Little Tutka, Kachemak Bay

Little Tutka, Kachemak Bay

by | Mar 18, 2022

Little Tutka Bay is a tidal lagoon on the south side of Kachemak Bay, on the southern shore of the entrance to Tutka Bay, about 12 miles (19 km) south of Homer and 7 miles (11 km) east-northeast of Seldovia, Alaska. The name ‘Tutka’ is from the Dena’ina Athabascan word ‘tut’ ka’a’ meaning ‘big enclosed water’. Tutka Bay is a deglaciated fjord that extends about 9 miles (15 km) southeast into the Kenai Mountain from the Herring Islands at the bay entrance, which along with Grass Island were historically known as the Gateway Islands, to the mouth of the Tutka River. Most of the southern coast of Kachemak Bay consists of rocks in the McHugh Complex of the Chugach terrane that is separated by the Border Ranges Fault from the Peninsular terrane that is generally represented by rocks west of Seldovia. The rocks surrounding Little Tutka Bay are mostly conglomerate and massive greywacke that occur in fault-bounded layers thousands of feet thick and are of turbidite origin deposited in a deep ocean trench. Regionally, the greywacke was formed in the Jurassic through Early Cretaceous. The Herring Islands consist of basalt that was buried by radiolarian chert and subsequently folded and faulted. The basalt includes pillow basalt, pillow breccia, and massive basalt. The chert includes gray, green, red, and black radiolarian-bearing chert. Radiolarians from bedded chert in the Herring Islands range in age from Middle Triassic to Early Cretaceous. The present-day landscape of the Cook Inlet basin including Kachemak Bay is a result of multiple glaciations during the Pleistocene. These ice expansions repeatedly occurred when climatic conditions yielded colder temperatures and greater snowfall that favored the formation of glacial ice. During the Last Glacial Maximum, ice streams flowed out of their alpine sources scouring bedrock to create the deep fjords of Kachemak Bay before merging with other glaciers to fill the Cook Inlet basin. The basalt and chert of the Herring Islands were apparently more resistant to glacial erosion. By 16,000 years ago, Pleistocene glaciers probably had started retreating from the entire outer coast potentially opening this zone to human occupa­tion. When these glaciers retreated, post-glacial rebound caused the land to rise but at a much slower rate compared to sea level rise that inundated the coastal fringe by about 400 feet (120 m).

Human migrations began shortly after the Last Glacial Maximum and the earliest known settlers of Kachemak Bay were people of the Ocean Bay archaeological tradition characterized by a technology that is distinctive in style and manufacture and represented by artifacts 4,500 years old. The Ocean Bay culture was followed by people of the Arctic Small Tool tradition that used the bay about 4,000 years ago. About 3,000 years ago, the Kachemak tradition came to the area and then stopped using the bay about 1,500 years ago. The archaeological record indicates that for the last 1,000 years, the bay has been continuously used by Dena’ina Athabascan and Sugpiat Alutiiq people. When European explorers arrived, the southern coast of Kachemak Bay was occupied by Sugpiat Alutiiq and the northern shore by Dena’ina Athabascan. The mix of cultures inevitably led to conflicts over resource use and at least one island at the mouth of Tutka Bay and about 2 miles north of Little Tutka Bay was used as a refuge island called Q’na’qesle. According to oral tradition, people were besieged on the island by enemies, and a man had to swim ashore at night to fetch water in a bladder because there is none on the island. In the 18th century, Russian fur hunters called promyshlenniki were among the first European visitors to Kachemak Bay. In 1778, Captain James Cook sailed into Cook Inlet in search of the fabled Strait of Anián across the North American continent. In 1786, Stepan Zaikov of the Lebedev-Lastochkin Company established a trading post at the mouth of the Kenai River. These fur traders subjugated the Aleut and Alutiiq people and forced the males to hunt sea otters to supply the maritime fur trade. That same year, Captain Nathaniel Portlock discovered the coal beds on the north shore of present-day Port Graham that were later mined by the Russians. After the Alaska Purchase in 1867, when the territory was transferred from Russia to the United States, Kachemak Bay became a popular destination for miners, fishers, and fur trappers. The miners were mostly en route to the goldfields of upper Cook Inlet and the interior, but the fishers were interested in exploiting the bay for herring and salmon, and fox farms were established on several islands at the mouth of Tutka Bay that operated through the early 1900s.

Most of the land surrounding present-day Little Tutka Bay is owned by the Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority and managed by the Trust Land Office. These lands were subdivided, and individual lots are leased to generate revenue. Prior to statehood in 1959, there were few mental health services available in the territory of Alaska for individuals who experienced mental illness or developmental disabilities. At the time, mental illness was considered a crime. People with any sort of mental disability who were unable to care for themselves or who could not be cared for by a family member or guardian were charged and convicted as ‘an insane person at large’. Those convicted of this crime were sent by the federal government to live in Morningside Hospital, a private institution in Portland, Oregon. By 1942, more than 2,000 people from Alaska, including very young children, were residing there. In 1956, U.S. Congress passed The Alaska Mental Health Enabling Act that transferred the responsibility for providing mental health care to the territory, establishing the Alaska Mental Health Trust and granting it one million acres (400,000 ha) of land to generate income to support a comprehensive mental health program. However, in 1984, a class action lawsuit ruling by the Alaska Supreme Court determined the state breached its fiduciary responsibility to manage Trust land. In 1994, after many years of litigation, in a final landmark settlement, the Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority was reconstituted with $200 million and one million acres of land. The Permanent Fund Corporation was assigned management of the cash corpus as a commingled allocation of the Permanent Fund, and the Trust Land Office was created to effectively manage the non-cash assets. The Trust Land Office manages multiple surface leases throughout the state and strives to establish additional long-term surface leases capable of generating additional income for the Trust. Land sales and land use activities have contributed more than 50 percent of the total revenue generated by the Trust Land Office since its inception. Read more here and here. Explore more of Little Tutka here:

About the background graphic

This ‘warming stripe’ graphic is a visual representation of the change in global temperature from 1850 (top) to 2021 (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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