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

Chapter 1:


Historical accounts of the coast, with the exception of Ivan Petroff's enumeration of the territory for the Tenth Census and Frank Lowell's somewhat confusing account of the relocation of local residents, drew attention to the absence of villages. Evidence of historic land use, and the presence of people and activity along the coast, existed in the description of trails that crossed the peninsula. These trails linked people of the southern Kenai coast with resources and trading partners in Cook Inlet and Prince William Sound.

Henry Elliott, an illustrator and assistant agent to the Treasury Department, also commented on the lack of villages but alluded to the presence of seasonal inhabitants in an 1877 article on Alaska for Harper's New Monthly Magazine.

The vast reach of the coast and country between Sitka and Kodiak, including Cook Inlet and Prince William Sound, is not marked by a single civilized settlement–not a single one–only two or three small trading-posts on the eastern shore of the inlet, and all the rest is as wild as the bear or the grouse found in its dreary solitudes. The Indians sojourning there at wide intervals in small bands are but slightly modified from their condition and habit when first seen by white men a century and a half ago; through the instrumentality of the traders, they have fire-arms and blankets, lead, powder, beads, iron, and tobacco; otherwise the descriptions of Cook, Vancouver, Portlock, and Dixon are as true and vivid of them as our own notes are taken today. [45]

Teben'kov had made similar observations about the range and extent of trails on the peninsula:

This isthmus [Portage Pass] consists of a pass between the mountains, covered by ice, under which streams flow, melting during the summer into sheer ice fields. The boldest of the Natives set out across the isthmus in winter, when the icy passes and the channels of the streams are strewn with snowdrifts. [46]

In the late 1890s the U.S. government and military began to investigate trails on the peninsula. In 1898, Lieutenant H. G. Learnard of the 14th Infantry received instructions to inventory and explore sections of the Kenai Peninsula that interested the military. The army needed first hand information, especially on Native trails and portages, to learn of routes to existing forts and to identify other routes that could be used by miners and prospectors entering the region. Learnard's party consisted of Corporal Young, seven enlisted men, Captain Howe and his son, and Walter C. Mendenhall, a geologist with the USGS. The party first crossed the peninsula from Portage Glacier in Prince William Sound to Turnagain Arm. Their second crossing of the peninsula started at Resurrection Bay. On May 30, 1898, Learnard's orders instructed him to leave Resurrection Bay and scout out a trail north to Sunrise City, on Cook Inlet. Taking only a party of three–himself, Mendenhall, and a civilian named Bagg–Learnard set out on the morning of May 31. Each man carried sixty pounds of gear which included ten days' worth of rations, but no tents. [47] The crew followed a makeshift mining trail that started at head of the bay. After about one-half mile the trail widened into a rough mining road that followed Salmon Creek. A California mining company had cut the road to haul in their gear. Reaching Kenai Lake, Learnard's crew stopped for dinner at a log cabin that miners had recently built. At many points along the route, the party encountered groups of miners. The number of miners attested to the ever-growing interest in the region.

As a member of Learnard's party, Mendenhall became the first geologist to cross the peninsula. [48] His findings resulted in the production of a topographic map of the area and an initial inventory of geological information.

In 1906 geologist Alfred Brooks reported on the use of glaciers and glacial moraines as trails across the peninsula.

Many large glaciers discharge into the fiords of Prince William Sound of the eastern shore of Kenai Peninsula. Portage Bay, the western arm of Prince William Sound, is connected by a low glacier-filled pass with Turnagain Arm. This gap has long been used by the Natives. A broad valley stretches inland from Resurrection Bay, and its upper end is separated from streams flowing into Turnagain Arm by a pass only 1,000 feet high. Through this natural highway in to the interior a railway is now being built. [49]

In 1914 geologists Ralph Tarr and Lawrence Martin researched the Portage Glacier, and determined that it was free of ice in 1794. [50] These observations are based on Vancouver's writings in which he recounted information learned from Russians. Vancouver described a cross-peninsula trade route near Portage Valley "across which isthmus is the route, by which they [the Russians] state that all their intercourse between the Russian settlements, in this and that extensive inlet [Cook Inlet and Prince William Sound], was now carried on." [51] Only during this century has the glacier advanced and grown.

Knowing that routes existed over the Portage Pass glacier diminishes the idea that glaciers were barriers to communication and trade or that glaciers were walls that isolated both terrain and inhabitants. It also distinguished the people who mastered the trails as bearing hardships that by today's standards seem insurmountable. The geography of Kenai Fjords National Park presupposes any introduction to the region's cultural resources; so bound together are the park's historic resources with its setting.

illustration by Rockwell Kent
Illustration by Rockwell Kent from Wilderness, A Journal of Quiet Adventure in Alaska, 1920. The Rockwell Kent Legacies.

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

Last Updated: 26-Oct-2002