Yakutat residents gauge glacier's impact on town

Posted: Sunday, June 23, 2002

YAKUTAT - Look at a map on a wall almost anywhere in Yakutat and you'll probably notice some penciled-in revisions that mark the latest progress of local glaciers. The U.S. Geological Survey maps certainly haven't kept pace with the rapidly changing Hubbard Glacier north of town.

The advancing tidewater glacier is the closest it has been to blocking Russell Fiord (fiord is the correct but unconventional spelling) since 1986, and local residents are watching carefully. A Russell Fiord-turned-lake could spill into the Situk River and bring changes the community's valuable fisheries.

Loretta Eades' first thoughts turn to the Situk and the commercial fishermen who have been hard hit by low prices in recent years. But she's also the general manager of Leonard's Landing Lodge, which could handle a boost in business from people who want to see the glacier, he said.

"A lot of people are concerned about Situk River. ... I'd hate to see it affect our livelihood here," she said. "As far as a business, we're ready for it."

Rube Evens, who runs the Situk Inn and does construction work on the side, used to be a commercial fisherman.

"In the long term, it could be a good thing," he said. "But (short term) it would be a real detriment to the economics of Yakutat because so much of our industry is based on the Situk River."

Evens has fished for king crab in Russell Fiord in the past, running a boat through a channel between the glacier and Gilbert Point. The area technically is a navigational hazard, and the Forest Service has recommended against vessels getting close to the glacier's face. Miles of floating ice blocked passage last week, starting from Point Latouche at the edge of Yakutat Bay to the glacier.

At the Yakutat Lodge near the airport, Ken Fanning is preparing for an onslaught of news agencies, glaciologists and other researchers. In 1986, reporters were standing 20 in line to use the phones in the lodge's restaurant and bar, he said.

"It was a regular circus drill," he said.

Fanning already has taken calls from the BBC and the Los Angeles Times this year. He'd like to store some small boats and kayaks in Russell Fiord so visitors can get a close-up look at the glacier, but he's had trouble getting a Forest Service permit in the wilderness area.

"The glacier isn't going to wait for red tape," he said.

Inside the lodge's restaurant, Fanning and Yakutat Mayor Tom Maloney debate the possibility of channeling a flooded Russell Lake through the flat muskeg called the Yakutat Foreland. If the fjord floods over, it could wash out part of Forest Road 10 and access to lodges and cabins.

Maloney, who has fished for shrimp and crab in Russell Fiord, predicted the exact day the ice dam broke in 1986. He worries the Hubbard will turn Russell Fiord into a lake and break out three years later, hurting the town's fisheries twice.

"What can you do? You let nature take its course," he said. "Let it happen and either reap the benefits or wallow in our sorrows."

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