Little Port Walter, Baranof Island

Little Port Walter, Baranof Island

by | Jan 8, 2022

Little Port Walter is an embayment and the name of a research facility on the southern shore at the mouth of Port Walter, on the southeastern coast of Baranof Island and the western shore of Chatham Strait, about 53 miles (85 km) south-southeast of Sitka and 9 miles (14.5 km) north of Port Alexander, Alaska. The name was first used by local fishermen and published in 1925 by the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey as ‘Inner Port Walter’, and in 1927 as ‘Little Port Walter’. Little Port Walter is the estuary of Sashin Creek which flows northeast for 1.5 miles (2.4 km) from a deglaciated cirque at an elevation exceeding 2000 feet (610 m) to Sashin Lake at an elevation of about 245 feet (75 m). The lake is 1.3 miles (2.1 km) long and the creek continues northeast from the outlet for another 1.4 miles (2.3 km) to sea level at the head of Little Port Walter. Sashin Creek is spawning habitat for pink, chum, and coho salmon, as well as Dolly Varden char, and steelhead trout. The lake and creek are named after one of the 20 Russians killed by Tlingit people in 1802 during the Battle of Sitka. Chatham Strait is about 150 miles (240 km) long and extends southward from Icy Strait to the Gulf of Alaska. The eastern shore of the strait is formed by Admiralty Island in the north, Frederick Sound, and Kuiu Island in the south. The western shore is formed by Baranof Island which has a land area of 1,028,452 acres (416,200 ha) and a shoreline length of 617 miles (993 km). Most of the island is within Tongass National Forest. Baranof Island has historically drawn attention for its gold deposits starting in the early 20th century, for chrome and nickel deposits in the middle 20th century, and then for a substantial timber industry in the late 20th century. More recently, there is interest in developing geothermal power from the dormant Mount Edgecumbe volcano on nearby Kruzof Island, and numerous island hot springs that have been commercially developed. In addition, Baranof Island is known for its outstanding scenic fjords, waterfalls, pristine rainforests, and prolific fishing grounds.

The Tlingit historically engaged in trade with Haida, Tsimshian, and Athabaskan people from the interior. Herring oil, salmon, and sea otter furs were the principal trade commodity long before American and European maritime fur traders arrived in the late 1700s. The coastal tribes had developed techniques to efficiently harvest, preserve, store, and transport fish as well as other marine foods. For example, herring and salmon were caught in small weirs and temporary fish traps, and village chiefs owned the fishing rights to particular streams and would regulate and distribute the catch. The fish spoiled rapidly without preservation, and therefore, would be rendered into oil, smoked, or fermented. Russian fur traders expanded east and south along the coast from Kodiak and on 7 July 1799, Alexander Baranov, with 100 fellow Russians, sailed into Sitka Sound aboard the Olga, the brig Ekaterina, the packet boat Orel, and a fleet of about 550 baidarkas with 700 Unangan Aleuts and 300 other natives. By this time the sea otter trade between Tlingit and American and British vessels in Sitka Sound was already well developed, however, the Russians were able to establish a colony first at Starrigavan Bay and later at Sitka in 1804. The Alaska Purchase of 1867 transferred the territory from Russia to the United States. In 1878, the first cannery in Alaska was built at Klawock and by 1889 there were 13 canneries in Southeast Alaska. Salmon were initially caught with purse seines using large rowboats and transferred to steamboats for transportion to canneries. Fish traps were built along the shore, sometimes spaced at intervals of less than 1 mile (1.6 km), and within a few years, the salmon population started to decline. Trolling for salmon, with a hook and line pulled slowly through the water, began in Southeast Alaska around 1905. Gas-powered boats were introduced from Puget Sound, and the industry was revolutionized by refrigeration which allowed more independence and distance from the canneries. Around 1913, abundant king salmon fishing grounds were found at the southern end of Baranof Island, and fish buyers gathered at Port Alexander. The south Baranof canneries were often combined with, or alternated with, use as herring reduction plants and mild-cure stations for processing troll-caught fish. Trolling peaked in the 1920s or 1930s at Port Alexander and then moved up the coast to Sitka and the outer coast of Chichagof and Yacobi Islands.

Captain Ashton W. Thomas came to Alaska in 1898 during the Klondike Gold Rush and started a transportation business ferrying prospectors up the Stikine River. When that business declined in 1903, he moved to Juneau and started the Juneau Packing Company and operated three fish traps and produced canned sardines and smoked and kippered salmon. In 1909, Thomas came to Ketchikan to operate a bait herring business for the New England Fish Company, and in 1917, he started a herring saltery and reduction plant at Little Port Walter. The saltery supported a small community until 1934 when it was replaced by a research facility of the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries and is now operated by the Alaska Fisheries Science Center and Auke Bay Laboratories of the National Marine Fisheries Service. There are numerous nearby lakes and streams which are available for salmonid experimentation and research. Facilities include an experimental hatchery and an array of fresh and saltwater floating raceways and net pens served by a controlled water source capable of delivering 2 cubic feet (57 l) per second. Historical studies have focused on the biology and population enhancement of pink, chum, coho, sockeyeChinook salmon, steelhead trout, Dolly Varden char, herring, shrimp, and rockfish. Research is now focused on the genetics of Chinook and coho salmon with an emphasis on the effects of population enhancement efforts over the past three decades. Steelhead trout research is focused on comparing and evaluating genetic and life history characteristics of a wild population in Sashin Creek with an introduced population of rainbow trout in Sashin Lake. The rainbow trout population was established in the 1920s by transplanting juvenile steelhead from Sashin Creek into the lake. While two impassable falls above the lower part of Sashin Creek prevent anadromous access to Sashin Lake, some rainbow trout smolts escape from the lake and return as adults to breed with the steelhead population in the creek. Results of this research may be relevant to salmonid recovery programs in the Pacific Northwest. Other studies have examined invertebrates and their ecology, effects of low dose toxicity on salmon, oceanography, transport of marine nutrients into watersheds, and the effects of long-term climate variation. The facility is the oldest year-round biological station in Alaska and is still well suited for research on environmental and resource management issues. It is also an ideal location for measuring long-term biophysical parameters related to impacts of climatic factors such as changes in precipitation profiles, freshwater and sea surface temperatures, and nearshore salinity patterns. See a video of the research station here. Read more here and here. Explore more of Little Port Walter here:

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