Pipeline (48 inches), represents the remnants of a project undertaken during the years 1924 to 1929 to bring water to the Fairbanks area gold mining operations. The operation was carried out under the auspices of the Fairbanks Exploration Company (known locally as F.E.), a subsidiary of United States Smelting, Refining and Mining Company (U.S.S.R. & M.).
This project, known as Davidson Ditch, was a 90-mile-long conduit designed to divert water from the Chatanika River at a point below the junction of Faith and McManus Creeks to hydraulic sluicing (stripping)… read more
"What are you? Where did you come from? I have never seen anything like you." The Creator Raven looked at Man and was surprised to find that this strange new being was so much like himself. -- An Eskimo Creation Fable
One of the earliest contacts between Europeans and native Alaskans was made at Lituya Bay in 1786. The Count La Perouse was commissioned by Louis XVI of France to organize an expedition into the Pacific for scientific, economic and nationalistic reasons (incidentally, one of the many young men who applied for the mission, but was turned down, was a Corsican artillery officer named Napoleon Bonaparte).
Carl Sagan, in his book Cosmos, tells of an account which was related, a century after the encounter occurred, to the Canadian anthropologist G.T. Emmons by Cowee, a chief of the Tlingit. Cowee had never heard of the name La Perouse, and since the Tlingit possessed no written language, the story had been passed down by word-of-… read more
Almost all of us know that the sea otter barely escaped extinction during the past century. Few are aware that the Aleuts, who populated the Aleutian and Pribilof Islands (principal habitats of the sea otter) almost suffered the same fate, at the same time, and for the same reason.
In the summer of 1742, the earliest Russian explorers of North America, from Vitus Bering's crew, delivered to the shores of Siberia a cargo of furs. They were otter skins. Immediately, these became favorites of nobility around the world.
This was an age when furs were fashionable. Suddenly it was found that sea otter fur was the most desirable of all. It was soft, thick and waterproof. It retained heat to a remarkable degree, and was a beautiful dark brown color with silver overtones.
By the end of the 18th century, the Russians discovered that they had a very salable product on their hands, and came over in droves to club and shoot these gentle and playful animals.… read more
From Aats Bay in the southeast to the Zyzek-twina River near the Seward Peninsula, Alaska's place names reflect the colorful history of the state. In the book, Dictionary of Alaska Place Names, the U. S. Geological Survey has brought together a collection of over 40,000 of these. Some, such as Qimiqpayaat Kuugauzanga (Eskimo for Short Ridge Creek) may have a slightly foreign ring to the English ear, while others such as Old Dummy Lake have a downright homey touch.
Alaska geographic names derive primarily from six general sources. Major contributions have evolved from native names provided by the indigenous people of Alaska--Indian, Eskimo and Aleut. In the native tongues, these are typically descriptive in nature. They differ from the European practice in that the Natives tend to name small landmark features and ignore the large. In addition, several names were commonly applied to one feature. A stream, for instance, may have various names along its length,… read more
In view of current events and recent trends in Alaska, it is interesting to look back at what some early observers of the northern scene had to say about resources, people and events of the time.
One early observer was General A. W. Greely, the U.S. Army's Chief Signal Officer who oversaw early communications in the Territory. His Handbook of Alaska, first published in 1909, gives much information about Alaska and northwestern Canada and it reveals some of his personal views.
Of Alaskan agriculture he said, "Agriculture as a whole is valuable in Alaska solely for the purpose of supplying the local market, and that in part only." Obviously, General Greely would have been no fan of the Alaskan Delta barley project that has grown up around the fort named for him.
Greely must have liked Juneau. He remarked, "With good hotels, indifferent variety shows, excellent restaurants, well-stocked curio shops, Indian basket peddlers, and a hospitable community… read more
Uncertainty still exists about the sequences of migration across the Bering Land Bridge that originally peopled North and South America.
It is fairly certain that humans were in the Americas at least 12,000 years ago and perhaps even tens of thousands of years earlier. Evidences of pre-Eskimos and pre-Aleuts in Alaska have been thought to be less old, so it has been conjectured that they were relative latecomers, following after groups of peoples who moved across the Bridge and migrated southward through western North America.
A somewhat different, seemingly quite logical, hypothesis was published in 1967 by W. S. Laughlin of the University of Wisconsin. His idea was that the Bering Land Bridge might have been occupied by forerunners of the Aleuts and Eskimos simultaneously with the presence of those pre-Indians who moved through and came on southward.
Laughlin noted that there was plenty of room on the Bridge for two populations since at maximum… read more
About 15,000 years ago, toward the end of the last ice age, enough of the world's ocean water was locked up into glacier ice that the Bering Land Bridge still existed.
The actual form of the land surface in Alaska and western Canada has actually changed very little during the past 15,000 years, but its outward appearance has altered radically. The Bering Land Bridge is no longer visible, it having been submerged by water 200 feet deeper than previously. This submersion has now stopped, in fact it stopped about 6,000 years ago. Since then, the shorelines have maintained themselves at approximately their present locations.
And of course the coastal region of southern Alaska and western British Columbia has been largely bared of the extensive glacier ice that covered it during the ice age. Now, deep fjords, broad coastal flats and forested valleys appear where there was only ice before. No people could have lived in this region then.
Even where there was no… read more
There exist in North America two major language families comprising a total of twenty separate languages that were born or cradled in Alaska. More people now speak these languages than at any time in history. Yet, in Alaska, these languages are only holding even or are declining.
One language family, Eskimo-Aleut is spoken by 95% of the 18,000 Canadian Eskimos and by essentially all 42,000 Greenlander Eskimos. But in Alaska, only about 70% of 34,000 resident Eskimos and Aleuts speak the Eskimo-Aleut languages.
Even more striking is the decline in Alaska of the other language family called Athabaskan-Eyak-Tlingit or Na-Dene. Today about 90% of the 23,000 Athabascans living in Canada speak this language family, as do more than 96% of the 170,000 Apaches and Navajos who live in the American Southwest. In Alaska only 31% of 8,000 Athabaskan Indians speak the language family.
According to Professor Michael E. Krauss of the University of Alaska's Alaska… read more
Whatever happened to the Lake George Breakout? The resulting flooding of the Knik River near Palmer, Alaska, used to be a fairly regular, if not welcome, event. But, fourteen years now have passed since the last breakout in June 1966.
This famous phenomenon results from glacier and snow meltwater being trapped in the valley of Lake George by the Knik Glacier pressing its face against Mount Palmer. After the glacier closes off the valley, spring waters can enlarge Lake George until it covers as much as 25 square miles (65 sq. km) and is up to 160 feet (50 meters) deeper than minimum level.
The rising lake water eats away at the face of the glacier where it touches Mount Palmer until a channel is cut through. Once it starts to flow, the water cuts the channel into a gorge 5 miles long, 100 to 400 feet wide and 300 feet deep. Through the gorge the water flow can be as great as 150 million gallons per minute. That is comparable to the flow in the Columbia River at… read more
Though she lived 1600 years ago, quite a bit is now known about one Eskimo woman resident of St. Lawrence Island, located midway between Siberia and Alaska in the Bering Sea. The entire story is told by the woman's body, found frozen when beach erosion exhumed her.
Prior to reburial in her homeland, a variety of sophisticated analyses of the woman's naturally mummified body have indicated something about how she lived and how she died after her childbearing years at age 53, or thereabouts. A fractured skull and moss fibers inside her lungs indicated that the woman had died during the cave-in of her sod house. Asphyxiation (smothering) directly caused her death, rather than the blow to her head.
Had she lived in modern times, researchers might have attributed the carbon deposits in the woman's lungs to her being a habitual smoker of cigarettes. Instead, the cause is more likely 53 years around open cooking and heating fires.
She had other troubles, too.… read more
Lakes are for fishing and boating, but now they are taking on increasing importance as windows into the past. The thicknesses and compositions of deposits on the lake floors record volcanic eruptions, seasonal variations, climatic changes and sometimes even the occurrence of earthquakes. An example of what can be learned is a new conclusion about past vegetation that comes from sampling the pollen content in two lakes in Yukon Territory.
During the ice ages when Siberia and North America were joined by the Bering Sea Land Bridge (Beringia), central Alaska and Yukon Territory supported a rich variety of herbivores. The horses, bison, mammoths, camels and antelopes of the region were prevented from travel southeasterly into the rest of North America by extensive glaciation.
For many years it has been thought that the herbivores and the animals that fed upon them, including humans, lived on steppe tundra or grasslands that provided more extensive foods than the… read more
The first documented Alaskan earthquake occurred during July 1788, perhaps on the 27th day of the month or possibly as early as the 11th. Reports that have survived in the records of the Russian-American Company state that the earthquake lasted 17 days, so there is uncertainty on the dates of large shocks in the series that shook the region of the Alaska Peninsula.
Russian Bishop I. Veniaminov cited a report stating "on 11 July 1788...on Unga there was such a strong earthquake that it was difficult to stand up, many landslides fell, and after a time a terrible flood occurred."
Another report said "The earthquake on Kodiak Island was frightful. After the first shocks, the sea suddenly withdrew from the shore. Then the Koniags (Kodiak people) and the Russians fled into the mountains. After a few minutes, water with great speed and appearing like a mountain surged against the shore."
Repeated tsunamis were characteristic of the 1788 earthquakes, indicating… read more
Bones of mammoths and other prehistoric animals are found rather frequently in the north at locations where the soil has remained frozen. Usually the bones are found relatively deep in frozen ground, well below the near-surface layer which freezes and thaws annually.
Hence it was unusual that a mammoth tusk and two teeth were found within four feet of the ground surface in 1979 by a housing contractor excavating for a basement next to the Fairbanks campus of the University of Alaska. Particularly surprising is that the tusk and teeth were found on an open park-like crest of a hill. No permafrost was found in the excavation nor would one expect any at this well-drained sunshiny location.
However, signs of deterioration were evident. The tusk and the teeth broke into pieces, more or less of their own accord, after being exposed to air, and the skull that had encased them could be seen as only a thin golden-brown layer in the soil.
The mammoth remains were… read more
The history of thunderstorms observed in the high arctic reads like that of great auroras at low latitude--it dates back many years, but the number of events is not large.
Part of the historical sparseness of observed thunderstorms in the Arctic Ocean and on surrounding shores is due simply to the lack of people to observe the thunderstorms. But mainly, thunderstorms are rare in arctic regions because the conditions necessary for formation of the tall clouds are lacking. A warm earth surface, irregular terrain and plenty of moisture in the middle atmosphere contribute to the formation of strong updrafts and the associated condensation of moisture at high altitudes involved in the development of thunderstorms.
Looking into thunderstorm history, Mr. Arne Hanson of the Naval Arctic Research Laboratory at Barrow, Alaska, has uncovered an observation of an arctic thunderstorm made in 1580. A manuscript Hanson has prepared contains a quotation written aboard a ship… read more
Many references to extensive forest fires in Siberia, Alaska and northern Canada are found in the writings of eighteenth and nineteenth century explorers. Some recognized that lightning was the cause of forest fires, but the explorers frequently attributed the fires to native peoples. Authorities on forest fires, including H. J. Lutz of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, have concluded that early native peoples were, in fact, responsible for many fires.
Some fires were intentionally set to get rid of mosquitos or possibly to increase moose browse. Others were accidental from signal fires or camp fires going out of control.
Indians were not the only starters of fires. In 1915 the "Kennicott fire" was intentionally set by a woodcutter to create fuel wood for use at the Kennicott mine. Sixty-four thousand acres (100 square miles) was burned. In the same year, sparks from a train set a fire that burned 384,000 acres near Chitina.
Prior to 1940, there were… read more
Of the hot springs strung across northcentral Alaska, Manley Hot Springs has one of the more colorful histories.
The spring is not large, it produces about 200 gallons per minute of water near temperature 58°C (136°F). From that flow one could use current technology to extract about the same amount of heat that would be produced by burning a barrel of fuel oil each hour. This is enough to heat a fairly large building in the Alaskan environment.
In 1901 a prospector named Karshner found the springs at Manley and homesteaded the surrounding land. Gold was struck soon afterward at nearby Tofty and Eureka, bringing thousands of hopeful miners to the region. One of them, a man who called himself Frank Manley, arrived from the Cleary Creek diggings near Fairbanks with several hundred thousand dollars in hand. Manley's money and Karshner's homestead soon combined to create Alaska's first large-scale geothermal project.
Irrelevant, but interesting, was the… read more
Intrigued by the name Naptowne, an early name for present-day Sterling, Alaska, I wrote an earlier article suggesting how the name might have originated. The most elaborate suggestion involved the possibility that Naptowne was a modernization of a variant of the Eskimo term "nap" or "nape" meaning "trees" or "forest". Since Eskimos lived in the Kenai Peninsula area prior to its recent occupation by the Tanaina Indians, it seemed possible that Naptowne could have had this origin.
But this elaborate and fanciful idea is wrong - not just a little bit wrong, it is totally wrong. In this case my embarrassment at being wrong is more than compensated for by the several letters to the editors of newspapers that my article elicited and letters sent directly to me. In particular, I thank Roger V. Burke of Ketchikan, Walt Pedersen of Sterling and Jeffery Paul Petrovich of Anchorage. These knowledgeable persons have… read more
During the summer salmon runs, fishermen by the hundreds line the banks near the junction of the Moose and Kenai Rivers. Now called Sterling, this used to be Naptowne. Naptowne nowadays is the name of a small suburb just west of Sterling.
Where did this curious name Naptowne come from? Did someone stop for a short rest once, or did someone named Sam Nap settle here years ago?
Another, more elaborate, possibility is that Naptowne was named after its early inhabitants: Eskimos who occupied the coastal area of southern Alaska as far east as Controller Bay, east of Cordova. Sometime not long before historic times, Alaskan Eskimos expanded inland to occupy fishing sites held by Athabascan Indians and which, again, many years later, were held by Indians.
It seems probable that the Eskimos occupied the Moose-Kenai river junction before the area was reoccupied by the Tanaina Indians during the last two hundred years. Evidently the early Russian contact so… read more
So far, there seems to be no universally accepted proof that man actually hunted mastodons and mammoths in the Americas, even though cave drawings do prove that man and these elephant-like mammals coexisted. But now from Venezuela comes conclusive evidence of a mastodon kill.
Anthropologists from Venezuela and Canada recently unearthed a young mastodon that had been butchered by man at least 13,000 years ago. The remaining bones showed marks where tendons had been cut away with stone tools. A weapon point and another flaked tool were found with the bones, the point being within a natural cavity in the animal's pelvic bone. Fragments of chewed twigs thought to have been in the slain mastodon's stomach enabled carbon dating of the find.
Near the ancient watering hole beside which the young mastodon lay were found the remains of horse, bear, sloth, and other mastodons. Two bones of adult mastodon clearly had been used as chopping blocks.
At Ester, Alaska,… read more
The adaptations that plants make to allow their growth in the Earth's different climatic regions can be used to learn about the past. Palm leaves found fossilized in the rocks bordering the Malaspina Glacier near Yakutat have a story to tell since palms could not possibly grow there today. Either the climate of the Earth was different when the palms grew 45 million years ago or else the rocks in which the fossils occur moved in from someplace else. Most students of the past subscribe to the latter view.
In the tundra of arctic and alpine climates there are relatively few species of plants. Plants there undergo great mechanical stress through rupture of the roots as the soil freezes and thaws and as the wind abrades any part of the plant sticking up above the rocks or snow. Consequently, tiny plants such as lichens dominate the tundra landscape. A general rule seems to be that the worse the climate, the fewer the species of plants.
In contrast, the equatorial and… read more
Though perhaps untrue, there is a rumor that the town of Chicken, Alaska, got its name when the city fathers met and decided to call it ptarmigan after the official bird of Alaska, only to discover that no one present knew how to spell the word. Supposedly someone said, "Aw hell, let's just call it Chicken!"
In a somewhat similar manner, the industrial concern named Kennecott Copper Corporation got its name--it was an error in spelling. Kennecott Copper Corporation derives its name from the old Kennecott Copper Company, one of many owned by the Guggenheim-Morgan Syndicate created in 1905. Also called the Alaska Syndicate, this powerful concern held numerous commercial enterprises in Alaska, including the Seattle-based Alaska Steamship Company.
Kennecott Copper Company owned the copper mines surrounding the town of Kennicott, which was the northern terminus of the Syndicate owned Copper River and Northwestern Railway that ran 196 miles to Cordova. In naming the… read more
It is now being suggested that much of the land in Alaska, like its population, drifted in from elsewhere. The first serious suggestion of this sort was made in 1972 by graduate student Duane Packer and Professor David Stone of the University of Alaska. Based upon the orientation of magnetic particles in rocks formed 160 million years ago, they suggested that southern Alaska had moved from a more southerly latitude to its present location, arriving a few tens of millions of years ago.
Later, in 1974, Packer and Stone reaffirmed their idea and evolves the concept of "Baha Alaska." According to this idea, the Alaska Peninsula used to be aligned parallel to the west coast of North America in a configuration much like that of Baha California today. From such a position the Alaska Peninsula would have rotated and moved north to reach its present location.
More recently, geologists of the U. S. Geological Survey suggested that a large block of land named Wrangellia… read more
The Alaska-Canada boundary was originally established in February 1825 by Russia (then owner of Alaska) and Great Britain (then owner of Canada). The demarcation between Alaska and Canada was to begin at 54°40' N latitude, just north of the mouth of the Portland Canal (near Prince Rupert, B.C.), follow the canal until it met 56° N latitude, then follow the mountain summits situated parallel to the coast as far as 141° W longitude, then follow that meridian northward to the "Frozen Ocean." The boundary line along the mountain summits was never to be farther inland than ten marine leagues (about 50 kilometers) from the ocean.
Following the purchase of Alaska by the U.S., it was found that the wording concerning the boundary line not being farther inland than ten marine leagues from the coast was interpreted differently by the Canadians and Americans. The Canadians argued that the measurements should be made inland from the mouths of the bays, whereas the Americans argued… read more
If only more Alaskans had roots in the cultural richness of the region. A common framework of reference is desperately needed. In a political year it would be fine if we could say of a candidate: "He's as slippery as .... was;" or "He lies almost as well as .... did;" or "We haven't seen such a phony since .... beguiled us."
Aside from Soapy Smith of Skagway fame, Alaskans lack regional heroes. And even Smith, a grand rogue, is too far removed from us to serve very well.
Lacking any appreciation of Alaska's past, we are driven to rely on national historic characters when we seek inspiration. Although America's tradition is rich in scoundrels and con men, we miss regional models. At one time Alaskans could identify with clarity the villainy of Seattle fishery interests and the strangling perfidiousness of the Florgan Guggenheim Syndicate. Here were villains to be hissed and scorned, recognizable objects to blame and defile for all our woes.
Alaskans are… read more
The Tanaina Indians who originally inhabited the area took advantage of Cook Inlet's high tides to fish for halibut without going offshore. According to Cornelius Osgood who studied the early day peoples of this area, halibut remain in deep water in winter, but in summer do come into the shallow waters of Kachemak Bay. Elsewhere in Cook Inlet, he says, halibut were either unavailable or at least were not caught.
The Tanaina men drove a stake into the beach at low tide, leaving about three feet above ground. To the top of this stake, they tied a short stick. On a spruce root line a large hook was suspended from the end of the stick to a height of one foot above the beach. The spruce root line extended along the stick and down the vertical stake to where it was tied to a very large rock, a rock so heavy that two men could just carry it .
A humpback salmon fourteen to sixteen inches long was split open so that the hook could be inserted with the barb sticking out of… read more
Is that rock you kicked out of the trail the other day just another rock or was it a copper or gold nugget, a meteorite or a skin scraper chipped out by ancient man?
It may be difficult to tell on the spot what a particular object is, but it is certain that one will never know without looking and thinking. Interesting objects are not that difficult to find especially in Alaska, where it is easy to walk ground little trod by modern man or perhaps never walked upon at all.
Almost any man-made or man-worked object found along the trail or on the beach can be an item of interest. The North is kind to objects of bone, wood, metal and stone, much kinder than regions farther south where water and plants and other life forms work more rapidly to cause rust and decay.
Iron objects do deteriorate rapidly near saltwater, but perhaps it's not impossible to still find remnants of the old whaling days on Alaska's northern and western shores. The early mining days are… read more
As proof, I offer the accompanying photograph of a giant ammonite found at Cape Douglas on Kamishak Bay. More than 16 inches in diameter, this fine specimen is in storage at the University of Alaska Museum.
The person versed in such matters will recognize that one reason it hurts to claim this photo as proof of Alaska's giant snail population is that an ammonite is not really a snail. Though both are of the same Mollusca phylum, snails are gastropods (stomach-footed) and ammonites are cephalopods (head-footed). Another reason is that all ammonites died out about 70 million years ago. And, as huge as this Alaskan ammonite is, even larger… read more
The Alaska-Siberia Telegraph (also called the Collins' Overland Telegraph or the Western Union Russian Extension) was a pioneer attempt to establish a telegraphic communications link between North America and Europe, via the Bering Strait.
The plan for the Alaska-Siberia Telegraph was originated by Perry McDonough Collins, while undertaking a commercial venture in the Amur Valley of Siberia.
Collins envisioned an intercontinental telegraph link from California, north through British Columbia, across Russian America to Siberia, via the Bering Strait, and across Siberia to Europe. Realizing the critical need for intercontinental communications-- and knowing of the repeated failures of Cyrus Field's attempts to lay the Atlantic cable-Collins proposed his idea in 1859 to the U. S. Secretary of State.
The commercial potential of the project was obvious to Collins and to the Western Union Telegraph Company, which became very interested in his plan after… read more
In the early 1950s, geologic work by Oscar Ferrians in Alaska's Copper River basin showed the existence of the shorelines of a large ancient lake which had filled the whole basin. Old shorelines were found as high as 2,650 feet, the height of Mentasta Pass between the basin and the upper Tanana Valley. Carbon dating of material from the area revealed that the highest shoreline existed 9,600 years ago.
This lake was apparently formed during the last glacial period by glaciers cutting off the normal flow of the Copper River through its valley below Chitina. At one time, the lake may have actually drained over Mentasta Pass into the Tanana River, but glaciers probably blocked that outlet also and so the lake may have become an inland sea.
Even more interesting is the fact that Mr. Ferrians later read reports of local Indian legends that tell of a large ancient lake in this area. The legends were written down before Mr. Ferrians discovered the lake. This incident… read more
At Cape Krusenstern, northwest of Kotzebue, 114 or more low beach ridges separate a marshy lagoon from the sea. Each ridge is younger than the ones behind it; all were formed during the last 5,000 to 6,000 years. Since the most seaward ridge was occupied by early man, archeologist J. Louis Giddings was able to formulate a chronology of occupation by noting which ridge a particular excavation was on.
How did these strange ridges form? They are all about the same height and altitude and so could not be formed by slow changes in sea level. Furthermore, it is known that sea level has not changed during the past 5,G00 years. Similar beach ridge formations occur on the Louisiana shore and near the mouth of the Amazon River. Based upon studies of these features, called cheniers or ritsens, reported by geological oceanographer W. Armstrong Price, we can see how the chenier beach ridges at Cape Krusenstern formed. In the process we learn something about the… read more
Sloping gradually down into a frozen hillside near Fox, the CRREL (Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory) permafrost tunnel provides a fascinating portal into the past. Originally dug by the U. S. Army to test methods of tunneling in frozen silts and gravels, the tunnel penetrates through a 40,000 year old accumulation of soil, gravel, ice, wood and bones. Enough organic material is distributed in the material to enable radiocarbon dating of many of the objects seen in the tunnel wall.
Down at the bottom are the gold-bearing gravels, laid down perhaps as long as 100,000 years ago. Above the gravels are layers of debris-laden mucks composed mainly of fine-grained windblown soil (loess). Downslope creep over the years has mixed up this material. Pieces of trees and ancient bones show in the tunnel walls; some are tagged with signs showing their ages.
Spectacular ice wedges are cross sectioned by the tunnel as are lenticular lenses of pure ice, stacked… read more
We are familiar with the idea that archeologists reach the remains of older cultures by digging deeper into the ground. The famous Arctic archeologist, J. Louis Giddings, used another technique; he simply walked farther back from the ocean beach. He found several localities in western Alaska where there were series of low ridges lying parallel to and behind the existing beach. Giddings reasoned that these ridges, each only a few feet high, were former beach crests. Each should be older than those between it and the sea, and each, Giddings hoped, would yield the remains of the people who lived on the beach crest at the time it represented the shoreline.
In 1958 Giddings and his coworkers began an investigation of the beach ridges at Cape Krusenstern, northwest of Kotzebue. They mapped a total of at least 114 beach ridges extending back two miles from the shore. These beaches were formed over the last 5000 years; on the average a new beach formed about every 40 to 50 years… read more
In spring a young Alaskan's mind turns to thoughts of gold. But remembering how much work it is to pan for gold, the clever miner designs a sluicebox.
Sluiceboxes come in many forms but the strangest we ever did see is the one in the accompanying photograph from the Selid-Bassoc collection in the archives of the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. Consultations with several experts led to the conclusion that this Y-shaped sluicebox was so built to aid in the tailing removal problem.
One of the bad things about a sluicebox is that just as many rocks come out the bottom as are put in at the top. These rocks pile up very quickly and somehow must be gotten rid of. Evidently the miner in this photograph diverted the flow from one arm of the Y to the other so as to spread out the tailings over a wider area. By this means he had less shoveling to contend with.
Onion Portage is one of the most important archeological sites in Alaska. Excavation of the soil there has revealed layers of tools and other artifacts extending back to at least 8000 years.
A seemingly un-Alaskan name, Onion Portage derived its name from the wild onions that grow on this shortcut between two parts of the Kobuk River. The use of the site by man over such a long time span is evidently related to this being a location where caribou have always crossed the river on their annual migrations between feeding grounds. Before guns were available, man speared the swimming caribou from small canoes and then butchered the carcasses on the beach at the Onion Portage site.
Archeologist Louis Giddings discovered the site in 1940. Since then, excavations revealed layer upon layer of sand and silt containing the refuse and tools of many cultures. Except at the very bottom of the opened pits, where signs of ancient soil slumped were evident, the horizontal soil… read more
Forum's first correspondent from Canada, Mrs. Marian Schmidt of Dawson, asks if Indians used the bow and arrow for moose hunting prior to the time of the Russians and other newcomers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. She reports that natives of her area suggest that the bow and arrow may be a recent introduction.
Perhaps the bow and arrow was reintroduced to this area only recently, however arrowheads and arrow shaft straighteners have been found in strata laid down long ago. Thus it is nearly certain that the bow and arrow has been in use in Canada and Alaska for thousands of years.
Indians along the Alaska-Canada border used, for moose and other big game hunting, a birch longbow (five to six feet) strung with either 3-ply twisted sinew or 2-ply twisted babiche (rawhide). Some tribes held the bow vertically, others horizontally. Arrowheads for big game were made of horn and copper, in lengths 3 to 7 inches. Both simple and compound arrows were used for… read more
Excavating for the new Ester Fire House, workers recently unearthed the remains of a bygone culture. Definite evidence of earlier man was found in a midden pile covered by a deep moss layer and upon which a 30 foot high birch tree, three inches in diameter, was growing. Dating procedures place this culture in the early post-Felix Pedro era, i.e. not older than 73 years and not younger than 66 years ago.
Containers found in the midden indicate that the people of this culture existed solely upon whiskey, beer, pop and catsup and that they anointed themselves with large quantities of various liniments for tired and aching muscles. Most consumed goods obviously were imported, but there were exceptions. Two of the excavated containers, presumed to be pop bottles, contain the inscriptions "Distilled Soda Water Co. of Alaska" and "Nome Brewing and Bottling Co.". Each is fitted with a clever stoppered cap actuated by a wire top protruding through the mouth of the bottle. The… read more
Unable to see stars in summer, the Indians of the Upper Tanana Valley, in olden times, utilized a self-adjusting calendar based on the moon. The year began in October and involved 13 months, each equal to the period of the revolution of the moon about the earth--29 days, 12 hours, 44 minutes. As the lunar months were described in terms of familiar natural phenomena, the discrepancy between 13 lunar months (384 days) and one solar year (365 days) was of little consequence, nor was the exact day of the month.
The calendar was as follows:
when the bull moose ruts
when the sheep ruts
December Hook-game moon
month of social activities and game playing
when the sun appears again after long sleeps
February… read more
Cave drawings of mammoths prove that these extinct mammals coexisted with man, and it is virtually certain that mastodons did also. It seems likely that human beings killed off both species perhaps 8,000 to 10,000 years ago, but there may have been other reasons for their extinction. Both mammoths and mastodons existed in Alaska; the remains of mammoths are found frequently--mastodon finds are relatively rare.
The woolly mammoth found in Alaska was up to 9 1/2 feet tall at the shoulder, it had a high humped head and a downward slope to the back, the hind quarters being rather small. The tusks curled upward in circular fashion and the teeth were fairly flat and formed of alternating vertical platelets of ivory and bone. Mammoths ate grasses and spruces--it is said that one could consume 300 pounds of spruce a day. Though stocky, the mastodon was more elongated in structure. He had a low forehead and tusks that curved mainly forwards. The molar teeth were cusped rather than… read more
In recent years strident controversy has erupted over the development of Alaska's resources. Much of the conflict has been triggered by the North Slope petroleum discoveries, an occurrence seen as a threat to the state by some and a blessing by others. Only very brave--or rash--advocates of particular views have dared to predict the future. Many imponderable factors exist to influence the long-range outcome of current events, and antagonists reasonably differ on what is "best" for the north, its people, and the nation.
With the current situation in mind, it is interesting to review the economic forecasts and prophecies that have been expressed in the past. Since the purchase of the territory, the issue of its true worth has been debated often and one's view on this determined his position on the question of development. These evaluations have ranged from exuberant assessments of a vast wealth to be derived from the land and its resources to a pessimistic insistence that… read more
Keep an eye peeled for worked stones or other signs of former human habitation when out walking or digging in the ground. Most likely are ridges or other high ground that has not been worked over by rivers or undergone downslope creep.
Archaeological sites are hard to find in interior Alaska, so few are known. Yet this is an exciting archaeological area; new finds may help unravel the mysteries of early man's passages between Asia and North America.
If you think you may have found a site, notify the University of Alaska Museum, the State Department of Parks or the Department of Interior. The site can be irreparably damaged if not excavated by expert archaeologists. To help preserve such sites, both the federal and state governments have made it illegal to remove archaeological materials except by special permit. These rulings should not deter one's searches for sites. Finding one and reporting it can be a real contribution to our knowledge of the past.
"...the most important single landmark in the history of interior Alaskan archaelogy" stated archaeologist Frederick Hadleigh-West when discussing the "Campus site" located on the University of Alaska at Fairbanks.
Now marked by a Coastal Indian totem pole--much to the chagrin of most archeologists--the Campus site is one of the few sites known to be occupied by ancient man in central Alaska. Just where he came from or when is uncertain. The similarity of worked tools and points found on the Campus site to Asian artifacts suggests that he came from somewhere west of Irkutsk (Lake Baikal). He probably crossed the Berlng land bridge just before it last disappeared, perhaps 10,000 or 11,000 years ago.
Several other archaeological sites have been found in the Interior. They were inhabited by what is referred to as the Denali culture. This seems like a reasonable name, but there is a more fitting one for the scraggly-haired fellow who sat on the brow of College Hill… read more
Even without his modern developments--guns, tracked vehicles, airplanes or even riding horses--man is the most formidable big game hunter evolved on this earth. High intellect, a superb body and perseverance combine to make man the deadliest hunter. Not as fast at running short distances as some animals, man nevertheless is capable of running any animal into the ground. He has the mental drive and the physical ability to chase an animal for days until that animal can go no farther.
Indians of Interior Alaska used that method for moose hunting long ago. Finding a relatively fresh moose track, the Indian hunter followed it, moving in half circles so as not to follow the trail directly. After a time, perhaps several days, his circular track would close upon itself without crossing the moose's trail. Then the moose was located and was perhaps too tired to escape. The hunter moved in for the kill with spears or birch bows and arrows. Carrying the meat home probably was not a… read more
Very little seems to be known about the way of life of the Tanana Athabascan Indians who lived around Fairbanks before the foreigner came to the area. Ivar Skarland is one of the few to have studied the early ways of life; studying his writings, one gets the impression that life in this area was fairly primitive.
It now seems apparent, however, that the Interior Indians may have purposely modified the environment to produce more food. Verbal reports indicate the Indians recognized that spruce forests provide no food for moose and that they set fires to produce more moose browse. Only in recent years does there seem to be recognition that the fighting of natural forest fires is often a waste of money and that it adversely affects the balance of life.
Like the boy who passes teenage, approaches 21, and notices that his father is growing more wise, our modern society matures and sees the sophisticated intelligence and foresight in many of the practices of our… read more
At Alaskaland, at a few locations around town and out in the bush one sees log cabins all of a style--sod roof on a low-pitched gable that extends out over the porch, the overall structure being rather low. Go to Nome or to other coastal towns in western Alaska and you will see a completely different style of architecture involving frame houses with glassed in porches, usually facing the sea. These houses are reminiscent of the houses found in the old whaling villages of New England.
It seems likely that the Nome-style house had its genesis in the New England houses, but where did the Fairbanks-style log house come from? Travelers to Siberia, particularly in the regions around Irkutsk, will be struck by the similarity of the Fairbanks log house to the log cabins there. In the Siberian cities the log houses frequently have ornate painted window shutters and eaves but the style is unmistakable. To stroll through a country village is to stroll through Fairbanks 30 or 40… read more
Floating down the Yukon River on a raft in 1883, Lt. Frederick Schwatka noticed that Indian graves were always located on the high bank of the river. He wondered why the graves were placed there because the river normally rapidly cuts into the high bank. Obviously graves so placed would not remain for long.
Why were the graves put on the high cutting bank of the river? Did the Indians realize that the graves usually would soon be washed away? If so, did the removal of the bodies by the river have a religious significance?
Anyone having knowledge on this topic, please write to Geophysical Institute, Fairbanks and share your thoughts.