After Alaska Purchase, the First Salmon Cannery Pops Up

Note: This article was first published in the August 2017 issue of Pacific Fishing.

“But this Treaty is the beginning… Our own Fisheries, now so considerable, were small in the beginning… Small beginnings, therefore, are no discouragement to me,” Senator Charles Sumner, Chair of the Foreign Relations Committee, said to the US Senate on April 8, 1867, speaking of the potential of Alaska’s mostly-unknown fisheries.

Just the week before, Secretary of State William Seward negotiated the Treaty of Cession with Russian Ambassador Eduard de Stoeckl. The United States was about to purchase Alaska for $7.2 million, but the treaty required Senate approval. Sumner spoke to the Senate at length about the opportunities available to the United States if the body approved the acquisition of Russian America.

Sumner waxed about the otters, the timber, the potential for mines (gold had not been discovered in significant quantities in Alaska), but he ended with fisheries. He detailed the reports of European explorers who caught hundreds of halibut with limited effort, of large Native communities subsisting on salmon through the winter, of the newly pioneered cod grounds off the Aleutian Islands. He envisioned an Alaskan fishing industry that would feed growing domestic markets in California, that would export salted fish to majority Catholic nations in Latin America, and that would provide seafood to nascent Chinese and Japanese markets.

Sumner knew that Alaska Natives were exceptional seamen, and imagined a day that

“The beautiful baidar will give way to the fishing smack, the clipper, and the steamer. All things will be changed in form and proportion; but the original aptitude for the sea will remain. A practical race of intrepid navigators will swarm the coast, ready for any enterprise of business or patriotism. Commerce will find new arms; the country new defenders; the national flag new hands to bear it aloft.”

He concluded his speech, stating, “…the Fisheries, which, in waters superabundant with animal life beyond any of the globe, seem to promise a new commerce to the country.” The next day, the US Senate ratified the treaty. Alaska and its marine resources became American.

The commercial salmon industry started soon after. Entrepreneurs salted fish in barrels at Karluk on Kodiak Island, in Karta Bay on Prince of Wales Island and elsewhere. But it was a Scottish entrepreneur named George Hamilton who claims the glory of founding what would become the first establishment to put out a can of salmon in Alaska.

Hamilton started a saltery at Klawock on Prince of Wales Island in 1869. He sold his concern to a California firm called Sisson, Wallace & Co and became a shareholder in the newly established North Pacific Trading & Packing Co.  In 1878, the first two canneries were built on Alaska’s shores. The North Pacific Trading and Packing Co. was established at “Hamilton’s Fishery” in Klawock, while the Cutting Packing Co. was built in Sitka. However, the Klawock cannery managed to process the first can of salmon, thus earning the distinction of being remembered as the first cannery in Alaska.

Fred Hamilton of Craig, the 96-year old grandson of the founder of Alaska's first cannery. Fred is also the oldest living Haida man. 

Fred Hamilton of Craig, the 96-year old grandson of the founder of Alaska's first cannery. Fred is also the oldest living Haida man. 

Little is recorded about the early American era of Alaska’s fishing history, and even less about George Hamilton. This summer I traveled to Prince of Wales Island in an attempt to track down new sources and old memories. There I met Fred Hamilton of Craig, Alaska. Fred is the 96 year old grandson of George Hamilton. Fred never met his grandfather, but recalled what he had heard of him. “He was a businessman. He did a lot of travelling. He built a sawmill here, along with a partner. They had a schooner here that delivered lumber.” Fred’s grandmother is a Haida woman named Maggie. Perhaps it is partly due to this family connection that many of the cannery workers at the North Pacific Trading & Packing Co. were Alaska Natives in the early years, when most other establishments relied on Chinese crews.

I asked Fred why Klawock was selected as the site for this early cannery. “They always looked for a good supply of water. And Klawock had a good supply. It’s a protected place, with a really good salmon stream there and a lake, with all species of fish except king salmon.” There were ample fishermen, as well; the cannery purchased salmon from local Natives.

At the time of the establishment of the Klawock cannery, eleven years had passed since Sumner’s speech and the subsequent Alaska Purchase. Alaska’s commercial salmon industry was tiny, but it was viable. It was Fred Hamilton’s grandparents who took the early steps to convert Charles Sumner’s vision for Alaska into reality.

Presidential Visits and Fishing Reserves... in the 1920s

President Obama was not the first American president to hold an Alaskan salmon on Alaskan soil when he visited last summer. Warren G. Harding was the first president to venture to the Last Frontier, back in 1923. Just as Obama was presented with a salmon at Dillingham, Harding was gifted salmon at Metlakatla. Obama prohibited off-shore oil and gas leasing in Bristol Bay during his visit, but his trip was more about curbing climate change than delving into fish policy. Conversely, while Harding is best remembered for driving the golden spike and completing the Alaska Railroad in Nenana during his jaunt, the deeper reason for his visit was to ascertain the nature of the supposed “Alaska Problem” and to determine the reception and implementation of his Executive Orders that created fishing reserves in Alaska.

President Harding eyes salmon in Metlakatla during his visit. Image courtesy NARA.

President Harding eyes salmon in Metlakatla during his visit. Image courtesy NARA.

The so-called “Alaska Problem” was the stilted development of the territory. Following WWI, the population declined and industry stagnated. In 1919, Alaska’s salmon harvest fell by 1/3, from 6.6 million cases to 4.6 million (this was back when output was measured in cans, not pounds). Canners and fishermen clamored for the Bureau of Fisheries to do more to conserve the depleted salmon runs. Recall that prior to statehood, the federal government was responsible for the management of all Alaska fisheries, including salmon. Secretary of Commerce (and future president) Herbert Hoover accompanied the president on the trip, arranging public hearings in Juneau, Cordova, Seward, Nenana, Anchorage and Fairbanks to receive testimony on how the Bureau of Fisheries (part of the Department of Commerce) could improve its management of Alaska’s fisheries resources and to gauge the perception and implementation of fishing reserves in Alaska

The year before, in February of 1922, President Harding first created the Alaska Peninsula Fishery Reserve. Later that year, he created the Southwest Alaska Fishery Reserve, which encompassed both Bristol Bay and the Kodiak archipelago. These two reservations included 40% of Alaska’s primary salmon fishing areas. The reserves limited the number of canneries in any particular fishing area and the amount of gear and boats that could be utilized to harvest salmon. A finite number of fishing and processing permits were issued, rather than the free-for-all access that preceded the system. The permits specified the size of a cannery’s salmon pack. The expansion of fishing and canning operations was only permitted after the Bureau of Fisheries provided evidence that a given run had recovered or expanded.

The reception was mixed. Canners and the Bureau of Fisheries hailed this as a major step forward in management. For the canners, limiting the amount of fish that could be processed led to an enhanced pack value. For the Bureau of Fisheries, it advanced controlling fishing effort, a key strategy in improving conservation. However, Alaska’s territorial delegate to Congress, Dan Sutherland, lambasted the reserve system, asserting that it provided a monopoly to large canneries, that it limited access to a public resource, and that it gutted independent fishermen. Rationalization eliminates labor; unions were also very opposed to the fishing reserves. As an example, they cited what was transpiring at Karluk, where the two canneries licensed to operate in the area merely put in a weir to harvest salmon, slashing their need for fishermen. (They were subsequently reminded that it was illegal to place barricades in the river.)

Arriving in Seattle after his Alaska trip, President Harding spoke at the stadium at the University of Washington, addressing his time in the “empire of scenic wonders.” Harding insisted on maintaining the long view in regards to Alaska’s salmon, stating, “It is better to destroy the defiant investor than to demolish a national resource, which needs only guarding against greed to remain a permanent asset of incalculable value.” Yet we will never know how the president’s trip to Alaska might have impacted the territory or its fisheries, since he died shortly after giving this speech. In 1924, Congress crafted the White Act, which eliminated Harding’s reserves and disallowed controlling the amount of gear used in a fishery. The White Act became the primary means by which Alaska’s fisheries were managed until statehood was achieved in 1959.

Now, nearly 100 years later, as the state faces another Alaska Problem in terms of its fiscal stability,  Harding’s comments continue to resonate:

It is vastly more easy to declare for protection and conservation of such a resource, than to formulate a practical and equitable program. Fish hatcheries have been established to restock streams, but the results are still conjectural and controversial. Argument is advanced for the abolition of one method of fishing in one spot, the condemnation of another type in another, and so on, until there is a confusion of local controversies which no specific and exclusive prohibition will solve.

Apparently he did learn something during his time in the north- simple solutions to Alaska’s problems are certainly elusive. 

Note: This was initially published in Pacific Fishing

Salmon, Diamonds, and the Alaska Packers Association

Note: This was originally printed in the December 2015 issue of Pacific Fishing. To learn more about the early years of the Alaska Packers Association and canneries more generally, check out the Way Back in Kodiak episode, "Canned at Karluk." 

It’s difficult to miss the towering masts of the Balclutha during a visit to the San Francisco waterfront. This square-rigged sailing ship is now part of the San Francisco National Maritime Historical Park and was formerly the Star of Alaska. This ship was one of the legendary “star fleet” that the Alaska Packers Association (APA) moored at Alameda during the winter months and sailed north to Alaska each spring. Tellingly, the most commonly recognized vestige of the once colossal APA is not even in Alaska. Nonetheless, there are plenty of remnants of the APA that persist in Alaska, if you know where to look.

The APA was founded to cope with the astronomical growth of salmon canning in the early years of Alaska’s commercial salmon fishery. In 1888 there were 16 canneries operating in Alaska. By the next year, that number had more than doubled, to 37. It was canners at Chignik in 1890 that first came up with the idea of joining forces to decrease competition for fish and increase efficiency in operation. It worked so well that the canners operating on the Karluk Spit and Bristol Bay paid attention.

Note the <KS> on the old APA sign on the right. This sign was once hung on a fish trap, but now is visible in the mug up line in the Larsen Bay cannery. 

Note the <KS> on the old APA sign on the right. This sign was once hung on a fish trap, but now is visible in the mug up line in the Larsen Bay cannery. 

The Alaska Packers Association was founded in 1893 when the owners of the major canning enterprises recognized that it would be more efficient to create a “salmon trust” to coordinate the catching and canning of Alaska’s salmon rather than engage in continuous competition, which was leading to an unsustainable growth in the pack. “Sustainability” wasn’t an ecological concept at the time, it was an economic one. The amount of salmon processed in Alaska exceeded the ability of consumers to eat it. The market was glutted, and it was not profitable to continue production at such a rate.  Twenty seven of the thirty three canneries operating in Alaska sold their plants and re-emerged as the Alaska Packers Association. In so doing, the owners created a business which would become one of the most economically and politically potent institutions in the history of Alaska.

Although their assets were in Alaska, APA’s shareholders were comfortably situated in San Francisco (like the Balclutha is today). However, many of the founders of the APA had strong ties to Alaska and considerable expertise in the land that was known as Russian America less than two decades before. Some on the APA’s board of directors, like Louis Sloss and Charles Hirsch, were intimately connected with the Alaska Commercial Company (AC). AC today is a grocery store chain in Alaska, and this is the very same business that purchased the assets of the Russian-American Company following the US purchase of Alaska in 1867. In addition to providing early financing for salmon canneries in Alaska and sharing key shareholders, AC also provided the APA with one of the company’s most lasting legacies- the “diamond” naming convention. 

&lt;C&gt;, the APA cannery at Chignik Lagoon. This photo is part of my personal collection.&nbsp;

<C>, the APA cannery at Chignik Lagoon. This photo is part of my personal collection. 

To distinguish AC trading stations in written correspondence, AC employees created a symbol for each trading station. They enclosed a letter in the less-than/ greater-than symbols. For example <K> was Kodiak Station. The APA adopted this shorthand and applied it to their many canneries. <NN>, <X>, <KS> written in letters or stamped on a box became pronounced as “Diamond N,” etc.

Del Monte dismantled the Alaska Packers Association in 1982. Yet many APA-built canneries continue in operation today, and some continue to be referred to by their diamond name. Next time you walk the docks at an old APA cannery, pay close attention and you might even find <> etched onto a board, or fading from the bow of an old double ender. Although that diamond is less regal than the masts of the Balclutha, it is no less historic. 

The following comes from a list located within the John Cobb Papers at the University of Washington Special Collections.

Location and Designation of Alaska Packers Association Salmon Canneries, 1917

<PNJ>   Scandinavian Cannery, Nushagak Bay

<NC>     Clarks Point, Kvichak Bay

<J>         Koggiung, Kvichak Bay

<X>        Coffey Creek, Kvichak Bay

<NN>    Naknek river (upper)

<O>       Naknek river (middle)

<M>      Naknek river (lower)

<E>        Egegik river

<U>       Ugashik

<C>        Chignik Lagoon

<A>        Alitak bay, Kodiak Island

<KS>      Larsen Bay, Kodiak Island

<CI>       Cook Inlet, Kasilof

<FW>    Fort Wrangell, Southeast Alaska

<L>         Loring, Southeast Alaska

<PR>     Point Roberts, Washington

<S>        Semiahmoo, Washington

<T>        Anacortes, Washington

Through the Ashes: The Story of Kodiak's Halibut Industry

Note: This piece was originally published in the May 2015 issue of Pacific Fishing. To learn more about this early halibut prospecting trip and how the eruption at Katmai impacted Kodiak, listen to the Way Back in Kodiak episode, "Prospecting for Halibut."

"It looks like I’ll be taking the Tustumena," my friend told me over the phone this last October. She was travelling to Kodiak bearing the ashes of her longliner husband, who had died the year before. She had intended to fly to the island, but volcanic ash turned Kodiak’s unfettered atmosphere into what seemed a hazy watercolor. A fierce easterly wind whipped up century-old ash from the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes on the Alaska Peninsula, propelling it across the Shelikof Strait, circling the bays of Kodiak Island, obscuring views and halting air traffic. Ash from the 1912 eruption at Katmai, the largest eruption of the 20th century, was making life difficult on the Emerald Isle again.

I quickly noted the irony in this situation. You see, the story of Kodiak’s commercial halibut fishery had its beginning in those very ashes. And now, 102 year later, it was this same ash that hearkened back to the founding of Kodiak’s halibut industry that was preventing the scattering of this halibut fisherman’s ashes in waters that seem increasingly bereft of halibut.

Back in 1912, ash from the Novarupta Volcano near the village of Katmai fell thick on Kodiak for three days. It was the beginning of June, a time when the sun barely sets, but no light was visible as the villagers breathed burning, sulfurous air.  

This is ash, not snow.&nbsp;W.J. Erskine could be the man to the right, or he was the photographer. The men are standing in front of Erskine's house, which is today the  Baranov Museum  in Kodiak. Image courtesy USGS.&nbsp;

This is ash, not snow. W.J. Erskine could be the man to the right, or he was the photographer. The men are standing in front of Erskine's house, which is today the Baranov Museum in Kodiak. Image courtesy USGS. 

The entire village of 500 or so groped blindly through the thick fumes towards the town wharf, stumbling over the more than three feet of ash that had accumulated. The village crowded on the Revenue Service Cutter Manning which happened to be at dock. Villagers feared that another ash-induced land slide would sweep the town into the channel on which it rests. They believed that their only hope for survival was to be found at sea. Before setting out, the villagers ate boiled halibut and potatoes cooked in massive tubs. It was the first meal in days for some of them.

The boiled halibut that ravenous volcanic refugees ate a century ago had been caught during a halibut prospecting trip. Those fillets had been used to quantitatively prove that Kodiak had enough halibut to warrant a commercial halibut fishery.

The US Bureau of Fisheries research vessel,&nbsp; Albatross.&nbsp; Image courtesy NOAA.&nbsp;

The US Bureau of Fisheries research vessel, Albatross. Image courtesy NOAA. 

The year before, in 1911, Kodiak businessman W.J. Erskine worked with the Alaska Packers Association to set up a test fishery. He enticed the Hunter and Metha Nelson, two schooners from San Francisco, to come to Kodiak to verify what the Bureau of Fisheries vessel, the Albatross, had recently uncovered: halibut fishing grounds around the archipelago. Of course this wasn’t news to Kodiak Islanders, who had been fishing and eating halibut for thousands of years, but the archipelago’s distance from any population center meant that Kodiak halibut just fed locals.  Erskine wanted to demonstrate that it was possible to deliver Kodiak halibut to the San Francisco market, nearly 2000 miles away. The Metha Nelson was one of the first fishing vessels to be equipped with an on-board freezer on the Pacific Coast. Erskine was wagering that San Francisco residents would eat flash frozen halibut as an alternative to the halibut that was shipped on ice from Southeast Alaska and Puget Sound.

That 1911 season was short but decent. Erskine likely had high hopes for the 1912 prospecting trip, but it was destined to be a rough season. The engine wouldn’t run and then the engineer died. Their seine was too short to catch bait. After procuring a longer seine and bait herring, they finally started fishing. But then, just 90 miles away, a volcano blew its top.

Nonetheless, at the end of the season the Metha Nelson returned to San Francisco with 140,000 pounds of frozen halibut, which the Alaska Packers Association was able to sell. Erskine’s experiment was successful. After Katmai’s eruption, Kodiak might have been a wasteland of ash, but there seemed to be a glimmer of hope for this ravaged island. There was hope in halibut.

But that hope was not realized for decades. It was king crab, not halibut, that turned Kodiak from a summertime salmon town to a year-round fishing port, and it wasn’t until the 1960s. Kodiak also turned to shrimp in the 1970s, turning Kodiak into the "King Crab Capital of the World" and a world-class shrimp port. But then the crab disappeared, and the shrimp disappeared. Many Kodiak fishermen turned to halibut, fishermen like my friend’s husband. He and other highliners really struck gold in 1995 when halibut was rationalized and those with historically high catches were granted private stock in a public fishery resource. But, not totally unlike the boom and bust pattern evident in the crab and shrimp fisheries of the region, halibut harvests have declined over the last decade. It takes commercial halibut fishermen longer to catch their quota, sending the cost of fishing up.

But, just as the ash-ravaged landscape of Kodiak eventually was overcome again by green, biologists with the International Pacific Halibut Commission report that halibut stock is rising after a decade of decline. Perhaps, like those Kodiak villagers one hundred years ago, who, blinded by ash, sought salvation at sea, Kodiak halibut fishermen too will be in the clear. 

The Baptism at Smith Beach

Mission Beach

“Just a seine full of dollys,” my dad said with disappointment, shaking his red beard as he assessed the results of our illicit beach seining trip to Mission Beach in Uganik Bay. I picked up a humpy and hugged it to my slimy chest, pitching it over the gunwale of the wooden skiff that stood about as high as me. I was relatively certain that Dolly Vardens were named in honor of Dolly Parton, and I doubted that the country music star would be pleased to know that my dad thought her namesake fish were wormy, or that he cursed as we weeded through them in order to pick out the few humpies that we’d hauled to the beach. I didn’t understand why we couldn’t deliver them to the tender, who would come around Packers Spit later that evening. They looked close enough to salmon, to me.

“They don’t want them, Anjulooni,” Dad explained as he kicked a dolly from the beach back into the water. My brother Gus struggled to save our unfortunate by-catch by dousing their gills with water. He thought Dolly Parton had nice legs. I wondered if the tender’s affront to the rainbow-hued fish would impact my brother’s tenderhearted affection for the big-busted star.

We were fishing behind the markers. That my dad had brought his 5 year old and 3 year old children as crew that day doesn’t mean he lacked complicit partners in this fishing expedition, since there were plenty of misfits who fished on the Spit who disregarded the law. It is more likely he doubted we’d make a big haul and he didn’t need the muscle.

It was a typical summer day for my family in Uganik Bay, since my dad rarely caught lots of fish and he was prone to illegality in many of his dealings. The only thing that makes it remarkable is that it is my earliest memory of Mission Beach.

Gus’s earliest memories come from that same summer: first, pulling in a beach seine. Second: being convinced he was drowning. It was at Mission Beach that Gus was baptized.

Forgetting and Changing Names

“Why it’s called Smith's Beach, I don't know,” Deedie Pearson spoke with a dry throat. “When there were a lot of people on the Spit they started calling it Mission Beach. I'm trying to get it converted back to Smith's Beach.”

Deedie and I were talking in her house on Alder Street, overlooking the boat harbor. My memory of breaking fishing laws on Mission Beach as a child took place around 30 years ago. Deedie’s tenure in the bay stretches back 70 years, to 1947, when her parents purchased a house and saltry in Mush Bay. Each day in June, she would skiff by Mission/Smith Beach, which is located on the west side of Mush Bay. She would pass it as she brought back to her family’s saltry the reds that she and her siblings had caught in their setnet. If Mission Beach is actually Smith Beach, she would know.

“Why do you think they call it Mission Beach, then?” I asked. 

“Why Mission Beach? Well, because Reverend Smith. But it was Smith Beach long before he knew about this place,” Deedie clarified. She was speaking of the Reverend Smith who circumnavigated the archipelago aboard the Evangel. Supposedly, Reverend Smith would anchor the Evangel in front of Smith Beach. From Smith Beach, it became Mission Beach, seemingly renamed in honor of the Smith who tried to evangelize the wilds of Kodiak.

But Deedie didn’t know for which Smith the beach was originally named. In the catalog cards of my brain, the name was definitely classified as pertaining to the history of Kodiak’s seafood industry, but I couldn’t quite articulate the connection. Since our conversation, I uncovered that it was named for Oliver Smith, the founder of the first cannery on Kodiak. He beach seined at Smith Beach and sold his salmon to the cannery that was then located at Packers Spit.

“My brother was baptized there, at Smith Beach,” I said acknowledging the precedence of Deedie’s preferred name in the hopes that it would improve the reception of the next bit of information: “Coyote Bowers dunked him in the water during a party.”

Iron Born

This summer, I skiffed passed Smith Beach on my way to Mush Bay. I recognized it immediately, but before it was within sight, all I could pick up were memory-pulses.

Pulse: beachseining with my dad and Gus.

Pulse: Taking a skiff over to Mission/Smith Beach for a party during a fishing closure.

Pulse: My mom running into the water to extract her frantic toddler.

Pulse: seiners coming in close to the beach and Coyote shouting after them, “See you down the trail!” as they pulled away.

I remember much more clearly the retelling of the story of when Gus unceremoniously was submitted to the first sacrament, a story that has become part of the Grantham-Trueman family canon. But I don’t recall the answer to a question that pervades my adult sensibilities now: why? What possessed Coyote to toss a terrified toddler into the sea and not fish him out?

Gus isn’t too concerned about it. “I remember he asked if I was baptized, picking me up and walking out to his waste into the water. He said, ‘I baptize you in the name of the father, and of the son, and of the Holy Spirit,’ and he flung me into the sea,” Gus told me over the phone. He remembers trying to swim, sinking below the water, and looking upward to see our mother’s hands, yanking him back out.

“Why do you think he did it?”

“I don’t know, sister. We told the story many times together, but I don’t think I ever asked him why.”

 “Iron born,” Gus now claims. “I tell my friends that I was iron born, like in the Game of Thrones. I survived drowning to become a warrior,” he chuckles.


I could as easily ask the beach’s namesake, Oliver Smith, about his history within Uganik as I can ask Coyote of his motives for tossing a toddler into the sea, or my parents about their memories from that day, since all are dead. So, I sought another avenue of familial information: the Grantham-Trueman family photo box. Photos from the day of Gus’s baptism are slipped in the pages of a mini-album that contains one roll of developed images. Examining them, I see the details that my memory did not hold on to- the supersized lifejacket that I sported that summer that tied around my chest and reached down to my knees, for example.

But the presence of my little sister, Carrie, is the most surprising bit of information, since I don’t remember her being there that day. But there she is, less than a year old, holding a fishing pole, reaching for her dad’s can of Rainier, being snuggled by our Uncle Ronny. Suddenly, what were just pulses of memory have a fact to affix themselves to- the existence of my sister.

Gus was baptized during the summer of 1988, then. It was the same year that we lived in the cabin that had three sets of triple bunks within its ten by fifteen foot tar-papered walls. Richard would sit on a middle bunk and play his electric guitar. He strummed without an amp, because the only power on the Spit came from batteries. Still, he would play just loud enough so that I could hear the notes of “You are My Sunshine,” as we sang together. He was called the Pup because his father was Coyote. He had stringy hair, big glasses that matched his big teeth, and a poor complexion like other teenaged boys.

That summer, my baby sister fell from the top bunk in the middle of the night, right into the pit in which the barrel stove was rooted. But the fire had gone out and she was wrapped in blankets so she didn’t even wake during the fall. I recall that my dad was frantic, even though my sister was not his daughter. She was the daughter of Cliff, my stepfather. But we all lived in the cabin that summer, my mom, dad, stepdad, Gus, Carrie, Richard, Danny Bowers. Others too, who I can’t remember.

It was 1988. The best price ever paid for reds in the state of Alaska. It was 1988. The summer that the Nickerson brothers were killed up the bay at their Noisy Island set net site. A man named Cue Ball found their bodies. I remember their surname being repeated, over and over again: The Nickersons. The Nickersons. The Nickersons. The Nickersons. Could they have been there, at the party, the Nickersons and their crewmember who killed them both? It’s more likely that they had already gone missing. Perhaps their bodies had already been found in a ravine.

I wonder if Coyote was feeling his own mortality during the party at Mission/ Smith Beach. Maybe in that summer of disappearances, he considered the eternal soul of those around him. He considered the unbaptized being of my brother, and for good measure, determined to dunk him.


Sometimes I wonder if places have memories. Think: words are flung from the mouth, each accompanied by a particle of saliva that drops to the ground. The spit becomes absorbed and a part of the environment, still bearing the energy and bits of the tetrahedral architecture of the speaker. We disturb a rock on the beach and a strange thought enters our mind, a bit of unexpected wisdom, a dream of people we’ve never met. Of course memories are suddenly excavated when reinserted into places one hasn’t been for years. Could it be that these memories are shared between both the human and the place, like a conversation with a long-held friend as you work together to remember an event from your mutual past?

Maybe names, stories, and hunches stick like static to places that they are naturally connected to. Just as elements arrange themselves to create compounds, so too do spoken bits of heart, guts, and will travel to cling to where they most make sense. Like beaches that attract the same shells, or eddies in which a similar assortment of marine debris conglomerates- once told stories circulate until they find their way back to a familiar home. There is identity inscribed on landscape that goes beyond what has been or can be recorded. There are sticky remnants of history that are magnetically attracted to place and picked up by the sensitive observer, to the intuitive listener.

Perhaps the day that my dad, brother and I hauled in a net full of Dolly Vardens, my dad smelled the lingering sweat of the beach’s namesake, Oliver Smith, as we pulled in the seine. Perhaps he heard an echo of Smith’s voice rustling in the beach rye. After all, that day we were mimicking what Oliver Smith did in the previous century: beach seining at Smith Beach and delivering to Packers Spit.

Maybe the day of the baptism, Coyote caught a note of a hymn, sung by Reverend Smith and it was this Christian association that inspired him to fling a toddler into the sea. Coyote, filled more with spirit water than the Holy Spirit, reenacted what he imagined the Reverend Smith did on that very beach. Drunk and rowdy, maybe upset over the disappearance of his fellow Uganik fishermen, he thought he’d continue the evangelizing legacy of Mission Beach.

Whatever the case, it seems we persist in keeping history and ritual, both known and forgotten, alive. 

Yesterday I held a beach seining permit in my hand, as I started installing the West Side Stories exhibit at the Baranov Museum. At that moment, the daughter of Coyote called the museum to speak with me, after 25 years of not seeing one another. She told me she wanted to start using her dad's beach seining permit again. She told me she has an envelope of photos from Packers Spit with my name and my brother's name on it. She said that when her dad was dying, he gave her a poem I had written about Uganik Bay, which I don't remember writing. And, she said she took the photo posted above of Cliff holding Carrie, which means she was there, at Gus's baptism. I didn't ask her about it, since I had to get back to work, but the uncanny timing prompted me to post this story which apparently is still in draft form.