While giving a lecture about the Natural History of Southeast Alaska at a local museum, I explained the forces which shaped much of the beautiful landscape of the area. Then, towards the end of the presentation, I quickly flipped through a couple of pictures and declared, “this is a shot of Sumdum Mountain” and the next slide was a shot of “Sumdum Glacier”. Jaws dropped and the audience stared back, as if to say “that doesn’t sound very professorial.” They heard “Some Dumb Mountain” instead of “Sumdum Mountain”.
Had they looked at a map of the area, they would have noticed that many of the place names come from the Tlingit people, the native group who originally inhabited the area. In their native tongue, Sumdum means “big noise”, as it is located on a glacial fjord. The mountain still has a small alpine glacier, which may make some noise as it calves.
The map above shows two long fjords in Southeast Alaska. The Sawyer glaciers are at the head of Tracy Arm. The Dawes Glacier is at the head of Endicott Arm. Both of the bodies of water were carved out by those glaciers during the last Ice Age. Sumdum Glacier is not a tidewater glacier, but may have been connected to the Dawes glacier when the tidewater glaciers had a much larger extent. We don’t have to go back thousands of years to see large changes in the extent of the ice.
Just over 225 years ago, when British sea captains were exploring these waters, what we now know as Glacier Bay was completely under ice. During the Holocene Era, most of the glaciers in SE AK have undergone thinning and retreat, exposing land for the first time in 9,000 years. (Larsen, Motyka, and Arendt: Glacier Changes in SE Alaska; Journal of Geophysical Atmospheres, Feb. 2007)
The native Tlingit people have been living in this region for a long time. They may have named Sumdum Glacier when the tidewater glacier was much closer to the present day mountain. A place which used to be associated with a “big noise” from calving glaciers is no longer a loud place. Yes, there is still a mountain glacier there which may have some ice fall from time to time, but I heard nothing when I paddled through this part of the world in 1988 and again in 2000. This is how a place name might lose its original connotation over time.
My purpose for this post is less about climate change (which is an important subject) and more about place names on the map. In the digital age, fewer and fewer people look at maps anymore. Even when they do, it is usually just to double check a route to a destination they are headed to. I invite you, dear readers, to take out a map and spend time looking it over. It can be a topographical map or a reference map. It could be of your local area or an area that you are interested in visiting or returning to. Allow yourself to EXPLORE…not hunting for anything in particular. Some of the best discoveries happen by accident. When you find some place name that intrigues you, then do some research. What is the etymology behind some of those place names?
Place names may yield many fascinating historical insights. They may provide insight into ethno-cultural factors of the people that named them. For example, many place names in Alaska came from different settlement groups. The Native Americans named many places for their physical features or a resource that they provided. The native name for Admiralty Island is Kootznoowoo, meaning “Bear Fortress” in the native tongue. This island has some of the highest concentration of Brown Bears per square mile than any other place on the planet. The first white settlers came from Russia. Chichagof and Baranof Islands take their names from Russian culture. When the United States purchased Alaska from Russia in 1867, the Navy explored and charted the area. Many place names in that era come from political leaders (Lincoln Island), navy commanders (Ralston Island), and some native names like Kootznoowoo were replaced. Most modern maps show the island to be named Admiralty Island.
Some place names like Misery Ridge or Massacre Meadows denote past historic events or difficulties experienced by the first settlers. Or, they might denote happier experiences. I’d like to know the etymology of the town of Climax, Georgia, in the southwest part of the state. However, we must be careful not to view a place name through our own cultural lens. Whatever Bitch Creek, Idaho might connote in English would be different than the French word biche, meaning “cow elk”, from whence it was derived from.
Such explorations using maps will not only be a geographical journey. It will include a journey into history, anthropology, geology, biology, and many other disciplines. You may discover something new about a familiar place, or be further intrigued by a remote place. It will give each place a specific personality. Never again will a “nowhere” place become “some dumb mountain”.