The  Kad'yak Shipwreck Saga


[Note: At this time, everyone was spelling the ship's name "Kadi'ak" rather than the later "Kad'yak". ~SL]

Copyright (c) 2003 by Steve K. Lloyd


A team of shipwreck researchers led by Bradley Stevens, PhD has located wreckage believed to be the remains of the Russian barkentine Kadi'ak in Monk's Lagoon near Spruce Island, off Kodiak Island, Alaska.

The 500-ton bark was bound for San Francisco under the command of Captain Illarion Ivanovich Arkhimandritov with a cargo of ice in March 1860 when it struck a reef. Although the vessel was badly damaged, the buoyancy of the cargo floated the ship long enough for all hands to escape. Several days after the accident, the Kadi'ak sank in shallow water near the Russian Orthodox church that still stands on the island.

Dr. Stevens, a scientist with National Marine Fisheries Service at the Kodiak Fishery Research Center, has devoted more than 10 years to researching the story of the Kadi'ak. Devoting personal time to the project, Stevens assembled a team of volunteer divers from Anchorage and Kodiak to look for the wreck. Dave McMahan, a diver and archaeologist from the Alaska Department of Natural Resources, traveled from Anchorage to assist in the search, which was conducted aboard the Kodiak-based research vessel Melmar.

Historian Richard A. Pierce writes in his book, Russian America: A Biographical Dictionary, "On 27 February 1860, Arkhimandritov left Sitka for Woody Island with the bark Kadi'ak, and a cargo of construction timber for a new ice house. He took on a cargo of 365 tons of ice, but on 30 March struck an underwater rock off Spruce Island. All personnel were saved, but the vessel and everything on board were lost. The vessel drifted to Spruce Island and sank directly in front of the chapel with just one mast above water and a yard which made it look like a cross. Some said that supernatural forces may have been involved, as when Arkhimandritov had sailed the Kadi'ak the first time, the wife of Governor Voevodskii had asked him to hold a Te Deum in the chapel on Spruce Island near the place where Father Herman was buried, and he had not done so."

In a March 2000 research proposal, Stevens described the cultural significance of the 143-year-old shipwreck. "In 1794, the Russian orthodox priest, Father Herman, arrived in Kodiak at the request of Aleksandr Baranov, manager of the Russian-America Company and founder of Kodiak. Later he left Kodiak to settle at Monk's Lagoon on Spruce Island, where he built a small chapel and school. In 1970 the Russian orthodox Church canonized him, and he is now Saint Herman, the only Orthodox saint from America.

"After the Kadi'ak drifted into Monk's Lagoon and sank, only the mast remained standing above water, forming the shape of a cross. These three events: the captain's failure to pay homage to the saint, the ship drifting Father Herman's home, and the formation of a cross by the sunken mast, have made the wreck an object of great religious wonder and importance within the Russian Orthodox Church."

Reed Oswalt was raised in the nearby Native village of Ouzinkie. The Ouzinkie Native Corporation retains traditional land that includes Spruce Island, where the Kadi'ak was lost. "I grew up hearing stories of the lost Kadi'ak since the time I was a kid there in 1945," recalled Oswalt upon hearing of the discovery. "That ship was part of the Ouzinkie oral history as far back as Russian times, and I'm not surprised one bit that it turned out to be true. It's amazing how accurate the traditional [Native] knowledge is at times, and here's a piece of oral history that came to life."

Joshua Lewis, the Melmar's captain, plotted a search grid based upon sightings taken soon after the accident by Captain Arkhimandritov himself. The group searched the sea bed with a proton magnetometer, a device that senses the presence of ferrous metals such as iron that can signal the presence of underwater wreckage. "The southern shore of Spruce Island is exposed to heavy surf from the Gulf of Alaska," Lewis said." Conditions during our search were less than ideal, but we detected some possible mag hits within the first several hours."

Several teams of divers entered the water to conduct an underwater search, but the strong surge and limited visibility at depth made it difficult to locate any signs of the badly deteriorated Kadi'ak.

The discovery is a significant archaeological find, as there has never been a Russian-era vessel discovered in Alaskan waters. The first diver to locate the wreck was Steve Lloyd, who with Lewis is a principal in the Anchorage-based shipwreck research company Shoreline Adventures LLC. "The magnetometer was sensing material in a line parallel with the coastline," Lloyd noted. "I swam an overlapping search pattern in a sandy area between two sections of the reef, and finally located iron debris half-buried in sand. Nearby were copper hull spikes and large concreted pieces of wreck structure. The material was consistent with the construction of the Kadi'ak, and since no other vessels are known to have gone down in the area, I was immediately confident that the Russian ship had been found."

Although the divers were not at liberty to discuss the exact location of the wreck or the precise nature of the artifacts found, Lewis indicated that "significant and identifiable" portions of the wreckage were located and filmed. "It's an incredible site. To have the opportunity to dive a wreck with the historical importance of the Kadi'ak would be enough of a thrill, but to have played a part in discovering it after so many years is an amazing feeling."

Finding the lost Kadi'ak is just the first step in what will be a lengthy scientific undertaking. "The ship's contents will reveal much about how Russians of the era lived and worked in Kodiak," Stevens noted. He indicated that efforts will be underway to survey and map the wreck site, to recover and preserve significant artifacts, and to make the research available to the public through public display and a video documentary of the project.

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Pierce, Richard A. Russian America: A Biographical Dictionary. Kingston, Ontario: The Limestone Press, 1990, pp. 10-11.

Stevens, Bradley G. "In Search of the Kadiak: A Brief Expedition in Marine Archaeology and the Nautical History of Alaska." Kodiak, Alaska: Unpublished research proposal, 2000.

Further Information [Press Release listed Stevens as primary contact; Lloyd's name listed #4 out of 5 contacts]