Yakutat provides beauty and good-hearted, hardy people

Posted: Friday, June 02, 2006

On the WaterfrontBy Elton Engstrom

Yakutat is one of the most beautiful spots in Southeastern Alaska.

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It has a 60-mile-long sandy beach where the Pacific Ocean combers thunder ashore. It also has a view of great mountains. Standing at sea level you can gaze up at mighty Logan and St. Elias, the second and third tallest peaks in North America.

It is also the seat of history, the most northern community of the Tlingit people and where Vitus Bering first saw America in 1741, standing on the deck of his ship, the Saint Peter. The log book stated prosaically "at 12:30 we sighted high, snow-covered mountains."

Mount Logan is 19,850 feet high. Mount St. Elias is a little over 18,000 feet. Three other mountains close by are over 14,000 feet.

I lived in Yakutat for five years from 1972 to 1976, running a community-owned cold storage. I had many wonderful experiences there.

Once I needed a crew to load and ship out the last of the season's production, about 230 thousand pounds of salmon and halibut. A freezer ship was coming in. Since my regular crew had already left, I was able to hire three of the hardiest, most independent-minded men I have ever known. They were all in their late teens and 20s. Their names were Rudy, Andy and Paul Pavlik.

They came down to the plant in the early morning hours, without any warm freezer gear, with open shirts and no hats or coats. I asked them what they needed. Just a pair of cotton gloves, they said.

They then proceeded to load the frozen fish one by one into fish wagons which carried about 500 pounds. They pushed the wagons from the plant to the edge of the dock, a distance of about 150 to 200 feet, and attached the wagon to the ship's sling. The hoist pulled the load aboard. Back they went to the freezer and out again with a new wagon load until the job was finished in the early evening hours.

Later, while I was at Yakutat I heard a story of a family's love and trust.

The oldest Pavlik son, Mike, had been fishing for crab in the Aleutian Islands in the fall of the year and his boat was lost. The family thought that maybe he had survived alone over the winter months. They planned an expedition to go north and west to look for him. They left in the spring only with their small skiffs. They searched from island to island the many hundreds of miles from home. Sadly, Mike was never found.

• Lifelong Alaskan Elton Engstrom is a retired fish buyer, lawyer and legislator (1964-70) who lives in Juneau.

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