Remembering those with the biggest hearts

Posted: Friday, February 21, 2003

There are ghosts here. At the Wards Cove dock and offices at Lake Union in Seattle under the University Bridge, the seine boats and power scows are lined up ready to sail to Alaska, as far as Bristol Bay, to begin a new salmon season. Old man Brindle is moving about, his 5-foot, 8-inch frame a fit of nervous energy anxious to encourage his crews to start off for the north.

On the WaterfrontBy Elton Engstrom

But these are ghosts. It is a sunny day in Seattle, so it is hard to make the figures out, but tragically the ships won't sail north. They'll remain tied up in Seattle, and Excursion Inlet in Southeast among the other mighty producers of canned salmon in Ketchikan, Kodiak Island and Bristol Bay that may never again stir with the exciting sound of men and women working to make a living from the sea.

To add to the woe of the canned salmon producers, including Wards Cove, a civil suit is being tried in Anchorage, in which Bristol Bay fishermen are asking for $1 billion because they say the canned- salmon buyers paid them too little for their fish from 1991 to 1995. Many of the presidents of these companies are living in Anchorage until the suit is settled, so when I was recently in Seattle, I couldn't interview Alec Brindle, the head of Wards Cove. Controller Dave Forbush Sr. said that the lawyers didn't want him to say anything until the trial was finished.

What an exciting sight it is to see a ship sail north. When I was first in Bristol Bay in 1977, running a cold storage plant in Dillingham on the Nushagak River, we had only one small buying scow. It was a 50-foot-long landing craft barge that had been built in the Second World War, powered by two 671 Jimmie engines. Harry Furford, whose main occupation in Seattle was making anchors, decked the barge and built a house on the stern.

The skipper of the Situk was John Ellis, a remarkable man from Yakutat. Going through life you sometimes recollect the most famous men and women that you've met. As you refine your judgment, you realize that at the top are those with the biggest hearts, of loving kindness and loyal friendship.

John Ellis was in this class. I asked him if he could bring the scow to Bristol Bay from Seattle. Although never having made the trip before, he agreed. With one helper he started off up the coasts of Alaska, through False Pass where Peter Pan Seafoods generously sold him fuel and then on to Bristol Bay.

Have you ever seem David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia? In later years, Lean said one of his regrets was that he shortened the scene of the camel rider, who started as a tiny speck, and then slowly grew against the backdrop of the immense desert. He wished that he had made it last longer.

In the same manner we first saw the Situk on the vast Nushagak River. We were lolling in the sun at the face of the dock in early June after a cold, windy May, when someone saw a tiny speck 10 or 15 miles down the river. It got bigger and bigger, from the size of a thumb slowly to a boat. The Situk had arrived, Capt. John Ellis in command.

If the power scows do not come north this year, the ghosts will be there, still.

Elton Engstrom is a lifelong Alaskan, retired fish-buyer, lawyer and legislator (1964-70) who lives in Juneau. He can be reached at 586-1655.

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