Story last updated at 8/8/2012 - 1:07 pm
Only a few rivers originate in Canada and flow through the coastal mountains in Southeast Alaska and on to the sea. These are the Stikine near Wrangell, the Unuk near Ketchikan, the Chilkat in Haines, and the Whiting. How many of us have heard of the Whiting River?
It flows 50 miles from the U.S./Canada boundary into Gilbert Bay, an arm of Port Snettisham, south of Juneau. One of the naval officers from the Coast Survey explored the bay in 1888 and named it for a member of his party, assistant surgeon Robert Whiting, USN.
The United States/Canada border was set 30 miles inland from the shoreline. Once an agreement was reached, it was necessary to survey a distinct line. In Southeast, this border was the highest peaks of the Coastal Range. It took many years by groups of rugged men using surveying equipment to establish the exact boundary.
Despite being a wild river and facing unknown dangers, a U.S. Boundary Survey team used the Whiting River to access the snowy peaks. This party of men had the task to locate the peaks between the Taku River and Tracy Arm. Permanent, official markers were placed on the tops of the peaks.
The Whiting River is a typical Southeastern river, with swift water, constantly changing bars and channels and an extensive tide flat at its mouth. The mountains rise directly from the river to a height of 5,000 to 6,000 feet. Imagine the first impressions of the party when it arrived in Port Snettisham. "We have to climb those?!"
Previously an attempt to map the area had taken place. In 1893 a man named McArthur was sent with a party to Snettisham to make a topographical survey. A 1903 International Boundary map shows two peaks and elevations, undoubtedly done by McArthur's party. One was Snow Tower, but the other peak on the south side of the bay has an elevation I can't match with any report.
Things were about to change. Unknown interior Port Snettisham was about to be surveyed. In 1906, a team came with J. D. Craig, "engineer in charge."
At the National Archives branch in Maryland, I found G. Clyde Baldwin, an assistant surveyor and the U. S. Representative to the International Boundary Survey Commission, had written a report of the 1906 adventures up the Whiting River.
We learn that before ascending the unknown river, Craig asked around Juneau if anyone had explored the Whiting River. An unnamed informant told him he'd gone up the river several times in the winter. He spoke of a fork about 60 miles from the mouth, with the main valley swinging sharply off to the southeast with a smaller valley continuing in the general northeasterly direction. A canyon, of which every Alaskan river appears to have at least one, is on the southeast branch immediately above the forks. That fork is six or seven miles long and practically impassable for boats and canoes. With no other information, Craig chartered the vessel "Good Enough" and arranged to leave Juneau.
The launch left May 23, towing large canoes and had aboard the team of 11 men: Craig, two survey assistants, and seven packers and a cook. At the mouth of the Whiting River, the team met three Natives whom Craig had hired to load canoes with supplies for a stay of at least four months. The Natives guided the men in their canoes upriver for 15 miles.
Baldwin wrote: "We were not familiar with the channels and it took us two days to reach the Canadian camp, which, had it not been for an accidental meeting by Mr. Craig and one of his men with a Canadian team member, we might well have missed it all together."
The river is very swift and in many places dangerous to navigate. Baldwin mentions no overturned canoes during the season. However, the Canadian survey team was not so lucky. On Sept. 10 one of its canoes capsized. The canoe was pulled out from under a log jam about two weeks later when the river was lower. An old teodilite was never recovered. Neither team lost a man to any disaster for the season. Considering the hardships and dangerous climbs, it speaks well for the kind of men the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey hired.
Early in July the U.S. men moved camp eight or ten miles farther up the river to a point about 2.5 miles west of the boundary. This new place continued to be the survey team's main camp for the rest of the trip.
That began the athletic part of the summer's activities. It is hard to imagine climbing through timber and underbrush cutting a trail to reach snowy and rocky approaches to peaks that had never been climbed and may never will be again.
From camp, a party traveled six miles below the boundary and packers began the difficult task of climbing uphill carrying bedding, heavy instruments, cameras that used glass plates, plus the metal monuments to mark the boundary and survey points. "Camp Comfort" was established at an elevation of 1,200 feet. The markers were embedded in concrete, another heavy item to be packed. This and other routes often were traveled several times to move the supplies and equipment to a camp. This gives us an idea of the labor involved before actual survey work began.
First in a two part series on the Whiting River.
Pat Roppel is the author of numerous books about mining, fishing, and man's use of the land. She lives in Wrangell. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.