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the resurvey of taku inlet

George E. Morris, Jr., Junior Hydrographic and Geodetic Engineer
U. S. Coast and Geodetic Survey

(From the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey
no. 12, December 1938)

Taku Inlet, to all but shallow draft river boats, is a cul-de-sac. There is no cannery or settlement along its shore; yet, each of the four major steamship lines operating a passenger service to Southeastern Alaska is vitally interested in maintaining safe navigation in the inlet. The reason is that Taku Glacier lies at the head of Taku Inlet. This glacier is one of the very few in Southeastern Alaska which is still active, and is, undoubtedly, the most accessible by water of all the glaciers. A visit to Taku Glacier is considered one of the high-lights of the Southeastern Alaska trip from the standpoint of the tourist and is prominently featured in the steamship companies' advertising.

picture of taku glacier
Taku Inlet, Southeast Alaska, 1929
NOAA Photo Library, NOAA Central Library
Family of Captain William M. Scaife, C&GS

An investigation, subsequent to a reported grounding in the late summer of 1936, disclosed that extensive shoaling had occurred off Taku Point and in the turning basin near the glacier. This, together with the commercial importance of Taku Inlet from the maritime standpoint, prompted the Coast and Geodetic Survey to give priority in the program of needed surveys to a resurvey of this area.

The U. S. Coast and Geodetic Survey Motor Vessel WESTDAHL left Seattle on April 6, 1937, arriving in Juneau six days later and began operations in Taku Inlet on April 14. Work was started in the critical areas in the vicinity of Taku Point and in front of Taku Glacier. The deep snow on the beach hampered both triangulation and topographic operations, but had the redeeming feature of presenting a distinct high water-line along the Norris Glacier moraine which, after the snow had melted, was not well defined.

Taku Glacier, being a live glacier, is an especially interesting one. But the glacial activity gave the surveying parties some thrilling moments while working near it. The glacier towers over the low water beach at its southern end and the topographic party was able to approach close to its face while delineating the edge. At one time, the rodman had gone ahead to select a point for a plane table set-up. Stopping before the overhanging face, he called back, "The glacier's dead along here, so this will be a safe spot and you can see well from here. Anyway, if it starts to fall, you can see it in time to run." He marked the spot and returned to the table to help carry the equipment to the new set-up. A sharp crack made the group look up from collecting the equipment in time to see a huge block of ice break from the top of the glacier and fall with a thundering crash, completely obliterating his recently-pronounced "safe" set-up point.

On another occasion, the topographer was working farther away from the shore, leaving the launch engineer to take care of the dinghy. In odd moments, the engineer took moving pictures of small pieces of ice falling from the face of the glacier. While so engaged, he failed to see a much larger piece than the one he was photographing fall into the water, but the loud crash made him look in time to see a small tidal wave racing towards the boat.

The other members of the party, being at a safe vantage point, were able to see all that happened. The topographer reported that "The engineer was out of the boat and making for the beach like greased lightning as soon as he saw the tidal wave. As it struck the dinghy both wave and dinghy came racing up the beach, but he was two jumps ahead -- he broke the sprint record for men dressed in oilskins and seaboots. I'd like to have had a picture of it." The dinghy was deposited without damage nearly one hundred feet from the water line.

Not all of the interesting experiences were experienced by the topographic party, however. It was necessary to take soundings close to the face of the glacier and, while working there, a few tense moments were felt whenever we heard the ominous crack which precedes a fall of ice. Unfortunately for the photographers of the party, but fortunately for the safety of the sounding launch, only small bits sloughed off into the water during the time we were near the face of the ice cliff.

Floating ice was a constant menace and the helmsman always had to be on the alert to avoid striking the small bergs with the boat. At times, the ice was so thick that in spite of the utmost care, it was not possible to miss every piece and, before the hydrography was finished in the vicinity of the glacier, one rainy night was spent in beaching the launch and calking it around the stem.

It is only when a comparison with the original survey is made that one realizes how great the changes in Taku Glacier and Inlet really are. Since 1890 the glacier has advanced into the inlet nearly three miles. This is at the average rate of more than one-half mile every ten years. Early in May a conspicuous discoloration of the face of the glacier was located by triangulation. Ten days later the topographic party located the same spot by plane table triangulation and found that the face of the glacier had advanced into the inlet a distance of fifty feet.

Taku Glacier is most active -- that is, the ice is breaking off most -- at its northern end. The greatest height of the face is slightly less than three hundred feet, but this height varies as ice breaks off and new ice is pushed to the front.

Great quantities of silt are carried down Taku River and most of it is deposited above Taku Point. In 1890 there was a depth of 54 fathoms where now sand cones, formed just in front of the glacier, bare at all stages of the tide. The greatest depth in front of the glacier is at present 27 fathoms. There is good evidence that the glacier has grounded along its entire face. The sand cones have visibly increased in size, and in August depths of less than four feet were found where depths of six fathoms were measured in May. As the glacier advances it pushes the silt ahead of it much like a giant bull-dozer.

The silting at the head of the inlet, with the resulting grounding of the glacier, is no doubt the reason for the rapid forward movement of the face of the glacier. Since the weight of the advancing tongue of ice is supported, the pieces of ice breaking off are not as large as they would be if this part of the glacier was floating.

The channel between Taku Point and the Norris Glacier moraine has shoaled to some extent, but there is still a clear channel approximately one-quarter mile wide with depths of more than ten fathoms.

The Alaska Steamship Company cooperated with the party by carrying one of the EXPLORER'S hydrographic launches from Seattle to Juneau, and then returning the launch to the EXPLORER when the vessel arrived at Wrangell to begin her Alaska field season.

As soon as the critical areas off Taku Point and the glacier were sounded, a tracing of the boat sheet was made showing the depth curves in relation to the shore line. Blueprints of this were furnished the masters of the ships entering the inlet and were available and used by the first ship calling at Taku Glacier on May 17 at the start of the tourist season. As the work progressed the tracing was kept up to date until early in June, when the field work was completed in the northern end of Taku Inlet. Thus, a complete preliminary 1:10,000 scale chart, based on the boat sheet, was available to all interested navigators.

Throughout the season all the masters and navigating officers of the Southeastern Alaska ships entering the inlet expressed their appreciation of having the preliminary chart made available even before the field work was completed. By using this, all ships were able to make their scheduled calls at Taku Glacier in safety.

(This article is accompanied by three un-captioned photographs showing: a survey launch in front of the glacier, a shore party on a knife-edge ridge, and topographic operations.)

*Reprinted through the courtesy of The Alaska Sportsman.

On this particular day the party was working in the bight south of Berg Bay - a particularly choice location for the elusive berry. Seeing the rodman waving frantically and hearing him shouting to hurry up with the rod readings, the rest of the party were at a loss to understand this sudden burst of activity on his part. After each rod reading he would literally run up the beach to the next point, and would again wave frantically and beseech the topographer to hurry and read the rod. He was rodding toward the plane table setup and as he rounded the point and approached closer, the reason for all this agitation was soon apparent; for rounding the point about a hundred yards astern of him, was a black bear of no mean proportions! Each time the rodman stopped to give a reading, Mr. Bear stopped still and stood upright, almost in imitation. When the rodman started up the beach, after him came Mr. Bear on all fours.

This strange game of tag or "hare and hounds" was most amusing to the party gathered around the plane table. Closer and closer came the rodman and after him the bear. It soon became apparent that Mr. Bear was bent on a thorough job of investigating these strange creatures who had apparently interrupted his feast of strawberries. Having no firearms, the party armed themselves with the axe and stood their ground, although ready to take to the boat if necessary. The rodman reached the party and on came Mr. Bear. Brandishing the axe and clubs and letting forth blood curdling yells, the whole party gave a good imitation of a headhunter's dance. In spite of this unholy din, it looked as if a Kit Carson act was called for or else that discretion should be the better part of valor and the entire party would have to retreat to the boat. Just as the party was about to abandon its position, the bear turned around and lumbered off, having approached to within thirty yards of the party.

Many bears were seen by the parties at various times and some of the hydrographic signals were destroyed by them. Tripod signals having red cloth on them seemed to be the big attraction as several of these were destroyed. Bears were seen along the beach on several occasions, presumably eating strawberries, and one spent the entire day wandering up and down, retiring to the bush only when attempts were made to photograph him and appearing again as soon as the photographers returned to the ship.

Bear tracks and wolf tracks are in evidence wherever one lands on the beach and the howling of wolves on the mainland and on some of the Beardslee Islands was not uncommon. Woodchucks or groundhogs of extremely large size were found in many sections. Hair seals are found in large numbers and it is reported that the natives still make sealing expeditions up Muir Inlet and into Beartrack Cove for their supply of sealskins et cetera. The Beardslee Islands are the nesting place for eider ducks, and many geese, ducks and other water fowl are to be found in the lower parts of Glacier Bay. These geese are said to be native of this area and closely resemble the Canadian Honker.

I know of no other place where the sight of one or more whales is a daily occurrence. During the entire time spent in Glacier Bay this season, if visibility permitted, we saw at least one whale each day and at times as many as four or five, often approaching within a few yards of them in the course of our work. At times they seemed most playful and on more than one occasion various members of the party saw them leap clear of the water and come down with a resounding crash, throwing spray a hundred feet or more in the air, apparently from mere exuberance of spirits, for no trace of killer whales was seen at the time. At times they would be close inshore on the reefs, apparently "scraping the barnacles off their bottoms."

Crabs abound in the waters of the bay and more than one feast of this delicious seafood was enjoyed by the entire party. A small amount of commercial crab fishing is carried on, as well as halibut fishing. While anchored at night in Berg Bay, thousands of shrimp, attracted by the lights, were seen swimming around the ship.

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