We pulled out of Ketchikan shortly before dark. We’d had dinner before we left, so I
took the wheel as soon as we passed Channel Island so Buckshot could get some much needed
rest. These trips to town were hard on him. He was a generous, kind man, and people
often took advantage of him, and the fact that he was a fish buyer. He usually arrived in
town with a long list of items people along his route needed, which caused him a lot of leg
work. Fortunately, most of the stores were close to the boat dock, but he still ran himself
ragged, especially if his oldest daughter, Marian, wasn’t along to help.
It happened to be a clear, calm night. How wonderful to be at sea again, I though,
looking up at the star-filled sky. We passed Guard Island Light to port, with Caamano Point
blinking ahead off the starboard bow. I was too excited to be sleepy, so let Buckshot rest
until we were abreast of Meyers Chuck.
He came into the wheelhouse and took the wheel. “Nice to have someone on the wheel
I can trust,” he said.
We made a brief stop at Meyers Chuck to unload some ice and groceries onto the scow,
then reached Port Protection late in the evening. Lauren and Clarie had grown since I’d seen
them last. Marian wasn’t home. Buckshot stayed overnight, and we shoved off the next
morning, still towing my boat behind.
Two thirds of the way to Cape Decision, off Saint Albans Reef, the three-cylinder Atlas
engine started making a strange sound. Buckshot shut off the engine and climbed down
into the engine room. “Broken cam shaft,” he announced disgustedly. I envisioned calling
the Coast Guard, in far away Ketchikan. A brisk westerly was blowing from Cape Decision.
“I can see the bouy. The reef is right over there to starboard. If I have to, I’ll tow you
away from the rocks,” I said.
“I have a spare cam shaft. That’s the only good thing about this old engine.” He put
on a pair of greasy overalls and went to work. I made frequent trips to the engine room,
then back up to check on our drift. The wind carried us away from the danger.
An hour later the new camshaft was installed. Buckshot released the air start and the
engine coughed, sputtered, then roared to life with a throaty “Ker-chug-ker-chug-kerchug.”
The westerly had Chatham Strait stirred up, but my little boat rode along behind with
no trouble. We pulled into Port Alexander’s narrow entrance and tied up to the public float.
A dozen trollers lined up to unload. They knew Buckshot was coming and had fished that
Since it was too late to go fishing, I climbed down into the hold and iced silver salmon
while Buckshot weighed each catch and paid cash. The boats averaged about 60 silvers. Few
had any kings. We finished about two o’clock in the morning.
“By God, Caldwell, I should keep you on. That saved me a lot of work,” Buckshot said.
“I miss Marian. She’ll be back next trip, I hope.” I fried ham, opened canned corn and
string beans, and made a pot of hot tea to go with the sweet rolls. My sleeping bag was still
on a bunk in the fo’c’sle, so I stayed on board for the night. I was excited now that I would
finally get a chance to see famous Port Alexander that I’d heard so much about.
Since we’d stayed up late unloading fish, Buckshot and I slept in until about seven
o’clock. I decided to take the day off and explore the town, instead of going fishing. It was
a beautiful, sunny day, and Port Alexander, built on a narrow spit of low land east of the
harbor, is a picturesque location.
Fishing vessels at the float, including our new boat, the Donna C, in Port Alexander, 1977.
While Buckshot did chores on the boat, I cooked bacon, fried potatoes, eggs and toast.
While we ate, the first visitor of the day, old Bert Olsen came aboard and joined us in the
fo’c’sle for coffee, spiked, as he preferred, with a dash of whisky. Buckshot told Bert I was
interested in the area’s rich history, and it wasn’t long until I had a willing local guide to
show me around.
Buckshot handed me a small bottle of whiskey from his supply. “Give Bert a snort once
in a while and he’ll give you the Chamber of Commerce tour.”
The Cape Ommaney area, including the outside of Baranof Island as far west as Sitka
Sound, had undoubtedly been the largest producer of troll-caught king salmon of anywhere
in Southeast Alaska, at least until when production began to decline during the late 1930s.
The first thing I noticed as Bert led me up the ramp was that many buildings were in
ruins. He explained that a terrible blow during the winter of 1948 had severely damaged
the town. The storm took out 200 feet of sidewalk, 125 feet of cribbing that protected the
walkway from the tides, the waterline trestle carried away and a lot of fill disappeared. One
Union Oil dock was ruined, the bakery, meat market and a scow were a total loss.
The following year, Karl Hansen’s old store burned. As we walked the trail towards the
Inner Harbor, or Lagoon, as the locals called it, Bert described where various building had
once been. The library was still standing. Then we reached the beautiful Lagoon. To our
left were two well-kept homes with green lawns. One, I would eventually learn, belonged
to Mike and his wife Pat Franz, who owned the troller Myra. They had been living here
for 21 years. Next door was Syvert Syvertson’s home. Syvert was one of the original fishermen
who had settled here about 1920.
A fisherman painting his boat on the gridiron in the Lagoon, Port Alexander.
A nice grid for beaching and painting the bottom of boats was in front of their houses.
Floats with enough room to tie a dozen boats were in the Lagoon. The hull of a large,
old wooden vessel lay half submerged where it had been stripped and abandoned. When I
inquired of Bert about it, he said the vessel had once been a salmon tender owned by Karl
Hansen, who had been one of the original fish buyers, and largely responsible for the success
of Port Alexander.
Bert pointed to several dilapidated houses on the east side of the lagoon, mentioning
that they had once been houses of prostitution. Across the shallow, narrow entrance, he
pointed to where a man known as the Bearhunter had once built his shack over a stump.
The shack began sliding into the sea, so he propped it up on the water side with logs, fastened
a large hawser around the shack, then tied it off to a deadhead he had buried deep
in the ground. Mooring a shack to the shore probably only happened in Alaska.
A few hardy trollers, Sig Markuson, for one, had arrived to fish Cape Ommaney as
early as 1913. He and others had been fishing Forrester Island, but eventually a government
man began harassing the fishermen there because it was a United States Department of
Interior bird sanctuary. The trollers eventually abandoned Forrester Island and went looking
for another place to fish. At the time there was no buyer at Port Alexander.
According to an article in The Alaska Fisherman’s Journal (Sept. 1983) by Mark
Kirchhof, Engelebr Wiese had built a saltery in Ship’s Cove (Captain Vancouver’s anchorage
for his vessels during the winter of 1794) at the head of Port Conclusion, only a short
distance overland from the Lagoon at the head of Port Alexander. The few trollers who
decided to fish this area obtained salt and a tierce from Wiese’s Saltery, placed the tierce on
board, split and salted their own salmon, then delivered the tierces to Wiese.
According to Kerchhof, one king salmon caught there during this period weighed 113
pounds dressed without the head. If true, it was probably a world’s record.
In 1916 the Northland Trading and Packing Company built a shore station to process
mild-cure. This encouraged fishermen from Ketchikan, Petersburg, Wrangell and Kake to
bring tents for their families and camp there for the season.
In 1917 Hans Stromme built a house and store in Port Alexander and sold fishermen’s
supplies and groceries. Stromme decided to move south, so he talked Karl Hansen, who
had been buying fish at Forrester Island and Hole-in-the-Wall, using a 50-foot purse seiner,
the Enos, into buying him out.
Thereafter, during the golden decades of the 1920s and 1930s, the names Port
Alexander and Karl Hansen were as synonymous as bread and butter.
Carl had started trolling with the 36-foot Leif, powered by a 12-horsepower Frisco
Standard gas engine, at Forrester Island. He desperately wanted to be a fisherman, but never
got over being sea sick, and trollers have to go out in heavy swells. He’d bought the 50-foot
seiner, Enos, and returned to Forrester Island to buy salmon. Hansen met another
Norwegian immigrant, Seattle broker, Jorgen Jackobsen, who was already well established
in the mild-cure business and had customers in Germany as well as several large cities in the
eastern United States. The two became partners. Hansen first bought mild-cure at Forrester
In the spring of 1917, Hansen moved his operation to Port Alexander, where the Enos
served as Port Alexander’s first saltery and mother ship. Hansen’s competitor was Northland
Packing Company, but Karl’s business practices soon won over most of the fleet. Hansen
gained the reputation as a kind-hearted, honest fish buyer, who never refused credit or help
to an employee or fisherman in need. He put up a good pack, but the Enos proved to be too
In 1918 Karl Hansen and his broker/partner bought the 100-foot schooner Volante
and converted the crew’s quarters in the stern into a store. Living quarters and a galley for
his crew were built on deck. The Volante became at floating fuel station, store and fish buying
station at Port Alexander.
Karl soon expanded and built a processing building and fuel dock on shore so the
Volante was free to buy fish along the outside of Baranof Island. King salmon spawners
(many originating from Columbia/Snake River stocks) were caught in large numbers, not
only around the cape, but in Larch and Snipe Bays, and west along the coast to Cross
Herring were tremendously abundant throughout this area, especially in Larch Bay.
Several herring reduction plants were built at Port Conclusion, Port Armstrong, and
Washingon Bay across Chatham Strait on Kuiu Island. A fleet of large seine boats kept the
reduction plants busy during the summer.
Karl Hansen hired only top employees and the word soon spread that Port Alexander
was a good place to fish. One attraction, fishing could be conducted in the lee of the long
cape, out of the heavy swells and prevalent westerlies. Trollers became fond of this area.
Many of the trollers built temporary homes on Tongass National Forest land, and
moved their families there during the summer. Since no fishing was allowed on Sunday,
trollers had that day to rest and stay home, plus, of course, days when it was too stormy to
fish. A post office and U.S. Commissioner and Justice of the Peace gave the little community
a look of permanence. In 1927-28 after the government withdrew land around the
new town from Tongass National Forest, and lots were surveyed, a building boom occurred.
The Strand Cafe & Bakery, a second bakery, barber shop and soda fountain were built.
Ivan Wick, a well-known Ketchikan resident, fished a little troller, the Buster, at Port
Alexander in 1935 and has many references to what life was like there in his book, The Way
it Was, self-published in 1978. He mentions the wild Saturday nights at Arts’ Place, run by
Art and Rose Carlson. Ed Frederickson Sr. and his son, Ed. Jr. or “Beamy”. Beamy, one of
the oldest surviving Alaskan salmon trollers, lived in Port Alexander. Beamy, owner of the
Jo Ann, has fished this area all his life, and is a long-time resident of Sitka.
As expected in any remote small town, PA, as it was known, seldom lacked for local
flavor. “Hardluck John, Two-step Jack, Bolshevik Charlie, Castle Carl, Snoose Sivert, and
the Bearhunter became local characters.
Only king salmon weighing more than 15 pounds were split and salted in barrels, or
tierces. A tierce weighed about 1,100 pounds when full. Hansen put up an average of
about 500 tierces a season. In 1937 he processed an astounding 1,100 tierces, almost one
million pounds of top quality mild-cure. Kings smaller than 15 pounds, amounting to several
hundred thousand pounds annually, were iced and sent to Prince Rupert and Ketchikan
The town continued to grow. By 1938 Port Alexander became incorporated. A few of
the younger fishermen built homes and remained through the winter. A “Tideman’s
Recreation Center,” including a library was built overlooking the harbor. There was a
chapel, Finnish Steam Bath, school, dance hall and butcher shop. Someone even brought in
milk cows. A water system was in operation, paid for by Hansen, and installed by towns
people. Standard Oil built a 30,000 gallon gasoline storage tank. A Petersburg newspaper16
claimed 600 to 700 people were working in Port Alexander during the fishing season. Other
sources claim the summer population got as high as 1,500 to 2,500. About 350 boats fished
out of the port.
Port Alexander during its boom years, about 1935, probably during a Sunday closure.
(Ordway photo, compliments, Dick Gore.)
Naturally such numbers of single men, and cash money flowing like wine, attracted
prostitutes. The red light district was located either across the harbor, or along the shores
of the Lagoon. Most sporting ladies were from Ketchikan’s Creek Street, at PA for a “summer
vacation.” Those fishermen out for a night on the town, if they had any money after
visiting brothels, could clean out any cash remaining in their pockets at card rooms where
professional gamblers hung out. The entrance to the Lagoon could only be navigated by
small boats during high water, but there was a well-used trail.
PA didn’t go dry during prohibition. Boats frequently returned from Prince Rupert
with cases of whiskey buried beneath ice in their holds. At least two bootleggers operated
secretly in surrounding brush. Several local bootleggers kept the liquor supply flowing.
One was a beautiful woman by the name of Lil Ovie, who created a popular drink she
called “moose milk.” Some legendary stories existed about the power of Ovie’s concoction,
and the prodigious headaches that resulted. It would be interesting to know what kind of
poison she contaminated the milk with.
A warning system alerted townspeople when a revenue cutter was seen approaching,
and bottles were quickly hidden away. Fishermen on boats hung their weighted bottles of
booze overboard on tiny strings. Evidently the Revenue men never wised up to the fact that
they could destroy a lot of booze by going around the rails and cutting off all the strings.
The huge run of fish during the 1937 season was no warning that the resource was in
trouble. In 1938, Hansen only packed 342 tiers. From then the pack kept going down.
Researchers claimed it was because of new dams on the Columbia River system.
The 1940 census indicated 87 people still resided in PA. No one wanted to leave, but
the fish clearly were no longer there like in the past. That year’s production of mild-cure was
the lowest salmon since 1918. Hans Nordness, head of the Union Trading and Packing
Company, Karl’s chief competition, moved to Sitka.
With the start of World War II, the German market disappeared. Hansen packed only
43 tierces in 1943, and these he had trouble selling. Several herring plants also shut down.
Although they were not located in PA, the big seine boats frequently stopped, and brought
considerable business to the failing economy. After 30 years in PA, Karl Hansen had considerable accounts receivable but few collectable.
With the decline of his business Karl took to drink until he became a town nuisance.
In the attic of the old, abandoned Model Cafe. I found a petition, signed by members of
the City Council, banning Karl from drinking in any establishment in PA .
In the late 1940’s he moved to Seattle, where he died in 1962, a poor man. Another
tragic story of how liquor destroyed yet another great Alaskan pioneer.
With the loss of Karl Hansen, Port Alexander fell on even harder times. Apparently my
arrival happened during the worst.
Port Alexander can be a pleasant place to live during the short Alaskan summer.
Starting in September, and throughout winter and spring, terrible blows strike Cape
Ommaney. The light on steep-sided Wooden Island, a short distance off the cape, had to be
moved higher several times until it is now 190 feet above sea level, and seas still crash above
John Seben, a long-time crewman on the U.S. Coast Guard bouy tender White Holly,
claimed Wooden Island was the most difficult light in Southeast Alaska to service. They
frequently had to make several visits in order to get ashore on the nearly vertical rock
because of the constant surge. After getting ashore, they had to winch propane bottles up
the cliffs to fuel the light.
By the time I arrived, in 1957, only a dozen trollers fished out of Port Alexander. About
12 permanent residents lived there. Although I didn’t know all of the history of PA, there
were several old-timers still living who delighted in filling me in. Syvert Syvertson had
arrived in 1919 and lived there 50 years. “Lapp” Sam Anderson, one of the original
Forrester Island gang of hand trollers, still lived there and owned a house on the ‘back bay’.
It was a beautiful summer day when I made my first attempt to fish sport gear at Breakfast
Rock and Poorman’s Point, the two “hot” spots nearest to Port Alexander’s harbor.
Right away it became obvious that silvers would beat any king salmon that happened
to be around to my herring bait. According to my logbook, I caught one medium king and
13 silvers the first day. The silvers were real fighters and took as long to boat as a king. They
were small and only worth $.45 cents apiece, and the king brought $4.00.
The southern part of Baranof Island, below the Great Arm of Whale Bay and Gut Bay,
which nearly divide the island, is spear-shaped, with the low, tapered rock ridge at the point
being the Cape itself. Tidal currents of unbelievable force swirl around the Cape. The ebb
current runs down Chatham Straits, then, curiously enough, instead of running straight offshore
toward Hazy Islands, as one might expect, flows around the Cape and up the outside
of the island until near Snipe Bay, where it veers offshore.
Consequently, any vessel that wants to take advantage of the current, if headed up
the outside towards Sitka, leaves Port Alexander an hour or so after high water.
Just west of the tip of the Cape is Ommaney Bay, an open bight divided into several
narrow indentations, with barren, solid rock ridges between. The “jaws of death” some call
them. The bay offers no shelter or protection. Sheer, wave-scoured black cliffs lie behind.
Who knows how many men and ships have been unfortunate enough to have been ground
into bits and pieces in those “jaws”, then disappear forever.
Bobrovoi Point, about 1.8 miles northwest of the cape, is the southeast point at the
entrance to Larch Bay. During the late 1950’s Larch Bay was one of the last places the herring
seiners, supplying product for the refineries in Chatham Strait, went to fill their boats.
The big seiners fished at night and could be seen rounding the cape fully loaded early
each morning. After they cleaned out Larch Bay, the herring oil and meal business suddenly
ended. The herring seiners were practically unregulated by the United States Fish and
Wildlife Service, who had jurisdiction of fish and game until after Alaska became admitted
as a state in 1959.
No locals use the name Bobrovoi, a holdover from the time when Russia owned
Alaska. Several black, heavily-washed rocky islet lie directly off the point. Eagle Rocks are
a favorite place for Bald Eagles to perch while on lookout for a fish. Fishermen refer to the
point simply as Eagle Rocks.
Fishermen, and mariners familiar with the Cape Ommaney area have a lot of respect
for Eagle Rocks. Especially when a big westerly, or southwest swell is running, and the tide
is ebbing into the swells, or when a heavy southwest gale is blowing. Personally, I fear Eagle
Rocks more than the Cape itself.
Of all the great capes in Southeast Alaska, and I’m familiar with them all, from Chacon
and Muzon to Ocean Cape at the entrance to Yakutat Bay, the Cape Ommaney area would
be my absolute last preference of a place to be caught with a dead engine, or fowled pro
Cape Ommaney, Wooden Island is at the right. Ommaney Bay is center and Eagle Rocks
is at extreme left.
pellor during an onshore wind! Between Larch Bay and the Chatham Straits side of the
Cape there’s few places where any shipwreck survivor could get ashore, and if they did, it’s
doubtful anyone could survive.
Wooden Island, 250 feet in elevation, is a pyramid-shaped, or chocolate-drop-shaped
rock, positioned a few hundred yards southeast of Cape Ommaney. The east side is a near-
vertical cliff. Close against the cliff is considered one of the hot spots for kings. The water
is deep enough that a power troller can almost brush the cliffs with the tips of his main pole
while trolling his leads 18-20 fathoms deep. If the leads do hit anything, it’s sheer cliff and
they just roll off. That takes some nerve and faith in the engine, but I’ve seen it done and
tried it myself later when I owned a power troller. Poor Man’s Point, halfway up to Port
Alexander and Breakfast Rock, four miles from the cape in front of Port Alexander, are other
traditional “hot spots” for salmon.
During big tides, with heavy onshore wind and swells, Cape Ommaney is a truly fearful
place, with terrible tide rips, overfalls and breaking waves extending for many miles offshore.
Even large vessels avoid such conditions, and if they have to round, or double the
Cape during bad onshore storms, should give it a berth of some 10 miles.
Anyone who cruises around Wooden Island, and observes several cement platforms
where previous lights were once located, and were demolished by storms, will be impressed.
The south end of Baranof Island is like the tip of a giant spearhead, and storms drive onto
both sides with unbelievable fury. Although the light is now located 190 feet above sea level,
waves sometimes still wash, or at least splash, over the light.
Jess Paten, owner of the schooner Repeat, lived in the old store at the south end of Port
Alexander for several years and told me that during particular heavy winter storms they
could actually feel the ground (solid rock) tremble when gigantic swells struck the south end
of the island. Along the outside coast, from Cape Ommaney to Whale Bay, the shoreline is
washed clean, at least 100 feet above sea level, by winter storm waves.
For all the bad things one can say about Cape Ommaney, there is one good feature.
While nearly incessant westerly winds and swells during the summer beat unmercifully
against the entire outside of Baranof Island, and fog blankets the outside of the island,
inside Chatham Straits will be smooth and sunny. Consequently, the inside drag is popular
with many salmon trollers who dislike rolling their guts out all day.
If it blows southeast, or easterly, the shore between the Cape and Port Alexander are
exposed, and it will be a harbor day until the winds quit.
So, this was the place I came to sport fish for king salmon. I gave it my best, but it did-
n’t pay off. I even braved rounding the Cape a few times in my little boat and fished in
Larch Bay. I caught a few nice kings too, but never enough. I tried fishing the hole beneath
the light on Wooden Island during days when the weather was good, and caught a few fish
there also, but my presence caused me to be unpopular with the power trollers. My tiny boat
was hard for them to see. If they had to turn out to miss me, it ruined their drag, forcing
them to turn away exactly when they reached the hole, or hot spot where the kings hung
out next to the cliffs. They’d yell at me, but it was always with respect, because most of
them had started fishing in small boats too.
Silvers were showing up good and any troller who worked at it could catch 100 or more
a day. I couldn’t catch enough silvers on sport gear to make it pay. So I built a hand gurdie.
All the parts necessary were lying around in the burned down, or abandoned buildings. I
found a sturdy trolling wire spool and made the shaft and handle out of pipe and pipe fittings.
An old eight inch V-belt pulley bolted to the side of the spool, with a length of V-
belt, rigged with a strong rubber band worked admirably for a brake. By relieving pressure
on the belt, I could slowly lower the lead. A pipe served as a davit to hold the small brass
pulley high enough I could snap on leaders below the pulley.
In the lockers on the Atlas I found a roll of new Hackensack stainless steel trolling wire,
line snaps, leader material, a small brass block, ten pound leads and coho spoons. Using
tools in the engine room of the Atlas, after one days work I was ready to go hand trolling.
A home-made hand gurdie, constructed from a trolling wire spool,
V-belt pulley, with a piece of belt rubber snubber for a brake, pipe
and pipe fittings.
If I had problems with my rigging or gear, all I had to do was ask and the other fishermen
were glad to help. One man helped me mark the stainless steel wire every two fathoms
with linen. The marks kept the line snaps from sliding up and down the wire.
Now, I was in debt to Buckshot for the gear and wire.
On my first day out I caught 15 coho. My arm was sore from cranking. On the second
I caught 20 coho and one king. The power trollers, fishing four lines, with 12 or more
leaders and spoons to the line, caught on average about 100. They pulled in their lines with
power while I had to hand crank the gear in.
Instead of taking what I owed from my fish money, Buckshot paid me for my fish in
full. I promised I’d pay him back when I could.
When there were a lot of fish Buckshot really needed two helpers. He did the weighing
and paying, while someone had to be in the hold icing fish. This meant no one was
down in the galley making out fish tickets and paying cash. Since Buckshot usually had a
hard time hiring any good help, mainly because of the long hours and poor pay, he usually
had only his daughter Marian, or some kid from town along. Few kids, except Marian, lasted
more than a trip or two.
One particular night all the boats came in loaded. Buckshot was on deck weighing in
and the kid was icing fish. About 11 o’clock I went down into the fo’c’sle to see what I could
find in the lockers for groceries. A dozen large lockers on either side of the galley were
always kept stocked with canned and packaged goods.
Three guys were sitting on seats at the table waiting for Buckshot to come down and
pay them. Stacked on the table were bundles of hundred and twenty dollar bills with no
one keeping an eye on the money.
Ye Gads, I thought.
I went up on deck and offered to lend a hand for a while. At first Buckshot refused,
insisting I needed my sleep so I could get out early in the morning. Finally he relented and
I took over the scales and he disappeared into the galley to do the book work and pay the
Coho were graded large and small, so considerable sorting was necessary. We weighed
and bought 13,000 pounds that night, and I didn’t get to sleep until about three am.
Buckshot went into the hold after we bought the last fish and iced because his helper could-
n’t keep up. Of course there were no fish to buy during the day, and that gave him some
time to sleep, maintain the boat, cook and rest.
A couple of days later I came in early and asked Buckshot how much I owed him for
gear. He looked around the fo’c’sle for my slip, said he couldn’t find it and went on about
his business. Although I asked several times, he would only grin and say he hadn’t found it
yet. He never did find it. Any time he was really stuck for help I’d volunteer. He was a great
guy and an honest fish buyer.
About a week after I started hand trolling the fleet were all down between Poorman’s
Point and the Cape when it started blowing a savage westerly about noon. I had been catching
few cohos and the others were not catching many either. The wind came over the
mountains, then swept down, struck the surface and raised whitecaps right to the shore.
Some of the gusts nearly blew me overboard.
One by one I noticed the guys pulling in their gear and running for harbor. The wind
was blowing so hard they couldn’t keep coiled leaders on deck. Shortly after everyone left,
a school of silvers arrived. Every spoon held a bright silver, and they were wild. I cranked
in, removed each leader and landed the fish, then put the gear back out. As the line went
down I could feel it start to shake.
I had built a dressing trough that fit on the rail, so blood and gurry went overboard.
When I opened a silver’s belly, hundreds of tiny, rose and olive-colored fish about 1 1/2
inches in length spilled out. Later someone said they were little cod. Working as hard as I
could, I filled the fish boxes and floorboards, then started in. Heavily loaded, I shipped
a sea over the side once in a while, but as long as the boat kept moving forward, a one-inch
drain plug low down in the transom kept the bilge dry. By now the wind was howling and
whitecaps were rushing at me from shore. I hugged the beach, ducked through the kelp beds
inside Breakfast Rock and moored to another boat that was tied alongside the Atlas.
Several fishermen were sitting on the rail. When they noticed my loaded boat, one
shouted, “Hey, Buckshot, come and look at this.”
Buckshot’s grizzled head peered over the rail. Then he began to deride the fishermen
on deck. “The smallest boat in the bunch and he comes in loaded while you guys are loafing.
Come on, move out so a real fisherman can unload.”
I though Buckshot was laying it on a little heavy, and so did the others. He was like
that sometimes. He and his family had been buying troll fish for many years and had the
respect of the fleet. He had once continued buying fish during the big coho run at Gedney
Harbor after his cash was gone. He kept on buying. What was he supposed to do? Boats
kept coming in loaded, with no place else to sell. Buckshot almost sunk the scow. He ran
out of ice and cash. Fish were piled four feet high on the floor.
The buyer left him stranded. Didn’t send out another packer, money, ice or anything.
After a couple of days they had to shovel those fish overboard, and Buckshot owed thousands
of dollars to fishermen. He eventually paid it back too. The fishermen never forgot
this and most remained loyal to Buckshot for as long as he was buying fish.
My catch weighed in at a little over 600 pounds. I’d taken a chance, and decided I’d
not load the boat that heavy again.
One morning the weather was good so I decided to go around the Cape and try Larch
Bay. Looking into those “jaws of death” between the Cape and Eagle Rock was unnerving.
I was putting a lot of faith in my outboard engine, but I had the three-horse as a spare.
Herring were flipping in Larch Bay and surf scooters, sooty shearwater, kittywake and
gulls hovered over the herring schools, waiting for an injured fish to surface. A dozen eagles
patrolled overhead. Occasionally one would dive, legs extended, talons spread wide, snatch
a fish, then flap off to a nearby snag, perch, then either eat or feed its catch to young still
in the nest.
I caught three kings. A sudden brisk wind from the southwest sprang up. I took off
running for Eagle Rocks and was around them before I had to slow down. I really took a
beating off Ommaney Bay. Swift tidal currents swirled this way, then that. Whitecaps raced
in several directions. It was scary. Local trollers had told me that the safest way to round the
Cape was as close to the rocky point as possible. Since the water was rougher farther off
shore, I didn’t have much choice. No other boats were around. Despite the risk of motor
trouble, or a fouled prop, I held a course for the end of the Cape and cleared it by less than
100 feet. It was scary. A short distance offshore seas were crashing and colliding in a turmoil
with each other that would have sank any open boat.
Years later, after I owned the 54-foot Donna C, and was trolling off the Cape, I had a
60-pound bow lead, 25 fathoms deep, carry back and across to the other side, and tangle
with a 30-pound mainline lead. Those leads would have been 60 feet or more apart if hanging
down normally. A perfect example of the powerful currents where the tides from
Chatham Strait and the open ocean mingled. Sometimes all the trolling wires on one side
of the boat would be nearly under the boat, while the lines on the other side would be as
far from the boat as they could go.
One troller that usually came in with the biggest catch was “Lapp” Sam Anderson. Sam
lived in Port Alexander in an old house on the back bay. He was about 70 years old. He was
small, wiry and unkempt, dressed in woolens obtained at some war surplus store. His pale
blue eyes, surrounded by wrinkles, sparkled and missed very little. Some claimed Sam was
wealthy and had a lot of money in the Petersburg bank. I don’t doubt it, because he was
unbelievably fugal with food and clothing, living mostly on fish, potatoes, onions and hardtack.
He never skimped on care of his boat, engine and fishing gear though.
He had migrated from his native Lapland at a young age, settled in Alaska, and became
a lifelong fisherman. Sam had gill netted salmon in Lynn Canal and other places, jig fished
albacore and trolled salmon along the California Coast, and trolled for salmon about everywhere
you could mention in Southeast Alaska.
Sam had lived and fished at Port Alexander during its heyday in the 1930’s. He
claimed you could almost walk across the harbor on anchored boats during the Sunday closure
in those days.
Sam had lost two boats, one during the 1930s, when his boat hit Crowley Breaker, in
lower Chatham Strait one stormy night during a winter snowstorm. The other was wrecked
in the Coronation Island Hurricane. Apparently Sam led a charmed life, because he survived
Sam’s boat was a transom-stern, 32-foot Columbia River model gillnetter. He insisted
that the Finns were the only boatbuilders anyone could trust.
Unlike most of the others fishing Cape Ommaney at the time, Sam seldom trolled back
and forth, close along the shore, in the lee of the cape. Instead he put his gear in the water
off Poorman’s Point, then tacked past Wooden Island and kept going. He told me he usually
only turned around once, and that was to troll back towards home. Since savage westerlies
sometimes sprang up during the afternoon, getting caught far offshore would cause
Sam and his little boat to take a beating, but he usually managed to get in behind the Cape
I found this intriguing. Sam and his little boat, far offshore towards Hazy Islands,
alone all day. I was surprised that silver salmon would be scattered over a large area.
Another thing different about Sam’s fishing methods, he marked his wire one-and-one-half
fathoms apart for silver fishing, instead of the normal two fathoms. This allowed him to run
more spoons. His leaders were only one fathom in length.
His methods evidently worked. Sam usually showed up at Buckshot’s Atlas with more
fish than anyone else. Buckshot considered Sam his best customer.
Sam was weather wise. With some inner sense acquired during a lifetime at sea, without
ever listening to a weather forecast, he had acquired a sixth sense that told him if it was
going to blow. He carefully studied the sky at daylight. It wasn’t unusual for him to stay in
port, while the others went fishing, only to be caught by a sudden blow and have to run
back before the day was over.
Sam and I became friendly. He told me he’d started with a 14-foot hand troller. I think
he sympathized with me because of my small boat. Later on, during a spell of bad weather,
he invited me to stay at his house, which was greatly appreciated, because being stuck on
my little boat in rain and wind was uncomfortable.
While at Port Alexander I noticed a nice double-ended 38-foot troller with a “For Sale”
sign on the side of the pilothouse. The price was $8,000, which everyone said was too
much. Even though I couldn’t afford to buy it, I eyed that boat every chance I got, thinking
how nice it would be to have the comfort of a galley, stove, pilothouse, fo’c’sle, and a
hold where one could ice fish, freeing its owner to roam anywhere and not be restricted by
having to be close to a buyer.
One day another small boat showed up. The owner was Vince Cameron, from Sequim,
Washington. He owned a good little boat, with tiny living quarters and an inboard engine.
Vince and I became friends. He later owned the 40-foot Camelot and, in 1973, built the
Elusive, a sister ship to our 54-foot Donna C.
Since fishing was slow at Cape Ommaney, Vince suggested we cross over to the Kuiu
Island side of Chatham Strait. He claimed it was more friendly to small boats, with several
harbors. A buying scow was anchored at Troller’s Islands. Tebenkof Bay, Port Malmesbury
and Gedney Harbor were famous trolling spots. Tebenkof Bay was huge, with protected
inside water where small boats could fish when it was blowing out in the straits.
A large fleet were fishing off Troller Islands, on what was locally known as Tebenkof
“Flats.” Since the fish were scattered, this wasn’t a practical place for a small boat with only
one line. We found good king salmon fishing inside Tebenkof Bay, in flat calm water.
One day at Gap Point, I caught three kings one right after the other that weighed a total
of 150 pounds dressed, or 50 pound average. Those big kings would have weighed over
60 pounds each in the round. They really gave me a battle, swishing my 10-pound lead all
around the boat until they tired and I could shoot them with the .22.
On July 10, 1958, I was trolling out on the “flats” when I passed the Nohusit, Eric
“Skip” and Marilyn Jordan’s boat. Skip shouted to me that there had been a giant wave at
Lituya Bay, and several boats were believed to be missing. I had never heard of Lituya Bay.
“Marilyn just removed some blueberry pies from the oven,” he shouted. “Pull your
gear, run up between my lines to the stern, come aboard for pie and coffee.”
Who could pass up such an offer? I was starved for home cooking. With my skiff
secured, and trailing behind, I climbed off the bow onto the Nohusit. We talked about
reports of the big earthquake up around Pelican, and damage in Lituya Bay. I went into the
spacious galley. Eric Jr., the Jordans daughters Karen, Lynda and baby Barbara were keeping
close tabs on the hot pies. They smelled wonderful. The only baked goods we ever
bought on the scow were week-old sweet rolls, so dry you had to dunk them in coffee to
soften them before they could be consumed. Skip finished hauling gear and came in. He
removed a chart from a drawer that showed Lituya Bay. Of course it never occurred to
me that I would later spend a lot of time in Lituya and write a book about this famous, or
infamous, “bay of giant waves.”
Aerial of Lituya Bay after the 1958 “ great” earthquake and “giant waves” stripped surrounding shorelines of forest to heights of 1,720 feet.
(Credit U.S. Geological Survey.)
That night on the buying scow the fishermen gathered and talked about Lituya Bay,
where it had been reported a wave 1,800 feet in height had torn old-growth Sitka spruce off
the mountainside and wrecked several boats. (actually the wave was 1,720 feet high, and
wrecked two of three boats anchored there at the time) One man, who claimed he’d been
in Lituya Bay, said the head of the tee-shaped bay was a huge earthquake fault, half a mile
wide. He though the fault had opened up, then closed, squirting the wave like a gigantic
Although no one present believed the “giant clam” theory, as it turned out it wasn’t
so ridiculous after all. Investigation disclosed that during this “great earthquake,” bedrock
moved twenty one and a half feet horizontally and three and a half feet vertically. The quake
had been so powerful it knocked the seismograph needle off at the University of
Washington, more than 1,000 miles away. The quake measured eight on the Richter Scale,
and was centered in Cross Sound. Don Miller of the United States Geological Survey, an
authority on Lituya Bay, who spent two years investigating the area after the 1958 wave,
told this writer that, “He wouldn’t put anything past Lituya Bay.
The cause of the waves was later determined to have been caused by a large rockslide
that shook loose on the mountainside, then plummeted into the head of the bay.
A small stream trickled down the beach near where we anchored behind one of the
Troller Islands. This was my source of water. One day I wandered up the stream for several
hundred yards. Lying staked out in the water was a pair of black, woolen long underwear.
I’d been drinking water below them for several days!
I bounced back and forth across Chatham Strait, trying one side then the other. One
reason was because I wanted to keep checking my mail at Port Alexander and sending
money orders home. I expected to receive word at any time to report to Sitka and go to
work for Northern Mechanical.
Word didn’t come until late August. The coho run was still strong, but fishing was off
and on. I headed up Chatham Strait one fine morning. From Kingsmill to Point Gardener
is a long stretch. I kept my eye on the weather. It had been a “fine morning” that the storm
nearly killed me too.
As I passed by Point Gardner, Dutch Short was fishing there in his small boat. He
hailed me. “Where you headed,” he asked. I told him “Angoon, then Sitka.”
“I came over from Warm Springs Bay to catch a fish to smoke and discovered there’s
a good run of big kings here. I have about 150 pounds and really hate to run them all the
way to Angoon. How about delivering them for me?”
I told him I would. The kings filled my fish box. I’d never been to Angoon before,
but made it through the rapids up to the buying scow okay. I fueled up and headed across
the straits. Once inside Peril Straits I had protected water all the way to Sitka.
I moored my boat at Jamestown Bay and walked up to where our trailer was parked
at Coles Trailer Park. Jerry Wright had moved out and it was empty.
Leta and the two boys arrived in time to start school. I went to work at the mill construction
site in Silver Bay. This was a big job and about 1,500 men were employed. The
pay was good, and because of union agreements, we received an additional per diem.
So as to not forget the objective, saving enough to put the down payment on a boat, I
painted the likeness of the troller I’d admired at Port Alexander on the side of my lunch pail
so I’d see it every day as a reminder.
About one month they gave me and another guy the job of installing 900 sheet metal
cans through the wood framed floor of the finishing room, a huge building where the pulp
machine would be located. The cans were for openings in the concrete where pipe would
be installed after cement was poured. We filled the cans with sawdust to keep out cement.
It was exacting work, requiring precise measurements, but we enjoyed the challenge, aware
that mistakes would be costly to repair.
After the cement floors were poured, Rex Beach, the superintendent, said, “Okay, you
made a lot of holes in the floor, now fill them with pipe.” I was promoted to foreman and
eventually had 15 welders and fitters in my crew. The pipe was mostly stainless steel, fabricated down south, so there was a minimum of position welding. Some of the pipe was huge. We also had to set and install some really heavy pumps and other pulp processing
equipment. I worked in the finishing room all winter and most of the next summer.
Every day at lunchtime, the painting on my lunch bucket reminded me what I was
working here for. I saved all the money I could, but it didn’t add up very fast. Then one
day I received a check for $4,000 in the mail, the settlement of my father’s estate. Things
were looking up.