The  Kad'yak Shipwreck Saga


This article originally appeared in the Anchorage Daily News on July 28, 2003.
Copyright (c) 2003 by Anchorage Daily News.

Divers discover a treasure-trove of history in shipwreck
KODIAK ISLAND: Russian freighter Kadi'ak sank in March 1860.

Anchorage Daily News

(Published: July 28, 2003)

A team of divers has discovered what appears to be the oldest shipwreck ever found in Alaska waters, the remains of a three-masted Russian sailing freighter called the Kadi'ak, which sank off Kodiak Island in March 1860.

The searchers, led by Bradley Stevens, a scientist with the National Marine Fisheries Service, located a cannon, an anchor and what they believe to be copper sheeting in an underwater sand channel off Spruce Island, said Steve Lloyd, one of the divers.

The remains promise a wealth of cultural and historical artifacts dear to the hearts of archaeologists but no conventional treasure, said Mike Yarborough, an Anchorage archaeologist who did early research for the project. The Kadi'ak belonged to the Russian-American Co., active when Alaska was a Russian colony, and carried a cargo of ice bound for San Francisco when it sank.

"The Russian-American Company had an ice plant on Woody Island, and also a sawmill," Yarborough said. "They would saw ice in winter, pack it in sawdust and ship it to San Francisco for the gold miners to put in their drinks. It was a very lucrative trade."

The trip took two to three months, he said.

Yarborough lived in Kodiak during the 1970s and first saw a reference to the Kadi'ak in a history book more than 20 years ago. When he later spotted the name in Russian documents, he sent copies to Katherine Arndt, a Fairbanks translator, curious to find out more about the ship.

Yarborough passed on Arndt's translations, which included contemporary descriptions of where the ship went down, to Stevens, who developed something of an obsession to find the wreck.

Because of stories associated with its demise, the sinking of the Kadi'ak assumed mythic proportions among Russian Orthodox faithful in the area, Stevens said.

The 500-ton barque, about 120 feet long, was captained by Illarion Ivanovich Arkhimandritov, a respected Russian-educated seaman who was half Alaska Native, Yarborough said. The Russian-American Co. bought it from a German owner in 1851.

Before it was lost, it made at least one trip to the Hawaiian Islands, he said.

The Kadi'ak sailed north from Sitka in late February 1860 with a cargo of timber for a new ice house on Woody Island, then loaded 365 tons of ice for the trip to California, according to historian Richard Pierce in his book "Russian America."

Legend says the wife of the governor of Russian America had previously asked the captain to hold a Te Deum in a chapel on Spruce Island near where the now-sainted Orthodox priest, the Rev. Herman, was buried. He had died about 30 years earlier.

As the story goes, Arkhimandritov tempted fate by failing to do so.

Shortly after leaving harbor, the Kadi'ak struck an uncharted rock and foundered, but didn't sink right away.

The crew of about 27 got off safely and the ship "bobbed around like an ice cube in a glass, probably buoyed up by the ice on board," Yarborough said. Crews in rowboats and bidarkas were sent to tow the wreck to port, but the wind came up and it got away from them, drifting over three days to Spruce Island, where it sank right in front of the Rev. Herman's old chapel.

When it came to rest on the ocean bottom, all that could be seen from shore was one mast rising from the water with a single horizontal spar, forming a cross.

The people at the time saw a message in all this.

The Rev. Paul Merculief of St. Innocent's Russian Orthodox Church in Anchorage said the legend of the Kadi'ak is not known to him, but believers may well have suggested the captain ask the spirit of the Rev. Herman to intercede with God for the safety of the ship.

Stevens has been looking for the Kadi'ak for 12 years and had begun to doubt the legend about where it sank. "Just finding it and proving that the stories were true is the biggest thing for me," he said Sunday.

Lloyd, co-owner of Title Wave bookstore in Anchorage and author of "Farallon," the story of another Alaska shipwreck, said pieces of rusted iron sticking up out of the sand during a dive last Monday were his first clue that he had found the Kadi'ak. Next were copper spikes, polished golden by the sea, and copper sheeting "balled up like paper ... stuck under rocks and wedged in the sand."

The ship was built of wood, but sealed in copper to protect against worms, Lloyd said.

Other divers found the cannon.

After his discovery, Lloyd had to spend 90 minutes working his way slowly up to the surface, decompressing, before he could break the good news. "I popped my head up, totally deadpan. ... I said, 'Go get your camera right now,' " to a Swedish film crew tracking the expedition.

"I said, 'Well Brad, tell us what you know about the construction of the ship.' I waited for him to say it was built of wood sheathed in copper." At the proper dramatic moment, Lloyd pulled a piece of copper sheathing from his dry suit pocket and Stevens' "eyes lit up. 'You found it, you found it' he said."

"This is an invaluable archeological site," Yarborough said. The Kadi'ak was fully outfitted for a two- to-three month trip. "It should contain all of the everyday mundane items that are the stock-in-trade of archaeology, a snapshot of one vessel, one day, one trip in 1860. It's just complicated by being under water"

But that is a major complication. The Stevens team is leaving everything in place, awaiting professional underwater archaeologists who will want to document where the pieces of the wreck are located before they start bringing up artifacts, especially metal, which will begin to deteriorate the minute it hits air, Yarborough said. Recovery and conservation will be very complicated and expensive, said Stevens, who is not an archaeologist.

"I found the story so fascinating. I felt like I had the knowledge and the drive to do it," he said. "Now my goal is to bring in the professionals.. ... I know three underwater marine archaeologists who are just ecstatic about it and can't wait."

The wreck belongs to the State of Alaska so going near it without a permit is illegal. Still, Stevens and his crew hope to discourage underwater grave robbers by keeping the exact location a secret.