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Wildest Alaska

Wildest Alaska: Journeys of Great Peril in Lituya Bay

Copyright Date: 2001
Edition: 1
Pages: 197
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  • Book Info
    Wildest Alaska
    Book Description:

    Twenty-five years ago Philip L. Fradkin read a book about a remote bay on the Gulf of Alaska coast. The noted environmental historian was attracted by the threads of violence woven through the natural and human histories of Lituya Bay. Could these histories be related, and if so, how? The attempt to define the power of this wild place was a tantalizing and, as it turned out, dangerous quest. This compelling and eerie memoir tells of Fradkin's odyssey through recorded human history and eventually to the bay itself, as he explores the dark and unyielding side of nature. Natural forces have always dominated Lituya Bay. Immense storms, powerful earthquakes, huge landslides, and giant waves higher than the world's tallest skyscrapers pound the whale-shaped fjord. Compelling for its deadly beauty, the bay has attracted visitors over time, but it has never been mastered by them. Its seasonal occupants throughout recorded history-Tlingit Indians, European explorers, gold miners, and coastal fishermen seeking a harbor of refuge-have drowned, gone mad, slaughtered fur-bearing animals with abandon, sifted the black sand beaches for minute particles of gold, and murdered each other. Only a hermit found peace there. Then the author and his small son visited the bay and were haunted by a grizzly bear. As an environmental writer for theLos Angeles Timesand western editor ofAudubonmagazine, Fradkin has traveled from Tierra del Fuego to the North Slope of Alaska. But nothing prepared him for Lituya Bay, a place so powerful it turned one person's hair white. This story resonates with echoes of Melville, Poe, and Conrad as it weaves together the human and natural histories of a beautiful and wild place.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-93028-5
    Subjects: Ecology & Evolutionary Biology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-x)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. xi-xii)
  3. Prologue.
    (pp. xiii-xiv)

    Don Miller was on a U.S. Geological Survey vessel the night of July 9, 1958, when a strong earthquake shook Glacier Bay. Since earthquakes were not that unusual in Southeast Alaska and the damage in the immediate vicinity was minimal, Miller did not react until he heard on the radio early the next morning that some boats had been swamped and people drowned in Lituya Bay.

    The geologist had spent time in the remote bay on the Gulf of Alaska coast and had noticed the varying treelines, which suggested massive disturbances in the past. He wondered what had occurred this...

  4. [Illustrations]
    (pp. xv-xx)
  5. CHAPTER I. Beginnings.
    (pp. 1-7)

    I took my young son Alex to Alaska for two months during the bicentennial summer of 1976. The idea was for a divorced father to spend some quality time with his son in a wilderness setting. In the back of my four-wheel-drive vehicle, in which we braved heavy traffic on unpaved roads during the peak of pipeline construction, were a two-person kayak and paddles neatly stored in three bags. We unpacked the bags, assembled the kayak, and paddled in rivers, lakes, and eventually Glacier Bay.

    The sightseeing boat took us to the head of the bay, where we launched the...

  6. CHAPTER II. THE Place.
    (pp. 8-15)

    Lituya Bay, the principal character in this tale, is compelling for its deadly beauty.

    It is surrounded by a wildly spectacular and volatile landscape, whose history has been punctuated by the grinding action of the glacial ice that rapidly advances and retreats across its surface; by destructive earthquakes; by freakish giant waves that move with blinding speed toward the gulf; and by other lethal waves that unexpectedly burst upon its entrance from the opposite direction. The glaciers have scraped the landscape to bare bone, the earthquakes have toppled mountains, and the waves have periodically decimated the vegetation and a large...

  7. CHAPTER III. THE Tlingits.
    (pp. 16-28)

    Some twenty years ago I visited the Tlingit villages of Angoon and Hoonah, touched down briefly at Yakutat, and spent time at the native corporation headquarters in Juneau. Acceptable prehistory, as we know it, doesn’t emanate from a writer talking to such sources or from the unfiltered words of the natives themselves. It comes from professional recorders and interpreters of cultures known as ethnographers.

    Ethnography is a branch of anthropology that produces what are considered scientific descriptions of cultures. Most ethnographers are academics who believe they practice objectivity. However, they face the basic problem of how to produce scientific texts...

  8. CHAPTER IV. THE French.
    (pp. 29-65)

    The first European encounter with Alaska set the precedent for later disappearances and deaths.

    Vitus Bering, a Dane in the employ of the Russian czar, and Alexis Chirikov, who commanded the Russian packet boatSaint Paul,set off on a voyage of discovery in 1741. They sailed together from Kamchatka in two vessels and then became separated. Chirikov spied land on July 15th, one day before Bering did.

    “Thus was the great discovery achieved,” wrote Hubert Howe Bancroft in hisHistory of Alaska. Chirikov noted in his log: “The land was full of mountains, some covered with snow and all...

  9. CHAPTER V. THE Russians.
    (pp. 66-74)

    Like much of the history of other frontier lands, and the American West in particular, the pattern in Southeast Alaska was to probe tentatively, exploit commercially, explore scientifically, and then settle. For the remainder of the century the Spanish, French, English, Americans, and Russians probed the coast and one another’s intentions.

    In the waning years of the 1780s, some thirty foreign vessels hovered at times off the coast of Alaska. Their purpose was, according to a Russian report, “to attempt to cultivate the acquaintance of the tribes allied with us and, in the long run, to make them tributary to...

  10. CHAPTER VI. THE Americans.
    (pp. 75-113)

    Alaska changed hands in 1867, and the governance of its indigenous peoples deteriorated further. Where before there had been laws, rules, and customs accumulated over one hundred and twenty-six years of Russian hegemony, now there was no effective government or law enforcement. Chaos ruled, and the Tlingits were its victims.

    The German ethnologist Aurel Krause, who spent six months among the Tlingits fifteen years after the transfer of sovereignty, wrote:

    A new spirit moved in with American possession which destroyed that individuality of the native tribes which had up to that time been fairly well maintained. The Russians who lived...

  11. CHAPTER VII. THE Wave.
    (pp. 114-130)

    With the death of Huscroft and the ascendancy of Glacier Bay National Monument under the management of the National Park Service in the 1930s, the human history of Lituya Bay went into a precipitous decline. The bay dropped from sight during World War II and the immediate postwar years. It was as if one continuous fog bank obscured that place and did not begin to lift until 1952. For the next six years there was a gradual emergence; then the bay shook itself mightily in 1958, and the world took brief notice.

    On June 6, 1952, a young geologist who...

  12. CHAPTER VIII. THE Present.
    (pp. 131-152)

    Since the giant wave of 1958, an average of one fishing boat a year has been lost at the entrance to Lituya Bay. The most recent victim prior to my visit was a forty-six-foot crab boat named theSonora Sue.I saw the remnants of the fiberglass hull wedged in the boulders on La Chaussee Spit, much like raw flesh caught between the teeth of a grizzly bear. The haunting presence of such a carnivorous animal came to dominate my visit to the bay.

    Enough with reading books, I had thought; time to go there and experience the place. I...

  13. CHAPTER IX. Tomales Bay.
    (pp. 153-160)

    After returning from Alaska I set off to visit the two widowed women who might be able to tell me something about the bay. Although I was a stranger who came knocking on their doors with an unusual request—to speak of Lituya Bay and the deaths of their husbands two decades earlier—they confided things to me that they had not divulged to others. There was an instant rapport between us.

    I visited Vi Swanson first. I remember the bric-a-brac in her mobile home near Seattle and its tidiness. She was certain there had been a white light on...

  14. Acknowledgments.
    (pp. 161-162)
  15. Sources.
    (pp. 163-174)
  16. Index.
    (pp. 175-183)
  17. Back Matter
    (pp. 184-186)