Green Guide

Redoubt Lake, Bay yield historic artifacts

Posted September 9

— Sitka Maritime Heritage Society has taken a plunge into exploring the underwater history of the Sitka area with an organized dive project at Reboubt Bay and in Redoubt Lake, south of town.

Society Director Jenya Anichenko said the underwater exploration project in July resulted in the documentation of cultural resources of the Redoubt area, thanks to the help of local volunteers, state and federal agencies and the Sitka Fire Department dive team.

Using traditional search and rescue techniques, divers discovered the remains of a boat and an anchor in the lake and a grinding wheel in the bay. The finds answered some questions and raised others, Anichenko said.

Did the anchor and boat belong to the Russian era of Alaskan history, or did they end up in the lake later? Why and how did they come to their resting place?

Located 10 miles south of town, Redoubt has been an important Tlingit subsistence and cultural site since pre-contact times. The Russians established the Ozerskoi settlement around 1805, shortly after the founding of New Archangel (Sitka).

Over the years, divers have found various items, providing the impetus for more formal archaeological dives. In the 1980s, Fish and Game divers Dave Gordon and David Barto located large anchors and remains of a wooden boat in the lake. Diver Mike Martello found a grinding stone in the bay near the outlet into the lake.

Dave McMahan, who was the official state archaeologist at the time, advocated for investigating the finds, particularly because of their possible connection with the Russian occupation of the site, but the project languished until this year for various reasons, Anichenko said.

"Exploration of submerged cultural site is typically a demanding undertaking, particularly in Alaska," she said. "It requires special equipment, boats, accomplished divers and knowledge of the principles of underwater archaeology."

This year, the project came about when representatives of Sitka Maritime Heritage Society, the Sitka Fire Department dive team and the U.S. Forest Service got together to form a plan.

Anichenko and maritime society board member Brinnen Carter, who is an archaeologist with the National Park Service, approached Forest Service Sitka District Ranger Perry Edwards and SFD dive team captain Troy Tydingco and Lt. Bob Reid with a proposal to explore the previously reported finds in the Redoubt Lake.

"With the blessing of Fire Chief Dave Miller, and the permits from the Alaska state Office of History and Archaeology and the Forest Service, the team ... embarked on a search for the sunken history of Redoubt Lake," Anichenko said. She and Carter, both PhDs in underwater archaeology, were the project archaeologists.

The team consisted of Tydingco, Reid, Lynn Wilbur, Joel Markis, Denise Turley, Teka Lamade, Jeffrey Reinhardt, Greg George, Dave Johnson, John Midgett, Herb McClenahan, Jenny Klejka and Pat Bean. Chris Leeseberg, a Forest Service biologist, provided bear protection and drove one of the boats.

Anichenko said the lake is a natural for an archaeological dive, for several reasons.

Besides its traditional use as an important subsistence area, colonial Russian workers harvested salmon and conducted a wide range of industrial and agricultural activities that supported the larger settlement at Sitka. Initially, a saltery was operated at the site to prepare fish for consumption in Sitka

Historian James R. Gibson said that his research indicated the Russians caught 75,000 red, pink and silver salmon there each year, and brought the fish to Sitka in kayaks and wooden boats. Salted salmon was stored for the winter and shipped as far as California and Hawaii. By the 1820s, the settlement consisted of a house for the manager and barracks for the workers surrounded by a palisade.

Outside the fort were barracks for hunters, a wind-powered flour mill, a water-powered mill, a tannery, fish processing building, weir and a fish pond, according to Gibson. Grain and cow hides were shipped from the Ross settlement in northern California to supply the flour mill and tannery.

A sawmill was built in the early 1830s to meet the demands of ship and house building and renovation in Sitka. The Russian settlement is also said to have served as a retirement community for employees of the Russian-American Company outside the fort, and possibly as a penal colony as well where convicts were sentenced to labor.

After the sale of Alaska to the United States in 1867, a cannery was operated there until the early 20th century, according to Gibson.

Anichenko said the recent two days of archaeological diving allowed for some insights.

On the first day, the team located the previously discovered remains of the wooden boat and the grinding stone. The location of the grinding stone in the bay near the outfall from the lake provides a clue to where the mill was located, she said. In 1840 the water in the lake rose 5 feet above its usual high water level, smashing the water locks and destroying a portion of the mill, according to Gibson.

The current placement of grinding stone in Redoubt Bay may have been a result of this event, Anichenko said.

"The wooden boat remains are more enigmatic," she said. Found in the lake about a few hundred feet from the outlet to the bay, the surviving section is 23 feet long, indicating a 28- to 30-foot long round-bottomed wooden watercraft of light construction, likely propelled by oars.

Boats like these were in use for most of the 19th and 20th centuries, which makes the find difficult to date. The fact that this boat is at an advanced state of decomposition, however, may indicate that it is not a recent watercraft. Fresh water environments typically allow for good wood preservation, she said.

"It may be speculated that the wreck is well over 50 years old, but further research and analysis are required for conclusive dating and identification," she said.

Tydingco said both boat and grinding stone were found in the general proximity to where they were expected to be, based on accounts from divers over the years. Divers knew about the anchor but not the exact location, making the discovery of it even more remarkable, Tydingco said.

"It was pretty exciting," he said. "We had been searching all day. On the last dive of the day, we found it."

He said it was a unique find, out of place from where one would expect it to be.

Anichenko said the anchor represents the type known as the wooden stock Admiralty Old Pattern long-shanked anchor, commonly used throughout the 18th century.

She compared the eight-foot anchor to one found on the shipwreck site of the Russian-American Company bark Kad'yak, which sank near Kodiak Island in 1860. That anchor's stock was long gone by the time it was discovered, but the Redoubt anchor's wooden stock was found intact.

"The Redoubt Lake fresh water environment preserved the stock in nearly perfect condition, allowing for potential study of the wood and identification of its origins," Anichenko said. "The anchor itself is heavily corroded and would require a lengthy conservation treatment if removed from its current environment."

Anichenko said there are a few theories about why the eight-foot anchor was found in the shallows of Redoubt Lake, but that it's position is somewhat enigmatic.

"The Redoubt Lake anchor is comparatively small for this type, suggesting that it could have been either a main anchor on a small ocean-going vessel or a smaller anchor, perhaps a kedge, on a larger vessel," she said. "Too big for a lake watercraft, it must have been deliberately positioned here. Perhaps it was used as an anchor for a floating structure, or held down logs piled across a shallow portion of the lake to create the fish pond mentioned in Russian sources."

But she and others are fairly confident it was in the lake as a result of Russian activities, and represents the time when a little settlement on Redoubt Lake played an important role in the supply and trade network that connected Alaska with California, Hawaii and Russia, she said.

Anichenko said the project is a part of the Sitka Maritime Heritage Society's new initiative "Our Submerged History," which seeks to extend knowledge about and appreciation of important underwater sites in the Sitka area by collaborating with other professional and private agencies, and the community of Sitka at large.

For the dive team, it was an opportunity to practice, and help the maritime society, said Tydingco. The dive team is a part of the fire department, called upon to perform underwater searches for the police or other investigative agencies.

"We have some technical training beyond recreational diving," Tydingco said. "It was a good opportunity to hone the techniques and do something cool other than throwing out a plastic gun and finding it. It was doing something useful."

Although no one on the team was a trained archaeologist, divers were definitely interested in adding to the body of knowledge about the lake.

"We have a lot of history here," Tydingco said. "One of the things I'm interested in is the old junk from Russian times, pottery shards and bottles."

He said he and the others enjoyed participating in the project, which was a good fit for his crew.

"We spend a lot of time looking for things you don't find; it's cool to find something," he said.

Anichenko said she's excited to continue the partnership with the dive team, and looks forward to finding other partnership opportunities that take research out of the "ivory tower" setting.

The artifacts found in the project will be left in place. Anichenko said archaeological resources - from both above and below water - are protected under various laws and yield more information if original context is preserved.

She added that pairing local knowledge with awareness of historic importance of the sites can help contribute to the preservation of these sites.

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