Travers Creek flows generally west-southwest for about 1.5 miles (2.4 km) from an unnamed lake on the Kenai Peninsula to the confluence with Troublesome Creek and then another 0.5 miles (0.8 km) through Mutnaia Gulch to the north shore of Kachemak Bay, about 3.5 miles (5.5 km) south of Anchor Point and 12 miles (19 km) northwest of Homer, Alaska. The local names for both creeks were first reported by Ralph W. Stone in 1906 and published on maps by the U.S. Geological Survey in the 1950s. Mutnaia Gulch is a steep-sided ravine originally named ‘Mutnaya’ from the Russian meaning ‘muddy’ and was named in 1840 by Ilya G. Voznesensky or Wosnesenski. This area is part of the Kenai Lowlands, a physiographic division of the Cook Inlet trough that contains up to 23,000 feet (7,000 m) of sediments that were laid down during the past 30 million years. This basin fill was lithified, folded, and faulted, and then petroleum accumulated in economically significant amounts. Most of the lowland is covered by a layer of unconsolidated sediments laid down by glaciers during the Late Pleistocene. However, a complex sequence of nonmarine sedimentary rocks approximately 5,000 feet (1,525 m) thick called the Beluga Formation formed during the Miocene or about 23 to 5.3 million years ago and is exposed in coastal bluffs and in steep gullies and canyons along the north shore of Kachemak Bay from Travers Creek past the town of Homer to Fritz Creek. The rocks are mostly weakly lithified sandstone, siltstone, mudstone, shale, coal, and minor amounts of volcanic ash. Coal varies from lignite to sub-bituminous with thicknesses up to about 2 m. A coal seam is exposed a few feet above high tide at the mouth of Travers Creek. The seam is about 5 feet (1.5 m) thick and is considered to be of a higher grade than the coal found farther east near Homer. The Anchor Point area was glaciated twice during the past 120,000 years. The first major ice advance inundated the Cook Inlet basin and continued southward into the north Pacific Ocean. The second major ice advance occurred about 25,000 to 18,000 years ago when a glacial lobe flowed northwestward out of Kachemak Bay during the Naptowne glaciation. At that time, the mouth of Cook Inlet was apparently blocked by a large glacier that spread onto the exposed continental shelf from an ice accumulation centered in the Mount Douglas–Four Peaked Mountain area on the Alaska Peninsula. The resulting ice dam apparently impounded meltwaters that rose to levels of about 260 feet (80 m) higher than present-day sea level before the ice dam retreated about 13,500 years ago.
The first humans to settle the Cook Inlet basin are not known; however, the earliest archaeological sites date from between 10,000 and 7,500 years ago. The evidence suggests that interior Alaska was the likely origin of the first people following the melting of the last Ice Age glaciers. These sites contain stone tools left behind by highly mobile hunter-gatherers that traveled in small groups and relied heavily on large land mammals for food. These early people produced thin razor-sharp microblades made from high-quality stone. About 4,200 years ago, people in Cook Inlet were using ground slate spear points similar to those used by the Ocean Bay culture of Kodiak Island and the Alaska Peninsula. This suggests that new settlers arrived that were marine mammal hunters and over time these two groups traded, inter-married, and sometimes conflicted with each other. From 3,000 to 1,000 years ago the Kachemak Culture spread over much of Cook Inlet. The Marine Kachemak along the lower Cook Inlet shores were closely associated with people from the outer Kenai coast and Kodiak Island, while the Riverine Kachemak people were more strongly influenced by Bristol Bay and more northern coastal people. The Dena’ina arrived in Southcentral Alaska sometime between 1,500 to 1,000 years ago from the interior and are the only Alaskan Athabaskan group to live on the coast. Evidence of their early settlements includes fish camps and villages with large multi-room houses. These houses were excavated partially into the ground and had earthen embankments around the walls and central fire hearths in the main room, often with a single side room addition. In 1778, Captain James Cook was the first European to explore and document the shores of the inlet and named many of the important geographical features. In 1787 or 1788, Russian fur traders with the Shelikhov-Golikov Company established a trading post called Aleksandrovskaia at present-day Nanwalek, and at about the same time other fur traders with the Lebedev-Lastochkin Company established a trading post called Pavlovskaia at the mouth of the Kenai River. In 1789, the inlet was again visited by English ships under the command of Nathaniel Portlock and George Dixon. They stayed for nearly a month and were successful in trading for furs and also discovered the coal beds at Port Graham. In 1794, Captain George Vancouver conducted surveys of the inlet and corrected the latitude on Cook’s charts, and also determined that it was not a great river as Cook described, and the name was changed from Cook River to Cook Inlet.
Mutnaia Gulch is the site of a series of paleobotanical studies of plant material found in the exposed Beluga Formation. Paleobotany is the branch of biology dealing with the recovery and identification of plant remains from geological contexts and their use for the biological reconstruction of past environments and the evolutionary history of plants, with a bearing upon the evolution of life in general. Paleobotany includes the study of terrestrial plant fossils, as well as the study of prehistoric marine photoautotrophs, such as photosynthetic algae or seaweeds. A plant fossil is any preserved part of a plant that has long since died including its pollen. Such fossils may be prehistoric impressions that are many millions of years old, or bits of charcoal that are only a few hundred years old. For example, the nonmarine sedimentary rocks exposed at Mutnaia Gulch contain abundant fossil plants including tree stumps, wood fragments, wood grain, and amber that were likely derived from a forested swamp. Pollen and spore assemblages suggest that the warm-temperate forests of that time consisted mostly of tropical hardwoods, thus providing evidence of tectonic movement of crustal terranes from warmer equatorial latitudes. Some plants have remained almost unchanged throughout the earth’s geological time scale. Other plants have changed radically or become extinct. The megafossil plants that are associated with the Beluga Formation are the willows Salix alaskana, S. chuitensis, S. kachemakensis, S. tyonekana, the alders Alnus corylina, A. adumbrata, the hornbeam Carpinsis cobbi, the hazel Corylus chuitensis, the shrub Spiraea hopkinsi, Rhododendron weaveri, and the heath Vaccinium homerensis. Read more here and here. Explore more of Travers Creek and Kachemak Bay here: