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Exploring Alaska’s Notorious Lituya Bay

Here we are aboard Ursa Major—a 65-foot North Sea trawler rolling softly in gentle Pacific swells a mile off Lituya Bay on Alaska's south central coast. The plan is to cross the bar-known for doling out death and destruction—and enter a harbor whose own horrifying history includes even more death and destruction in a setting of incredible natural beauty, without becoming part of Lituya Bay's grisly record.

As Capt. Bob Anderson brings the trawler onto a narrow midchannel course, one confirmed by range markers on a distant shore, everyone else on board is reviewing all that we have read about this distant and notorious place.

The single worst human tragedy in the bay occurred June 30, 1786. Two French sailing ships were at anchor in the lee provided by Cenotaph Island, about one-third of the way inside the harbor. As smoke drifted from galley chimneys, crewmen, lonely and blue so far from home and families, cleaned ship, made repairs, and gazed at the three glaciers in steep mountain valleys at the T-shaped head of the lonely, remote bay.

The commanding officer, Jean-Francoise de Galaup, comte de LaPerouse, had dispatched two small boats and 21 sailors to survey the bar at the bay's entrance. Moving easily, the rowing boats turned a point on Cenotaph and disappeared. LaPerouse could not see the two small boats as they approached the harbor entry and was unaware the craft had been overpowered by a swift ebb current. He would have been horrified to watch as the rowing boats, despite the efforts of skilled and powerful sailors, were carried over the bar and overturned by breaking ocean swells, the 21 seamen swallowed by the sea.

Over the years, other vessels have been tossed about, rolled over, and sunk and their crews killed in untimely crossings of the bar. Legend hints that Indian canoes, probably returning to camps after fishing in the sea or trading along the coast, met the same fate.

The worst recorded natural disaster came the evening of July 9, 1958, as three small commercial fishing boats anchored in Lituya Bay after a day of fishing in the Pacific Ocean. Probably alerted by the noise, crew members turned and watched as the rock and ice walls at the head of the bay collapsed into the water and an enormous wave (scientists call this a gravity wave) surged toward them at a speed calculated at more than 100 miles an hour. The slide and wave had been triggered by a jarring earthquake with a magnitude of about 8.

The wave reached an initial height of 1,720 feet above sea level as it surged over a point of land at Gilbert Inlet, in the left arm of the T. Losing intensity and stature, the wave continued across the bay toward the sea with sufficient energy to overwhelm the fishing boats and kill two crew members; others, miraculously, survived and one boat was carried safely out to sea.

Mighty waves generated by falling rock and ice are not uncommon in the history of Lituya Bay. At least three other incidents have been recorded-in 1853, 1874, and 1936. An Indian village is believed to have been destroyed by a gravity wave from the 1936 quake.

Scientists say it is inevitable that another earthquake, another landslide, and another killer wave will occur. Perhaps today. Possibly tomorrow. And yet here we are, on May 18, 2004, ready to take our chances with the bar and the quake-prone mountains at Lituya Bay's head.

Aware of the chances of a natural disaster, but arguing that this is perhaps safer than rush hour driving on an interstate highway, we are eager to plunge ahead. The timing seems right. The sea in the entry is calm-we planned our arrival for slack ebb-and, luckily, westerly swells on the Pacific are gentle. (The ebb over the Lituya bar reaches 4 knots and creates dangerous topping seas or combers when running against a southwest swell, making slack-water entry essential.)

The stacked range markers far across the bay confirm we are in midchannel. The opening is about one-fifth of a mile wide, and the safe channel is 150 feet wide. LaChaussee Spit, a long, fingerlike sand-and-gravel bar, lies on the left (north) side of the opening as we draw near. A row of submerged rocks leads from the spit into the channel. Harbor Point is on the right side, with Cormorant Rock prominent in a field of smaller rocks at the edge of the channel. Farther to the right are two round mini mountains named the Paps.

As Ursa Major moves closer to shore, skirting shoaling areas, I wonder how LaPerouse, probably the first European to enter Lituya Bay, found it in 1778. From a few miles off shore, the opening can be lost in the coastal blur. We have Nobeltec and NOAA charts, so finding the bay was easy. Those 18th-century sailors were barely able to calculate longitude and were working with charts that were sketchy at best. I admire LaPerouse's sailing skills in conning two square-rigged vessels safely across the bar, although some reports indicate he was carried in by a flood tide.

But we have no doubts. Our captain nudges the throttle gently forward and Ursa Major begins moving into the bay. As the yacht lines up on the distant range markers, last-minute mental quivers arise. Why, for goodness sake, are we here? Aren't there better things to do than risk life and boat?

Only one answer could be expected: Because it's a challenge getting here, of course. We are here, too, because beautiful mountains and glaciers lie just beyond the entry to the bay. This place offers excitement, adventure, and challenge-as well as an intriguing sense of history for those who have read books and articles about Lituya Bay. We need to see it. Anyway, it's too late to turn back. In we go.

The Challenge

LaPerouse entered the bay in search of the fabled Northwest Passage, the waterway almost everyone believed linked the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans over the top of the North American continent. The British had been looking vainly for hundreds of years, first from Hudson Bay on the Atlantic side. Later, seamen came to the West Coast in search of a waterway that would shorten the sailing distance from London to China by thousands of miles and eliminate the stormy and dangerous passage around Cape Horn at the southern tip of South America. An open-water Northwest Passage would make a lot of people rich-or richer.

British Captains James Cook and George Vancouver probably are the best-known explorers who came to survey and map the coast and poke into fjords and channels, looking for a way east. The French came. The Spanish came. Yankees came. But it wasn't to be found. Since then, submarines have made underwater passages and Coast Guard icebreakers have punched their way across the top of the continent. Perhaps someday, with global warming, there truly will be a Northwest Passage and motoryachts will putter through.

Reaching Lituya Bay can be rigorous. The small harbor (about 7 miles long) is in a seldom visited and almost out-of-reach northwest section of Glacier Bay National Park. It is about 140 sea miles northwest of Juneau and 125 miles due north of . The route requires crossing about 40 miles of open ocean. Cape Spencer is the turning point, the landmark that separates inland waters from the ocean. Coming from either Juneau or Sitka, there are several anchorages and landings that would be good places to stop for the night before venturing out onto the ocean.

We took a mostly ocean route north from Sitka, spending one night in the must-see village of Pelican, on Lisianksi Inlet. Elfin Cove is another favorite for overnighting, out on the edge of Cross Sound. Coming from Juneau, Dundas Bay (west of the entrance to Glacier Bay) is a good overnight stop for cruisers bound for Lituya. (Good crabbing in there, too.)

Rounding Cape Spencer, the run up the coast was an easy trip on a sunny day. We simply kept a course parallel to the shore, standing several miles off. Visibility was good, the sea remarkably calm. Any small cruiser would have been comfortable on that run, that day. The coast line immediately north of Cape Spencer is broken and littered with rocks. But some coves would offer shelter if the Pacific became too much to handle.

Because of the hazards along that open coast, many yacht insurance policies provide coverage only to Cape Spencer, where Cross Sound meets the Pacific. (Veteran Alaska cruisers with good records and stout boats might be able to get insurance coverage for a trip up the coast, my broker told me later.) The yacht we are aboard is a Malahide North Sea yacht normally in charter service in southeast Alaska in the summer. Her owner, Joyce Gauthier, had no clients for that week in May and invited friends aboard for a visit to Lituya Bay. The uncertainties of coastal weather and sea conditions keep most recreational boaters from considering a trip to the bay.

Two days later, we would understand that reasoning fully. But today, entering the bay was anticlimactic. No sweat, no fear.

Into The Bay

Although Lituya Bay has had a few residents, including Indians, gold miners, fishermen, scientists, and one man who lived in a cabin on the island for years, there now is no obvious sign anyone had ever stepped ashore. Old maps show a road built to reach a gold mine and indicate cabin sites, but even significant bush-whacking probably would not turn up much evidence of the early occupants. There's likely little to find, because on this damp coast, trees and brush grow quickly, and man's work is consumed by rot or hidden in the wet, thick forest.

As we motored in at no-wake speed, spooking a colony of kittiwakes nesting on the sheer, rocky south face of Cenotaph, three guests aboard who hailed from the flatlands of Florida stared in awe at the range of snow-clad coastal mountains rising steeply from the head of the bay. Mount Fairweather, off to the north, is the tallest, at 15,300 feet. Other peaks almost as tall, including Mount Crillon at 12,700 feet and Mount Quincy Adams at 13,650 feet, march from north to south along the horizon. The glaciers-Lituya, Cascade, and Crillon-pour down their slopes to the water. To be fair, the Ursa crew and my wife, Polly, and I-all Alaska veterans and no strangers to mountains and glaciers-also gaped.

LaPerouse had taken his two ships; L'Astrolabe and La Boussole, through the dangerous entry on June 30, 1786. Centuries later, we followed and Cami Cash, Joyce's sister and first mate/chef, dropped Ursa's huge anchor in a bight on the east side of Cenotaph Island as, apparently, had LaPerouse.

Keeping Busy

We were on our own-way over the hill as far as VHF radio was concerned. Cell phones were of no use, and, of course, there was no television or radio. Books, long conversations, and exploration in the tender and ashore would have to keep us all entertained. One Indian legend told us about Kah Lituya, a sea monster living in caves deep under water. Would we see him/her/it? Would the earth shake again?

With the anchor down, the aluminum skiff was launched and shrimp and crab traps deployed. The Florida folks-Trey Beasley, George Handel, and Elaine Chandler, all experienced boaters-were eager to haul a bunch aboard.

Several of us took the skiff to Cenotaph, hoping to find a memorial to the French seamen. (The name, given by LaPerouse, is appropriate: It means empty tomb.) We climbed rocky knobs, using stoutly rooted shrubs for handholds while trying to avoid stepping on spring flowers-lupine, paintbrush, wild strawberry, and dwarf dogwood I recognized-but failed to find the memorial. Bear scat was plentiful, but it wasn't fresh and we didn't worry much about it. We wondered why some shrubs appeared to have been fastidiously trimmed by a gardener. Only much later did it click: There were hungry deer on the island.

We weren't sure what we were looking for. LaPerouse erected a memorial that disappeared long ago. The French government replaced it with a plastic marker. The Lituya Bay Historical Society installed a bronze plaque, which we understood had been stolen and replaced by a temporary memorial. We didn't find a trace.

But the impact of the 1958 earthquake, rock-and-ice fall, and surging water couldn't be missed from our high point on the small island. The slopes that had been wiped clean of trees were now green with new growth, the young forest much lighter in color than the upland vegetation that had remained unharmed in the catastrophe.

The boundary between the new and the old is called a trim line, and in much of the bay, it was about 120 feet above the water. It curved from behind us, to our left and into the distance near the head of the bay, where the trim line rose to the 1,720-foot level on a spur of land near Gilbert Inlet that had been the first to be immersed by the huge wave. There was no trim line along the face of the three glaciers, but it resumed to the west and carried on out of sight to our right.

Looking over the calm water, I couldn't imagine a wave more than 100 feet high and moving at more than 100 miles an hour. Nor could I imagine anyone surviving being run over by it. Reports say trees were uprooted, bark stripped away. Some came to rest on the shore of Cenotaph, lined up side by side with their roots pointing back into the bay. They lie there today, propped up by roots on one end and branches on the other. The tree trunks, likely spruce, are weathered and gray but seem strong and solid they rise above the muddy shore.

The surge moved rock and earth, lifted ice walls in the glaciers, and even dislodged bronze surveyor monuments.

Moment Of Shame

As we puttered around that first day, I couldn't but wonder why LaPerouse, an experienced seaman, had dispatched so many of his crew in two ship's boats to chart the entrance as the ebb current surged out of the bay. Surely, he must have had been aware of the risks involved as the seamen rowed away from the anchored square riggers? We also were bothered by other boaters' disrespect for the monuments erected on Cenotaph over the years as a memorial to the lost seamen. Who has the stolen plaques hanging in their boat's saloon or in their home ashore?

After dinner, Bob Anderson came back from a private exploration of Cenotaph to report he had found the memorial site we missed earlier. Joyce and I joined him in the skiff and hurried back to the island. Bob had been a land surveyor for many years. Heeding his professional instincts, he fought his way through the brush to a rocky knob overlooking the bay, only a few yards from where our unsuccessful search ended earlier, and found the site.

Scrambling across beach rocks and pulling ourselves up nearly vertical slopes, we followed. We passed a mossy area where bears had dropped more huge piles of scat, but we continued on. And there it was.

Someone had cut or broken stainless-steel bolts holding a bronze memorial plaque to a pad of concrete laid across a large boulder and stolen the plaque. Scrambling down the slope to search further, Bob found a large plastic pop bottle that contained a copy of the original French listing of the names of the lost seamen, handwritten on notepaper and sealed in a plastic bag. Joyce drained accumulated water from the bottle and we looked briefly at the document. She reinserted it carefully and twisted the cap tightly. Bob laid it on the concrete pad.

Boaters are responsible for this senseless defacement of a memorial to sailors who died so far from home so long ago. Perhaps a vandal-proof marker will be placed there some day. (I wonder if the simple handwritten copy still is there.)

At least LaPerouse and his voyage have been remembered by map makers. A glacier south of Lituya Bay, the only one discharging directly into the Pacific, is named for him, as is LaPerouse Bank, an offshore feature in northern British Columbia.

Watch Out!

Trey Beasley was steering the skiff as we headed for the beach at the North Crillon glacier in the right arm of the T. We admired clouds floating above the flanks of the mountains, then nervously realized they were clouds of dust kicked up by an almost nonstop succession of small rockslides. Is the big one coming?

The rock flowed like water down the slope. We were too far away to hear the rattle of stones, but we suddenly understood why the glaciers below were dirty. As we stepped ashore, the face of the glacier looked to be about 100 yards distant. It proved to be at least a challenging half-mile hike through sand, gravel, and boulders dumped as the melting glacier retreated into the mountain valley it had carved over scores of centuries.

I carried aboard a book by John Muir, the famous nonscientist who studied glaciers and was a cofounder of the Sierra Club. Muir was the first to describe how glaciers, as they slowly moved seaward, sculpted the landscape we have today. I remembered that he rode steamers into Alaska waters in the 1880s and was dropped off on rocky shores, particularly in Glacier Bay. Wearing rugged shoes and carrying a walking stick and a small bag of supplies, he would spend days alone hiking glaciers, making sketches, and taking notes. He seemed to exist on tea boiled over a small fire.

With Ursa-our oasis, still in sight, Trey, my wife, Polly, and I marched across the glacial moraine, not pretending to be the John Muir. In places we dropped down into the dry washes left by streams draining out of the glacier long ago and then struggled up and out through a maze of loose stones. In some places, as the ice beneath the rocky surface slowly melts, the rock collapses into a depression that looks like a bomb crater.

Finally, we were able to pat the muddy glacier on its flank. It probably was about a half-mile wide and was discharging ice into the bay only at the glacier' extreme ends. Water gushing with the force of a fire hydrant spouted from a crack deep in the glacier.

The face of the glacier rose a couple of hundred feet above us. But beyond, we could see increasingly higher steps of ice. Some had accumulated so much dirt and rock that trees and brush had rooted. Clearly, the glacier was melting. The ice sweated through its sheen of mud and each drop of water collected bits of soil from the dirty face as it slowly dribbled downward. Occasionally, larger stones popped free of ice and landed nearby.

High above us, rocks the size of small cars or refrigerators protruded from the face of the glacier. Eventually, they would tumble to the ground-to join a windrow of large rock at the toe of the glacier. Not even a hard hat would help. It was time to go.

Fresh bear paw prints in the sand got us racing for the skiff. Bob had moved the trawler up the bay, and we quickly climbed aboard, happy to have avoided falling rock and ice, prowling bears, and Kah Lituya. As Ursa moved back to her anchorage, Cami told us to prepare for dinner of and crab on the boat deck. (Cracking and shucking is a messy business so she had wisely put us where the debris could be swished overboard!)

One To Remember

The next morning, the Malahide slowly approached the entry, with Bob planning to arrive at slack water. Some ocean swells were rolling onto La Chaussee Spit, but the channel looked OK. It was time to leave. He turned the 1970s-vintage trawler onto a course that stacked the range markers directly astern and the channel dead ahead. And, wham!

Keeping the yacht lined up with the range markers put those ocean swells on the beam. The North Sea-style yacht has a round bottom and she loves to roll. And roll she did, as swells of 6 to 8 feet punched her in the side.

Normally, Ursa Major is thoroughly buttoned up before she goes anywhere. Anything that might fly away is stashed or tied down. But this morning, stuff that had never flown, did. The coffeemaker escaped its tether and tumbled down the steps to the lower deck. The saloon table lost its glass top; fortunately, it didn't break on hitting the sole. Magazines and books scattered, as did small stuff in the galley.

On watch in the pilothouse, I thought I'd be able to reach out and scrape sand as the boat rolled to starboard. The reassuring thing about these old Malahide yachts is that while they may roll hard one way, they always roll back. She did this twice but kept plunging toward the open sea. Once we were finally across the bar, Bob put the helm over enough to put the worst of the rollers on the starboard quarter. But he had to gain deep water and we endured more minutes of significant rolling.

All that fuss exiting Lituya Bay was caused only by ocean swells. The current was slack and not colliding with the swells. There were no topping seas or combers; the swells were enough. Once we were several miles off shore, Bob turned south and put the swells, now four-footers, mostly astern, and cleanup began. By the time we turned into Cross Sound, the swells had disappeared and Ursa motored serenely through a light chop and whitecaps.

Shall We Try?

Joyce does not send Ursa Major into Lituya Bay under charter. The uncertainty of weather makes firm scheduling impossible, and the paperwork requirements of the National Park Service are difficult. Instead, her crew charms charter guests with halibut fishing, crabbing, whale and bird watching, kayaking, and superb gunkholing on the more protected inside waters of southeast Alaska. This was her second holiday trip to Lituya. I wouldn't be surprised if there's a third someday.

It was a classic cruising adventure for us: a new destination, one with a story to tell; an exciting voyage with some stomach-twisting moments, lessons learned, and new friends enjoyed. This kind of trip requires a sound yacht, a self-sufficient crew, good seamanship-and confidence. With great care and cooperative weather, we could take our 42-foot boat to Lituya Bay. But I doubt that will happen.

What I would like to do, though, is to hitch a ride with someone bound for the Northwest Passage. European and American sailors searched in vain for centuries for that northern route, but we now know for sure that it's out there. It's time to go look-in a great big boat.