Kanatak, Portage Bay

Kanatak, Portage Bay

by | Dec 18, 2021

Kanatak is an uninhabited Alutiiq community of the Native Tribe of Kanatak located at the head of Portage Bay, on the Pacific coast of the Alaska Peninsula, about 136 miles (219 km) west-southwest of Kodiak and 65 miles (105 km) southeast of Egegik, Alaska. Portage Bay is named for an ancient portage trail that crosses the Alaska Peninsula between Shelikof Strait on the Gulf of Alaska and Becharof Lake which connects to Bristol Bay at Egegik. During the Last Glacial Maximum of the late Pleistocene, the Alaska Peninsula was subjected to severe mountain glaciation with a glacier complex composed of confluent alpine glaciers, island ice caps, and piedmont lobes covering much of the Alaska Peninsula. The limits of the glaciated area have not been determined, but all the larger valleys in the higher mountains show evidence of vigorous glacial scour and glacial ice that once streamed to the sea in all the bays. These ancient glaciers accumulated ice with depths close to 1,000 feet (305 m), and although the main glacial movement was northward into the basin of Becharof Lake, a lobe of ice spilled southeastward across Kanatak Pass, at an elevation of about 900 feet (274 m), into Portage Bay. There are no remaining glaciers but in the high mountains southwest of Portage Bay there are many cirques and valleys filled with morainal deposits and Portage Bay has stream gravels and beach deposits of Quaternary sand and gravel. The rugged shoreline of Portage Bay is a succession of wave-cut cliffs below which there is in most places a gravel or bedrock wave-cut platform visible at low tide. At many places, however, sheer cliffs descend into the water with no beach visible, even at low tide. The only beach deposits of considerable area are at the head of the bay where the shoreline is somewhat protected from the waves, and where the beach sand and gravel merge with the delta deposits of Kanatak River.

The historical record of Kanatak is incomplete but based on archeological records from the Shelikof Strait coast of the Alaska Peninsula, the cultural sequence dates to about 7,300 years ago. By 1762, the Russians had sent fur-trading expeditions as far east as Kodiak Island, and in 1783 a permanent trading post was established at Three Saints Bay. The rugged islets along the Alaska Peninsula provided rich hunting grounds for the sea otter. Russian influence was almost immediate among the Alutiiq people, mostly because male hunters were conscripted into forced labor while the women and children were kept hostage. Conditions slowly improved over time with the introduction of missionaries but Russian influence has continued ever since through the conversion of the Alutiiq to the Russian Orthodox Church. Even after the Alaska Purchase in 1867, the missionaries of the Russian church have still ministered to the spiritual needs of the natives. In the early 20th century Kanatak was a small Native settlement with a population that varied seasonally. In the winter there were Alutiiq families living in small sod barabaras, but in the summer some would go to Bristol Bay to work in the salmon canneries and others to Becharof Lake where they caught and dried salmon for winter food. In the 1920s, Kanatak became synonymous with the oil and gas industry and, along with Katalla on Controller Bay, Portage Bay experienced an oil boom. In August 1922, two steamships landed drilling equipment at Portage Bay and during a two or three week period, Kanatak changed from a town with a population of 10 or 15 to a typical boom town with a population of nearly 200 living in tents, log cabins, and frame buildings. Work was immediately begun on a road connecting Kanatak and the site selected for drilling which was 17 miles (27 km) to the northwest. The oil and gas development ended in the late 1940s, after efforts to produce recoverable oil failed. When the oil companies abandoned the prospects, the local economy could no longer support the hotels and merchants. This was followed by the closing of the Kanatak post office and later the Bureau of Indian Affairs school. The village of Kanatak declined in the 1950s and was subsequently abandoned when the U.S. mail routes stopped and supply ships no longer came to Portage Bay.

The original Alutiiq residents of Kanatak lived off the land and traveled seasonally to Bristol Bay via the Kanatak Trail. The portage route has been used for thousands of years by Yup’ik and Alutiiq people as a relatively easy connection across the coastal mountains of the Alaska Peninsula between the Pacific Ocean and the Bering Sea. The Kanatak Trail is only 5 miles (8 km) long, and from the village site which is on a series of shoreline terraces, the trail crosses a stream that separates the cobble beach from the valley at the head of Portage Bay. The trail then climbs a steep scree slope, zig-zagging for 900 vertical feet (275 m) to windswept Kanatak Pass, and then along Summit Lake before descending to Lake Ruth. Lake Ruth drains to the southernmost embayment on Becharof Lake via Ruth River and at the outlet, there was a historical community called Fish Village, also known to the Alutiiq as Marratuq. In the late spring, residents of Kanatak prepared to leave their winter village to walk over Kanatak Pass to Marratuq. Once there, the resi­dents continued to gather a wide variety of spring and summer vegetables, including wild celery and spinach, ferns and roots, and wild peas. In June, they gathered a variety of birds’ eggs from the islands on Becharof Lake and fished for char, whitefish, salmon, smelt, and trout, and hunt for caribou. In mid-June, they traveled by boat and on foot to Egegik to participate in commercial fishing as fishermen and cannery workers. When the salmon runs ended, they purchased basic supplies such as rock salt at the cannery store and returned to Becharof Lake to catch fish for drying and storing in preparation for winter. They also picked and preserved berries and hunted ducks. A few families sometimes elected to stay the winter at Marratuq on Becharof Lake, while the others returned to spend the winter at Kanatak. During late fall and early winter, supplies and sub­sistence foods, including the primary staple of pre­served salmon, as well as bird eggs, vegetables, and other foods were packed over Kanatak Pass. During the winter, they set traps for mink, fox, otter, wolverine, and beaver that could be sold the following year for cash. Many other portage trails existed on the Alaska Peninsula, but few were so well known and easily accessible as the Kanatak Trail. Early Russian and American explorers used this route, and in the 1920s, when the oil explorations brought hundreds of people to Kanatak, primitive roads were built over part of the old walking route for wagons and tractors to haul exploration equipment. In 2012, the trail was designated as the Kanatak National Recreation Trail which promotes the trail for recreational opportunities, and today it is managed by Becharof National Wildlife Refuge. Read more here and here. Explore more of Portage Bay here:

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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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