VALDEZ, Alaska - This is where laid-back lawn-chair urban fishing butts up against some of the best that Alaska wilderness angling has to offer.
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It's a place where you might visit with white-haired Midwestern retirees outside their motor home one minute and the next you might watch as a brown bear sow and her cubs emerge among deep grasses to graze in the tidal flats.
It's where a kid can practice barely controlled casts with a spinning rod and still manage to pull in a catch of fresh Alaska salmon for a shore lunch.
It's a spot where the shouts of fishermen working purse seines and the staccato slapping of net loads of flapping salmon echo off a rocky shore lined with anglers. The anglers cast their lonely Pixee spoons and shining spinners through the air on spider webs of monofilament, whizzz ... plop, landing in the surf to be reeled back on a hope of catching just one more for the stringer.
With a fishery fueled by salmon returning to nearby Solomon Gulch Hatchery and a campground managed by vendors on behalf of the city, Allison Point has transformed over the decades since the hatchery first began drawing lines of anglers. It has grown from a place where people pitched tents amid what sometimes was little more than a crowded roadside squatters' camp along the shoulders of Dayville Road to a tidy campground a stone's throw from the wilds.
It's a little strip of urban planning with a paved bike path, numbered camping slots, a graveled handicap ramp down to the shoreline, eagles overhead, brown bears and black bears wandering next door and seals, sea otters and salmon just offshore. Allison Point offers an inexpensive link to whatever kind of experience a camper may seek, be it socialization, escapism, or a sampling of both.
"You have just a great group of people who come out here," said Brad Kimberlin, who with his wife, Maureen, is maintaining the campground for the first time this year. Campers who have been coming to the point for 20 or more years have been giving them tips on running the place. "We've never even owned an RV, so there's a big learning curve for us," said the Valdez water-taxi operator.
The Valdez Parks and Recreation Department oversees the campground, and the Kimberlins maintain the site under a city contract. The area has 50 sites for RV campers and a few tent camping sites as well. There are no electrical or sewage hook-ups, but there are drinking water storage tanks, public bathroom facilities, and several Dumpsters. The Kimberlins haul the water and keep the bathrooms clean and the Dumpsters from overflowing.
The only ongoing problem at the campground centers on the reason most people come to camp there. "People just need to remember to clean their fish on the shoreline and throw the heads into the water. Don't bring them back to the camp site," Brad Kimberlin said.
Fish remains raise a stink that attracts bears. Black bears are a common sight, and this year a brown bear sow and her two cubs have become regulars near the campground. "They put on a show just about every night," Kimberlin said.
The Kimberlins book campsites through their downtown water taxi office or at a mobile camp out on the point. Campsites are first-come, first-serve. Campers can simply park, set up camp, and drop a payment of $12 for one night (or $60 for a week) in a drop box if they are unable to connect with the Kimberlins. The campground phone number is 835-2282.
Allison Point wasn't always this way.
The Solomon Gulch Hydroelectric Project, a 12-megawatt facility serving Valdez and Glennallen, was built in the late 1970s and began commercial operation in 1982. Taking advantage of the water project, the Valdez Fishery Development Association built Solomon Gulch Hatchery in 1981 and continues to take advantage of that Solomon Gulch Creek water supply to rear pink and silver salmon for a burgeoning commercial and sport fishery.
When hatchery salmon runs began to grow in the mid-1980s, Allison Point became home to squatters who pulled off the state right-of-way to camp wherever they could. Litter and remnants of filleted salmon became prominent along the roadway.
The problem was soon remedied. The hatchery, the city and the state Department of Transportation took advantage of federal Dingell-Johnson sports fishing tax dollars, and used some of their own funds, to create the campground.
"In the early 1980s it wasn't much of a fishery. But it developed for both pinks and silvers," said Dave Cobb, business manager for Valdez Fishery Development Association. "We used the D-J funds in 1989-'90 to build the first parking areas and ramps down to the shore."
The hatchery managed the campground for the first four years. After that, Valdez parks and recreation took over and issued a permit to Jim and Ruby Alexander, who managed the campground until last year. They are generally credited with setting the bar for campground care and cleanliness.
"They really had a good operation going," Cobb said. "People enjoyed themselves. They did an excellent job."
Cobb, who has been with the association for nearly 26 years, looks at Allison Point as an example of a broader effort throughout Valdez to create a first-rate tourism and fishing destination. There are more than 1,000 RV camping slots throughout town and the onshore opportunities help draw visitors who also may book Prince William Sound charters through Valdez Harbor.
"We feel really good about it (the last 20 years of progress). This has blossomed into one of the best sport fisheries in the state," he said. "It's been a communitywide effort."
It is the fish that draw the campground visitors to the shoreline.
Already this year the hatchery's "cost recovery" purse seine fishery and the commercial fishery have netted 20 million pink salmon, Cobb said. Another 2 or 3 million hatchery pinks are on their way to Valdez Arm in coming weeks and somewhere between 4 million and 7 million wild pink salmon stocks will arrive in August, he said.
The hatchery hauls in enough fish to cover its annual operating costs; about 4 million fish annually, Cobb said.
The operation produces 230 million pink salmon fry annually and, on average, about 5.8 percent return, he said. About 1.2 million silver salmon, which are reared to a larger size, are released as smolts and on average, about 500,000 of those will return, beginning later this month.
Pink salmon will continue to run through August. But as time goes on, a higher percentage of the humpies will be closer to spawning and further from prime table fare condition. Silver salmon will begin to arrive off the point the first week in August, and anglers will continue to cast from Allison Point into the autumn, reeling in Alaska salmon from a purely civilized camping spot at the edge of wilderness.
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