Imagine having 60 miles of sandy beach in Southeast

Posted: Friday, March 21, 2003

They that go down to the sea in ships, that do business in great waters, from Psalm 107, evokes in magnificent fashion men and women, who make their living from the sea.

On the WaterfrontBy Elton Engstrom

Born in 1950, Roger Gregg of Juneau came to Alaska as a boy of 13. He started fishing with his stepfather, Cliff Mortensen, as a set-netter on the Akwe and Alsek rivers south of Yakutat. A set-net is anchored to the shore in contrast to the more usual gill net, which is allowed to drift.

The Yakutat region is part of Southeast, but it has a very different geography. In some ways, it is the most beautiful part of Southeastern Alaska. Imagine a sandy beach 60 miles long, with the steady pulse of the Pacific coming in long breakers up to your feet. There is no rocky shoreline like the rest of Southeast. And behind the coast is the sight of Mount Logan, the second highest peak in North America, and also of Mount St. Elias and Mount Fairweather.

The only openings in this long sandy beach are the rivers that empty into the sea, starting with the Situk just south of Yakutat, and including Roger's Akwe and Alsek. Roger spent five summers on the Akwe, and then from 1969 to 1973, he served in the U.S. Navy.

When he got out, his first boat was the Lane, which he brought from his brother, Dick. He trolled and gill-netted on the Taku and in Lynn Canal. In later years, he also long-lined for halibut and fished for crab and herring.

My sense is that fishermen, 40 or 50 years ago, mainly followed one activity. You were either a gill-netter or a troller or a long-liner, and you put in the whole season in one fishery. Today, though, many fishermen, like Roger, are more versatile. Partly, I guess, this is due to shorter-seasons and the limited-entry system, but also it is a means to enhance one's livelihood.

In 1978, Roger bought a Bristol Bay permit and fished there until 1998. Bristol Bay is a much tougher region to fish than Southeast. It doesn't have the harbors and docks we have. In the fall of the year, all the boats are taken out of the water.

Roger explained the weather by saying the Bay fishing areas are shallow, so that the wind and tide and river currents build up the waves more than they would in deep water. He added that a gill-netter with a full load of salmon caught in a low-lying spot such as Deadman Sands on the west side of the Kvichak River, would be in a perilous position. The waves would threaten to capsize the boat and imperil the crew.

The incoming and outgoing tide and the rush of water from the major rivers gives one a sense of constant, rapid movement. Often the only relief a skipper and his boat have is to run up the river far enough to escape bad weather, or on the Nushagak, to run up on the beach or into a slough to get a good night's sleep until the tide comes back to carry you out again.

I shared with Roger the excitement of working in Bristol Bay. In 1977, my first year at Dillingham on the Nushagak River, our 50-foot landing-craft barge, called the Situk, brought in tender loads full of king salmon. What a sight it was.

The Situk was decked over with a hold for the fish, and a wheel house on the stern. The captain was John Ellis from Yakutat. He also took the weights and paid cash for the fish.

He bought the fish usually in the early evening, and then came into town the next morning, a trip of about 15 miles. That year, we bought about 250,000 pounds of kings.

After king salmon, the sockeye season started, with the peak about the Fourth of July. But in our first year, the run was a disaster, so that we had the singular result of buying as many chum salmon as sockeye. The chums were very bright, the same size, and difficult to tell from the sockeyes.

My son Elton, who was 12, was an expert in telling the difference, so he graded the fish at the face of the dock as they were unloaded from the Situk. The barge could only come in on a high tide, but could sit on its flat bottom when the tide ran out.

"They that go down to the sea in ships, that do business in great waters, they see the works of the Lord and his wonders in the deep."

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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