Chilkoot, Lutak Inlet

Chilkoot, Lutak Inlet

by | Jul 5, 2022

Chilkoot is a historical Tlingit village located on the Chilkoot River between Lutak Inlet to the south and Chilkoot Lake to the north at the present site of Chilkoot Lake State Recreation Site which is linked by 10 miles (16 km) of road to Haines, about 83 miles (134 km) north-northwest of Juneau and 12 miles (19 km) southwest of Skagway, Alaska. The upper Chilkoot River starts from a series of unnamed cirque glaciers on the south flank of Mount Klukwah in the Coast Mountains and flows generally southeast for 18 miles (29 km) to Chilkoot Lake. Chilkoot Lake is about 3.3 miles (5 km) long and is drained by the lower Chilkoot River that flows for about 1.5 miles (2.4 km) to Lutak Inlet, a branch of Chilkoot Inlet at the northern end of the Lynn Canal. The name ‘Chilkoot’ is reputedly derived from a Tlingit phrase ‘chíl-li-koo-t’ meaning ‘without a cache’ and refers to the historical practice of packing fish with snow and with layers of willow or alder branches in between the fish. Chilkat means ‘with a cache’ because people along the Chilkat River cached their food in storehouses. The northern Coast Mountains of southeastern Alaska and westernmost British Columbia are underlain by the Coast Plutonic Complex that separates the Insular superterrane to the west from the Intermontane superterrane to the east. The Coast Shear Zone is roughly aligned with the Chilkoot and Chilkat River valleys and juxtaposes the metamorphic rocks of the Insular superterrane to the west against plutonic rocks to the east. The southwestern side of the Chilkoot River valley is largely composed of unnamed partially metamorphosed sedimentary and volcanic rocks likely formed during the Permian, Devonian, and Silurian ages. The northeastern side of the Chilkoot valley is mostly composed of Cretaceous age plutons and batholiths of diorite, gabbro, granodiorite, and tonalite.

The Chilkat Tlingit have lived at Klukwan from their beginning as a tribe and may have arrived several centuries prior to the discovery of the area by the Russians and Spanish in the 1700s based on ethnographic information that consistently points to a northward migration of people by water along the coast and inland passages from northern British Columbia. This coastal migration was augmented by people descending from the interior along river valleys to the sea. The Chilkat territory included the shores of Lynn Canal and its tributaries from Berners Bay northward to and including Chilkat and Chilkoot Passes. The Chilkat people subdivide their population into the Chilkat of the Chilkat River drainage with Klukwan being the main village and the L’uknax Adi clan who traditionally inhabited the area of the Chilkoot River and Chilkoot Lake and became known as the Chilkoot. The Chilkoot lived in four villages located along Lutak Inlet, along the Chilkoot River, and near present-day Haines. Chilkoot village had a population of 127 in 1880 with about eight houses and numerous smokehouses lining both sides of the river. The chief industry of the Chilkat and Chilkoot was trading. The only trade routes into the interior were over the Chilkoot and Chilkat passes and they made two to three trips annually over their mountain trails to the interior, each of which consumed from ten to thirty or more days. On the rivers they employed canoes, but over the mountains, they traveled with backpacks and used dogs as pack animals. The first journey was made in mid-winter when the snow was hard and travel was more certain. This was a preliminary trip to make arrangements for the most important spring trade when the winter catch of furs was taken. This trip was made in April, before the arrival of the eulachon since the rendering of its oil for the grease was the greatest dietetic luxury known to the coast people. Following the Alaska Purchase in 1867, miners and traders were followed closely by missionaries The discovery of gold in the interiors of Alaska and Canada in the mid-19th century put pressure on the Chilkat and Chilkoot to open routes to the gold fields. Most of the Chilkat and Chilkoot stopped fishing and went to Dyea and Skagway to freight over the passes. The village chiefs at first refused to permit this because they did not want any interference or disruption of their trade with the Athabascans of the interior. Chilkoot Village was virtually abandoned sometime between 1881 and 1890 due to the proliferation of European diseases, the lack of wage labor, and a mudslide or flood that destroyed a portion of the village. Haines is the present population center for the Chilkoot Tlingit.

Sockeye, pink, chum, and coho salmon are found in the Chilkoot River. The sockeye was historically the most plentiful and most desired because of its exceptionally large size and suitability for smoking, drying, or canning for later use. Fishing in the Chilkoot River was primarily conducted by gaffing or spearing salmon from platforms as the fish made their way upstream to Chilkoot Lake. The platforms were often large boulders that were natu­rally scattered along the entire length of the riverbed or small wooden walkways which were built to bridge the boulders. During the winter when the river was low, rocks were moved in the stream bed to form fish weirs which, during the summer months, helped funnel traveling salmon to areas where they could easily be gaffed or speared. Farther upstream near the outlet of Chilkoot Lake, small gill nets or beach seines were used. Different fishing locations often produced salmon which were best processed in a specific manner, such as smoking, drying, or boiling. Commercial fishing for salmon began during the early 1900s by means of fish traps and gill nets in the upper Lynn Canal area and at the mouths of streams. Chilkoot people still fish for salmon from Lutak and Chilkoot inlets by means of drift gill nets from boats and set gill nets from the shore for both sub­sistence and commercial purposes. The Chilkoot Lake State Recreation Site now occupies the village site on the southern shore of Chilkoot Lake. The park is set amidst Sitka spruce trees and has 80 acres (32 ha) of land with camping sites, picnic shelters, and a boat launch. The river and the lake still provide some of the best sites in the area for salmon fishing from mid-June to mid-October. Large numbers of brown bears frequent the river to feed on salmon and consequently, the road to the park became known as the ‘bear highway’. Read more here and here. Explore more of Chilkoot and Lutak Inlet 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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