Documenting history

Students survey old cannery site to make way for new project

Posted: Monday, April 26, 2004

Students taking a "Fundamentals of Archaeology" class at Kenai Peninsula College got some hands-on experience on a field trip Friday by participating in a preliminary archaeological assessment at the old Ward's Cove cannery in Kenai.

The primary purpose of the assessment was to survey a historic boat dock at the site -- identifiable by the remnants of numerous old pilings -- so that construction of a new load-and-launch dock could begin later this year as part of the Kenai Landing project. The archaeological assessment was overseen by Alan Boraas, a professor of anthropology at KPC.

"At this college we have an opportunity to get close to actual archaeological sites within a few minutes' drive," said Boraas. "So, I always try to do a class field trip in spring and fall. It brings the textbook alive and utilizes people's skills in a meaningful way. It gets people out of the classroom and into life."

In addition to the on-site survey, the students carried out numerous tasks. Prior to ever stepping foot on the location, students sifted through archival records, photos and other documents pertaining to the cannery in order to glean information pertinent to the overall project.

Boraas said the reason behind the record sifting was not only to teach the students archaeological skills, but to teach them that canning was a major historical event for Alaska.

"It was the industrial revolution of the north," said Boraas.

As stimulating as the background information was to gather, most of the students agreed that the fieldwork was the highlight of their learning experience.

"This is way more fun," Carol Morris said. "It's a different kind of learning out here. It's hands-on archaeology. We're lucky for the opportunity."

Fellow student Elisabeth Heath held a similar opinion.

"It feels like we're doing something significant. I like the idea that whatever we do here is going to make a difference," said Heath.

The experience gave student Traye Turner a different perspective on the class.

"It's neat to apply what we've learned. I'm definitely a lot more interested in archaeology compared to when I started the class. It seems like a fun job," Turner said.

Unlike many of the students in the class who had never taken part in an archaeological project, Brett Encelewski has two years of anthropology classes behind him and has taken part in eight separate digs around the peninsula. Yet, he was as excited as every other student there.

"I love digging and doing surveys and all that. The more I learn the more I want to learn," said Encelewski. "This really brings it all together for me. I think being able to be tactile with the equipment and seeing and doing it for yourself is much more stimulating than an in-class final."

Using the information Boraas and the students gathered, Boraas will write a final report to be submitted to the State Historic Preservation Office in Anchorage. That office will then determine if the site is of historical or archaeological significance and what the potential impact of a load-and-launch dock would be.

According to Jon Faulkner, one of two business partners behind the Kenai Landing project, the archaeological assessment was required before construction could begin on the dock. Kenai Landing is envisioned as a multiuse destination resort.

In projects such as these, business managers and archaeologists often have different interests, but both may be racing the clock. Before Boraas and the students had even left the site, dock construction began.

As Boraas watched the large backhoe dig, he said to the students, "Well, it was probably the best lesson you could have learned."

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