Refuge Notebook: A trek across the Kenai 160 years ago in search of beetles

Posted: Friday, November 05, 2010

As the entomologist at the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, a major assignment of mine is to catalog the diverse kinds of insects that live here. I tend to view this region as a relatively new frontier, with many fascinating little animals yet to be discovered. I have recently been learning about an entomological exploration of the Kenai Peninsula that took place when this really was a frontier.

Image Provided By Kenai National Wildlife Refuge.
Image Provided By Kenai National Wildlife Refuge.
Detail of the Kenai Peninsula from Mannerheim's 1853 map of Alaska.

I became aware of this expedition while identifying beetles. There are numerous beetles described from obscure place names on the Kenai, places like Tschunuktnu River and Thkujabna Lake, names I could not find on maps.

These names were used in an 1853 paper by Finnish entomologist Carl Gustaf von Mannerheim describing the beetles collected from the Russian American colonies. He also provided an account of the expedition and a map. Below I have included Mannerheim's place names along with the modern place names. The following narrative is based mostly on Mannerheim's account, which did not mention Doroshin. Frankenhaeuser had been assigned to be Doroshin's assistant for the expedition, so I assumed that Doroshin and Frankenhaeuser were together.

The schooner Tunga, operated by the Russian America Company, departed Sitka on April 26, 1851 for a geologic survey of the Kenai Peninsula and Kodiak. On board were Russian geologist Petr Doroshin; Finnish geologist, naturalist, and ethnographer Heinrich Johann Holmberg; and Finnish geologist Friedrich Frankenhaeuser. Doroshin had discovered traces of gold in the Kenai River in 1848, and he was returning to find its source. In addition to their geologic objectives, Holmberg and Frankenhaeuser had apperently been instructed to collect beetles.

They arrived in Woskresensk Bay (Resurrection Bay) on May 16. Three days later, the Tunga sailed for Kodiak, leaving Doroshin and Frankenhaeuser at the mouth of the Thkujaktnu River (Resurrection River or Salmon Creek). The explorers planned to hike west across the Kenai Peninsula and rendezvous with Holmberg in the fall.

On May 30, they started their overland journey, more or less following the present Seward Highway route to Thkujabna Lake (Bear Lake) and Skeljamna Lake (Kenai Lake), crossing the divide between Resurrection Bay drainage and Cook Inlet drainages on June 6. Frankenhaeuser described this valley as mostly deciduous forest with overgrown birches.

From Kenai Lake, Doroshin and Frankenhaeuser walked down the Skeljanktnu River (upper Kenai River), taking a side trip up the Tschunuktnu River (Juneau Creek) to the falls, which Frankenhaeuser described as a grand, 300 foot high waterfall.

The travelers continued down the Skeljanktnu to the Bentilent (northeast shore of Skilak Lake), then along Kastudelenbna Lake (Skilak Lake) and down the Kaktnu River (Kenai River), arriving at Nicolajewsche (Kenai) on September 9.

After dropping off the hikers, Holmberg made a couple of stops before reaching Kenai in early June. Here, he described the gorgeous birch forest and meadows of flowers, calling it the flower garden of the colonies. Holmberg also set about collecting quantities of beetles here until, in his words, "myriads of mosquitoes developed, threatening to literally consume the collector." Holmberg had previously been acquainted with mosquitoes in Lapland, but he said that with Kenai there was no comparison.

In all, the collectors brought back over 18,000 beetle specimens, mostly from Alaska. These were shipped to naturalists in Europe, many of these same specimens persisting European collections to this day. Holmberg and Frankenhaeuser had collected most of the common beetles still characteristic of the Kenai Peninsula, such as the thirteen-spotted lady beetle, the white-spotted pine sawyer, and spruce bark beetles.

These kinds of historical records -- especially if they can be pinpointed to specific times and places -- may become increasingly relevant as the Kenai's flora and fauna face growing pressures from development, exotic species, and a changing climate.

If we were to repeat the Holmberg-Frankenhauser expedition today, we would find an assortment of beetles similar to those collected in 1851, with the exception that we might also find recently introduced, exotic beetles.

At lease some of our beetles are known to have rigid temperature requirements and to re-distribute themselves according to their climatic needs. If climate change continues along the lines predicted, then the beetle fauna at places like Thkujabna Lake and Nicolajewsche will no longer be the same, but will change as species leave and arrive, tracking their climatic preferences.

After poring over Mannerheim's account, available maps, and other references, I am impressed with the determination and stamina these explorers must have had. I am even more amazed that they took time to collect beetles, pin and label them, and haul thousands of specimens overland when it must have been challenging just to accomplish their primary, geologic pursuits and survive.

Matt Bowser has served the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge as an entomologist since 2009.

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Previous Refuge Notebook articles can be viewed on our website You can check on local birds or report your bird sighting on the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge Birding Hotline 907-262-2300.

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