Title: Wildest Alaska: Journeys of Great Peril in Lituya Bay
Author: Philip L. Fradkin
Publisher: University of California Press
- Describes a part of Alaska ill-fated by geology
- Recounts a prehistory and history marked by calamity
- Delivers hair-raising accounts from a personal visit to Lituya Bay
- Ponders the effect of place on culture in an extreme example
- Well illustrated with line drawings and photos
- Deeply researched, with new information on historic events
- Personal but not confessional
- Geologists will not learn much about geology
- Cannot avoid a campfire-story tone in places
Knowing geology can be informative, but no less unsettling. Given an aerial photo of Lituya Bay and its location on a world tectonic map, one can spot its geologic hazards in minutes, even moments, and summarize them thus: It is a fjord, guarded at its mouth by boulders of an intact terminal moraine, threatened at its head by calving glaciers and oversteepened rock faces that lie in the path of a plate-bounding transpressional fault. The geographer will add that the bay has strong tides and sits in a subarctic setting between the world's highest coastal range and one of its stormiest seas. Made for shipwreck on the outside, landslide tsunamis within and deadly weather the year round, Lituya Bay may be the most dangerous place in the world that is not Antarctica or an erupting volcano.
I visited Lituya Bay one calm day in June 1976 aboard a research vessel, an exhilarating but tense experience. The bay's entire shore was shorn of trees for tens of meters above the high-tide line, and at the bay's head a colossal swath of mountainside some 600 meters high was similarly bare.
A landslide there in 1958, caused by a major earthquake, had pushed a gigantic wave over that mountain's shoulder and out the bay. Find Lituya Bay in Google Earth and you'll see the marks today. My ship seemed very small there beneath the steep walls of ice and stone. A full-grown Alaskan brown bear on the rocky slope looked the size of a mite.
I'm saying that I was ready for hair-raising reading with Philip Fradkin's account in Wildest Alaska: Journeys of Great Peril in Lituya Bay. It is the middle book in his "earthquake trilogy" that includes the California-centered books Magnitude 8 and The Great Earthquake and Firestorms of 1906. Their common theme is that the perils of a place make their mark on the peoples who live there. The geologic hazards of California are dire enough, but Fradkin sought out an even more extreme example.
Geologists expected something like the great wave of 1958, but it and several others in the previous century were surprises to those in and around Lituya Bay. The native Tlingits considered the bay a bad place, visiting only seasonally for hunting and occasional warfare. A water-centered people, the pre-European Tlingits had a horror of death by drowning, which interrupts the soul's cycle of cremation and rebirth, giving rise to baleful beings called Land Otter Men. Lituya Bay had many, and when angry they were known to shake the bay and flush it clean of living things.
Russians of the Bering expedition found the bay in 1741, but lost 15 men there in the vicious seas. The French explorer La Perouse visited the bay in 1786, shortly after a massive drowning of Tlingits in the treacherous harbor entrance. The French likewise lost two boats full of men there, the first calamity to befall that ill-fated expedition.
Russians and Americans followed in their own great waves, devastating the Alaska coast in their mad rush for sea otter pelts, whales and gold. Firearms, diseases and liquor devastated the Tlingits. Shipwreck and harsh winters felled the European sojourners. A great wave swept Lituya Bay in 1853 or 1854. Scientists began to visit, including ethnographers and relic collectors who picked the land clean of its Tlingit artifacts. Today all we have of the Tlingits' worldview, shaped by this deadly coast, are oral tales collected by ethnographers and the large-eyed beings depicted on their old totem poles and artifacts, pilfered without today's scruples for the world's museums.
Another wave came with the 1899 Yakutat earthquake. Gradually human activity slackened, and in the 20th century only fishermen, mountain climbers and researchers ventured into the bay, where hermit Jim Huscroft surveyed things from his cabin on Cenotaph Island (named for La Perouse's monument to his drowned men).
Yet another great wave struck on 27 October 1936. The last and largest came on the night of 9 July 1958, triggered by landslides from a magnitude 8.3 earthquake, wiping away all traces of the earlier ones. Three boats were in the bay at the time; two were swept over the moraine and sank while the third made a miraculous escape. A party of mountain climbers lived by the good fortune of being a day behind schedule. Today, some 50 years later, trees reclaim the scoured land and a canvas is prepared for the next tsunami and the next set of victims.
Fradkin visited Lituya Bay in person, "with great trepidation," in the summer of 1980. He found himself haunted by gruesome shades of the past and by the animus of the place in the form of a persistent grizzly bear, never seen but evident by its sounds and smell. The aftermath of his visit included uncanny encounters with the Tlingit spirit and, near his home on the San Andreas fault, the apparition of a Land Otter Man. One gets a whiff of Coleridge's sea-changed Ancient Mariner in Fradkin's epilogue, and a sense that nature is not only mightier than we imagine, but mightier than we can imagine. Of all of Fradkin's cautionary tales in his earthquake trilogy, those in Wildest Alaska cut closest to the heart as well as the brain.