August 15th at Walakpa–78 years ago and today

Seventy-eight years ago, it was a foggy day at Walakpa.  The Okpeaha family was camping there.  A floatplane descended out of the fog, and two men asked how to get to Barrow, since they had lost their bearings in the fog.  Getting directions, the got back in the plane and took off.  The engine failed, and the nose-heavy aircraft crashed into the lagoon and flipped.  Unable to reach the plane to help the men, Clare Okpeaha ran all the way to Brower’s Trading Post in Barrow, over 12 miles of very rough going, to get help.  When boats got back to Walakpa & they got to the plane, it became clear the men had been killed instantly.  They were Will Rogers, a noted humorist and political commentator, who was traveling around Alaska to get stories for the newspapers, and Wiley Post, probably the most famous American aviator of the time after Charles Lindbergh.

The crash was national news at the time, and a few years later a monument was erected near the site, followed some time later by another one.  These are the monuments that show up in some of the pictures of the site.  For some reason, these are on the National Register of Historic Places, but the archaeological site isn’t.

The first monument , looking out over the lagoon where the crash occurred.
The first monument , looking out over the lagoon where the crash occurred.

Today was a much better day at Walakpa.  We headed down with 7 volunteers, including David Pettibone, Michael Berger, dental extern Temurkin Cucukov, and the entire Von Duyke family, plus Marybeth Timm from the Inupiat Heritage Center.  The stream was running high and fast at Nunavak, but we got across, although not before I got my boot wet.  With that many people, it seemed worth getting the water screening going, so we did, using a small pump to take water out of the lagoon.  Alan & Scott Kerner happened by on an ATV ride and pitched in for a while as well.

Wet screeners in action by the lagoon.
Wet screeners in action by the lagoon.

The rest of us continued with taking down the rather disturbed level under the sod.  It would be a lot easier if we could just shovel it out, but the bluff doesn’t seem that stable & we’re afraid we’ll knock the whole thing down if we shovel, especially since there are still a lot of roots holding things together at this level.

Excavating the disturbed layer. Note the Visqueen.
Excavating the disturbed layer. Note the Visqueen.

A while after we got there, a boat pulled in, and Jeff Rasic from the National Park Service (in town for a meeting at the Inupiat Heritage Center) Patuk Glenn (IHC) and Kunneak Nageak (IHLC) appeared.  They got a good tour, and spent a bit of time wandering around.  Jeff found a big sod with a lot of artifacts in it, including several very nice potsherds, one with residue, which we collected.

Excavation at Walakpa.
Excavation at Walakpa.  L. to R.  Marybeth Timm, Temerkin Cucukov, Michael Berger, Jeff Rasic, David Pettibone & Trina Brower.
Potsherds.
Potsherds.

The ride home was even more exciting.  Nunavak wasn’t too bad, but they were unloading a barge on the beach, so we took the old Nunavak “road” back to town.  It has pretty much disappeared back into the tundra on the middle section the last few years, and it was a very muddy ride!

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4 responses to “August 15th at Walakpa–78 years ago and today

  1. Great post Anne! Thanks for sharing the story of Willy Post and Will Rogers. Looks like you all had a great day out there. Fun to read about Jeff Rasic as well. Like you, he has hosted PolarTREC teachers out on his project in Northwestern Alaska.

    Janet Warburton ARCUS

    From: Out of Ice and Time Reply-To: Out of Ice and Time Date: Thursday, August 15, 2013 11:06 PM To: Janet Warburton Subject: [New post] August 15th at Walakpa78 years ago and today

    WordPress.com Anne Jensen posted: “Seventy-eight years ago, it was a foggy day at Walakpa. The Okpeaha family was camping there. A floatplane descended out of the fog, and two men asked how to get to Barrow, since they had lost their bearings in the fog. Getting direction”

  2. I always wanted to go out on the tundra with you. Wish I would’ve had the opportunity to view it from your eyes. I always admired the beauty of the mounds, the sky and the ocean. You always find interesting things in addition to that. Sure miss Barrow.

  3. Pingback: Will Rogers and Wiley Post, dead in a plane crash in Alaska, August 1935 | Mr. Darrell's Wayback Machine

  4. Hi, my name is Ninna Bengtsson, I work as a Swedish journalist and I’m going to Alaska to Barrow with a friend the 31st of August-2nd September.

    We’ll be staying with a very friendly person called Carrie Plant (a member of the couch-surfing-community!) and it was she who emailed me a link to your blog.

    I was just wondering if the excavation is still going on at that time and if it would be possible to come and see it?

    I work as a journalist so I’ll try to do some freelance work during our trip. But I’m also extremely interested in history (have a Masters in archaeology actually though that was a long time ago)… My last “dig” I think it was 2003 was in a small town in the South of Sweden excavating viking graves…

    My email address is ninnabengtsson@msn.com

    Best,
    /Ninna

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