Saturday, July 24, 2010

Escape from Penguq

I returned last Tuesday from four weeks at an archaeological dig on the Alaska Peninsula. The site was located just south of Pilot Point on the King Salmon River. I had spent three summers in Egegik before and expected a relatively mild summer with many sunny days and just a few storms this time - but I was wrong! The weather was never really horrendous, but it was generally cool, gray, drizzly and occasionally we had some serious wind. Mosquitos were another story. They were pretty bad when we first got there. I think they did get better later in our stay, or maybe we just got used to them! We often had to sit around in our bug nets and occasionally I even excavated in mine.

The site we were excavating is called Penguq, which means "hill" in both Alutiiq and Yupik. Penguq is really one of the only hills in the area. The surrounding tundra is extremely wet, and as we found out, very difficult to walk on. I went on three hikes while I was there. Once we walked south along the river to look for a cabin on the USGS map. We never found it and after seeing how swampy it was out there we decided the cabin must have been placed incorrectly on the map. Another time we crossed the river in a raft and hiked to a small ridge with some "tall" cottonwoods. The view from the top of the trees was awesome - it was amazing what you could see from just 15 feet in the air! After climbing the trees we set out to hike to another hill, but as the rain and wind picked up, half of us decided we'd had enough exploring and headed back to Penguq. The other intrepid hikers made it to the other hill and explored a nice grove of cottonwoods. My last "hike" was to "Penguq 2," a small hill near our site. There were some nice meadows on the top of the hill, but some sandhill cranes scared the heck out of us in thick brush on the top of it! I didn't expect to run into sandhill cranes up there. All of these adventures involved lots of mosquitos and slogging through very wet, squishy tundra, and a few falls. After all of that we joked about trying to escape from Penguq, because it seemed to be impossible!

Despite the mosquitos, the weather, and the difficult hiking, things never really seemed that bad at Penguq. I think the main reason I never got too down was that we had a wood stove in our cook tent. No matter how wet and cold I was getting while we worked or tried to hike, I knew I could get warm and dry my clothes over the fire. The vegetation also greened-up quite a bit while we were there, the mosquitos seemed to get better, and the river got warmer. It wasn't until I saw the lush green valleys and long gravel beaches on the west side of Kodiak Island that I realized how much I missed home and how different Penguq is from anywhere else I had spent a lot of time. We really were on a little isolated piece of land in the middle of a mosquito-infested swamp. As we banked around Spruce Cape to land in Kodiak, I got a little choked up. I hadn't realized how happy I would be to come home! I actually felt a little silly until everyone else told me they were so happy they felt like crying too.

Catherine and I, leaving for Penguq on June 23, happy and clean!
Patrick, me, and Mark, happy to be heading home to Kodiak after a long day of waiting out bad weather at Penguq on July 20
A shot of the mosquitos in our cook tent on day 1
Washing dishes in the King Salmon River on a particularly chilly day
An aerial view of Penguq, the swamp, our camp, and our excavations

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