In September I went to work at Ward Cove, the site of the new Ketchikan Pulp
Company mill. Howard S. Wright was the prime contractor. I had tried to get a permit
through the plumbers and pipe fitters union, local 262 in Juneau, to work for Northern
Mechanical, the contractor for the plumbing and piping, but was unsuccessful. So I hired
on as a laborer, which paid more per hour than I was making in local plumbing shops. The
job was six days a week, with time-and-a-half on Saturday.
When I went to work the rocky bluffs above the shore had been drilled, blasted and
partially leveled. There were two temporary wooden buildings, a contractor’s office and a
lunch room. They had just started building a long dock, and only four sets, or bents, of
steel piling had been driven. The steel piling were driven only a few feet until they hit solid
rock. Because the water was deep, engineers decided the pilings required filling around them
to hold them in place. Thousands of tons of rock, being blasted off the cliffs behind the site,
where most of the mill buildings would be constructed, were hauled in dump trucks and
placed around each bent of piling, until rock could be seen at low tide.
My job that long, cold, dark winter was spotting dump trucks where fill was needed
along the wooden ramps, and stopping them with a flashlight signal. I worked nights, and
believe me, the eight hour shift seemed 16 hours long standing out there in the dark with
the wind, snow and rain coming at me sideways. Sometimes we had to wait for an hour for
another truck. I wore all the clothing I could get on and still almost froze. They finally
supplied us with salamanders, portable stoves that burned diesel fuel. After standing close
to one of these heaters part of the night, my face, hands and clothing would be black with
With a steady job, we applied for a loan and bought a house at mile five South Tongass.
Across the highway from the house, located on the steep beach, was a small storage shed
and the remains of a platform, where a skiff could be lifted out. The spar and boom used
to do the lifting had rotted and was gone. A special use permit from the Tongass National
Forest Service was required.
In the spring Norman Jefferies arrived in Ketchikan without a boat. He wanted to buy
the Chinook. I didn’t want to sell, but working at Ward Cove six days a week, apparently it
would be a long time before I could use it. Besides, I needed to do a lot of work on the
house, and had precious little time. The pulp mill dock was complete and I was helping
carry heavy wooden forms from a prefabrication yard on shore out onto the dock where
they were placed around the pilings to pour foundations for the concrete dock slab. It was
exhausting work, and I had little energy left when I got home.
“Norman, you’re too tall to get into that miserable little bunk,” I said, trying to discourage
him. But he insisted, so I let him have it.
Driving back and forth to work on South Tongass Highway, I noticed a skiff for sale
sign in the driveway of Ernest Andres mink farm. It was a 16-foot, cedar-planked Reinell,
in new condition, perfect for sport fishing. I bought it and soon purchased a 25-h.p.
Johnson outboard to hang on its stern. At least I owned a boat again.
My good friend, John Urdea, and I went sport fishing in the Reinell on Sundays. It was
a great sea boat. John loved fishing as much as I, and we enjoyed each other very much. He
had been working at Ward Cove as a laborer, but transferred over with the roofers, where
Bob Bell was foreman.
Several other fishermen were working as laborers at Ward Cove. When spring came
some quit. I longed for the fresh air and freedom of fishing but stuck with the job. Now
that we had the house, and a steady paycheck coming in, I was still unable to put anything
aside for buying a troller. I had to be satisfied with dreaming. Buck Hunter’s advice, “If
there’s something you really want to do, go for it, you only live once,” kept ringing in my
ears. How was I ever going to get a decent troller?
The following spring I was working at the far end of the site where roof slabs were
being fabricated when I heard an explosion. An hour later a truck came by and the driver
said a barrel of tar had blown up at the base of the chip silos and someone had been killed.
I told my foreman that my best friend was working with tar at the silos. I was scared it was
him, and was going to run up and see.
He and I had not been getting along, but he raised no objection. At the base of the
silos, I found a group of company officials and safety men standing around. About 10 feet
up the side of one silo was a splash of tar. A twisted, split open barrel of tar was lying 50
feet away. John and his crew had been heating a barrel of roofing tar over a large propane
heater. They had neglected to remove one of the bungs to allow expansion. The barrel blew
up and covered John with flaming tar. His body had been taken to the morgue.
I immediately thought of John’s wife Penny. They had recently remarried after being
divorced for a couple of years, and loved each other very much. I went to my car and drove
to where they lived. Penny had already been informed of the accident, and of course was
stunned with grief. I convinced her to go home with me. Leta and I spent the night trying
to console her and none of us got much rest.
The following morning the coroner requested Penny to come to the morgue and iden
tify her husband’s body. I argued with him, knowing what his body must look like, but he
insisted, so we drove her to the morgue. With Leta on one side and me on the other, we
got her inside and to the table where John’s body was lying beneath a sheet. The terrible
stench of burned cloth, flesh and tar filled the room.
“This isn’t going to be pleasant. The body is still in the burned clothing,” said the coroner.
“We were unable to remove it.”
“This is ridiculous,” I said angrily. Everyone knows it’s John. Why do you have to put
this woman through this?”
“Well, it’s the law. However, I’ll just pull back the sheet quickly for you to take a look,
and that will satisfy the records.”
I closed my eyes. After a moment I opened them again. The body was covered. “Was
that your husband, Mrs. Urdea?” Unable to speak, Penny only nodded, and leaned heavily
on me, as if she was about to faint. The coroner held out a brown paper bag and said, “Mrs.
Urdea, this watch was the only thing we recovered from the body.” John’s gold watch was
only a twisted, melted chunk of metal covered with tar.
I had never been so grief stricken. Penny flew to Sumner, Washington, where John was
to be buried. I went back to work the following day to discover I no longer had a job. The
labor superintendent was a tough old ******* by the name of Mitchell. He was universally
despised by the labor force and even some of the foremen. The only reason he kept his job
with Howard S. Wright was because he had the ability to squeeze every last drop of sweat
from the large labor force. I’d been fired because my foreman claimed I’d argued with him,
then walked off the job.
Oh well, the mill was supposed to start in June anyway, and I’d already decided I did-
n’t want to become part of the mill crew.
I went right to work for an outside contractor doing the underground plumbing for a
new housing project on Jackson Street, determined to get my union status squared away. A
second pulp mill was expected to be built in Sitka soon, and I planned to work on the job
as a plumber and pipe fitter.
Nineteen fifty four was a very wet year. Before it was over 191.74 inches of rain fell.
Working in ditches, fighting water and mud every day, was miserable. By the time I finished
with the underground piping I’d had it. I packed up my tent, stove and fishing gear, bought
a 3-horse outboard to motor mooch with, said goodby to my family and headed for Meyers
As town fell behind I drew in great breath of fresh sea air, and realized how much I’d
missed getting away from the rat race of people, construction, bosses and the pressures of
complicated day by day existence.
I pitched my tent near the float in Meyers Chuck and tried fishing off Lemesurier
Point. I met Lonesome Pete, who lived nearby. Pete was one of the local characters, and
later after we moved to Sitka, I would visit him at the Pioneers Home. He told me that I’d
never make it at Meyers Chuck, because fishing was slow.
He was right. I soon moved on to Port Protection. Irene didn’t have an empty cabin,
so I camped on the only decent beach a few hundred yards from Buckshot’s Trading Post.
The second day at Point Baker I hooked into a huge fish. It didn’t put up much of a
fight. I shot it through the head, then netted it without trouble. When I lifted it over the
rail I knew it was by far the largest king I’d caught. The fish was in perfect shape, with every
scale in place and no scars. The longer I looked the larger it seemed to be.
Emil had seen me land it and came alongside. He looked at the king and whistled.
“Boy, that’s a dandy. You caught that on 15-pound test?”
“Yep. How much do you think it weighs?”
“Sixty, seventy pounds, I suppose. Why don’t you take it into Mark’s scales and weigh
it in the round?”
“Good idea.” Several people were standing around on the float as I pulled up. We placed
it in the bucket that hung underneath the scales. It weighed exactly 70 pounds.
While everyone was admiring it, Mark Lewis came out, took one look at the salmon, and
asked me if I’d be willing to sell it in the round. Whiz Fish Company, who he bought for,
had told him if he had the chance to get a big king in the round that was in good condition,
to buy it and ice it down, then call a plane and have it flown to Ketchikan, transferred
to Ellis Air Lines, flown to Annette and shipped to a taxidermy in Seattle. They wanted it
mounted and hung in their office.
The price for large red was fifty cents a pound. Mark offered me a dollar a pound in
the round. Seventy dollars for one fish. You bet I accepted. I went back out and caught
three smaller kings before quitting and heading for Buckshot’s Trading Post.
When Irene came to the scales to weigh my fish she seemed upset, but didn’t say anything.
I thought she was mad at the girls. After I finished weighing in, she asked me what
happened to the 70-pound king that I’d caught earlier that day. Her anger was unmistakable.
I knew someone from Baker had told her.
I explained what happened, but that didn’t satisfy her. I asked why she was angry, and
she really lit into me. “The biggest king anyone has caught around here, and you sell it to
the competition? Wouldn’t you be mad too.?”
“I never thought of it that way. Would you have paid me a dollar a pound in the round
This stumped her, and she stormed off to the store without answering. For the next few
days she treated me as if I had BO, which I probably did, as living in a tent didn’t provide
I missed having a place to cook on board and take a nap, and longed for the Chinook
back again. Fishing was slow, and I became nervous, running all over, trying to find fish.
One day Norman showed up with the Chinook. He’d been at Cape Pole, where he said
halibut were so thick in Warren Channel he couldn’t fish kings.
A troller came in from the north and told us he’d been at Tyee, near Point Gardener,
and that we should go there with our sport gear because a strip fisherman was catching big
kings and doing really well. He’d came through Keku Strait and was on his way to Cape
Pole. I asked him why he’d left Tyee, if fishing had been so good.
He replied that it certainly hadn’t been good for him. The big kings were close in
against the kelp beds and power trollers were unable to fish there. That really caught my
interest. I was weary of Irene’s peeved act and itching to try some place new.
I still mourned over what had happened to John, and told Norman I was going. He
didn’t accompany me, saying he’d just got here and wanted to try it for a few days.
I asked the troller if he’d sell me his chart of Kuiu Strait and he said he’d be glad to,
that he was never going through there again.
Keku Strait divides Kuiu and Kupreanof Islands. Taking this shallow, narrow, rocky
passage saves a lot of miles, if one intends to go to Kake or Tyee. The alternative is south
down Sumner Strait, round Cape Decision, then a long run up Chatham Strait. Or running
up Sumner Strait, through Wrangell Narrows, then down Frederick Sound. Despite
this saving, few fish boats used Kuiu Straits because of the crooked channels and many
rocks. To add to the hazzards, day markers, steel poles with triangular metal markers
on top, drilled into the rocks in several critical places, were frequently broken off, or flattened
by ice during the winter.
The sun shone brightly as I cruised through the kelp beds at the entrance to Kuiu
Strait, also called Rocky Pass by fishermen. I stood up to better see rocks as I cruised slow
through the Devil’s Elbow, a dog leg that gives larger boats problems turning. The flood tide
was running strong and bottom was visible as I cruised through the dredged channel at the
Summit, where tidal currents meet.
The scenery in Rocky Pass was magnificent; typical southeast Alaska old growth forest
of Sitka spruce, Western hemlock and red alder lined both shores. Kelp and seaweed covered
the sloping beaches. Mirror-smooth bays off the side of the channel were alive with
flocks of mallards, widgeons and golden eye. The tidal estuaries provided good feeding
grounds for waterfowl. Beach crows fought with ravens over scraps of food on the beach.
Eagles perched in their favorite snags, keeping an eye on the water in case a herring or cod
got careless and came too close to the surface. A humming bird landed on a coil of line on
my bow deck. After finding no flowers, it flitted away.
North of the Summit I noticed a small boat, a puddle jumper, inboard type, aground
on a small islet, no larger than a tennis court, in mid-channel. The top of the grassy islet
protruded from the water about two feet, and the tide was flooding fast. Five people were
on the islet. A man and woman strained to keep the stern of their boat pulled up away
from the rising water. I glided in close and stopped the outboard.
They were Indians. The father was trying to ram strips of cloth his wife was cutting
off the bottom of her print dress into a crack along the stern post with a screwdriver and
using a beach rock for a hammer. Three small children, about four to six years of age, and
three large mongrel-looking dogs were running back and forth on the islet.
“Need any help?” I asked.
The man glanced at me, smiled, then shook his head no. His hands had to work
underwater because the skiff was too heavy for the two of them to slide stern first out of the
“Hit rock.” He pointed back towards the Summit. “Loosened stern post.” He spoke
with the same relaxed manner as if he was announcing that it might rain before the day was
over. I watched the water slowly creeping up the island. The tide still had three hours of
flood to go. After it came up another foot, the kids would be standing in water also.
I tied my bowline to their skiff and jumped overboard to help them. By straining, all three of us could barely slide the stern of their boat above the water. The kids were engaged in a water fight and were soaking wet.
“Want me to take the kids into my skiff until you get it fixed?”
They looked at one another. “Maybe take them to that island across the way,” the man
said thoughtfully. “We’ll run boat there.”
“Okay. Come children and I’ll help you aboard.” Not until their mother said something
to them in Tlingit did they stop splashing water and come to my boat. I lifted all three
of the soaking wet kids into my boat, told them to sit on my tent, then shoved off. The
dogs began howling now that they didn’t have kids to play with, jumped into the water and
“Do you live on this boat?” the oldest boy asked.
“No. In a tent, same as you.”
I deposited the kids on shore just as the dogs came out of the water and shook their
scruffy coats on the kids. This delighted the children. The parents soon followed in their
boat, the woman bailing.
I started to go ashore, the dogs rushed at me growling, the hair on their necks standing
straight up. They were large dogs. I retreated. They didn’t like white men, I suppose.
“Camp here. Boat go dry,” the man said, glancing at the nearby forest. Plenty spruce
pitch here. I fix,” he said.
“Where are you from?”
“Ketchikan. You’re sure you have everything you need?”
He nodded. “Ketchikan. Long way.” I noticed an old army tent, similar to mine, in his
I took leave of the family, convinced they were okay.
It was late in the evening before I reached Point Cornwallis, the jumping off place if
crossing Frederick Sound. I’d been warned to keep one eye on the weather in Frederick
Sound, because no one could predict what the weather was doing on the opposite side. East
of the navigational aid light is a little crescent-shaped beach that looked like a dandy place
to spend the night. When crossing open water I prefer mornings, and crossing Frederick
Sound was certainly a large body of water Blue campfire smoke hung in the air as I neared
the beach. Two tents were pitched above the high tide line. A pair of 18-foot open, heavy
wooden boats were lying on the gravel beach.
Three young fellows about my own age walked from the fire down to greet me. They
were hand trollers from Kake, and we soon became acquainted. I told them about the family
with three kids and three dogs and their troubles.
“Oh, that’s Old Man Wilson. He’ll be okay.” They were intrigued with my sport tackle,
especially the monofilament line. They had never seen any before, and expressed doubt
that it would hold any large salmon. When I told them I’d recently caught a 70-pound king
at Point Baker, they only smiled and looked at each other. I’m sure they didn’t believe me.
They were using home-made gurdies, regular Oregon braided leader and stainless steel
piano wire at the end. Although they used herring when they could obtain any, they had
several beat up, badly worn plugs and spoons. They said fishing at Cornwallis was terrible.
They intended on moving up Frederick Sound to the Brothers Islands the following day,
weather permitting, and invited me to go along. After I mentioned that I was headed for
Tyee, they pursed their lips and looked down at their boots.
“You don’t like Tyee?”
“Too many halibut,” one said.
“Bad weather,” another volunteered.
The third smiled and only shook his head, no.
I set up my Coleman two-burner stove and cooked a bite to eat on the boat. I’d followed
Lloyd and Tom’s idea of having plywood boxes the same height as the seats. I’d built
two, and with one on either side of the front seat, actually had enough room to lie down on
an angle. After standing around their fire to keep out of the mosquitos for a while, talking
about fishing, I unrolled my air mattress and sleeping bag and turned in.
The following morning dawned bright and clear. After a breakfast of hot cakes and
bacon I waved good bye to my new friends and shoved off on the long crossing to
Admiralty. As I cruised out into Frederick Sound the snow-covered peaks on Baranof Island
became visible. What a grand sight in the early morning sun. Mount Ada, west of Patterson
Bay, at 4,536 feet elevation, the highest peak on Baranof Island, was visible to the southwest.
This was my first glimpse of Baranof , and I still think, when viewed from the east,
the island is one of the most spectacular views of any island in Southeast Alaska.
The crossing was smooth and uneventful. I kept looking down Chatham Straits
towards the open sea and thinking how fast windstorms might roar in from the southeast.
I would soon discover exactly how quickly.
Admiralty Island is one of the ABC islands (Admiralty, Baranof and Chicagof) the
three islands where the giant brown bears reside. These island present an enigma to wildlife
scientists because there are no wolves or black bear on any of the three islands. Yet, on the
mainland, which in several areas is close enough for animals to easily swim across, black,
brown bear and wolves reside together.
Tyee was located in Murder Cove. The name had been bestowed by Commander R.W.
Meade, USN, in 1869, “because traders occasionally anchored here and one small party,
while asleep on the beach, were murdered by Natives, their boat rifled and their bodies left
to be destroyed by wild animals.”
Tiny, lonely Yasha Island lay off to port, and Point Gardner was up ahead, as I turned
into the cove and cruised slowly past the cannery and cold storage. This had once been a
whaling station, and in 1910 had a large crew and put up a lot of whale oil. Point Gardner
and vicinity had a large run of herring, and herring attract whales.
After the station closed, the site was converted into a salmon cannery by Sebastian
Stewart Company. An oil dock protruded out into the bay. Several red cannery buildings,
trimmed in white, stood on pilings. Facing the main cannery build was a dock where steamers
could berth. In behind was a white company house, company store and post office.
Towards the head of the cove from the cannery were 14 identical red cabins lined up
in a row along the beach for the Native cannery workers. The Filipino crew were housed
separately from whites and Indians.
I tied up to the fuel dock. One skiff and three small trollers, the Flicka, Valkerie and the
Chester L were moored there. I learned later that Fred Manley owned the Chester L. No
one was on board. I walked up the dock, which turned into a board walk, to look the place
A white man was sitting on a bench in front of the store. When I inquired where everyone was, he said, “Having breakfast. If you’re hungry, go on in, they’ll probably ask you to
pay.” Inside the dining room I was made welcome by a native lady who was obviously managing
the place and invited to fill a plate. Since breakfast had been hours ago at Point
Cornwallis I helped myself to bacon, ham, hot cakes, scrambled eggs and toast. I was
always hungry. Most people had already left, and what I ate was probably leftovers. I was
not asked to pay.
The cannery and cold storage belonged to Sebastian Stewart Fish Company, a Seattle
firm. Seining season was open and the cannery crew were busy. I found George Pierce, a
small, slender man who ran the fuel dock, and asked him if I could get gas and oil. He was
a character, loved to talk and wore a pair of white coveralls. Screwdrivers and wrenches protruded from various pockets. George and his wife Frances lived at Tyee year around. During
the long winters they were the only human residents.
While George was helping me, a distinguished-looking, middle-aged man, with light
colored hair and mustache, dressed in an old pair of black slacks and a crumpled white shirt,
sauntered down the dock and sized up my outfit. “I’m Mike Goodman, the superintendent,”
he said pleasantly, offering me his hand.
“How’s the king salmon fishing here?” I asked.
“Neely, our resident sport fisherman, does okay.” He pointed towards the other skiff.
It was also a 16-foot Reinell like mine. “Brings in a couple of hundred pounds some days.
Caught a fifty-pounder yesterday. There are some big hogs around, if you can catch them.”
He looked me and my equipment over, as if to ask, do you know how to catch king salmon,
or not? He jerked his thumb towards the power trollers. “They haven’t been doing so good
on salmon. They’re fishing halibut.”
“Well, I guess I’ll give the place a try.”
Mike fetched a can of snoose from his shirt pocket, rapped on the lid with his knuckles,
removed it, then dipped two fingers full and jammed the chew into his lower lip. He
offered the can to me, but I declined. “We don’t have any empty cabins,” he said.
On my initial cruise past the cannery, I’d looked for a spot for my tent, but noticed half
a dozen noisy Native kids and as many dogs raising hell on the beach in front of the cabins.
Since I went out fishing at dawn, three of four o’clock, and had to get up before that to
cook breakfast, I had to go to bed early. I didn’t think I could get much sleep with Indian
kids playing until all hours of the night.
“I have a tent.” I pointed across the cove towards the only decent-looking beach. “Is it
okay to camp over there where I can get some piece and quiet?”
Mike spat, thought a bit, then asked, “You gotta gun?”
“Only a 22 pistol.”
Mike’s eyebrows shot up at this. “Well, sometimes bears walk along that side to get to
the salmon stream. Actually bears can sometimes be found anywhere around here.”
“They cause any trouble?”
Mike took a long moment before answering. “Naw. Mostly bluff. Two days ago I sent
a couple crewmen up the river to clear junk out of our water intake, but a grouchy old bear
ran them back into their skiff.” Mike and George both laughed, as if this was a joke.
“Were they armed?”
“Yeah, but they didn’t want to shoot. I expect I’ll have to take my shotgun up there and
spank that old bear’s fanny,” Mike said thoughtfully.
“Spank it’s fanny?”
“Yeah. I keep an old 12-gauge loaded with bird shot. A blast in their butt usually
teaches them who’s boss.”
“What if they attack?”
“Well, I carry along my 30-06, just in case I run into an ornery one.”
“Ever had to kill one?”
“Not yet. Most of our bears are used to people. I try not to get in a situation where I’d
have to. Kinda enjoy watching them, you know. After all, they were here first “
George added, “Before the cannery opens in the spring we see them in back of the post
office feeding on grass almost every morning. They stroll along the board walks and drive
out dog crazy.”
“You think they’d bother my camp?”
Mike squinted across the harbor. “Probably not. Indians camp over there sometimes.
I’ve been here for years and don’t remember much trouble. Of course most people have a
gun or dogs. Don’t keep any fish, bacon or smelly food in camp.” Cliff started to walk away,
then turned and asked: “Caldwell, do you have a family?”
“Yes. A wife and two sons in Ketchikan.”
“May I have your address,” he said quietly.
“Sure.” I wrote it on a piece of paper. He looked at it thoughtfully, nodded and turned
I liked Mike a lot and looked forward to fishing at Tyee.
The skipper of the Flicka arrived with a sack of groceries under each arm. He introduced
himself as Joe Cash. Joe was friendly, short and compact He wore striped overalls,
like railroad men wear.
“You’ll hafta catch a lot of fish if you intend on buying gas and groceries here,” Joe said,
placing his sacks on the deck.
“I expect it’s expensive to keep a store here. How’s salmon fishing?”
“I’m fishing flat ones. Maybe I’ll start on salmon soon. But I won’t fish here. I’ll go
down to Tebenkof Bay, or Gedney Harbor.” He glanced into my skiff. Make any money
with those sport poles? That Neely sure knows how to catch king salmon.”
“That’s what everyone says. Well good luck tomorrow.”
Before I could pitch my tent above high tide line I had to take the axe and clear brush
for a spot. The back and one side were tight against a solid wall of huckleberry and alder
brush. The front faced a tiny natural clearing about 20 feet square. The water side of the
tent was barely above the highest tide lines. After setting up the tent and wood stove, I
ran out to the entrance to the cove where huge piles of drift had accumulated, a stark
reminder that storms beat heavily into the entrance to the cove. I soon found enough lumber
and blocks of wood to build a sturdy table and bench to place in front of the tent. I also
picked up a boat load of drift wood that was about the right size for my stove. The stove
had an oven, which I used to bake biscuits and cakes. During wet, cold weather my wood
stove was a life saver, to dry clothing and the tent. Normally I cooked on my two burner
Coleman gas stove. I gathered arm loads of moss and scattered on the floor at one side of
the tent to place under my air mattress.
After the table was finished, I stood on top, reached as high as I could and chopped a
limb off an overhanging alder. I kept my perishables stored in square, five-gallon liver cans
to protect them from wood mice and weather. Bacon, eggs, butter and sweet rolls went into
one can. I climbed onto the table and hung it on the alder limb, the shadiest and the coolest
place available. The can was 12 feet off the ground. No bear could reach that high, I decided.
I was 27 and slim as a rail. I was always hungry and ate enough for a horse. Especially
when putting in long hours fishing. Camp cooking without bacon, butter, cookies and
candy was unthinkable, so I ignored Mike’s advice and assumed the water-tight lid on the
liver can would prevent a bear from smelling the contents.
After camp was set up, I went over to the Tyee post office and converted what cash I
could spare into money orders. I wrote a letter home explaining that I’d left Port Protection
and moved to Tyee.
I quizzed George about Neely. “Well, he and Virginia are nice people. They started
out sport fishing commercially around Juneau and did very well. First to do it up there, I
hear. I think you can say the Neely’s are top sport fishermen.”
“What time do they go out?”
“They usually fish the tides. Go out as soon as possible, back in by 10 or 11 o’clock,
then take a nap. Seldom fish in the afternoon.”
A tender load of salmon from a nearby trap had came in. I wandered through the cannery
and observed the crew at work. Quite a few Native women were working with the
Filipino crew. They had an old style Iron ***** that gutted the fish and a cutter that cut
the salmon into sections the right length for the cans. “Iron Chink” Smith had invented
the Iron ***** about the turn of the century, and by 1909 it became a necessity in every
salmon cannery on the coast. Early machines sold for $4,000, or one could be rented for a
flat fee, plus so much royalty per can. There was still lots of hand labor.
I wandered up stairs where the can forming machines and storage were located. Cans
were shipped to Alaska collapsed, to save space, from the American Can Company in
Seattle, 330 cans to the case. A machine reformed them, and another machine crimped on
the bottom. Then the cans were fed down to the salmon filling line below.
The worker who was feeding cans into the forming machine was an attractive young
Native woman. Her black hair was bound up behind her neck and tied to prevent it from
catching in the moving equipment I watched while she expertly fed cans into the machine.
When they emerged from the former, they went to the end crimper, then down a spiral,
caged elevator to the processing lines below.
She gave me a big smile. Her eye lashes were long and her teeth white and perfect. I
thought she was the most beautiful native girl I’d ever seen. Not the usual cannery employee,
I though, turning away with a wave.
That first night I laid in my sleeping bag for a while worried about bear. I’d read many
stories in The Alaska Sportsman about the big, unpredictable brownies of Admiralty Island.
My only experience with brown bear had indeed been a frightening incident at the
head of Boca de Quadra, south of Ketchikan. Paul White and I noticed a flock of golden
eyes in a lagoon behind a long grass-covered spit of land at the mouth of the river. We drifted
down the river out of the bird’s sight and motored along the spit. Our plan was to beach
the boat and sneak through the tall grass and sparse stand of alder, shoot a couple of ducks,
then run around the spit in the skiff and pick them up as they floated out the river.
I carried a Remington 12-gauge pump shot gun. Paul had a beat-up rusty 30-40 Craig.
He was running the motor. As the skiff’s bow ground to a halt on the beach, I jumped out,
the painter in one hand, shot gun in the other. The tide was low and it was 50 feet to the
nearest alder that I could tie the bow line to.
As I walked up the beach a bear suddenly tore out of the brush and came charging
down the beach straight towards me. Gravel sprayed from the bear’s feet. I’d never shot a
bear before in my life, but had been a hunter since age six, and was handy with a gun.
Without even thinking, or knowing what I was doing, I dropped the painter, flung up the
gun, held back on the trigger and worked the slide action until the firing pin went “click,
The bear went down in a heap, its front legs spread-eagled. I reloaded, but the bear
never moved. Paul was still in the skiff, his mouth hanging open.”I’ll be damned. I’ll be
damned,” Paul repeated over and over.
“Why didn’t you shoot?” I demanded.
“Shoot? Shoot? I didn’t have time. It ...it happened so fast.”
He climbed over the bow of the skiff, walked over to the bear and poked it with the end of
his gun. “Where the hell did the bear come from?”
“You were watching. Where did it come from”” Suddenly my legs buckled and I sank
down on the gravel.
“I had my back turned. I was tilting the outboard up. When I turned around you were
shooting. My God, you could have been mauled. Then what would I have done? It’s a hell
of a long ways to town.”
Paul was a full-blooded Tsimshian Indian, and had a lot more experience with bear
than I, but neither of us had been around grizzly bears.
“She has a cub. Milk’s dribbling out her teats,” he said. My nerves settled down and I
went to examine the beast. The three charges of number six shot had struck her in the face
or in the chest beneath her head. Paul stepped off the distance the sow had traveled from
the time she left the brush. “Sixteen paces. From where she went down to where you were
standing was only six paces.”
After he told me that, my trigger finger jerked spasmodically and my legs felt weak.
Paul opened the bear’s belly with his hunting knife. Blood and green grass rolled out.
“By God, I didn’t think a 12-gauge could do so much destruction. At point blank range that
bird shot really did her in.”
“What about the cub? It would be too young to live without their mother. We have to
“Yah. And kill the little *******.” Paul went to the skiff and got my 300 Savage and
hung it over his shoulder. “You take the lead with that shot gun,” he insisted.
“Why me? I’ve had enough excitement for one day, “ I countered, motioning for him
to go ahead. Reluctantly, Paul entered the tunnel through heavy brush. It was a well-used
bear trail, but so low we had to bend over to clear the brush overhead. After about 100 yards
we reached the open, tidal, grassy spit. Near the river’s edge, we found a large area where
horse parsnips and Indian paintbrush had been flattened. There were traces of bloody vegetation where clumps of sod had been ripped up.
“A boar was after her cub,” Paul said, looking carefully around, his gun ready. “Here’s
where they fought.”
“Let’s hope he’s long gone.”
We searched for the cub for an hour before giving up and heading back to the skiff. I
had nightmares about a grizzly bear charging me for months.