The Tlingit artist sits beside the rock. The artist leans over and with their stone tool, begins tapping the rock. They return to the beach again and again, working on his art form. The artist carves a spiral, moving with the natural curves in the rock.
Ten thousand years later, Grandson Jonah toddles around the petroglyphs. “We’re visiting the ancestors,” I tell him. His mom, Nikka, takes his hand and traces the spiral glyph round and round. Soon, he’s wandering around finding glyphs on his own. Gray clouds pull down a cover over nearby islands and a bald eagle glides above us. I imagine the artist with his carving tool, gouging and pecking at the rock. I take the time to give thanks: Gunalchéesh. Gunalchéesh Shtax’héen Kwáan.
Light rain falls on stories, the Salmon Boy and Raven Stealing the Sun, and faces, on Old Man Heron, Raven’s father.
We live in Tlingit Aaní on Kaachxaan.akw’w where our petroglyphs are a symbol of home. These rocks are estimated to be between 8,000 and 10,000 years old, a reminder of Tlingit habitation. This old art form was practiced by my children and grandchildren’s ancestors. Kootʼéx̱ʼ, petroglyphs, marked important fishing sites, river and streams or settlements, perhaps marked shamanic passages and ceremonies.
In the year 2000, Petroglyph Beach became a State Historic Site. This beach has the highest concentration of rock art in Southeast Alaska. There’re 40 glyphs or more in this location.
Located about a mile from town, Wrangell’s Petroglyph Beach is a familiar place for locals to walk and be present with etched faces, trickster Raven, and the rhythm of tide. It’s a contemplative place. If you need answers, or are troubled, you can visit Petroglyph Beach. The mystery of this place makes you feel not so alone in the universe.
Concentric circles, a salmon, shaman faces, the sun, old man heron are carved by Tlagu Ḵwáanxʼi—ancient ones.
Artists used the natural shape of the rock to inspire their carvings on boulders and bedrock outcroppings. I touch the spiral. My finger follows the spiral indentation around and around. The rock presses deep with the weight of tidal memory. Starfish and limpets cling to its sides. Water, waves and light create a moving image. Was the artist a woman or a man? Maybe he carved the spiral shape of the humpback’s bubble-net or the river’s whirlpools, a shaman’s eyes, the Milky Way, or time.
I stand up from my contemplation and walk along picking up seaglass. Beyond the last ridge of petroglyphs is the old garbage dump. Colonizers bookended the glyphs with their fuel storage facility and the dump. Remnants from the dump—glass, pottery, odd objects, and wood—still wash up and down the shoreline toward the Wintering Place, Zimovia Strait.
Time whorls through tide and blue mussels and across the spiral carved into the rock.
2016: My friend Kersten and I walk down the boardwalk to the beach below. We stroll along the first stretch of sand locating the glyphs, but as we head toward the rock ridge, we pause in disbelief. A large pile of tree branches, dirt, and roots covers my favorite spiral and face petroglyphs in front of the ridge. It appears the house next door has cut down spruce trees and the debris pile, a dump truck or two’s worth, piles high atop the glyphs. We spend the next hour dragging and heaving tree trunks and branches down closer to the tideline. We have no way to remove the dirt so we must rely on a higher tide to sweep it away.
Humans have often disrespected the petroglyphs. As a kid, I was taught to make rubbings. On my wall is a framed petroglyph colored green. Long ago, a relative made the glyph by using ferns and butcher paper to make a rubbing, a common local practice before people realized it was harming the glyphs and before the area became an official historical site. Now there are replicas atop the observation platform for visitors to use for their rubbings.
I find plastic juice bottles, beer cans, potato chip bags, and candy wrappers atop the petroglyphs. We’ve cleaned dog poop up by glyphs near the upper tide line. People use clam shells, sticks, and rocks to scratch around the glyphs so they can see them better. The rock art has also been tagged with spray paint.
My cousin, Frank, a local photographer, heads down the beach. Rain-washed glyphs emerge in the afternoon light. He kneels in the sand, focuses his camera. These are his ancestors too.
2017: Grandson Jonah is a few years older now. He’s visited this site numerous times so he’s beginning to know where the glyphs are. He leads two of our Australian friends, Carol Birrell, professor, artist and writer, and her niece Jesse Blackadder, a well-known author, around the petroglyphs.
Glaucous-winged gulls dot the popweed covered boulders and Jonah spots a large tide pool beyond the glyphs. We follow him toward it. At the tidepool, I help Jonah pronounces the names the inhabitants: yéil ts’áaxu, limpet; sea urchin: nées’; barnacle, s’ook; mussel, yak; starfish, s’áx; sandhopper, kook’énaa.
After they explore the tidepool, Jonah walks over to a glyph protruding out of the sand. He leans down and touches the petroglyph. He turns toward Jesse and says, “This is me.” Jesse and I glance at one another, and I shrug. Yes, it is him, I consider. You are these petroglyphs.
If I could run my finger along the spiral glyph forward a few years I might learn that Jesse will not return to Wrangell for another visit. A couple years after she walks this beach with Grandson Jonah, she will be diagnosed with an advanced stage of pancreatic cancer. She died in 2020. If I could unwind time by tracing my finger counterclockwise over the glyph, would I be able to prevent it? Maybe I’d treasure this moment a bit more, walking with Jesse on this brilliant blue winter day as the ocean washes over the tidepool.
Petroglyph faces watch Grandson Jonah and I walk hand-in-hand around the glyphs.
My son, Mitch, takes his first son, Owen, down to the Petroglyph Beach. We walk around the rocks, pick up shells, wade in tidepools. Together, we lean over the rock and trace the killer whale fin. Grandson Owen feels the ovoid eyes, the high dorsal fin, as if the artist is moving his hand, gouging the rock.
As I walk among the glyphs, I think of the friends and family I’ve brought here over the years to journey among the ancestors. Owen will take his children here someday. I know this. Old man’s beard, sʼéix̱wani, will still be hanging off the trees. The Shtax’heen’s silty current will be swirling around the marker. My great-grandchild will look up toward the sound of the sealion haul-out, their barks carrying across the river flats to where she’s standing. The spiral beckons her. It’s almost like she’s supposed to touch time, lean into it, to bend the past toward her. She will sit in the sand next to her ancestors and she will say, “Gunalchéesh Kootʼéx̱ʼ, Tlagu Ḵwáanxʼi, Ancient Ones.
*For more information on Wrangell Petroglyphs see “Rock Art of Southeast Alaska” by Bonnie Demerjian, from Stikine River Books, P.O. Box 1762, Wrangell Alaska 99929.