Symonds Bay, Biorka Island

Symonds Bay, Biorka Island

by | Nov 1, 2021

Symonds Bay is on the north coast of Biorka Island, between Hanus Point to the east and Entrance Islet to the west, and extends about 0.9 miles (1.4 km) south to a gravel isthmus with a beach landing, about 184 miles (296 km) northwest of Ketchikan and 16 miles (26 km) south-southwest of Sitka, Alaska. Biorka Island is about 2.5 miles (4 km) across and is one of the Necker Islands situated at the southern entrance to Sitka Sound on the west coast of Baranof Island in the Alexander Archipelago and occupies a historically strategic location for coastal defense facilities. The Tlingit name for the island is Watsíxh. In 1809, the island was named by the Russian explorer and navigator Ivan Vasiliev of the Imperial Russian Navy during the period of Russian colonization. The word ‘Biorka’ is from the Norwegian Bjerk or Swedish Bjork, meaning ‘birch‘ although likely referring to the alders that occur on the island. Biorka Island is within Tongass National Forest and is vegetated with an isolated community of the temperate rainforest and muskeg bogs typical of coastal Southeast Alaska. Western hemlock and Sitka spruce dominate the forest overstory, while the understory is composed of shrubs such as red huckleberry and alders, and large forbs such as devil’s club. The island’s rocky shoreline supports wave-exposed marine invertebrates and algae including dense kelp forests of Macrocystis. The kelp forests are visible in the straits between Biorka Island and the many scattered rocky islets surrounding it and are presumably used by sea otters. The head of Symonds Bay has a sheltered gravel beach historically used for amphibious landings and a U.S. government wharf managed by the Federal Aviation Administration. The bay was named in 1879 by the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey for Lieutenant Frederick Martin Symonds of the U.S. Navy, who surveyed the bay in 1879 with sailing master Gustavus Charles Hanus on the USS Jamestown.

In 1775, when competing European interests were searching the Pacific Northwest for economic opportunities, Spanish explorers Don Juan de la Bodega y Quadra, and Francisco Antonio Maurelle entered what is now Sitka Sound and named it “Ensenada del Susto” meaning “bay of terrors”. In 1787, British trader Captain George Dixon entered the sound and made a navigational sketch, calling it “Norfolk” for the Duke of Norfolk. In 1794, this name was adopted by Captain George Vancouver. Russian fur traders began a settlement on the sound in 1799, and in 1809, moved the administrative headquarters for the Russian-American Company to New Archangel (Sitka) from Kodiak. In 1867, Sitka was the site of the flag-raising ceremony following the Alaska Purchase that transferred the territory from Russia to the United States. Sitka continued as the administrative headquarters for the Department of Alaska under the U.S. Army and General Jefferson C. Davis; however, by 1879, a federal customs collector was the only government authority based in Sitka. Russians and other settlers who had remained in Sitka after 1867 became alarmed at increasing signs of Tlingit hostility. When fighting erupted between Tlingits and settlers in February 1879, residents of Sitka called on the U.S. Navy to send a vessel for their protection. When there was no immediate reply, they appealed to the British who sent the HMS Osprey from Victoria to Sitka. The British ship was soon relieved by the USS Alaska, and in June 1879, the USS Jamestown under Commander Lester Beardslee arrived to begin a five-year period of U.S. Navy administration of Alaska to protect American interests and also conduct hydrographic surveys.

In 1902, the U.S. Navy established a coaling station on Japonski Island adjacent to Sitka. In 1909, the U.S. Navy installed a wireless telegraph station on Biorka Island. When the Japanese Imperial Navy attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the base at Sitka was the only major U.S. military base in the eastern Pacific north of Puget Sound, Washington, and it was designated a naval operating base to reflect its expanded wartime mission. Sitka Naval Operating Base was the first U.S. Navy air station in Alaska. To defend the base, a U.S. Army Coastal Defense network was established, which included the construction of three forts in Sitka Sound including Fort Rousseau at Japonski Island, Fort Pierce on Biorka Island, and Fort Babcock on the southern tip of Kruzof Island. In 1941, the U.S. Army established Fort Pierce as a harbor defense installation that occupied 462 acres (187 ha). Construction of a coastal defense battery included two 6-inch gun emplacements and support facilities; however, construction was abandoned in 1944 and the guns were never installed. Aside from the gun batteries, Fort Pierce consisted of a reinforced concrete bunker of 7,500 square feet (697 sq m), a wood frame building of 400 square feet (37 sq m), a water tank, seven Quonset huts, a radio tower, and a road system leading from the beach at Symonds Bay to the gun battery. In 1952, the U.S. Coast Guard constructed a LORAN Station that operated until 1980. The Biorka Island facility was a secondary LORAN station, transmitting radio signals that were electronically synchronized with those of the respective master stations at Ocean Cape, Alaska and Gray Point, Canada. The transmitter was located north of the Fort Pierce command bunker. Associated facilities include a dock at Symonds Bay, fuel storage tanks, and several Quonset hut buildings. There was also an aviation control function to this facility administered by the Federal Aviation Administration, and family housing for personnel was constructed at the beach on Symonds Bay. Today, the National Weather Service operates a Doppler Radar and the Federal Aviation Administration maintains a navigation facility. A wharf and landing in Symonds Bay serve these operations. Read more here and here. Explore more of Symonds Bay and Biorka Island here:

About the background graphic

This ‘warming stripe’ graphic is a visual representation of the change in global temperature from 1850 (top) to 2022 (bottom). Each stripe represents the average global temperature for one year. The average temperature from 1971-2000 is set as the boundary between blue and red. The color scale goes from -0.7°C to +0.7°C. The data are from the UK Met Office HadCRUT4.6 dataset. 

Credit: Professor Ed Hawkins (University of Reading). Click here for more information about the #warmingstripes.

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