Fox Farm Documentation - Passport in Time

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Fox Farm Documentation on Admiralty Island National Monument

Tongass National Forest, Chatham Area, Alaska, 1997
by Karen S. Iwamoto, Chatham Area Archaeologist

At 8:00 a.m. on July 21, 1997, eight PIT volunteers, three FS archaeologists, and monument staff met at the Admiralty Island National Monument office in Juneau to begin our adventures in Pybus and Gambier Bays. After our day of orientation, we departed aboard the motor vessel Sitka Ranger for Pybus Bay. The trip down was relatively uneventful, with typical summer weather for southeast Alaska—rainy and blustery. As we motored in Pybus Bay, we realized that only the Admiralty Monument crew, who had flown ahead to the FS cabin, knew just where the cabin was located! By 9:00 that night, half of the crew was settled in at the Pybus Bay cabin; the other half prepared to motor back to Gambier Bay.

The next eight days were spent documenting seven fox farms on islands in both Gambier and Pybus Bays. In the latter bay, we documented the San Juan Fox Farm, Brother’s Island Fox Farm, Elliott Island Fox Farm, and Midway Islands Fox Farm. In order to gain the most experience and get a flavor for each bay, the crews were split into two groups. Brian McNitt, Becky Joyce, Sandy Less, and Liz Rambus spent the first half of the trip on the Sitka Ranger at Gambier Bay, while Thomas Sasser, Delmer Brown, Paul Converse, and Courtney Richards spent the first half at Pybus Bay. On Saturday the crews switched, with Liz and Courtney having to return to Juneau.

The Admiralty Island fox farm documentation was a tremendous experience for many reasons. This was the Chatham Area’s first PIT project, and from all appearances it was tremendously successful. Prior to this, relatively few heritage surveys had been conducted in Pybus and Gambier Bays. Just being able to spend eight days surveying the wilderness was notable, not to mention documenting seven new heritage resource sites!

Two of the volunteers had just completed a kayak trip and still had their kayaks with them in Juneau. The kayaks were loaded up on the Sitka Ranger and brought along. Just about everyone had a chance to try their hand at kayaking during the long evening hours.

We all found our own niches to fill during the trip. Del, a noted long-term FS volunteer, was invaluable for his knowledge of engines (and we had a lot of parts and pieces out there). Paul has lived all over Alaska and has an incredible recall of the “necessity of invention” from living in the bush. Becky was an incredible mapper in less than ideal conditions and an awesome cook, and Sandy was intently bent on digging up the details at each site. Thomas was singularly unique with his hypothetical “what-ifs” for all those head-scratching features we uncovered, and Brian and Courtney both showed an incredible thirst for knowledge and inquisitiveness about the industry. Finally, Liz expressed an avid interest in historical archaeology and life in general.

A considerable amount of information was learned about the fox-farming industry. It was beneficial to switch the crews in the middle of the trip to compare features found at the sites in the different bays. A primary example is the “gruel cookers.” The first Gambier group found a traditional cauldron-style gruel cooker at one of their sites. Meanwhile, the first Pybus group found a rather unusual elongated (2-by-5-foot) “double boiler,” which we assumed to most likely be a gruel cooker. When the groups compared notes midtrip, it seemed conclusive that there were, indeed, two styles of gruel cookers. After the switch, the “new” Pybus group found one of the elongated cookers at a different site, complete with a cooking system that resembled the cauldron cooking system identified earlier. The completed documentation of seven fox farms was truly the most successful project we had in summer 1997!
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