Fish trap readied for public

City museum will put ancient mechanism on permanent display

Posted: Sunday, April 10, 2005

A Tlingit fish trap up to 700 years old will be permanently displayed at the Juneau-Douglas City Museum.

The basket-style trap was first noticed in Montana Creek, near its confluence with the Mendenhall River, in 1989 and part of it was removed then so it wouldn't be washed away, said Ellen Carrlee, the curator of collections and exhibits at the city museum.

The rest of the trap was carefully excavated from the creek bank in late 1991. The trap was conserved at the Alaska State Museum over the next two years, and it has rested there since, out of the public's eye.

But a state grant now has allowed the city museum to prepare the trap for display. Independent archaeologist Jon Loring, Carrlee and others have been working for two weeks to replace the ungainly metal and wood supports with unobtrusive ones that will allow viewers to see the trap.

"It was in storage all this time with this framework," Carrlee said. "Now we're making mounts to support this large, unwieldy, fragile thing without making it look like Frankenstein."

The trap had to be held rigidly in place while it dried, Loring said.

"The branches were green and flexible when it was made," he said. "If you didn't hold it rigidly in place, they would grow back to their genetic memory, to the shape they were when they were branches."

The trap will be taken Tuesday to the city museum, where preparations for display will continue for another week or two, Carrlee said.

The trap, made of Sitka spruce and hemlock, and held together with spruce root lashings, has been dated at 500 to 700 years old. It's about 9 feet long. The opening for fish to enter is about 3 feet in diameter.

Archeologists don't know for certain what the trap looked like whole because they can't be sure of where every excavated piece would have gone.

The trap may have been used in conjunction with a stick fence in the stream, Loring suggested. Fish going upstream, probably Dolly Varden, would be funneled by the fence into the trap. The fishermen apparently removed the trapped fish through a door that hinged open with cords.

On Saturday, Carrlee patiently continued her work of making lashings with the sort of plastic used in mail envelopes. She isn't replacing any of the original lashings. But she will add lashings where the originals no longer exist.

She also was using tweezers to push into place - in the space between the original lashings and the wooden staves - small pieces of tissue paper impregnated with liquid adhesive. The bits of tissue will add to the structure's stability.

Loring was cutting pieces of metal that will hold the clear plastic supports on which the trap will rest.

Such basket-style fish traps are rare finds. Presumably, they were taken out of streams when they weren't in use.

There is evidence in Southeast Alaska of at least a couple of hundred fence-style traps, commonly called weirs and often found in tidal areas, Loring said.

Marie Olson, an elder in Juneau, said Tlingits didn't know of such traps in the area until this one emerged.

"We had the fish weir with rocks and upright sticks," she said.

Olson said exhibiting the trap is "exciting, considering that Mother Nature was the one that found it."

• Eric Fry can be reached at

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