SitNews - Stories in the News - Ketchikan, Alaska


Scientists to take driftwood expedition this summer
By Ned Rozell


May 16, 2007

The Thule people who lived in the High Arctic 1,000 years ago left behind spruce carvings that intrigue archaeologist Claire Alix because the Thule lived hundreds of miles from the nearest living tree. Their only source of wood was what drifted in from places unknown.

"Wood is well preserved in archaeological sites," said Alix, an archaeologist with the Alaska Quaternary Center at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. "It's really plentiful in sites of (the Thule) period."

Driftwood logs have tales to tell about past river and ocean circulation and climate, and Alix is one of the few scientists who study driftwood. When trees fall from the bank of a great river like the Yukon, Mackenzie, or the Anadyr in Siberia, they sometimes travel thousands of miles to the ocean. Once in the ocean, a Yukon spruce log can reach the eastern Arctic via Fram Straight, riding ice floes for a good portion of the way and taking many years to complete the trip.

jpg driftwood

A pile of driftwood, off a western Aleutian island.
Photo by Ned Rozell

Alix once traced a spruce log gathered by Steven Stone in Hooper Bay to an area near Beaver, Alaska, about 900 miles from Hooper Bay. By matching up growth rings on the log to rings of live trees from the Beaver area, she found that the spruce tree had fallen in the Yukon near Beaver in 1999 and took four years to drift to Hooper Bay on the Bering Sea coast, where large trees don't grow. In Hooper Bay and villages beyond treeline, residents look forward to the spring days after ice breakup when driftwood from the interior of the continent floats to their village.

"It's still a very important resource in places like Hooper Bay and Scammon Bay," she said. "They use it for carving, firewood, and for their steam baths."

Villagers along river systems also use driftwood as rafts to float fishwheels and to use driftwood poles to build frames for fish racks. Over the years, Alix has noticed that people in the High Arctic of Canada use the same parts of driftwood logs to make the same things as Eskimos on the west coast of Alaska.

"It's remarkable what they make from this wood," she said.

Alix's interest in driftwood is the reason for a trip she's taking down the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers this summer with four other researchers and Sam Demientieff of Fairbanks. Alix is a native of France who came to Alaska for a postdoctoral position in 2001 and ever since has been visiting Native villages along the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers and the Bering Sea coast.

"I didn't intend to stay this long," she said with an accent that makes you think of Paris.

Since 2002, Alix has been working on a driftwood project with UAF ecologist Glenn Juday and oral-history researcher Karen Brewster. In 2002, she boated the Yukon from Circle to Galena, coring white spruce trees along the way, and then went up the Kuskokwim, from Bethel almost to McGrath.

Spruce is the dominant driftwood species, she said, though she also finds cottonwood, willow, and tamarack. Sometimes villagers gather exotic woods that have ridden ocean currents a long way.

"People at Hooper Bay once in a while get 'perfume wood,' which is red or yellow cedar from Southeast," Alix said. "And people in Barrow find bamboo from Asia."

This summer, Demientieff, who was born in Holy Cross, will guide Alix, Juday, Brewster, and two graduate students on a river trip from Tanana until the end of treeline, possibly near Marshall. Along the way, they will sample driftwood, core live trees, and interview villagers about their uses of a free resource that lived and died many miles away before floating on to a new life downstream.


This column is provided as a public service by the Geophysical Institute,
University of Alaska Fairbanks
, in cooperation with the UAF research community.
Ned Rozell [ ] is a science writer at the institute.


Publish A Letter on SitNews         Read Letters/Opinions

Contact the Editor

SitNews ©2007
Stories In The News
Ketchikan, Alaska