Auke Bay, Auke Lake, and the Auke Lake Trail
Cultural hub, evolution of the trail
Before discovery of gold in 1880, Auke Bay was the cultural hub of southern Lynn Canal. The bay and lake were natural choices for canoe-based people who gathered their food from stream and sea. The mile-long, south-facing gravel beach with raised, rich-soil benches for gardens and longhouses was sheltered from the gales of Gastineau. Spring herring runs lured salmon, sea birds and marine mammals. Close at hand was the sockeye run at Aak’w–Little Lake–from which the Auk Kwáan derive their name.
The University of Alaska Southeast and CBJ Parks & Recreation collaborated on a fundraising campaign that resulted in this state-of-the-art lakeshore trail. The 1.1 mile trail and floating boardwalk offer unique perspectives on the pond-lily fringe, large-tree old growth, and young stands recovering from blowdown.
Rock, sea & ice
To make sense of the topography of Auke Bay and Lake, it helps to visualize the comings and goings of ancient rock masses, mile-deep glaciers, and migrating seas. The landscape’s basic structure is set by NW-SE bedrock alignment, reflected on a grand scale by the Gastineau Channel fault traversing the entire CBJ, and on a fine scale by NW-SE fissures in rock outcrops. Successive ice ages exploited the weakness of fault zones, carving Lynn Canal, rounding off the “soft” rocks such as slate, and leaving the hardest granite and gneiss (Mendenhall Towers, Stroller White) high and jagged. Finally, the bedrock “skeleton” was fleshed-out with loose, surficial deposits (stippled on map) of marine silt, glacial boulders, and stream-carried gravel.
20,000 yrs before present (BP) At the height of the Great Ice Age, only Stroller White Mtn, 5,150 feet, stood free of the ice. The gigantic Lynn-Seymour Glacier excavated Auke Lake on a NW-SE axis, parallel to the “grain” of the bedrock (compare fault alignment). • 14,000 BP Lynn-Seymour glacier had melted, but proto Mendenhall Glacier still calved into the sea. Erosive forces were briefly directed at Auke Lake from the northeast. • 9,000 BP The glacier had receded well upvalley from today’s position. Land was slowly rising from millennia of depression under mile-deep ice, but relative sea level was still 200 feet above today’s. Humans had occupied Southeast Alaska since at least 10,3000 BP; were some of them hunting seals in Mendenhall Bay?
Hillsides surrounding Auke Lake are glacially rounded bedrock knobs. Gentler terrain is blanketed with surficial deposits (stippled) including: 1) fine marine sediments from times of higher sea level (pale green); 2) gravel-cobble alluvial fan where streams meet the northern lake shore (tan); 3) colluvial or landslide deposits (pink) on steep slopes. Poorly-drained, fine marine sediments support small trees, while alluvial and colluvial deposits (especially those on slopes sheltered from southeast winds) support larger trees.
Life of the lake
In biology as in geology, Auke Lake is surprisingly dynamic for a bedrock-controlled basin enclosed mostly by old-growth forest. Here are some trends that have been noted:
- western toad–formerly abundant, now almost extinct
- common loon–declining
- prickly sculpin–dramatic increase
- freshwater mussel (Anodonta) & stickleback–declining
- pond lily (Nuphar polysephalum)–declining
- sockeyes, cutthroats, Dolly Varden–declining
- dates of ice-out–earlier
We can guess at reasons for some of these trends; the others remain mysterious. Several of the trends are probably interrelated. As recently as the 1970s, tiny toadlets used to crawl out of the marshy margins in uncountable thousands at summer’s end. Their crash is attributed in part to a chytrid fungus. But could those 6-inch prickly sculpins swarming in the pond-lily fringe–rare or absent in the 1970s–have vacuumed up the last western toad larvae?
Biologists have only begun to map the distributions of freshwater mussels in Alaskan lakes. These mollusks have a bizarre life history. Their tiny, toothed larvae attach to gills of sticklebacks, sculpins or salmonids and are sometimes carried to new lakes before the spat release and drop to the bottom. Formerly abundant on loose flocculent covering the shallow margins of Auke Lake, mussels are now hard to find. Mussels are sensitive indicators of water quality.
When hunting season commences, Auke Lake becomes a daytime loafing area for hundreds of Canada geese and mallards. At night, they fly low over homes and roads to feed on salt marsh vegetation in the Mendenhall Wetlands State Game Refuge.
Home for 10 millennia
Auke Lake didn’t exist when the first humans paddled into “Mendenhall Bay.” Sagebrush-covered hills descended to berg-strewn beaches. Since the time of those Paleomarine seal-hunters, climates, landforms, habitats and species have been in continual flux, but people always adapted.
Today, the rate of change is faster than humans have ever experienced. Survival depends more than ever on intimate knowledge of terrestrial and marine environments. Four decades of research by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) at Auke Lake–a “benchmark” study site–has contributed to this understanding.
The road from Juneau
The road from Juneau reached Auke Bay in 1918, and the back loop connection had been freshly completed in this 1929 aerial oblique. The original road crossing, right on the lake outlet (inset), was re-routed to its current position below the lagoon in 1951. In left distance, Mendenhall Glacier still covered the future Visitor Center site, and outwash ran through future Dredge Lake.
The largest building on the beach was the Carlsons’ Auke Bay Salmon Cannery. (Their first cannery–1919 to 1921–was right on Auke Creek.) On the future site of Auke Bay School the land was open and boggy. Small-tree forest with smooth, interlocking canopy was recovering from a major blowdown in 1883.
Tlingit place names
Tlingit place names have been added to this early map. In 1910 there were no coastal roads. Trails (dashed lines) led inland to mines. The Auk village at today’s picnic beach still supported gardening and subsistence, as did this 1915 fish camp at today’s Fritz Cove Road. Cabins on Auke Creek were smoke houses of Sheep Creek Mary, 1835-1922, L’eeneidí clan, Big Dipper House. Her land became a cannery, then a NMFS research facility.
Auke Lake TrailDistance: 1.1 miles
Elevation: 30 ft
Notes: Other nearby trails include Dan Bishop Bay Creek Trail (0.2 mi) at Auke Bay School, and the Housing-to-Gym Trail (0.4 mi).
• Please don’t pick wild flowers.
• Do not feed wildlife.
Pack it out
• Carry out all trash.