Situk River, Johnson Slough

Situk River, Johnson Slough

by | Jul 17, 2021

The Situk River starts at Situk Lake and flows southwest for about 18 miles (29 km) through the Yakutat Forelands in Tongass National Forest to the Gulf of Alaska, about 200 miles (322 km) northwest of Juneau and 9 miles (15 km) southeast of Yakutat, Alaska. The name is from the Tlingit language originally reported in 1852 as “Sitak River,” by Captain Mikhail Tebenkov of the Imperial Russian Navy. Before European contact, Alaska Native communities lived along the outer coast between Lituya and Controller bays. Over time, five major clans migrated to the Yakutat area. The Teikweidí (Brown Bear) clan migrated from Southeast Alaska and Dry Bay before moving to the Arhnklin River area and settling on the Situk and Lost rivers. The Kwaashk’ikwáan (Humpback Salmon) clan migrated from the Copper River area over the glaciers and settled in Icy Bay before moving to Knight Island in Yakutat Bay and then to Monti Bay. The Galyáx Kaagwaantaan (Beaver and Wolf) clan migrated to Yakutat from the Kaliakh and Tsiu rivers area. The L’uknax.ádi (Coho) clan settled between Dry Bay and the Italio River establishing Gus’iex, a large village, on the Akwe River. The Shunkukeidi (Thunderbird) clan journeyed from Southeast Alaska to Dry Bay via an established inland trail and trade route linking northern Lynn Canal and the Alsek River. Today, Yakutat is considered a Tlingit community, though it retains a unique mix of Eyak and Athabaskan culture from these earlier settlements and intermarriage.

The Tlingit village of Situk was founded near the river mouth in about 1875 and abandoned in 1916. Clan leaders historically acted as stewards of their salmon fishing territories, controlling when the fishing nets went in and out of the water and how many fish could be taken. Teikweidí (Brown Bear) clan leaders Situk Harry or Situk Jim would restrict fishing if they thought there was not enough fish moving up the rivers. Situk Harry would open and close the river with a white flag. The goal was to allow enough fish to swim upstream to spawn to ensure their future return. In 1903, Seattle businessman Fred Spenser Stimson and his associates Charles Terry Scurry and J.T. Robinson envisioned commercial opportunities and established the Yakutat & Southern Railroad to operate between Yakutat and Johnson Slough. The route planning was completed in April 1904 and construction began soon after. For nearly seven decades, the railroad served a unique role by hauling fresh salmon. Situk fishermen brought their salmon to a landing at the mouth of Johnson Slough and loaded their catch onto the train. The train would then travel 11 miles (18 km) northwest to Yakutat where the fish were canned and shipped from Monti Bay to southern ports. The fishery and railroad only operated seasonally from May to October. The daily timetable was based on the tides and the water level at the Johnson Slough landing. The railway offered free passenger transport from Yakutat to Lost River and Situk.  Tlingit fishermen would ride the train for free to Situk River on Monday, fish throughout the week, and then return to town on Friday. Most of the fishermen in the region lived in Yakutat and the village of Situk was soon abandoned. During World War II, the railway was used by the military from October 1940 to April 1941 as a means of transport for building materials for a military airfield and barracks. After the war, the tracks were poorly maintained and fell into disrepair. In 1949, passenger service was suspended and the railway was shut down in the 1960s. The transport of fish was shifted to an all-weather road. Today, the Situk is still important to the community of Yakutat for the commercial set net fishery. Many Yakutat families rely on the short three-month fishing season for their annual income. The Sitak also has a large population of steelhead trout that support a popular sport fishery.

On several occasions in the past, Russell Fjord has been the site of Russell Lake caused by the Hubbard Glacier surging and blocking the fjord. Sediment deposits along the shores of Russell Fjord contain buried wood and interbedded stream gravels and glacial till indicating that this event is historically repeated. Ethnographic oral history suggests that the last episode of Russell Lake ended in about 1860 at which time Tlingit Indians witnessed the sudden drainage of the lake. The Sitak River has historically been the overflow for water from Russell Lake. The low divide separating the watersheds is below the historical elevation of Russell Lake. Recent surges of Hubbard Glacier in 1986 and 2002 briefly sealed Russell Fjord off from Yakutat Bay creating the lake, but they didn’t last long enough to reach maximum water level elevations. In 2002, the water level quickly rose 61 feet (19 m) threatening to breach and flow into Situk Lake and then down the Situk River valley. Geomorphological evidence suggests this has happened repeatedly causing catastrophic floods in the Situk River Valley. Read more here and here. Explore more of the Situk River and Yakutat Bay here:

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