The Evangel at Karluk: A Photo Album


The pictures tell most of the story of Karluk, because it was one of Dad's favorite places to photograph. The text for this stop on our journey takes place in 1957, when all of the family was together on the boat and Dad and my brother Noel took most of the great beach seining pictures that are in this article.

Karluk on approach from Shelikof Straight, circa 1953

My older brother Noel takes a picture as the family hikes up the mountain in the summer of 1953. Both he and Dad thought that Karluk was the best village on the island for taking pictures!

This photo shows Karluk as it looked in 1953 from the top of the peak to the northeast of the village. The spit and Karluk River and lagoon separated the village into three parts (clockwise from upper left): the west village and church hill, the old cannery on the spit, and the east portion of the village, which was the location of the school. A suspension bridge connected the west side with the cannery side. It was a long walk down the spit to the other end of the village.


It is a long haul from Akhiok and Lazy Bay to our next stop, and yet another extended stretch on the open sea. We won't drop anchor until we round the south end of Kodiak Island and turn northeast into Shelikof Strait. Our destination is Karluk. It's hard to imagine a more spectacular setting for a village. Scattered along three sides of a lagoon and river, the community of Karluk was once the salmon capital of Alaska, back in the days of the sailing ships. Then there were salmon canneries on every buildable inch of the channel and down the sandy spit as well, and hundreds of workers took advantage of the awesome harvest provided by the huge schools of salmon that come back every year to spawn in nearby Karluk Lake. But Karluk is a diminutive place now, and with the canneries gone or abandoned, most of the population has also disappeared. The village features a rusting hodgepodge of abandoned cannery buildings still clinging tenaciously to the northern tip of the spit, connected by a rickety suspension bridge to the north end of the village. The west end is crowned by a magnificent Russian Orthodox church with an unusual half-onion dome, but it has been decades since there has been a resident priest here. The east end is separated from the rest by the long spit, and only a narrow trail through the beach grass makes it all one community.

Karluk, spectacular from any angle! Looking across to the east village, from behind the church, 1952. (The previous picture in this series was taken from the peak directly across Karluk Lagoon from the church).

The Evangel tied up in the Karluk river next to an old abandoned cannery on "the spit," early 1950s. One of Karluk's famous long skiffs is on the bank behind the Evangel.

It is a real challenge to navigate the mouth of the Karluk river, which widens just beyond the village into Karluk lagoon. At the other end of the lagoon, the fresh water of Karluk River flows out of Karluk Lake, a few miles inland from the village. It is still a place of spectacular fishing. But the canneries that are left are abandoned now, their buildings slowly rusting beside the river's outlet. When Dad brings us into the river, where the remaining docks are, he waits until he knows it is slack tide. It would be impossible for our under-powered Lathrop engine in the heavily-ballasted Evangel to navigate that river when the tide is running, because water speed often exceeds the Evangel's fastest pace! Dad learned this early, the very first summer he worked on the Evangel. He watched the other boats milling around the mouth of the channel, and noticed that they waited until the tide was about to turn before entering it. He simply followed them in. It helped to solidify his reputation as a good navigator among the local fishermen. Dad is a keen observer of the other men on their boats, and what he doesn't already know, he will watch and do.

The Karluk River has such strong currents that the only safe time to enter the channel is at slack tide, especially for an under-powered boat like the Evangel. Notice the wake around the Evangel's stern (the engine is not running) as the water pours into Karluk lagoon from Shelikof Straight, and the tension on the stern tie up line!

This photo is from the west side of the village, on the church side of the Karluk River, looking down on the suspension bridge in the summer of 1952. You can see two people crossing the bridge if you look closely.

The Uniqueness of Karluk

When we tie up at the ancient dock, I waste no time in walking across the suspension bridge to the western half of the village. Mom won't let me cross alone, so my sister Jerilynn takes me. The view from the church hill is spectacular, but I am more interested in going back across the bridge, and looking down at the water, now foaming and churning as the receding tide allows the lagoon water to go rushing back into the ocean. After visiting friends on the east side of the lagoon (a nice, refreshing walk through the beach grass after hours of being cooped up in the boat) we stop to watch the fishermen using their long skiffs to pull their nets to shore. Karluk, although not the cannery capital of Kodiak Island as it once was, is still world famous for its salmon runs, as thousands of silvery fish take their swim up the channel, through the lagoon and up the Karluk River to the lake to spawn.

This closer shot from directly behind the east village of Karluk in 1953 shows the abandoned cannery, the two uprights for the suspension bridge and the footpath along the beach grass that connects the three parts of the village. The long, wide beach on the right is used for salmon fishing with long skiffs.

In most villages, the fishing grounds are far from town, and its unlikely you will find any great catches right next to home. But at Karluk, all the fishermen have to do is set their nets a few yards offshore and wait, and when they haul them in, there are piles of squirming salmon to harvest. This is one of the few places where that kind of fishing is so easy (in terms of results). However, the labor is still backbreaking without the assistance of the power blocks and winches the fishermen on a seiner would use. These men have to use muscle power alone to manage their long skiffs, haul in the nets, empty them, and lay them out on the beach for the next run. My older brother Noel, about to leave for college, is shooting black and white pictures with his twin lens reflex camera, while Dad is shooting slides with his trusty Argus C3. I notice a few kids not much older than me helping to sort out the fish that have been caught. Some even have their own pairs of hipboots. I am too young yet, but I still feel a little envious of my young friends. It is easy to learn your family's trade early when the town's work is done literally at your doorstep!

Skiffs help bring the large net to shore. Photo by Noel Smith,1957

The skiffs bring in their catch on a foggy day in 1957. Notice the roller on the stern of the long skiff on the right, which allows the seine to be pulled back into the boat. The splashing in the water shows a salmon catch!

Joyce Smith and young me (in the red) watch as the nets are hauled in. Sootball, our Cocker Spaniel, is in the foreground. 1957

The nets are hauled ashore and the catch is collected. A flock of seagulls wait patiently beyond for any leftovers. (This photo was taken in Karluk in the early 1950s)

Not every fish is valuable! A young village boy expresses his opinion of a flounder! 1957

The Evangel is in Town!

Mom and Dad know practically everybody in town, and everyone knows them. Dad has been visiting Karluk often since he first came to Alaska, and I've been on every trip since I was born. But the town is very small, and it is another of those places where the services and programs for the kids are usually held right here on the boat. More often than not, it is more practical (and quieter) to anchor a little ways offshore than to try to accomplish anything with the boat pitching and banging the pilings the way it would if we left it tied up in the channel. This summer we get the use of the school, but that means a long walk for those who live up on the north ridge. Dad and Noel don't have to haul the little generator all the way up to the school so we can use the filmstrip projector, because the school has its own generator shed. We do haul Mom's pump organ up there, as well as the filmstrip projector, the screen and the record player. Dad brings some fuel for the generator, too.

Once again, the youth activities and the evening services we hold make for more exciting nights than the young people of Karluk have had in a long time. Most only rarely visit Kodiak and its bustling stores, and most have only rarely seen a movie or a film strip. But it is not like we are strangers swooping in with fancy outsider ways. We have visited this village for years, every time using the same mode of transportation everyone else uses, learning and using the same local lore just to survive. The fact that we arrive in a funky-looking and under-powered old boat seems to endear us to the local population. Villagers all around the island share a common mistrust of outsiders. Someone who arrives on the mail plane is most likely a Government man of some kind, and will usually be treated with suspicion. But someone who arrives by boat is more likely to be accepted as one of them, by virtue of the skill and determination needed just to get there. In Alaskan waters, you have to be pretty good just to arrive. The people who make mistakes are the people who don't survive very long. So in a place like this, Dad's skills as a boatsman and a navigator are as essential a part of his mission work as his seminary training!

In his early years as a missionary Rev. Norman Smith (closest to camera) learned island navigation by observing local methods and practices. Here he observes the salmon catch close up. (Photo taken by Noel Smith, summer of 1957)/P

Back Out to Sea

Soon it is time to pack up our gear, say good bye, and be on the move again. Karluk sits less than fifty miles across Shelikof Straits from the "Valley of 10,000 Smokes," where the mighty Katmai eruption covered the entire region with several feet of ash in 1912. On clear days you can see the snow-covered peaks of some of the volcanoes. The beach at Karluk is littered with pumice. Before I climb aboard the boat, I grab a few pumice stones from the beach. It's always a funny trick to ask an unsuspecting Kodiak friend (or better yet, some visiting dignitary) whether there are any rocks that float. The knee-jerk answer is to say no. Then you produce your pumice, throw it in the water, and have a great laugh. Volcanic eruptions join the long list of things that can make life on Kodiak Island interesting! I love the excitement of the journey, the relief of arrival, the satisfaction of greeting old friends again, and the hectic, bittersweet bustle of departure. Once we are underway, I go out and sit on the big tank on the stern that holds the oil for the galley stove, and I watch the village fade in the distance. As the familiar cliffs of Karluk shrink on the horizon, deep down I realize that I live in the best place and among some of the most interesting people on the planet. We'll be traveling northeast and then around the bend into Uyak bay in a few hours. Our next stop is my original hometown, Larsen Bay. Several of my best friends in the world are there, and I've got some toys stashed away in our big warehouse, too. What an exciting life!

The south cliffs of Karluk fade astern as the Evangel heads back out to sea. 1957

Next stop: Life in Larsen Bay Part One: Winter in the village

Written by Timothy Smith, web author. See the About Me page for more information. Always feel free to send me comments, suggestions or corrected information about this article or any of the articles on this site. (Write to: This article and website is 2005 Timothy L. Smith, Tanignak Productions, 14282 Tuolumne Court, Fontana, California, 92336 (909) 428 3472. Images unless otherwise listed are from the collection of Rev. Norman L. Smith or the Timothy L. Smith collection. This material may be used for non-commercial purposes, with attribution. Please email me with any specific requests. You are welcome to link to this site.

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