Kenai Fjords
A Stern and Rock-Bound Coast: Historic Resource Study
NPS Logo

Chapter 1:

Historical Geography of the Coast

The outer coast of the Kenai Peninsula contains an extensive cultural landscape that incorporates both those who lived along its icy shores and those drawn to explore and exploit its resources. The coastline provided an intermediary ground for resource use, trade, and travel on the peninsula. Portage Pass, which cuts across the northern edge of the peninsula, offered an easy nine-mile link between Prince William Sound and Cook Inlet.

During the period of Russian occupation, the coast was consistently considered as an extension of surrounding regions, implying that it had nothing of interest to engender a name of its own. Teben'kov referred to the region merely as the "coast from Kenai Bay eastward to Chugach Bay." [5] (Both names were of Russian origin; Kenai Bay referred to the waters of Cook Inlet, and Chugach Bay to Prince William Sound). Given no geographic distinction or name of its own, the coast became a generic no man's land. Hence the margin for error when referring to the area could be enormous, especially when trying to determine population and village location and density, maritime activity, or trade and shipping routes along such a wide stretch of coast.

Russian cartographers and explorers tended to use the terms Kenai Bay and Chugach Bay interchangeably, especially in the area of the park. This practice gave the impression that the outer coast belonged to neither region. The rare descriptions of the Kenai coastline fell within the geographic parameters of Chugach Bay and the glaciers were regarded merely as a preamble to the warmer regions west of Montague Island. These practices further reiterated the post-contact notion that the coast was predominantly a transitional stretch of land. To add to the general confusion of Russian geography, William H. Dall factored in Kachemak Bay, located at the southern end of the Kenai Peninsula, as being part of Chugach Bay.

The Native name of the bay is Kachekmak, in allusion to the high bluffs of the northern shore; the Natives of Chugach Bay [Prince William Sound] in coming to the inlet made a portage from the Pacific to the head of this bay, and so reached the Russian trading post at Port Graham, so the traders called it the bay of the Chugachi, or Chugachik. The Native name was misspelled on an obscure map without the central "k," and although the Coast Survey in the first and only chart of the bay gave the correct spelling, the Board of Geographic names adopted the incorrect form, which thus becomes obligatory in all Government publications. [6]

Russian Hydrographic Dept. Chart 1378, 1847. Library of Congress.

Although Teben'kov's atlas included several earlier Russian surveys of the coast, in 1868 Davidson found the information incomplete at best. As he wrote in his first drafts of a description of the coast, "There is not even a small scale map of any part of the coast, or of any harbor which can be counted on more than a reconnaissance or preliminary survey." [7]

In particular, Davidson noted that he had no detailed description of Resurrection Bay, despite the fact the Russians had built and maintained a shipyard at the head of the bay. Davidson relied heavily on the writing of Vancouver, Meares, Portlock, Dixon, and Lisiansky to write his observations. [8]

In a letter to USC&GS Superintendent Benjamin Pierce, Davidson made note that he obtained sixty-eight ship's logs from the Russian-American Company "embracing a large number of years." He recognized the generosity of captains Illarion Arkhimandritov (who later became an agent for the Hutchinson Company) and Paul Lemashafski. [9] Davidson obviously kept close contact with these captains, and recommended that the USC&GS do so as well. He mentioned to Pierce that the captains should be put on the USC&GS mailing list to receive future maps.

Maps from the early twentieth century prepared under the charge of federal scientific expeditions, notably those conducted by the USC&GS, suggested that the outer coast was geographically dynamic. Studies of glacial advancement on the peninsula indicated that after 1900 all glaciers had begun to recede. [10] In 1905, 1908, and 1909, U. S. Grant and D. F. Higgins of the USGS conducted a series of explorations of the glaciers of Prince William Sound and the Kenai Peninsula. Grant began his reconnaissance of the Prince William Sound and southern Kenai Peninsula regions in 1905. Returning three years later with Higgins, Grant spent a week surveying the eastern coast of the peninsula from Port Bainbridge on Prince William Sound to Culross Passage near Whittier. During their 1908 trip, the team examined copper and gold deposits in Resurrection Bay near Seward.

In 1909, Grant and Higgins returned to the Kenai Peninsula to survey the outer coast from Cape Puget on the western edge of Prince William Sound to Nubble Point near Seldovia. They planned to spend most of the field season along the fjords and bays of the outer coast. The team completed the work in three phases: July 3 to 6; July 11 and 12; and the major portion between July 20 and September 8. [11] Following this itinerary, Grant and Higgins set out from Resurrection Bay determined to cross the outer coast in a small boat. Severe rain plagued the survey, forcing the crew to stop and wait out the storms. Despite these setbacks, Grant and Higgins accomplished the four components of their fieldwork for the coast. These included an examination of the geology, a survey of known mineral prospects, a cursory inspection of the tidewater glaciers, and the rough mapping of the coast. [12]

Limiting most of their reconnaissance to the coast with only brief hiking trips inland, Grant and Higgins investigated Northwestern and Holgate glaciers, Harris Bay, and the Pye Islands. Higgins mapped most of the coast with only "a rough graphic triangulation with the traverse plane table and sketching of topography." [13]

In June 1911, Rufus H. Sargent began a topographic expedition for the USGS from Kachemak Bay to Turnagain Arm on the northern portion of the Kenai Peninsula. Leading a party of four, Sargent later crossed the peninsula to investigate the Resurrection River drainage close to Seward. [14] Sargent concluded his survey in October having covered over 3,000 miles. The surveys resulted in the production of 1:250,000 maps with 200-foot contours. [15]

USGS Reconnaissance Map of Grant, Higgins, and Sargent, surveyed 1901-1911.

Place names within the park provide many references to history of the region's geography. Access to the region has usually been by sea, the bays and fjords being the best vantagepoints from which to explore the coast and the glacial walls of ice. Portages through the Kenai Mountains have also served as an entry to the coast. As the same photographer who could not find Kenai Fjords on the map poetically observed, the geographic place names of the protected fjord harbors and coves brought to mind sublime retreats with names like Delight Lake, Moonlight Bay, and Desire Lake. These place names are in sharp contrast to others located on the more exposed portions of the Pacific coast. In a stretch of coastline between Harris Bay and McCarty Fjord the names of Thunder Bay, Cloudy Mountain, Wildcat Pass, and Roaring Cove portray a more challenging terrain. Many names have association with local residents including Skeen's Arm in Nuka Bay or Pete's Passage near Matushka Island. Other places have retained Native names including Paguna Arm, meaning black bear, and Taroka Arm, referring to the brown bear. As with many place names in the park, there is an overlay of Native, Russian, Spanish, English, and American experience and assimilation that varies according to the time period and the perspective of research.

<<< Previous <<< Contents >>> Next >>>

Last Updated: 26-Oct-2002