Tenakee Springs, Chichagof Island

Tenakee Springs, Chichagof Island

by | Nov 16, 2021

Tenakee Springs is a community on the north shore of Tenakee Inlet, on the eastern shore of Chichagof Island in the Alexander Archipelago of Southeast Alaska, about 46 miles (74 km) southwest of Juneau and 30 miles (48 km) northwest of Angoon, Alaska. Tenakee Springs is the only community on the inlet and one of only four communities on Chichagof Island, the others being Hoonah, Pelican, and Elfin Cove. The name is derived from the Tlingit word ‘Tʼanag̱eey’ possibly meaning ‘bay on the other side’. Tenakee Inlet is 40 miles (64 km) long and 3-4 miles (4.8-6.4 km) wide, with the community of Tenakee situated 10 miles (16 km) from the inlet entrance on Chatham Strait. The north shore is relatively straight and backed by steep forested slopes rising to elevations of 3,000-4,000 feet (914-1219 m). Indian River is the largest watershed on the north shore and drains a valley about 11 miles (18 km) long directly north of Tenakee. By contrast, the south shore of the inlet contains 10 major bays and several smaller ones. Both shores of Tenakee Inlet are forested with western hemlock and Sitka spruce forests up to timberline at about 1,500 feet (457 m). The area’s old-growth forests provide habitat for a number of bird and animal species, including deer, brown bears, bald eagles, martens, and other furbearers. Similarly, the intertidal estuaries and offshore waters of the inlet sustain abundant populations of waterfowl, marine invertebrates, and fish, of which Dungeness crab, various bivalves, halibut, and salmon are locally consumed. Tenakee Inlet has long been used by the Tlingit people. An ancient portage of less than 0.5 miles (0.8 km) between the head of Tenakee Inlet and Port Frederick, which leads to Hoonah, was frequently traveled by the Tlingit to avoid the stormy weather of Chatham and Icy Straits. The name and legends surrounding the portage called Kitgunt or ‘killer whale crossing’ indicates this connection was likely submerged before post-glacial rebound uplifted the land. Tenakee Inlet was originally owned by the Decitan band from Angoon who ceded the region to the Woosh Ke Taan in settlement for a murder. The hot spring at Tenakee was called ‘Daay Axa’ and the name for Indian River was ‘Klaa Gu Woo Aan Heen’. Today, the Tenakee hot springs and bathhouse are well known throughout Southeast Alaska.

The Tlingit have always used the natural hot springs at Tenakee Inlet. They hollowed out bathing places in the rocks and well understood the curative properties of these waters and greatly enjoyed their effect. In cold weather, some were known to sit in the bath all night. The original Tlingit winter village was located in the vicinity of the present-day Tenakee boat harbor, and a summer village was situated across the inlet at Kadashan Bay. Following the Alaska Purchase in 1867, prospectors and miners in the region came to the village to wait out the cold winter months and take advantage of the hot springs. Local legend attributes Tenakee’s first non-Native resident to be an injured Finnish sailor, left behind by his shipmates to rest for the winter. Healed by the hot springs, this Finn reportedly chose not to leave the village when this ship returned for him the following spring. The hot springs attracted further growth until the community became a winter resort town for miners throughout Alaska and the Yukon, complete with a pool hall and card rooms. In 1895, the springs were enlarged by blasting the rock to form a large tub. Life in the frontier town of Tenakee was at times rough and unlawful, with the community at one point earning the nickname of ‘Robber’s Roost’ for the bank robbers and others reportedly hiding from the law. The most notorious of these were members of the Soapy Smith gang who reputedly settled here after Smith’s death in Skagway in 1898. Gambling and prostitution were part of the rowdy frontier town and there was no reliable law in Tenakee until 1917 when Deputy U.S. Marshalls’ began making regular visits. A salmon and crab cannery was located 4 miles (6.5 km) east of town from 1916 to 1974. The town is situated along a single trail that parallels the shore, and most homes are concentrated within a mile of the town center. Most homes were built on pilings over the beach, although the inland side of the trail has also been developed for homes and other buildings. Many Tenakee residents do not have showers or bathtubs in their cabins and rely entirely on the bathhouse hot spring for bathing. The mineral water flows at a constant rate of about 7 gallons (32 l) per minute and a temperature of about 107 °F (42 °C). The hot spring was an open steaming pool just above the tide line until around 1900 when it was enclosed in a log cabin. The pool itself was enlarged at the same time. About 20 years later the U.S. Forest Service poured concrete around the tub and built a larger cabin that lasted until 1940 when new structures were built by the Civilian Conservation Corps. It features a skylight cupola mounted on a flat-roof supported by poured concrete walls. In the 1930s, community volunteers formed a bathhouse committee to maintain the facility. The bathhouse is now owned by the city, but the bathhouse committee continues as an independent governing organization. In 2012, the facility was restored and upgraded to heat the changing rooms with residual geothermal water, and today its remains a public bathhouse, a community attraction for visitors, and an important part of the town’s social life

The geothermal energy in this region is a vastly underutilized resource, and most remote communities in Alaska, including Tenakee and Hoonah rely on expensive fossil fuels to generate electricity. The most obvious consumer of the geothermal resource would be the village of Tenakee. Since the springs are located within the community, direct utilization for purposes other than power generation could be easily accomplished. The thermal springs at Tenakee occur in Cretaceous granitic rocks which are cut by numerous high-angle joints that provide a connection for transporting heated fluids to the surface. The hydrothermal system at Tenakee may derive its fluids from connate waters associated with extensive sedimentary rocks located at depth. Subsurface reservoir temperatures have been calculated to be between 214-230 °F (101 to 110 °C). In 1981, test drilling of seven shallow wells found water temperatures of 100 °F at a depth of 180 feet, but very small flow rates were obtained through these wells. The 1981 drilling project produced a geothermal gradient of 55 °F/100 feet (13 °C/30 m)  and with a surface temperature of 61 °F (16 °C). The predicted source temperature of approximately 212 °F (100 °C) can be expected at a depth of about 700 feet (213 m). If a well, drilled at this depth were to encounter a reservoir, it would need a flow rate of 37,500 lbs/hour (17,010 kg/hr). This flow rate can be translated to 70 gallons/minute (318 l/min). The drilling costs to reach the geothermal resource plus the required distribution system would result in average monthly heating costs significantly higher than present rates. The investigation on Tenakee hot spring showed infrastructure is sparse and too expensive to develop. A 2011 reconnaissance study determined that a potential geothermal resource at Tenakee was too remote and uncertain to warrant further exploration. Read more here and here. Explore more of Tenakee Springs 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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