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The Fairweather Range and Lituya Bay

A highlight of Alaska, Glacier Bay is good tourist stuff, but, as usual, I managed to get utterly sidetracked by a nearby attraction – the Fairweather Range (it separates Glacier Bay from the Pacific), and the seaward wonder, Lituya Bay, through which runs the fantastic Fairweather Fault. The Fairweather Range starts at Cape Spencer (named in 1794 after Diana’s ancestral Althrop Duke) which is the northern entrance to Cross Sound and Glacier Bay. The Fairweather Range was named by James Cook (the glaciers fed straight into the Pacific when Cook sailed by), and, swinging by shortly thereafter, La Perouse followed suit and named it Beautemps.

The range’s main peaks rise progressively in altitude until they reach 15,000’ at Mt Fairweather, then diminish toward the north. Because the Fairweather Fault has a record of troublesome behaviour during the area’s 8,000 years of human habitation, the native tribes (now dubbed ‘First Nations’ people) believed that originally Mt Fairweather (female) and nearby Mt St Elias (male) were a happy couple with several children and wealth sufficient to own slaves (all of which were mountains of 10,000’+). Then they had an argument (read ‘earthquake’) and separated in bad faith. The mother took the children and headed east. The father took the slaves and headed west. Mt Raeburn, at the head of the Akwe River, was a slave who delivered messages between the crabby couple.

The Fairweather range was used as a bellweather by the Tlingit inhabitants – they would only put to sea if they could see the top of the mountains. Seafaring was a tricky business – the men put out for several days hunting whales, which involved extreme physical labour with all that rowing, hunting, harpooning, and dragging their humungeous catch home.

All this sounds pleasant enough. Enter Lituya Bay. She’s a diva (I’ve given her a gender, because she’s one of nature’s fabulous performers) of unbelievably natural beauty, wombing Cenotaph Island, with grand fishing and protection from the worst the Pacific can throw at the coast. The Chausee spit – “the chopper’’, a glacial moraine – blocks off most of the bay’s entrance and has claimed at least 100 lives, causing many a shipwreck including the Patterson in 1938, from which eighteen survivors and the ship’s cat hiked out to safety.

Local folklore has it that Lituya has a giant wave about every 30 years. No, it’s the Fairweather Fault in action. It runs directly N-S through the Lituya Glacier, across the 12,000’ cliff at the head of the bay, then south through the Crillon Glacier. The natives reckoned a monster (Kah Lituya) lived in the depths of Lituya Bay and, if a human tried to enter, he flew into a vile temper and shook the waters to kill the intruders, who were then enslaved in the spirit world, turned into huge bears and transmogrified to become mountain sentries guarding the bay against all comers.

Cut to a summer’s eve in July, 1958. Several private craft were having a lovely evening in glorious weather, moored for the evening in Lituya Bay. A few craft exited to enjoy the Pacific sunset outside along the coast, three stayed to shelter in the bay. Adam Gray and his young son were tired after fishing and went below for an early night. Further up the bay, Swanson and Ulrich’s boat was moored. Gray was awakened by a thunderous roar at 10:18. He went aloft and looked to the east. His recollections is that he was completely transfixed as the whole of the Fairweather Range ‘danced’. He called his son. Then, at the head of the bay, an enormous wave reared. He radioed ‘mayday’ and something like ‘I think we have a small problem here’ and waited to die. Further up the bay, Swanson was later adamant that the Lituya Glacier (normally obscured behind a high ridge) sprang vertically into view and shook violently before disappearing behind the ridge again.

Both boats rode out the maelstrom, although the third boat was lost. The earthquake had shaken loose a 600cubic metre monolith the impact of which created a crater, folding the sedimentary rock layers which uplifted 1300′ of ice along the front of the Lituya glacier and displaced the water in the bay, creating a 524′ wave that wiped clear all vegetation (mainly six feet thick spruce) around Lituya Bay to a height of 1720′! It was all over in seven minutes.

It wasn’t the first tsunami, and it won’t be the last. The records show three other tsunamis since 1854 (395’), 1899 (200’), 1936 (490’). Native legend tells of a summer’s day when all the men of the village inside Lituya cove were out fishing and all the women and children, having done their chores, decided to stroll and play on the spit. One woman took her dog (tame wolf?) and basked on the verdant hills. In a fit of pique, Lituya spat the dummy and the tsunami roared down the bay and all the women and children were washed out to sea. The men returned that evening to find their village and families destroyed, with only the surviving woman to tell of the afternoon’s horror.

They abandoned Lituya and never returned.

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