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The story of Alaska’s oldest shipwreck makes fascinating reading

  • Author: Nancy Lord
    | Alaska books
  • Updated: February 23, 2019
  • Published February 23, 2019

The Ship, The Saint, and the Sailor: The Long Search for the Legendary Kad’yak

By Bradley G. Stevens. Alaska Northwest Books/Graphic Arts Books, 2018. 280 pages. $17.99.

In 1860, Russian captain Illarion Arkhimandritov steered the barque Kad’yak (named for the settlement of that name, now Kodiak) away from what is now known as Woody Island, a small island just east of Kodiak Island, where it had loaded up with a shipment of ice bound for San Francisco. Just a few miles off, on an unchartered reef now known as Kodiak Rock, the ship went aground and quickly began to fill with water. The captain and crew evacuated — no one was lost — but the sinking ship was abandoned. It drifted off the reef and eventually settled to the bottom in Icon Bay, at Spruce Island.

’The Ship, The Saint, and the Sailor: The Long Search for the Legendary Kad’yak, ’ by Bradley G. Stevens

This is the beginning of the story, told by the author, a former Kodiak resident, about decades of efforts to find the wreck, its eventual discovery, and the archeological investigation to map its remains and salvage key items. Readers who think that such a bit of arcane maritime history would make for dull reading will be mistaken; the story, rich in details and personalities, will absorb anyone with a taste for adventure — especially those with an interest in Alaska’s early history. The narrative voice here is personal, lively, and engaging. The story is clearly told.

The Kad’yak, a well-built German ship, had travelled around the world before going into service for the Russian-American Company. Starting in 1857, its main duty was taking ice to San Francisco — the ice trade itself is a fascinating story told here — and returning with beef, flour, and other provisions for the Russian colonies. Although shipwrecks were common in that era, the Kad’yak is the only ship from the Russian American colonial period yet discovered — making its shipwreck site the oldest known one in Alaska.

Beyond that significance, its exploration was the first professional underwater archeological survey in Alaska and established processes and standards for conserving such sites and their artifacts for research and public ownership.

The author, who was a crab biologist with the National Oceanography and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in Kodiak at the time and is now a professor of marine science and a research scientist in Maryland, paired his significant experience as a cold-water diver and operator of submersible vehicles with an almost-obsessive passion for studying charts and accounts (including some confused bearings and names) to try to locate the wreck. After decades of research, he thought he knew where it had to be. With diving friends, including an archeologist, he put together a team that in 2003 discovered a ballast pile of rocks, metal masses concreted together by rust, copper items, and multiple anchors and cannons.

Ensuing drama involved efforts to preserve and protect the site from private salvage interests, likely complicated by conflicting personalities and misunderstandings. Federal and state laws and practices regarding abandoned ships and ship salvage are convoluted but were eventually interpreted such that the Kad’yak, on the National Historic Register, is today in state ownership. The author notes that, since the Kad’yak’s cargo was not gold or other treasures but only ice packed in sawdust, its wealth is in the historic information gathered scientifically and shared with the public through publications and exhibits.

Following the initial discovery, a major research dive and archeological survey funded by federal grants in 2004 resulted in mapping and photography of the site and the recovery of key, small items to be used in museum exhibits. Efforts were also made to include the people of Kodiak and Ouzinkie in understanding and interpreting the Kad’yak’s value. Local teachers developed related lesson plans.

Interspersed within the linear story of the ship’s research, discovery, survey, and preservation, Stevens includes equally fascinating stories about his other scientific research and adventures as well as forays into related subjects. The Alaska ice trade, as mentioned, is one side journey; who knew that in the 1850s ice from Woody Island was the single most valuable commodity in Russian America, and that the enterprise employed up to 200 Natives and Russians during the ice-cutting season? Another chapter details the pleasures and hazards of scuba diving. Yet another—regarding the “saint” in the book’s title — tells of early Russian relationships with Kodiak’s Native people and the role of Father (later Saint) Herman; it was said by some that the ship captain’s failure to honor Father Herman is what caused the Kad’yak to sink just offshore of Herman’s grave.

A final chapter tells the tragic story of the Big Valley — the ship that served as the dive tender and headquarters for the Kad’yak investigation. In 2005, while crabbing in the Bering Sea, it rolled over, with the loss of its captain and all but one crew member.

The book includes numerous photographs, including of the underwater wreck and archeologists at work. Maps and an appendix of various documents, along with end notes, are also very helpful in understanding the full story.