TRAPPED: Juneau residents build a replica of a centuries-old fish trap found in 1989

Posted: Thursday, January 19, 2006

Basket-type fish traps played a crucial role in the foundation of Northwest Coast culture. They allowed people to gather pounds and pounds of fish for the winter, and therefore, establish semipermanent villages.

This was hundreds of years ago, and most of the traditional knowledge it took to construct such a trap is long since gone. Nevertheless, Steve Henrikson, the curator of collections at the Alaska State Museum, and Jan Criswell, an experienced weaver of spruce-root and cedar-bark baskets, are creating a replica this month at the Juneau-Douglas City Museum of a basket-style trap found in Montana Creek in 1989. That trap, 500 to 700 years old, was painstakingly restored and now sits in its own display case at the City Museum.

"The fish traps that elders talk about today are the ones that were operating in the early 20th century that were set up by commercial canneries," Henrikson said. "This kind of traditional style of trap was much smaller and was used for subsistence fishing for hundreds of years before that, but nobody remembers that far back to know the specific details that we need to know to put this together."

fish trap replica

what: construction of the montana creek fish trap replica

where: juneau-douglas city museum

when: steve henrikson and jan criswell will be working noon-4 p.m. saturdays, jan. 21 and 28. visitors can also observe the progress during regular museum hours, noon-4 p.m. tuesdays through saturdays.

admission: free in january

more: for an audio slideshow look at the fish trap, visit

"This is as close to the original as we could make it," he said. "We're trying to recreate the whole process. The steps that they took to get there, we're having to relearn through trial and error."

Criswell and Henrikson helped with the excavation and created a basketry fish trap for Craig High School for a 1 Percent for Art commission. They've been collecting spruce roots for the last 10 years, and they started constructing the replica at their home about four months ago.

The public can see the continuing construction during museum hours, noon-4 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays. Henrikson will lecture about the trap from 2-3 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 28. Their work is supported by a grant from the Alaska Humanities Forum and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

"We had to hunt all over to find the right size of spruce limbs for this," Henrikson said. "As (the Native people) were out deer hunting, they probably saw trees that had the right kind of limbs on them. We've been disconnected from that, and we're trying to re-establish that knowledge of the environment."

Paul Kissner, a former employee of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, stumbled upon the original fish trap in 1989 in Montana Creek while he was fishing. He looked down and saw a part of the trap, under a foot of water, being washed out of the bed of the stream. Kissner had used similarly designed metal fish weirs with Fish and Game and knew that he was looking at a fish trap.

The trap was mostly preserved because it was buried in silt, which sealed off the wood and spruce roots from oxygen. The microbes that devour wood can't survive without oxygen. Left in the open air, a basket-style trap would likely rot away in one or two years, Henrikson said.

The creek's current had flattened the trap, but the upper part of the cylinder - the part nearest the surface of the water - was quickly excavated in 1989. Two years later, the rest of the trap was excavated. The wood began an accelerated oxidization process as it was exposed to the air. Much of the cell structure had completely eroded, Henrikson said.

The trap underwent an extensive restoration process at the Alaska State Museum. The wood was soaked in polyethylene glycol for a year to help it stick together.

Parts of the trap were sent to material analysts, who determined that the wood was spruce and hemlock and the lashings were spruce root. A radiocarbon dating analysis estimated the trap's age as 500 to 700 years old.

The City Museum eventually received a $10,000 grant-in-aid from the Alaska State Museum and funding from Sealaska Heritage Institute and Sealaska Corp. to take the trap out of storage and place it in its own case at the City Museum. The trap went on display this April.

The finished replica will consist of 44 9-foot-long hemlock staves attached to 11 spruce branch hoops with spruce root-lashing patterns. Five smaller spruce hoops will comprise the cone at one end of the cylinder, where fish entered but couldn't escape.

"The fish may not have been smart enough to find their way out again, or there might have been something fastened inside the cone so they couldn't force their way through," Henrikson said.

Criswell and Mary Lou King spent 10 years digging up most of the roots in the Mendenhall wetlands, near the Juneau International Airport, and out by Eagle Beach.

"The soil has to be relatively free of big rocks because you want the roots to be straight," Henrikson said. "There's only specific spots where that happens around here."

The roots also had to be harvested in the spring, when the ground was thawed and the sap is running. That made it easier to strip the outer bark layer off the roots. Criswell and Henrikson also gathered the spruce branches in the spring - targeting small trees near cleared areas where branches had grown long and skinny to reach for the sunlight.

The straight hemlock staves, split from logs and free of knots, came from Prince of Wales Island.

• Korry Keeker can be reached at

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