Remembering those Yakutat days

Posted: Friday, September 24, 2004

On the WaterfrontBy Elton Engstrom

Through the years I've had the chance to enjoy doing a variety of things, among them serving for six years in the Legislature. But the most fulfilling and rewarding days of my life was spent at Yakutat from 1972 to 1976.

What a great place it was - perhaps the most beautiful in Southeast Alaska with two mighty mountains towering over 18,000 feet (Mount St. Elias and Mount Logan in view of the city) and the awesome Pacific Ocean thundering ashore on a 60-mile long sandy beach.

I was the manager of a cold storage. In 1972 we had a big run of sockeye salmon and loads of dungeness crab. We decided to unload and process the crab six days a week, and allow the crew to rest up on Sunday. Each night we unloaded 12,000 to 25,000 pounds; we left them in fish trucks to slow their energy, so that in the morning when they hit the steaming water, they would not throw off a leg.

At 6 each morning we started on the cook. The head of the crew was Ted Valle, and the cooker was Sampson Harry Jr. Both had long experience in the crab processing industry. At first, I thought I would get up at 5:30 to help, but because I was also unloading fish and crab to 8 or 9 at night, I soon found that I couldn't cut it. I was exhausted, so I left the crab business in the capable hands of Ted and Sampson, and I slept in until 8.

To be a good cooker you have to be unafraid of the boiling water and clouds of steam as you maneuver the loads of crab with an overhead winch. After a cook of 15 to 25 minutes, out come the crab, which are then plunged into a bath of cold water.

Sampson was a true Vulcan-like figure, and he took great pride and pleasure in his work.

We also had a marvelous crew of young women who packed the whole crab in 25-pound cartons. Among them were Leslie Jones, Lavina Bremner, Anne Johnson, Jenny Henry, Augusta Milton, Hazel Smith, Debbie Valle, Betty Bremner, Nellie Porter, Martha Johnson and Esther Williams.

Often in isolated locales - when you get away from the "big cities" of Anchorage, Fairbanks, Juneau and Ketchikan - you are apt to meet real characters that are all personality such as John Young, called naturally Halibut John. He owned the gillnetter-sized Piscio. His future wife was Halibut Terry, who was the deckhand. Each week they brought in a load of halibut.

One of my early workers was from Oregon. His name was Allen Blumenauer. He had a mind of his own. One season, we were flying boxes of dungeness crab by DC-3 to Juneau, where they were loaded into vans for the trip south. One day late in the afternoon I asked where Al was. No one knew. Eventually I learned he decided to fly down to Juneau with the DC-3.

On another occasion, he suddenly stopped working and told me that the way we were doing things was wrong. I was nonplussed for a moment and then said, "Al, you are the worker, and I am the Boss."

Those Yakutat days topped anything I ever experienced.

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

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