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E. W. Eickelberg, Hydrographic and Geodetic Engineer
U. S. Coast and Geodetic Survey
(From the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey
no. 10, December 1936)

There is an area of uncompleted hydrography and topography lying about 40 miles north of Cape Spencer in the Gulf of Alaska, between Lituya Bay and Yakutat Bay. It is a region of great natural beauty. Mount Fairweather and Mount Crillon, part of the Fairweather Range and so useful to the navigator and hydrographer dominate the picture. This range is one of the highest groups of coastal mountain peaks on the face of the earth and has been the scene of a number of unsuccessful as well as successful attacks by climbing parties. Lituya Bay usually has been the base for such operations. It is a "T" shaped bay, eleven square miles in area, the bottom of the "T" affording a narrow and treacherous connection to the Pacific Ocean. The entrance channel is only 80 yards in width and about 18 feet deep through which the large volume of water created by a tidal range of from 5 to 10 feet must pass four times daily. The ebb and flood currents reach maximum velocities estimated at 12 knots. The ebb current causes the most dangerous condition at the entrance by breaking up the ocean swell into a bedlam of smaller cross seas in which no small craft would long remain afloat. The general depth of the bay is about 100 fathoms, although there is a good anchorage in a bight just inside the entrance and well out of the strong current. Glaciers come down to the water's edge in both arms of the bay, discharging icebergs into the bay.

graphic drawing of mountains and bay area
Entrance Lituya Bay. In: Pacific Coast Pilot Alaska Part I 1883. P. 202. Library call number VK943 .N3 1883.

The first record of Lituya Bay (although Captain Cook(2) reported the existence of the Fairweather Range in 1778) is by the French explorer La Perouse(1) who navigated its treacherous entrance with two frigates in 1786, a very nice piece of seamanship. He made a survey and map of the bay on a scale of 1:50,000, which map, when compared with more recent surveys, discloses the fact that the glaciers at the head of the bay have advanced so that the distance between them has changed from 8 nautical miles to about three. That this is without doubt a real movement is evidenced by the unusual accuracy of the other features on the map when compared with the modern surveys. La Perouse also made astronomical observations and recorded the plant and animal life, Indian life and culture. While his fleet was anchored in the bay six officers and fifteen men in two small boats approached too close to the entrance while they were surveying the bay and were swept out to sea in the strong ebb current. The boats were swamped in the broken sea and all hands were lost.

In 1874, seven years after the purchase of Alaska, the Coast and Geodetic Survey schooner YUKON, in charge of Acting Assistant W. H. Dall, with Marcus Baker as astronomical observer, entered Lituya bay for the determination of elevations of the Fairweather Peaks and for astronomical observations. A brief account of this project is quoted here from the Superintendent's report, Coast Survey 1875.(3)(4)

"On the 3rd of May, 1874, Mr. Dall took up the coast reconnaissance at Sitka, and from thence in passing up the coast recorded current and temperature observations and plotted soundings. Vertical angles were measured to determine the heights of mountains in that region that serve as landmarks at sea. Observations for time, azimuth, and latitude were made at Lituya Entrance, and the position given on most charts found to be erroneous. The chart of the inner bay, by La Perouse, was tested, and proved to be generally accurate. Here the party on the YUKON had much difficulty in preventing the persistent attempts of the natives to board the vessel, but fortunately they were kept off without bloodshed. It is added in the report that these natives distill their own rum, and are well supplied with the best kinds of firearms. Before leaving the place, observations were made for correcting the positions heretofore assigned to Mount Fairweather and Mount Crillon. It is recorded that except at slack water the sea breaks quite across the entrance to Lituya Bay, even in calm weather.

"A few days following the 20th of May were occupied in hydrographic work at Dry Bay, in reaching which the YUKON passed the seaward face of the Grand Plateau Glacier of La Perouse. Mr. Dall procured data for a corrected sketch of the Bay, and for a general chart of the coast southward as far as Lituya Entrance. Of the region inland, he says: 'The scenery is grand; the mountains, reaching 16,000 feet above the sea, are bedded in forest lowlands, and are scored by enormous glaciers.'"

As a matter of passing interest it is noted that "on the 29th of September, the YUKON sailed from Unalaska (in the Aleutian Archipelago) for San Francisco and arrived there 13 days later after a stormy passage." The YUKON was a two masted schooner of 100.7 tons, 83.1 feet by 23.5 feet by 8-2/3 feet draft. She was built in Kennebunk, Maine in 1873.

Although nothing is reported of the earlier Russian visits to this region, it is known that they discovered gold deposits in the sands along the beach north and south of Lituya Bay and placer-mined them for some time. In 1894 Americans began to work these placers and continued to do so for a number of years. In 1926 there was still some evidence of the gold mining of previous years along the beach. Some of the old machinery and workings were identified and one of the gold-rush pioneers, Mr. Jim Huscroft, then engaged in fox farming, was living on Cenotaph Island. Also in 1894 a topographic map of Lituya Bay was made by the International Boundary Commission, published by the Alaskan Boundary Tribunal, and included in The Atlas of Award. This collection contains 25 sectional maps of the Alaskan boundary and was printed in 1904. In 1906 a U. S. Geological Survey party, headed by F. E. and C. W. Wright, spent three days in Lituya Bay. In 1917 J. B. Mertie, Jr., U. S. Geological Survey, spent three days in Lituya Bay making geological observations and collecting fossils. This work is described in Bulletin 836-B(5) entitled "Notes on the Geography and Geology of Lituya Bay, Alaska." It is prefaced by a very interesting history of the region and lists many references.

In 1926 the Coast and Geodetic Survey Ship SURVEYOR, after several seasons of work in the Gulf of Alaska, reached the region of Icy Point about 30 miles below Lituya Bay. Triangulation was extended 7 miles north of this point to a position just south of La Perouse Glacier. On account of the difficult terrain, high peaks, and glaciers, and the fact that much of the beach north of this point was suitable for traverse, it was decided to carry the control by this method rather than by triangulation. This work is well described in a season's report by the Commanding Officer, A. M. Sobieralski,(6) and a special traverse report by the writer included therein giving recommendations for future work.

Many interesting features were connected with this work. Due to uncertain landing conditions the topography and traverse were done mostly from camp. Most of the walking in sand and gravel, particularly at high tide, was very tedious inasmuch as rubber boots has to be worn for crossing glacier streams. One of the men, without rubber boots, attempting to cross the stream coming out of La Perouse Glacier, failed in three attempts; and returning to shore after the third attempt, dropped to the ground because his limbs collapsed under him probably due to lack of circulation. A tape thermometer immersed in the stream gave a temperature of +0.50 centigrade.

Some of these streams were deep enough so that they could not be waded. In such cases the party went upstream a short distance and felled trees to serve as bridges. The streams were usually narrow enough so that they could be spanned by a fifty meter tape. In only one case was triangulation necessary to carry control across a stream.

This difficult traverse had its compensation however. For a distance of 12 miles the sandy beach was bordered by one continuous bed of strawberries indulged in both by members of the party and by native brown bears (not simultaneously).

Several hunting parties started from camp but none of them ever was successful in getting a bear. On one occasion one of the seamen returned out of breath, and upon asking him where the other man in the party was, he explained that their service rifle had jammed in shooting at a large bear and that he had made for camp in obvious and prudent haste while his companion had climbed a tree.

The salmon and trout fishing were, of course, excellent in this isolated area. In Lituya Bay salmon fishing was particularly interesting and was indulged in frequently by members of the SURVEYOR's complement who were cautioned to keep away from the entrance during ebb tide. In the excitement of landing a salmon, two of the men in a skiff were swept out to sea and their boat was swamped. They had left the ship after supper and were not missed until after dark when search parties were organized which proceeded along the beach in both directions from the bay. These parties returned to the ship without having found any trace of the missing men. At daybreak search parties were again sent out and soon located the men asleep under some brush for a cover. The noise of the approaching party had not awakened them because of their sound sleep resulting from sheer exhaustion in their efforts to reach shore. After they were swamped they clung to the skiff long enough to remove their clothing and managed to swim ashore.

In this same year Allen Carpé and Dr. William S. Ladd of New York City and Andrew S. Taylor of McCarthy, Alaska made an unsuccessful attempt to scale Mount Fairweather from Sea Otter Bight 25 miles north of Lituya Bay.

In 1930 H. Bradford Washburn, Jr. made a similar unsuccessful attempt. In June of 1931 Carpé, Ladd and Taylor and Terris Moore of Haddonfield, New Jersey, operating from Lituya Bay, were successful in reaching the summit of Mount Fairweather.(7)

The Harvard-Dartmouth Alaska Expeditions of 1933 and 1934 have been described by H. Bradford Washburn, Jr. and Richard P. Goldthwait in various journals. The purpose of these expeditions was to make scientific observations in connection with glacier movement, thickness of the ice, and other phenomena, and also for the purpose of scaling Mount Crillon. All of the aims of the expedition were achieved, Mr. Washburn's party succeeded in reaching the top in July, 1934.(8)(9)

An interesting feature of this work was the use of a seaplane in transferring equipment from Lituya Bay to Crillon Lake where a base camp was established. The seaplane was again used in transferring 900 pounds of canned food and tents separated into 31 wire-bound packages and dropped from the air into the snow at an elevation of 5600 feet for the establishment of another camp. No parachutes were placed on the packages and although they fell nearly 1000 feet there was very little breakage; only a few tins of vegetables were broken. In this way they accomplished in a single day the work of six men for two weeks which would have been required had the material been packed to this location.

The work on the glaciers involved the application of seismic methods in the measurement of their thicknesses.(10) Artificial earthquakes caused by blasts of from 1 to 5 pounds of dynamite generated the necessary waves. The apparatus consisted of 2 geophones, (vertical seismometers) recording through galvanometers on moving photographic tape. A tuning fork furnished time control, and phase interpretations were made with an accuracy of .001 of a second. The thickness of the ice was determined by reflections from the underlying rock. The shape of the bottom profile was very similar to the shape of the bottom of Crillon Lake which was determined by measuring the depth of water. This lake has a bowl-shaped bottom. It is 640 feet deep and its surface is 315 feet above sea level. The bottom is therefore considerably below sea level. Observations were made for determining the speed of movement of the glaciers. It was found that this varies throughout the day. In the early morning, at noon and again at sunset the ice moves nearly twice as fast as at other times during the day. The ice movement also depends largely upon the weather, and an average is 40 cm. in 12 hours during clear weather. This drops to as low as 19 cm. for 12 hours during the night in rainy weather. The observing was done with theodolites on targets and lights. An excellent reconnaissance map was compiled from existing data and the U. S. Forest Service air photographs, using as control the Coast and Geodetic Survey traverse and triangulation stations supplemented by the expedition's own triangulation. This map is on a scale of 1:40,000 and was compiled at the Institute of Geographical Exploration, Harvard University. A copy of this map reproduced on a scale of 1:100,000 may be found with the articles in references 9 and 10.

The difficulties of mountain climbing in this region are well described by Washburn. He says: "One must wade to climb;" in other words land through surf and start to climb in wet clothing. He says rightly: "There are no huts, no porters and no guides but the beauty of the country casts a spell which is well-nigh impossible to shake off."

List of References:
(1) 1786 La Perouse, "A Voyage Around the World," Vol. 1, London, 1799, pp. 364 - 416.

1894 Notes on the glaciers of southeastern Alaska and adjoining territory: Geog. Jour. Vol. 14, pp. 524 - 526, 1899.

(2) 1778 "Cook's Last Voyage," Vol. 2, 1784, pp. 345 - 6.

(3) Report of the Superintendent, U. S. Coast Survey, 1875, Appendix No. 10 and also Section 12, page 64.

(4) Alaska Tertiary Deposits; American Journal of Science, Vol. 24, pp. 67, 68, 1882, W. H. Dall.

(5) Notes on the Geography and Geology of Lituya Bay, Alaska; Bulletin 836 B, Dept. of the Interior, Geological Survey.

(6) Seasons Report for 1927, No. 102, Coast and Geodetic Survey Ship SURVEYOR, season March 22 to November 7, 1926.

(7) The Conquest of Mount Fairweather by Allen Carpé; Alpine Journal, Vol. 43, 1931; pp. 221 - 230.

(8) The Conquest of Mount Crillon, by H. Bradford Washburn, The National Geographic Magazine, March 1935, Vol. LXVII.

(9) The Harvard - Dartmouth Alaska Expeditions 1933-34 by H. Bradford Washburn, Jr., & Richard P. Goldthwait, Geographical Journal, London, Vol. LXXXVII, June 1936, pp. 481 - 495.

(10) Seismic Sounding on South Crillon & Klooch Glaciers by Richard P. Goldthwait; Geog. Jour., London, Vol. LXXXVII, June 1936, pp. 496 - 517.

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