Natural history expeditions in Alaska
The Endeavour in Taan Fjord, Icy Bay, with Mount St Elias in the background. (Photo: Author)
I’m walking on a wide sandy beach at low tide in a nameless bay on the north side of Kayak Island, off the coast of Alaska. It’s mid-July with a broken overcast. Fog comes spilling over the ridge from the far side of the island. The beach ahead curves around to my right. The salty smell of the wet sand mixes with the tang of the spruce. There is a chorus of phlemy croaks from the eighteen sea lions (I counted) across the water, lounging in piles on the two rocks at the end of the reef that forms the bay. My aluminum skiff is on the beach behind me, tied to a rock but already hard on the sand, left by the outgoing tide. There’s no one else here, just my short-legged dog, Bella, crisscrossing the beach ahead of me, nose to the sand. The skiff will be floating again by the time we’re back.
Kayak Island is long and thin and juts awkwardly out into the Gulf of Alaska. It’s 17 nautical miles from end to end, running from the northeast to the southwest, and only a mile and a half or so wide. There is a spine of sharp peaks down the island, building toward 1440 feet at the southwest end. No one lives on Kayak Island, or on its smaller neighbor to the north, Wingham Island, or anywhere else nearby.
They call this exposed stretch of Alaska the “Lost Coast.” In the 350 nautical miles from Cordova south to Cross Sound, there is only one village – Yakutat, with 620 people. There are very few good anchorages and no one to help you if you get in trouble. I love it here.
I’m on Kayak Island today scouting landing sites and rock outcroppings. I’ll be back with a group of paleontologists in about a month, and I need to know where we can bring the skiff in safely, and where we might find fossils. I left my little ship, the 72-foot research vessel Endeavour, anchored about five miles away in the lee of Wingham Island. The only person on board is Patsy, my wife.
Patsy and I run a tiny non-profit organization called Alaska Endeavour. We host scientific expeditions from Southeast up this lost coast into Prince William Sound around to Kenai Fjords out to the Aleutians and up into the Bering Sea. We focus on maritime Alaska because this wilderness is unique in its scale and its beauty, and it’s relatively untouched compared to any other temperate coast on Earth. Our researchers are archeologists, biologists, geologists, ornithologists, anthropologists, glaciologists, artists, filmmakers, and historians. We also take small teams of students out to do baseline studies of remote locations.
Alaska Endeavour’s mission is simple. It’s to support and promote science and help tell the natural history story of Alaska. By doing that, we support conservation and preservation.
Ironically, to protect wilderness, you have to share it. People need to know what’s here and understand why this wilderness is important to all of us beyond board feet of lumber, barrels of oil, or tons of ore. My way of sharing – after bringing researchers out here and getting them back safely – is to write about it. That’s why I publish this ship’s log.
The sea lions – Steller sea lions – are keeping up their cacophony across the bay. These are big animals. Males average about 10 feet long and weigh about 1,200 pounds, with massive heads and necks (hence the “lion” part of their name). Females are almost as long but are sleek and weigh about half as much. You can tell sea lions from seals by their much larger size and their visible ears. But you won’t often see a sea lion. The Alaska population is 20% of what it was in the 1970s, probably because they’re competing for food with us humans. They are listed as endangered under the United States Endangered Species Act. These particular sea lions on these particular rocks are historically interesting.
Almost exactly 280 years ago, a German naturalist and medical doctor named Georg Steller stepped onto this beach. He was off the Russian two-masted brig, the St. Peter, captained by Vitus Bering, a Dane. The crew needed fresh water. They rowed their longboat in and probably beached it where my skiff is now: it’s the most protected landing in the bay and the one creek empties right there. The historical consensus is that Steller and the other men in the longboat were the first non-Natives to step foot on Alaska soil.
Bering gave Steller only ten hours to explore the island – he was desperate to get back to Russia – but in those ten hours Steller pulled off a natural history grand slam. He collected and took notes on dozens of new plants, birds, and animals, including what today we call Steller’s jay, Steller’s sea cow, and Steller’s sea lion. From his jay and its similarities to its eastern cousins 2,850 miles away, Steller understood that he was on the west coast of North America. The sea cow – a sort of giant manatee – would be hunted to extinction in only 27 years – leaving Steller’s description our best record of the animal. The sea lions he first saw could be the ancestors of these sea lions here today: Steller would have rowed right by those two rocks.
Steller returned to the St. Peter and never set foot on Alaska again. Before getting home, he died of a fever in Siberia. He was buried by his shipmates, then dug up by the local people for his coat. Then wolves ate his eyes. He was 37.
After a couple of hours, Bella and I are back at the skiff. The little boat is floating again. We climb in, and Bella takes her place in the bow, on the lookout, tense as a fishing line with a 100-pound halibut on it. I crank the outboard and we head slowly and quietly out of the bay. Before the sun goes down, the rising tide will wipe our tracks from the beach.
We round the rocks at the end of the reef. The sea lions are still croaking. Two bald eagles circle high above. A black cormorant shoots by just off the surface of the water. I scan the rock outcroppings on Wingham Island across the channel. They look stratified, sedimentary or metamorphic. They could hold fossils.
We still have light. Let’s go see.
— William Urschel