Ankau Saltchucks, Phipps Peninsula

Ankau Saltchucks, Phipps Peninsula

by | Dec 29, 2021

Ankau Saltchucks are a series of interconnected tidal lagoons forming a complex estuary about 1.2 miles (1.9 km) across on the northwestern end of the Phipps Peninsula at the entrance to Yakutat Bay and the west shore of Monti Bay, about 215 miles (346 km) southeast of Cordova and 3.6 miles (6 km) west-southwest of Yakutat, Alaska. A saltchuck is a brackish lake connected to the sea by a channel that floods and ebbs with the tide. The word is derived from the Chinook Jargon, combining the English word ‘salt’, with the Nuu-chah-nulth word for water ‘č̕aʔak’. This maze of shallow lagoons is studded with small islands and rocks and separated from the Pacific Ocean only by a narrow barrier beach. The uppermost lagoon is called Russian Lake, into which flows Tawah Creek that drains Rocky Lake, Aka Lake, and Summit Lake which is east of a historical Coast Guard LORAN-A Station. This route was once navigable at high tide, but post-glacial rebound has caused the upper reaches of the streams and all of Summit Lake to become silted or blocked by vegetation. Deglaciation of Yakutat Bay was complete before 1791, and since then there has been continual isostatic rebound of the peninsula, eustatic sea-level changes, and redistribution of glacial sediments. The estuary was originally named “Estero del Ancau” by Captain Alessandro Malaspina in 1791 after a Tlingit chief named Ankau. The word ‘Yakutat’, or ‘Yakudat’, was first adopted by the Russian fur traders in 1823 and was applied to the mouth of Ankau Creek that drains the saltchucks into Monti Bay. Monti Bay was named ‘Baie de Monti’ in 1786 by La Perouse after one of his officers. Phipps Peninsula is about 3.5 miles (5.6 km) long, situated between the Gulf of Alaska and Monti Bay. It was named ‘Cape Phipps’ by Captain George Dixon in 1787 for the English explorer Constantine John Phipps, famous for his voyage to Spitzbergen and the Arctic Ocean in 1773. The mouth of Yakutat Bay is 18 miles (29 km) across and the embayment extends northeast for 35 miles (56 km) to the head of Disenchantment Bay at the base of the Saint Elias Mountains. The history of Yakutat begins prior to European contact with the migrations of interior tribes to the coast. The original inhabitants in the Yakutat area were probably Eyak-speaking people who migrated from the mouth of the Copper River southeastward along the shore. There was also a northwestward migration of Tlingit from Southeast Alaska, some coming on foot along the shore or over the glaciers, or going inland over the Chilkat Pass and down the Alsek River to Dry Bay, while others paddled their canoes up from Cross Sound or farther south. The Tlingit assimilated the Eyak before the arrival of Europeans in Alaska. Yakutat was only one of a number of Tlingit and mixed Tlingit-Eyak settlements in the region, the others were depopulated or abandoned.

The Phipps Peninsula was heavily used by the Tlingit people, followed by Russians and maritime fur traders, the U.S. military, and the U.S. Coast Guard. Alexander Andreyevich Baranov of the Shelikhov-Golikov Company, launched a series of explorations eastward from Prince William Sound in 1793, 1794, 1795, in search of new sea otter hunting grounds. Baranov’s first personal contact with the Yakutat Tlingit occurred in 1792, while he was exploring Prince William Sound with a party of 30 Russians in two baidarkas and a fleet of 150 baidarkas manned by 300 Alutiiq hunters. On June 20, they were camped on Hinchinbrook Island near what was shortly to become the site of the post of Nuchek, when they were attacked by a group of Yakutat Tlingit from Yakutat Bay who had come to avenge some injury inflicted upon them by the Chugach the preceding year. In 1793, Baranov sent James G. Shields with four British sailors to Yakutat Bay to escort a party of 170 baidarkas. The objective of this expedition was to find new sea otter breeding grounds. In 1794, Baranov purchased land from the Yakutat Tlingit with the intention of building a settlement the following year, but this was called off when the Tlingits became hostile to a hunting party sent to the area in advance of the settlers. In 1796, a settlement group of 192 Russians were finally landed and built a fort called New Russia consisting of two large log buildings, a palisade, and a blockhouse on the Ankau Saltchucks. By 1805, the settlement had grown to include seven buildings inside the palisade, and five outside, and there was a small shipyard that had built two boats. The settlers continued to be viewed with hostility by the Tlingits, who made occasional attacks on hunting parties. In 1805, the Tlingit attacked the New Russia settlement and it was burned to the ground, and all of its occupants except for a few women and children were killed. Soon after this event, a baidarka fleet of 300 hunters was lost in a storm in the Gulf of Alaska. The site at Yakutat was never reoccupied, possibly because the Russian-American Company built a new headquarters at Sitka. After the attack, the area received only occasional visits. In the 1870s, American traders found the site of the old Russian fort but nothing remained.

U.S. military interest in Yakutat Bay began in 1929 with the establishment of the Yakutat Bay Naval Reservation. In 1940, the U.S. Department of War acquired 46,083 acres (18,649 ha) and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers arrived to begin construction of the Yakutat Landing Field at the base of the Phipps Peninsula, also known as the Yakutat Army Airfield, which was completed in 1943. A 155 mm gun battery was established at Point Carrew on the northernmost point of the Phipps Peninsula to provide defensive artillery for the airfield. In 1945, the Yakutat Airfield was declared surplus and in 1947, the facility was transferred to the Civil Aeronautics Administration. In 1952, a LORAN-A station was built at the base of the Phipps Peninsula between Summit Lake and the ocean beach. It was a Double Master station paired with Biorka Island near Sitka and Spruce Cape near Kodiak. The facility was an isolated duty station manned with electronic technicians, machinist mates, a cook, boatswain’s mate, seamen, a yeoman, and a commissioned officer, all of whom were assigned for a period of one year. Two steel Quonset huts were connected end-to-end by a covered walkway and situated parallel to the beach about 300 feet (91 m) inland. The northwest Quonset housed the LORAN-A electronics and generators, and the southeast Quonset housed the dining/recreation area, kitchen, and living spaces. In 1960, the U.S. Air Force acquired lands from the U.S. Forest Service and the State of Alaska Division of Lands to construct the Ocean Cape Radio Relay Station, a facility that served as a link in the tropospheric communications network as part of the Ballistic Missile Early Warning System under the White Alice Communications System. The site, located at Ocean Cape on the westernmost point of the Phipps Peninsula included industrial buildings, support facilities, water and fuel storage tanks, pipelines, a bridge, roads, utility lines, and four parabolic antennas 60 feet (18 m) tall for its transmissions. The facility relayed communications between the White Alice stations at Cape Yakataga, 98 miles (158 km) to the northwest, and Hoonah 186 miles (299 km) to the southeast. The site operated as part of the ‘A’ or Alpha Route of the Rearward Communications System which extended along the coast of Southeast Alaska to Duncan Canal on Kupreanof Island where communications were transferred to a subsea cable connected to the U.S. mainland. Between 1974-1976, the facility was leased to Recording Company America Alaska Communications, Inc., and then the site was idled when White Alice was rendered obsolete by satellite communications. The LORAN-A station operated until 1979 when the technology became obsolete and was phased out. The Ocean Cape facility and the LORAN-A station were razed and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation now manage a monitoring program and remediation effort. Read more here and here. Explore more of Ankau Saltchucks and the Phipps Peninsula here:

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