By Jenny Neyman
Sparkling bubbles of laughter wafted across the tree-sprinkled knob, borne on a breeze that ruffled the frail fall foliage and momentarily disrupted its gentle autumnal recoil back into the dirt. The revelers were too far away to make out what was being shrieked and said, but the universal language of kids at play translated as clearly as the warm glow from the low-angle afternoon sun.
The creek in the ravine below swelled rich with the seasonal substance of spawning salmon. Above, people walked from a house site in the trees to a string of food storage pits lining the edge of the bluff, pausing to take in the views over Kenai to the east and Cook Inlet to the south, the landscape stained with September hues.
In this scene the time frame could have been the better part of 1,000 years ago, the people being Dena’ina villagers who lived in a collection of houses stretched out along the meandering creek. The spot was likely chosen for its access to timber for firewood and house logs, abundance of fish and game animals for food, and the well-drained soil that freezes in winter and softens for digging in the summer, allowing salmon to be stored in cache pits in the ground that would sustain the villagers all winter long.
But, in fact, it was 2014, and the people on the hillside off South Forest Lane in Kenai last month were anthropologists, investigating the remnants of those who inhabited that spot close to a millennium ago. On that sunny, mild fall day, with the sounds of kids playing in Kenai Municipal Park nearby, it was easy to picture the once-upon-a-time life of the Dena’ina villagers as calm and content.
“Working in this place I’m thinking about when people were living here. We hear kids when we’re working out here, and you imagine kids were probably running around playing (back then), too,” said Dave Guilfoyle, an archaeologist with Applied Archaeology Australia, who conducted a cultural resource survey at the site over the summer.
“This time of year they were fishing down at that creek. And somebody was working on the pits, getting ready for winter, and looking out at this amazing view across the gorge,” said Dr. Alan Boraas, anthropology professor at Kenai Peninsula College, who visited the site to consult with Guilfoyle.
Fast-forward hundreds of years, though, and the scene wouldn’t have been as tranquil. The sounds of kids laughing and breezes ruffling the trees would be drowned out by construction noises, of South Forest Lane and the subdivision beyond it to the west, of the Kenai Spur Highway to the north and, in 1973, the Kenai Armory building a stone’s throw away.
On the armory property activity has been distinctly not serene over the years — troop drills, training exercises and even tank maneuvers on the cleared field, the building bustling with people and vehicles, both military and civilian as the armory building has been used for community events and as an emergency shelter location. All without realizing that, hidden in the grass, were the remnants of a Dena’ina village.
“The first thing is to protect these areas from the Army itself, because they do training out here still,” Guilfoyle said. “The focus really for this stage is a management plan for the property, and then more research and more archaeology will be part of that plan.”