Snettisham 2014 - 1: Accidental Opening

On the beach at Taku Village (T'aaku X'aka.aan)

Any thoughts of opening Snettisham over the weekend were quelled by a persistent northerly that was destined to kick up 4-5’ seas in Taku Inlet. But other the wind, the weather would be glorious, sunny with temperatures inching into the low 60s, and it begged for a spring adventure. We decided to camp at a beach close enough to Douglas Harbor that we didn’t have to get too far from shore or brave the seas. In the middle of an intense research project into the history of the Taku and Snettisham areas, the old Taku Village site came to mind, located somewhere on the beaches between Pt. Salisbury and Pt. Bishop—beaches that, independent of their history, had caught my eye many times on the way up the Taku as potentially good camping and picnic areas.

A brisk wind whipped around town Saturday morning and was calling for 3-5’ seas at the end of Gastineau Channel, so I drove out to the rock dump on the way to the grocery store to see if the channel were really that bad. I saw nothing alarming, so we ate lunch, packed up, and headed out around 3:20. Much to my surprise, the channel was practically calm, most of the breeze following us out rather than crossing the channel as in a Taku wind. Close to Salisbury we had the eerie experience of feeling no wind in our faces when we stood up at speed; apparently our forward progress matched the speed of the wind at our stern, so standing up was like being in a bubble (rather than having the wind whip our faces). A single humpback whale sounded in the distance.

Turning the corner, Taku Inlet showed a more benign face than expected, hardly showing more than a ripple. We looked at the forecast, which suggested improving seas the next day, and spontaneously decided to head to Snettisham instead of camping. Swayed by the idea of spring migrants, possible smelt, and hungry hummingbirds, I was drawn south under the sunny skies. The seas were pleasant most of the way down, building a little as we approached Snettisham, and then we got a little beaten up through the port and over to the homestead. The wind was blowing briskly down the river, a fairly rare event during the summer. There was a healthy smattering of loons and murrlets, many Bonaparte’s gulls, and a horned grebe that dove in front of the boat. Leaving all our camping gear on board (which was most of our cargo), Chris carried almost everything up in one load and, after opening the lodge and satisfying myself that it was intact, I anchored the boat farther downriver than unusual, as I expected a low tide departure.

Back on land, Cailey raced in happy circles on the meadow and Chris reported that all cabins were standing, but that I should look at the bridge. Though it was intact, two large branches were laying across it and more were caught in the branches just above. We opened up Hermit Thrush, then I started getting the lodge ready while Chris cleared the bridge. I was surprised to find a note taped to the stovepipe in the cabin—had someone stopped by and written a note!? Of course not! It was from myself, reminding me to move the stove back a few inches from the wall where I’d nudged it so the hole would support the horizontal stack. It was obviously a good reminder! I lit the pilots on the stove, which worked flawlessly, Chris helped me secure the stove pipe, I made up some hummingbird food, and we had wine and cookies on the porch. Bird activity wasn’t as manic as it sometimes is in spring (maybe I’m too late, or possibly too early), but there was still a lot going on. American pipits, northwestern crows, and American robins fed in the intertidal zone; a Lincoln’s sparrow bopped around the benches below us; hummingbirds sipped charmingly at the pink salmonberry blossoms; and golden-crowned kinglets, sooty grouse, Pacific wrens, and varied thrushes sang all around. Later I would hear the first hermit thrush of the year as the light faded, and again the next morning at dawn.

Since the weather was so lovely and we’d intended to camp anyway, we decided to brave the large and hungry mosquitoes and have a campfire. Chris got the fire going while I cooked macaroni and cheese and took a couple GPS readings of the SW corner of the property. We ate and drank wine around the fire until dusk, then carried blankets to Hermit Thrush, lit the little buddy propane heater for a few minutes to warm it up, and turned in for the night.

Despite about an hour in the middle of the night fighting mosquitoes (until Chris finally asked if the window might be open because of the propane heater, which it was), I slept very well. Cailey came up on the bed in the morning during the mosquito fiasco and helped keep us warm. I got up around eight, fed Cailey, and headed up to the olive barrel with dish gloves, Torsten’s GPS, camera, and hoe. When nearly there, I backtracked to close the valves on the cabin lines, but found them already shut.

Up at the top of the system, the creek and olive barrel looked much as I’d left them. I set to work pulling the larger rocks out of the barrel’s hollow from the previous year and using them to block and divert the main current away so I could clear it out better. The hoe was doing a great job of scraping out the smaller stones, but I soon remembered that I needed to replace the screens over the mouth of the barrel before placing it in the stream. I left the project until the next trip, took a GPS waypoint, and headed back down to Hermit Thrush rather than back to the lodge. I took its GPS location, then the location of the corner marker on the creek, then Harbor Seal, then I tried to get one on the rocky point. But the battery died, so I headed back to the lodge, stopping on the way to see if it had recharged enough for another reading. I managed to get a location on the other two cabins, so I returned to the point and took one there and then one at the lodge and one around where the NW corner is (which doesn’t have a marker or a tree, but only bearing trees; I simply guessed at the intersection of the two adjacent lines).

By that time, water was hot and Chris and I were ready for tea and donuts on the front porch. There were ducks on the water, but the bright sun rendered them little more than silhouettes with white heads, so I’m not sure what they were. I did hear Townsend’s warblers, though, and the hummingbirds were beginning to come to the feeder (which they had not the night before). We watched the mud shore creep toward the boat as the tide lowered and decided to head out. I put the cooler on the kayak and headed to the water while Chris papered the windows and closed up. The kayak ride was short and the water very shallow, and though the boat was obviously floating I was worried about grounding it while trying to pick up the anchor. Thankfully, we were in a deep channel and the boat never went aground as I pulled us back upriver. Rather than relying on the current taking us to deep water (the tide would fall for another hour and I didn’t want to get stuck), I started the motor as soon as I could and carried us past the shoals and then shut down. I fueled up, got the boat organized, and met Chris at the edge of deep water, leaving the kayak up at the edge of high tide behind a log and tied securely to a tree. I took the paddle, unable to think of a place where it would be safe from curious bears.

There was still a breeze coming down the river (despite the SE wind that was supposed to blow in that morning), so the ride out of the port was very comfortable with a following sea most of the way. A prodigious number of lions were on the rocks at the haulout. Not surprisingly, we were against the seas in Stephen’s Passage, but they were smooth rollers and, though they slowed us down, were not terribly uncomfortable. The chop got much worse around Grave Point where we started to hug the coast rather than crossing to Grand Island. Since we’d left early and hadn’t camped at historical locations as intended, we decided to do some exploring on the way home. The first stop was Point Greely on the south side of Taku Inlet where I’d read there’d been a village of several clan houses and perhaps 100 smaller houses. There were at least 40 lions at Circle Point as we passed, including one long individual on a nicely slanted crevasse apart from the others who looked all the world like a log. The going was slow, smacking against the steady, low chop, and we inched our way across Slocum Inlet to the first likely looking beach. It was actually a spectacular beach of oval rocks, sloping steeply up to the forest. There was a large rusty barrel or pipe structure up there, but we decided it was likely flotsam. The most intriguing find was raspberries growing at the edge of the beach—not native, but easily naturalized in Juneau gardens—and black currents farther in, a prized wild berry. The woods showed no sign of civilization, but Chris found some large bones which could hardly have been from anything smaller than a bear, and I found what appeared to be a pile of bear scat filled with reddish berries on which one or more wolves had pooped dark scat full of deer hair. The beach had quite a few interesting, spiky crab shells and Chris found the jaw of slender fish with tiny teeth which I have yet to identify.

With a choppy ride ahead we decided to forgo further Greely explorations in favor of getting across the inlet and checking out the other side. The ride was less bumpy but more splashy than before as we were in the trough or quartering the seas, but we made it across in good time and soon found what my dad describes as Mary Joyce’s cabin, where she’d stay if the inlet was too rough to make it to the lodge. It was situated just above high tide line and at the bottom of a steep slope up; the roof was gone and the log walls collapsing, but the stone fireplace was intact and I enjoyed the decorative rock work, wondering if someone had personally selected the small round rocks concreted in a neat line across the face. I climbed the slope and found the trail to Pt. Bishop. There was lots of porcupine sign, both in hidey holes (one of which was at least five feet deep under a large root mass on the slope beside the cabin) and in the fresh feeding marks on the trunk of a tree.

From there cruised the shoreline toward Point Salisbury looking for the location of the Taku Village, T'aaku X'aka.aan. There were three possibilities—the bite closer to Bishop and two long adjacent beaches closer to Salisbury. Once we were there, the location was obvious; the Bishop beach was too small and did not have the right backdrop (I had a photo) and the northern of the two Salisbury beaches was too rocky behind the beach. We went ashore at the far end of that beach and had a picnic lunch of smoked salmon, sausage, smoked cheddar, and sun  chips, gazing out at the stunning view of Stephen’s Passage in the spring sunshine and enjoying the relative calm in the lee of Point Bishop.

After lunch I entered the woods and headed south looking for clues. I passed a stone block with two supports sticking out of it that may have held a headstone at one time, but I knew I was at the village site when the forest on the slope behind the beach bore only skinny second growth trees. The photo I’d seen showed this slope cleared of timber. I found an old cabin, slumped toward the water, just inside the alders in a level patch between rocky outcrops, a lovely place for a home. I was initially uncertain about its vintage, in part because there was some artistic graffiti on the inside and because there were no other ruins around it except for the top of something which might have been a tub. I moved on, splitting my time between the lowlands just above the high tide line and the Point Bishop trail on the rise above, searching for clues. I got excited when I saw another cabin, but it turned out to be an Alascom building with no trespassing signs around it. In several places big patches of spruce bark were scraped clean by porcupines, some of them glistening with fresh sap.

Further on, and right on the trail, I passed a cluster of grave stones. Most had fallen or perhaps were always horizontal and I could discern writing on only three of them. One said “Mary Mother of Ben and….” And then the moss took over. Another included a Tlingit name and a very faint carving of what I think was a bear. The last was Gambier Bay Jim’s headstone, upright and fully legible. It showed his death as 1926, long after the village was abandoned. Perhaps his family brought him back there to be buried, and still maintain the headstone. One large obelisk had fallen and lay in a stream. I passed by as respectfully as I could, careful not to touch anything. A little further on I came across a lovely nook between two jutting rock promontories on the beach level which sported two structures, a cabin on the north side and an outhouse a few paces away on the south side. The mountain sloped in an arc behind them both. What a cozy place for a home! The roof on the cabin was mostly collapsed, but the walls were still standing, the wooden shelves built into them prompting a pang of longing in me for simple cabin living. A shed-like structure was built onto the side of it and now harbored a prodigious pile of porcupine poop in the corner. The outhouse and its hole were similarly filled with poop and even a clump of porcupine hair.

That cabin was just at the end of the smooth beach before it became rocky again as it approached Salisbury. I turned around and meandered back along the beach and the forest, picking up as much trash from around the cabins as I could carry. I saw a very obvious path leading from the beach up the slope and followed it in the hopes that it would take me somewhere interesting. This very human-like path meandered up and ended at the base of a large spruce tree. Porcupine trail!

Having taken a close look at the second cabin and outhouse, I was more convinced of the vintage of the first cabin when I returned to it, which seemed to fit the rate of decay of other (protected) cabins of that era. This time I noticed that its walls were insulated with several inches of wood chips. The most puzzling thing is that these cabins apparently remained in recognizable condition when the rest of the village vanished. Were the others scavenged for lumber while these were maintained beyond the normal life of the village? Did their locations in protected enclaves help preserve them? Perhaps they were actually built later? I doubt I’ll ever know. Regardless, I was delighted to have found the village site and hope to continue to learn about it. Somehow the idea that humanity had ceded the area to porcupines made it all seem a bit less sad.

I touched base with Chris back at the boat, then left him and Cailey there while I returned to Mary Joyce’s cabin to pick up my SPOT which I’d accidentally left transmitting on the rocks there. Pulling up at a much higher tide, I took advantage of a narrow path free of large rocks just the right size for my skiff. It seemed too perfect to be natural—could it have been a deliberate skiff path, cleared by the cabin’s users? I took a few pictures, picked up Chris and Cailey, and we headed back to Juneau on a gentle following sea.


Exploring at beach

Fun flotsam

Chris in Mary Joyce's cabin

Looking out Mary Joyce's cabins' door

Skiff entrance to Mary Joyce's cabin

Cabin and outhouse from above

Inside of cabin

Front of cabin

Taku Village site, 2014

Taku Village, 1914

Trucky all loaded up for home


Exploring a beach near Greely Point