Exploring Port Althorp from the Chugach
Tongass National Forest, Alaska, 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 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.