Whales and Tales - Passport in Time

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Whales and Tales
Tongass National Forest, Alaska, 1999
by Andrew Instone, PIT Volunteer

“Bring your raingear, it will be wet; we’ll be camping in a rainforest” was the message from our project leader in Sitka. So...loaded down with waterproof boots, rubber gloves, sweaters, polypropylene underwear, survival packs, and the odd bobble hat, the PIT team set off for Murder Cove on Admiralty Island (or, as the local Tlingits say, kootznoowoo, or fortress of the bears). Of course, the weather was positively Hawaiian (in the mid-80s) all week, and we didn’t even see a bear!

I guess the message is, when you read “Alaska” in the PIT Traveler, don’t turn the page. Put your misconceptions aside and read on. Southeastern Alaska has some of the most beautiful scenery in the world, very much like British Columbia, and PIT volunteers get to travel to work by boat, seaplane, and skiff. The team saw bald eagles, whales, and sea lions, and we haven’t even mentioned archaeology yet!

We spent two weeks researching and recording the remains of a turn-of-the-century whaling station, located at Tyee on the southern tip of Admiralty Island. Volunteers included PIT veteran “Pete” Peter, Chris and Jean Hansen, Nancy Schroeder, and myself, Andy Instone. After a Monday morning of safety briefings, we spent the first week doing library research in Juneau. The team was very enthusiastic and produced an incredible amount of information; everybody managed to come up with something useful. We found photos of the whaling station (and the cannery that was built afterward), including one image of the photographer’s wife in full Edwardian splendor standing on a dead whale in the ocean! Accounts of the hunting and whale-rendering process were uncovered, as well as the names of the boats the company used. One of the boats was rammed by a whale and sank! We found census records; most Alaskan whalers, it seems, were of Scandinavian descent. We also found reference to the naming of “Murder” Cove. In 1869, two white men were killed by local natives in retaliation for an alleged incident 20 years earlier, when two natives were shot by a sentry at Sitka’s fort.

The second week’s fieldwork was equally successful. For starters, we camped close to the site of a probable prehistoric village. We could see the house platforms, probable garden area, and shell midden. This site was a brand-new discovery. Our campsite was behind a beautiful, sandy beach, and, not surprisingly, it seems we were not the first to have appreciated what is surely the finest campsite in the bay. PIT Leader Pat Bower gave the team a lesson in surveying, and the rest of the first afternoon was spent coming to grips with both the compass and the archaeological remains.

The most notable industrial remains were those of a large generator mounted on a concrete platform. We also saw storage boxes, a possible freezer, two water towers, and the remains of pilings along the shore. Other features include the remains of the settlement at Tyee. We located collapsed houses and their gardens, and a possible bathroom and shower block. There was much to record, and we were kept very busy. On our last day, of course, we found our second new site. At low tide, we made time to have a look at some reputed stone fish traps at the head of the bay. We found two of them in good states of preservation; they are still managing to hold water. There is a tourist lodge at the old cannery site; currently, a caretaker is living there. From information he provided us, we have a chronology of events stretching from the present all the way back to the site’s prehistoric occupation.

As we climbed aboard our seaplanes, the first drops of rain of the week begin to fall. Murder Cove proved to be a bright and sunny workplace despite its dark and mysterious name.
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