San Juan Cove, Tutka Bay

San Juan Cove, Tutka Bay

by | Jun 5, 2022

San Juan Cove is a small embayment on the north shore of Tutka Bay, a deglaciated fjord on the southern shore of Kachemak Bay in the Kenai Mountains in Kachemak Bay State Park, about 13 miles (21 km) south-southeast of Homer and 11 miles (18 km) east-northeast of Seldovia, Alaska. San Juan Island lies 0.5 miles (0.8 km) from the north shore of the cove. The cove and island are named after the San Juan Fishing and Packing Company which installed canning machinery in an existing herring saltery in 1928 and operated the salmon cannery for three years. The Kenai Mountains consist of one of the world’s largest accretionary complexes that has been known by a variety of names such as the Chugach terrane, Chugach-Prince William terrane, and most recently the Southern Margin Composite terrane. The oldest rocks are blocks of Paleozoic age embedded within the mélange of the McHugh Complex. The McHugh Complex is represented at Tutka Inlet and underlying San Juan Cove by greywacke and conglomerate formed during the Early Jurassic to Early Cretaceous from sedimentary deposition in a deep ocean trench that was subsequently lithified and thrust up during the Mesozoic as a forearc ridge. The present-day landscape of Kachemak Bay and Tutka Inlet 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 before merging with other glaciers to fill the Cook Inlet basin. 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 than sea-level rise, which 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 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. 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.

San Juan Fishing and Packing was a company that started in the fresh fish business in Seattle in 1899. They built the first cold storage plant in Alaska at Taku Harbor in 1901, and a salmon cannery in Seward in 1917 that was later moved to Port San Juan at Sawmill Bay on Evans Island in 1924. In 1926, they built a cannery called Port O’Brien on Kodiak Island at Northeast Arm, Uganik Bay. Fish were mostly caught by company-owned purse seiners and fish traps, a highly efficient and specialized type of commercial fishing gear used to catch and impound Pacific salmon. Salmon canning companies owned and oper­ated most of the traps in Alaska. The first salmon trap was built in Cook Inlet in about 1885. It was patterned after the pound nets used in the Great Lakes fisheries but was modified considerably to withstand strong tidal currents and waves. This type of salmon trap became known as a pile trap because whole log piles were driven into the sandy bottoms to support the trap and the webbing and wire netting were fastened to piles to form the walls. The first trap was so successful that more were built in other areas including Kachemak Bay which had 4 traps; one on the north shore between Travers Creek and Diamond Creek, and three on the south shore at McDonald Spit, Point Naskowhak, and adjacent to Flat Island on the mainland. The pile trap could only be used where the water was relatively shallow and the bottom was soft enough to drive piles. Traps were very efficient, and a single trap in a good location could catch up to 100,000 salmon in a single day. However, the cannery at San Juan Cove was not profitable and in 1931, the facility and fish traps were sold to the Fidalgo Island Packing Company, which also operated the cannery at Port Graham. In 1934, Fidalgo dismantled the plant in Tutka Bay and continued to operate the four fish traps. The use of salmon traps quickly became a controversial issue and many Alaskans believed that traps caused the decline in salmon runs. The number of traps varied annually until the new State Legislature abolished them in 1959. Read more here and here. Explore more of San Juan Cove and Tutka Bay 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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