Travelbug: Petroglyphs in Wrangell 100213 AE 1 Capital City Weekly

Petroglyphs found around Wrangell, these ones in the Petroglyph Beach Historic Site. If you go, find a local guide to discover more.

Photos By Charlotte Glover

Petroglyphs found around Wrangell, these ones in the Petroglyph Beach Historic Site. If you go, find a local guide to discover more.

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Wednesday, October 02, 2013

Story last updated at 10/2/2013 - 2:56 pm

Travelbug: Petroglyphs in Wrangell

There's nothing like a ride on the state ferry to break up the routine of island life. Wrangell is one of my favorite destinations because of its small town charm, natural beauty and close proximity to where I live, just 83 air miles or six hours by ferry away from Ketchikan.

A month or so ago I checked the ferry schedule and saw that it was possible to take the Matanuska to Wrangell late at night, arriving in Wrangell at 6 a.m. and returning home on the Taku later that same day. Sure it was an extravagance, but it gave me just enough time to enjoy a ferry ride, catch up with some friends in Wrangell, and learn more about petroglyphs at Petroglyph Beach State Historic Site, a seven acre Alaskan beach and public historic site that has the highest concentration of Native American Petroglyphs in Southeast Alaska.

After the quick and efficient ferry landing, I grabbed my daypack and headed off the boat with the other passengers. Facing the street in front of the ferry terminal, I followed the sign to the park that pointed left and walked along the quiet highway in the early morning, enjoying the breaking sun, the tidy, well-maintained houses and abundance of garden plants and green lawns.

Exactly half a mile from the ferry dock there is a sign that says "Petroglyphs" and you find yourself walking to the left down a secluded gravel lane. Don't be surprised if a big black dog named Bruiser comes out to meet you and escort you to the ramp/stairs on the viewing platform overlooking the waters of Zimovia Straits that anchors the "park," which is really just a seven acre parcel of beachfront.

Some four dozen petroglyphs have been identified at this location to date and scientists estimate that humans have been in the area for at least 10,000 years, with carvings estimated to be between 3,000 and 5,000 years old, but no one really knows for sure.

The word petroglyph is derived from the Ancient Greek words for "rock" and "carving" and that's just what you will find at the park. The rock here is dark grey, easy to fracture and described as metamorphic or a type of rock that changes in form over time because of geologic pressures, giving it a distinctive striated pattern.

The existing petroglyphs are found on boulders on the shore just below and above mean high tide. The petroglyphs are thought to be Tlingit and perhaps signify places of importance to the first people such as salmon streams, camps and life events. Scientists have identified pictures that plausibly reflect whales and salmon but other images are open to interpretation and identification is purely speculative.

Everyone I talked to who visits Wrangell regularly suggests finding a local to "show" you the petroglyphs, as they are not readily apparent to the naked eye. This probably does a lot to protect them from vandalism and it's always good to remember that artifacts such as petroglyphs are under the protection of state and federal antiquities laws.

Not being organized enough to have secured a local guide, I searched for more than an hour and only saw three petroglyphs. Fortunately, there were several exposed in the sand near the viewing platform and a number of reproductions in the informative signage on the platform. What I did find in Wrangell was an impressive amount of beach glass, the most I had ever seen in one place, and I had a hard time not filling my pockets with the smooth glass treasures. I was even lucky enough to find a piece of the elusive pale blue glass!

Walking back to town in the sunshine, I enjoyed the view with its pretty new sidewalks full of reflective glass mimicking the current of the Stikine River, and new curb cutouts full of colorful plants, downtown Wrangell looked more attractive than most towns in Alaska. After breakfast I headed to the Wrangell Museum in the James and Elsie Nolan Center to learn more about early settlers, but that is a story for another day.

Travelbug: Petroglyphs in Wrangell