Life Doesn’t Get Much Better Than This: Cataloging the Hidden Falls Artifacts
Tongass National Forest, Alaska, 2001
by Mary Patrick, PIT Volunteer
I must be out of my mind,” I thought to myself a couple of days after I arrived in Sitka, “to have come to Alaska in midwinter to live on a fault line in the shadow of a volcano in an area where every road leading uphill is designated as a tsunami evacuation route, where the only way to get to the outside world is by water or air, where it rains constantly, and where even the grizzly bears don’t have sense enough to sleep all winter!” That was before I started my work as a volunteer on the Hidden Falls artifact-cataloging PIT project.
I volunteered for the project because I have been interested in archaeology since I was a child and because I thought that I had the skills and experience to do the work. I am computer literate, taught for almost 30 years, and thus am fairly organized, patient, and persistent. I had even attended a couple of archaeological field schools and participated one summer on a project in Israel. I also thought that I could learn a great deal.
After a few days on the job, I was beginning to think that there was nothing about the Hidden Falls site to interest me or to add to my knowledge of archaeology. Hour after hour, I reconciled cards with bagged artifacts and entered the data into the computer until I began to think that there was absolutely nothing in all those boxes except charcoal and shells. I kept typing away, however, telling myself that someday I’d be able to impress someone by casually inserting into an ordinary conversation the Latin name of the frilled dogwinkle or the black katy chiton (types of shells I had been cataloging).
Before long, however, I found myself so engrossed in my work that I forgot to take breaks or even to go to lunch on time. I still had charcoal and shells, but I was also cataloging artifacts, things that people made. I learned what microblades looked like and how they were used and the difference between a scraper and an abrader. I found myself wondering about the person who might have worn a small stone band and the woman who would have used a heavy stone pestle, once prized possessions but now merely numbers in a computer.
I drove myself hard during the first few weeks of the project, because I was afraid I might not finish on time. As I became faster, I realized that I had plenty of time to learn as I worked by looking up the more fascinating of the artifacts in the published report for the project. I asked questions, too. FS archaeologist Karen Iwamoto, who supervised the work, is not only extremely knowledgeable but also infinitely patient. She taught me a great deal. Near the end of the project, I began to feel like Sherlock Holmes. I got down to the last boxes, those containing miscellaneous” items, those that had been misnumbered, those that had no cards, etc. I was determined to match every leftover artifact with the “missing” items already cataloged. I found myself reading descriptions, checking sketches against photographs, weighing, and measuring. Being an English and history major, I was totally unfamiliar with measuring in grams, centimeters, and millimeters, and I had never even seen calipers, but I learned to use them. I found the entire process fascinating. Even more satisfying was the fact that I was able to match all but a couple of items and put them where they belonged. Hercule Poirot had nothing on me!
Not everything I learned in Alaska was directly related to artifact cataloging. One of the first things I found out was to stop calling Alaskan brown bears “grizzlies.” They may be grizzlies elsewhere, but not here. I learned enough about the habits of both brown bears and black bears to enable me to write some fairly believable stories for my grandson. And I learned a great deal about the history and culture of the Sitka area from the small but excellent library and the local museums.
I learned other things too. During a boat tour of the area, I learned how tiny Sitka deer are, I learned to tell a seal from a sea lion, and I learned how vitally important the sea is in the lives of the people around Sitka. One morning Karen said only, “Look out the window.” There on the cab of a pickup sat a big brown eagle, right in the parking lot. He finally flew to the top of a utility pole and looked disdainfully down at the ravens squawking below him. He inspired another story I wrote for my grandson. One of the things that made my stay in Sitka such a pleasure was the people. Life in Alaska seems slower, more downto- earth. People are friendly and family oriented. When the lake froze solid, parents, teenagers, and small children alike were all out skating. When it snowed, everyone was out sledding or just walking. When the herring spawned, and the harbor was clogged with fishing boats, the townsfolk turned out for the blessing of the fleet. There are many compensations for living in the shadow of a volcano (though I am not sure I would have thought so had I been there the year a local prankster hired a plane to dump burning tires into the dormant crater on April Fool’s Day).
The FS staff are a special breed, too. Not only were they willing to answer my numerous work-related questions, but they were also infinitely patient and even enthusiastic in giving me information about the area and especially about bears for the stories I was writing. I even have a Tlingit title for one of my short stories, thanks to one of my Native American friends. And they fed me well, too—venison so tender that it made me forget that I am virtually a vegetarian and wild salmon so delicious that it almost made me swear off grocery-store fish. One friend not only brought me a pail of fresh clams but also taught me how to cook them and how to make sure that they were safe to eat.
Even the weather turned out to be a memorable. There was more snow and more sunshine during the first three months of 2002 than there had been in almost 20 years. Being from central Texas where we rarely get even a dusting of snow, I reveled in both. For five weekends, I was snowbound. Friends took me to work, and Karen gave me a lift home. I walked in the woods near the bunkhouse where I lived and photographed Christmas-card scenery, but I didn’t dare try walking on the glassy sheets. I simply cozied-up and enjoyed my solitude. One Saturday I was sitting on the couch with a pot of soup simmering in the kitchen, a cup of tea steaming on the table beside me, my needlework in my lap, and the last of 15 stories I had written on the table before me. As I watched the inch-wide snowflakes pouring down outside so that they all but obscured the evergreens across the road, I thought to myself, “Life doesn’t get much better than this! Unless, of course, there is another PIT project in Sitka.”
Exploring Port Althorp from the Chugach Tongass NF, 2002 by Anne Pollnow, FS Archaeologist From the Port Althorp Investigations: Research and Survey PIT project. Participants helped locate and document sites alluded to in literature and local lore. Capt. George Vancouver brought the vessel Discovery into Port Althorp in July 1794; the Chugach, an FS ranger boat, dropped anchor in Port Althorp with the same notion of exploration in June 2002. Port Althorp is a 9-mile-long bay located on Chichagof Island in southeastern Alaska. Its varied coastal spruce forest offered us whales, sea lions, otters, deer, and the majestic brown bear. Among the spruce, hemlock, and cedar trees were ferns, alders, and the dreaded devil’s club. No FS archaeologists had visited Port Althorp before, but it has seen a variety of uses, both prehistoric and historical. The crew included FS Archaeologist Patrick Bower and myself, and PIT volunteers Stacey Bergman, Michael Katz, Anna Janovicz, and Sam Kahng. Living on a boat for 10 days was a new experience for the volunteers, but they all handled it like salty dogs. Chugach is a 62-foot vessel built in 1929, restored in 1995, and skippered by Robert Kinville. We left the docks of Sitka, taking the 12-hour inside route through Olga, Neva, Peril, and Chatham Straights, rather than the outside route because of weather and the rough Pacific seas. The scenery along the way was breathtaking, and imagining how people once lived on these shorelines was inspiring. Pat pointed out villages and sacred sites, sharing his extensive knowledge of the area with us. Breaking up the journey, we anchored our first night in Basket Bay, once the site of a prehistoric Tlingit village that carries on a rich oral tradition. Stories speak of salmon runs, seal hunting, caverns, dangerous sinkholes, amazing tidal changes, and a pet beaver that killed the chief. We arrived in Port Althorp Bay early afternoon the next day, making note of continued use of an old cannery site The PIT program gives me a chance to contribute to something that I feel is important.” 20 PIT Traveler PIT Projects from Previous Seasons first constructed in 1917 by the Deep Sea Salmon Company. From file research done weeks prior to the trip, we knew that special-use permits were issued for cabin construction inside the bay from 1917 to the 1960s. Sure enough, in the back of Salt Chuck Bay, a smaller bay inside Althorp, we found a collapsed Euroamerican structure that showed sign of having been used during two time periods. We found a wooden box used for trapping that correlates to records of trapper cabins, common in the area in the 1940s and 50s. Besides trapping and salmon canning, evidence in the bay showed that logging had also occurred. We found large cable remnants, spiked logs, log rafts, and a collapsed, overgrown docktype structure that ran perpendicular to the beach from just inside the tree line. One of our sites included a beached handtrolled fishing boat. The Claudia had been run aground and left to go back to nature. This led us to wonder about stands of thin but tall trees that had been chopped down about waist high. We concluded that these trees could have been used for trolling poles. Althorp is a place of pristine beauty where the mountains come straight out of the ocean. Perhaps because of the steep terrain and exposure to storms from Cross Sound and the Pacific Ocean the area was not a good location for village sites. Instead it offered a wide range of resources for the taking. Several salmon streams drain into the bay, and marine and terrestrial hunting possibilities are rich. We did find culturally modified trees with oval scars and hack marks, possibly used to mark a trail or to obtain sap to be used as glue or filler. Luckily our last couple days were relatively sunny, so we skiffed around the bay and its coastline and explored some caves for evidence of use. We also visited the unincorporated fishing community of Elfin Cove. Whether traversing through devil’s club, up-river drainages, or taking rainy skiff rides, the beauty of the area and the fantastic attitude of our crew made this PIT adventure most memorable.