Island Journey with the Evangel 8

The Evangel at Port Wakefield, Afognak and Port Williams

 

The Evangel lies at anchor in Danger Bay on Afognak Island in the early summer of 1952.  This article features many of the north-end communities of the Kodiak Island archipelago, including canneries and communities on Raspberry Island, Afognak Island and Shuyak Island.

 

Through Raspberry Strait

As we leave Uganik and the Village Islands, we head back out into the much more challenging waters that lie between us and our next destination. The journey north-eastward up the Kodiak side of Shelikof Strait and down between the islands will involve some of the trickiest navigation, and careful coordination with the tides.  Our goal is Port Wakefield, a pioneering king crab processing plant which has its own village (and even a school).  Located near the middle of the north-eastern shore of Raspberry Island, Port Wakefield is normally accessible only from the northern end, but we are not coming in that way.  The south end of Raspberry Strait, which is very shallow in places, is impassible for most of the larger boats.  But the Evangel has a shallow draft, and Dad knows how high the tide needs to be to get through.  In this way we avoid the much longer trip around the north end of Raspberry, and so we duck down Kupreonoff Strait and make the turn.  The Evangel is slow enough as it is!  But Dad knows the islands well, is a careful navigator, and has a well-earned reputation as a good mechanic for keeping the Evangel’s old Lathrop engine running for so many seasons.  We take shortcuts whenever Dad knows it’s safe, constantly weighing weather conditions, tides and the capacity of the Evangel. 

 

It is a little past high tide as we reach the southern end of Raspberry Strait and turn northwest toward Port Wakefield.  I scurry out to the bow and look down, something I always do when we come through here.  The sand in the area is occasionally of a lighter color than in most places around the islands, and off and on I can see the dim shapes of the sandbar just a few feet below the keel.  Then I suddenly see much clearer patches of light sand, and the Evangel goes bump bump for a couple of seconds, but the water soon goes dark again.  A little later in the tide cycle and we might have had some trouble, but Dad has timed it correctly, and we will be tying up at Port Wakefield shortly. 

 

Port Wakefield Cannery

Port Wakefield is a place of pleasant company and old friends, and many of the people who work there and live in the little village have been very receptive to the ministry.  In fact, Dad recently started a Sunday School in the little village, held in one of the homes, and has brought some more materials for them to use. He came over by plane last winter to preach the memorial service after two men from the cannery died in a skiff accident. And several of the village families have kids my age, so I love going there to see my own set of friends.

 

Port Wakefield cannery on Raspberry Island in operation in the late 1950s, viewed through the pilot house window of the Evangel.

 

The cannery is a wonder, not because it looks particularly modern, but because inside, the place has been modernized with the very latest in processing methods for the new cash crop: king crab.  We have toured the place several times, and Lowell Wakefield gave Dad some slides of his operation the last time we came through (see the article called “Cannery Work” for those photos).  But even more amazing to me are the homes: modern, classy, and built out of pre-cut cedar logs.  The homes smell nice, and are all golden brown inside and out.  I mention that they look like Lincoln Log houses, and Dad says that would probably not be taken as a compliment!

 

The crabber Carl R, one of the first all-steel fishing boats, barrels past the dock at Port Wakefield (and races a seagull…look at the flying bridge) in this photo from around 1961.

 

Tonight we have been invited to the home of one of the foremen for dinner.  The husband and wife are originally from the Philippines, and tonight they serve me sweet and sour pork for the first time in my life.  While the adults converse, I go with their son Mel to his room, where he shows me his new ukulele.  He plays “Does Your Chewing Gum Lose its Flavor on the Bedpost Overnight?” and strums through all the chord changes with considerable skill.  I am more than a little impressed.  All I can play are a few simple songs on the piano, and this energetic singing and playing seems a lot more fun to me.

 

A Fishing Surprise

The following morning, while we are making preparation to leave at the next high tide, Dad goes to “mug up” (coffee break time) signaled by a very loud clanging on the mess hall bell, which is an old acetylene tank suspended on a rope.  Like always, he goes where the people are; a good many would never come to our little services, but will talk in a neutral setting like coffee break time.  Mom goes to one of the homes to meet with some of the mothers.  I amuse myself by making a fishing pole out of an old stick, and wrapping fishing line around one end, with a lure I bought in Larsen Bay.  The way to pull up a fish, assuming I get one, will be to turn the stick slowly like a winch – not an effective pole by any means.  I drop my line off the stern of the Evangel and wait for awhile. 

 

Soon I feel a weight on the pole, and start the slow process of winching whatever it is up where I can see it.  Finally, I hear that the fish has broken the water, and look down into the most wretched face God ever created!  I have on my line a very placid but horrid-looking wide-mouthed bass, known also as an “Irish Lord” (apologies to Irish everywhere).  I know this fish by its most common name – I have caught an “Ugly.”  Being a little guy of about six at this time, I am not at all prepared to deal with him, but I do manage to haul him up on the stern, where he flops about a bit while I rush down the stairs and through the engine room to tell my sister about my catch. 

 

Jerilynn (a Junior in high school by this time) heads out to the stern while I stay in the galley, tentatively listening.  I can hear her laughing on the stern (although I can tell she’s trying not to).  “Uglies” are not for the faint of heart, and she sees what I saw in him immediately!  She mercifully disentangles him and I hear him splash away.  She comes back into the cabin, with a bit of a twinkle in her eye.  My feeble fishing effort would only have worked on such a dumb beast as the one I caught.  Later I will realize that no self-respecting salmon or Dolly Varden trout would have given my un-baited, uninteresting lure the time of day! 

 

I later ask Jerilynn why she let the fish go (not that I am in any mood to greet him again).  She will someday be a renowned physician, and is already working on her bedside manner.  She explains to me that “Uglies” are so bony that it would take three or four of those things, big as he was, to fill a skillet, and that they are murderously hard to clean anyway.  She is being a good sister, for with great tact, she has spared me the trouble of having to deal with a creature I’d already run away from once!  As a good Alaskan boy, not much unnerves me, but the sight of that monstrous fish peering up from beneath the Port Wakefield dock is too much for today.  It is not until almost twenty years later, when working in a tank full of furious Dungeness crab, that I will feel such consternation at live seafood! (See the “Cannery Work” article)  I quietly go out, wind my fishing line around my fancy pole, and put them away for another time.

 

Wakefield Fisheries’ king crab processing methods are pioneering for the time.  Here a worker prepares sections of cooked crab legs to be frozen, while a bin of prepared legs await processing.  (For more information on what it was like to work in a large king crab processing plant, see my article entitled “Cannery Work”)

 

Whale Pass

When the day’s business is completed and the tide is right, we are off, down Raspberry Strait without incident and on our way to Afognak. The village is the largest settlement on Afognak Island, which is itself about a third as large as Kodiak Island.  But before we can drop anchor at Afognak (it has no dock) we have to make it through Whale Pass (called Whale Passage on the charts).  Like Charybdis in The Odyssey, Whale Pass has a reputation for trouble.  It is a place where the protected waters of Marmot Bay face the turbulent waters of Shelikof Strait, and the meeting is never pretty.  Due to the peculiarities of tide, there is a different water level between the two ocean bodies, which is exacerbated when the tide is turning.  As we head into the southern end of the pass, where the turbulence is most noticeable, Dad turns the engine up a notch, grasps the wheel a little tighter, and keeps a keen eye out for the churning gauntlet that he knows is coming.

 

Soon ahead of us is a little wall of water about six inches high, which signals the edge of a large whirlpool. As we enter the whirlpool, Dad tries to feel how the vessel is reacting to the turbulence. The boat begins to pivot on an invisible axis, and Dad spins the wheel rapidly to compensate, the chains rattling in the pilot house bulkhead.  Just as quickly, the boat reaches the other side of the whirlpool, and again the 25-ton hull of the Evangel spins like an empty dory – in the opposite direction!  There follows a series of waves and deceptively calm patches in the center of the whirlpools, which attempt to control any vessels in their grip. I can feel the boat alternately lifted and sucked down a few inches as though on a hydraulic lift (which in a way it is).  Dad corrects the spin, and points out the frothy spots only a few yards distant. Rocks!  We are coming through Whale Pass in comparative calm, at a nearly ideal time for the tides (if there is one).  But attempting to navigate Whale Pass at night, in stormy weather, or in the fog could have tragic consequences.  Even someone keeping his eye on the charts can’t always avoid the submerged reefs if the pressure of the tide overcomes his ability to maneuver, which has been known to happen. 

 

Dangerous Whale Passage!  A fishing boat has not been so lucky in Whale Pass in this 1968 photo, and has hit one of the infamous rocks hidden under the swirling currents.  I snapped this photo from the window of a Kodiak Airways Grumman Widgeon.

 

Many boats have been lost here; ours is not one of them.  Suddenly we burst as out of a cocoon into the calm waters of Marmot Bay.  I take a quick peek out the side door toward the stern at the foaming water fading behind in our wake, amazed at such power.  Experience is the best cure for white knuckles, and we immediately resume normal progress as though nothing out of the ordinary has happened. Actually, it has been just an ordinary trip through Whale Pass. Dad throttles back, hands the wheel to me for a few minutes, and heads below to make a cup of coffee.  Our own private roller coaster ride is over until next trip.

 

Beautiful Afognak Village

It’s a pretty uneventful ride from then on until we drop anchor off Afognak, which seems to be one long, rocky beach.  Dad has to pick his anchorage carefully, because there are plenty of rocks just below the surface.  Once we pull up the skiff, we start out to visit our friends. We have friends in every port, so to speak, and Afognak is no exception.  We visit the Nelson family, who live in a newer home, a two storey pink building with large windows.  There is a stand of spruce trees on three sides, a dirt road out front and a great view of the beach.  Betty Nelson is one of Mom’s good friends, so the teakettle gets used and they start talking.  I go upstairs, which consists of a large, mostly unfurnished room left mostly to the Nelson kids, and play with them for awhile.  Then somebody decides to take a walk to see a friend, and I tag along to see the sights.  It’s not like I could get lost; from practically every home I see, the Evangel is clearly visible at anchor, and so I know where our skiff is, too. 

 

Afognak in the distance, as the Evangel approaches.  The village stretches along the beach for miles, it seems. (All photos were taken in the mid-1950s)

 

Afognak was formed early in the nineteenth century, when a group of retired Russian America Company workers and their Native wives settled next to an existing Native community. Other immigrants later arrived and intermarried, creating a village with a wide diversity of surnames, and a generally upscale standard of living, judging by many of the houses. We stroll down the road and walk past the nearby von Scheele mansion, for that’s what it looks like to me. There are no comparable structures in any of the other villages. That home and several other larger dwellings underscore that the community of Afognak’s history is different from many villages, and its present is very different as well, for Afognak has cars!  It’s only a few jeeps and pickups, but it impresses me, because I have never lived in a place that had vehicles or roads.

 

It seems odd to have a large village with no dock or harbor facilities.  Many of the residents work as fishermen, with nearby canneries such as the Kadiak Fisheries facility at Port Bailey.  But others work in the logging industry, for there is a lumber camp and sawmill on Afognak Island, taking advantage of immense and mature forests of Sitka spruce trees. The von Scheele family has a store, and Bob von Scheele runs the Shuyak mailboat, which is our familiar link to the outside world all winter at Larsen Bay.

 

I catch a glimpse of the school, and it seems from a distance to be a near twin of the one in Ouzinkie.  It must have been a standard Bureau of Indian Affairs design in the mid-1930s.  The Russian Orthodox Church is impressively large, a very prominent bell tower attached directly to the structure.  Its shape derives from the fact that it is built of large logs planed flat and covered with planks and siding, giving it a slightly chunky look compared to the more delicate stud-frame design of some of the newer village churches.  Judging from the dimensions, the sanctuary and altar area must be as large as the church in Kodiak! 

 

Down the beach is a small home with only two or three rooms on the ground floor, a prominent “kelly-door” covered side porch used as a pantry and dry-sink, and a steep flight of stairs in the main room that leads to the room in the attic, typical of so many of the homes in Russian Alaska.  Outside is a shed and a fine banya, or Native steambath.  Around many of the homes are fenced-in areas with the mounds of dirt which indicate a working garden.  Many of the crops are already impressively large, since the plants grow furiously in the long daylight.  There will be a wide variety of fresh vegetables to harvest by mid-summer. 

 

This slide is labeled “Garden Beach, Afognak”

 

A glimpse of some Afognak homes on a cloudy day.  This slide is from the mid-1950s.

 

Many other buildings are familiar to me as a life-long visitor to the island villages: banyas (steam baths), smokehouses, and I think I see a barabara (hut of logs and mud covered with grass) which may have once been a home, but more likely was constructed as a potato shed.  The majority of the older homes, as in Ouzinkie, are of cut log construction to take advantage of the abundant local trees, and are often covered by clapboard siding (the newest and largest homes seem to be of stud frame construction).  And all around every house there seem to be spruce trees.  The forest stretches as far as the eye can see along the beach, and far up into the hills.  It is an odd feeling to look at a house from the beach and see only forest, and from the rear and see only beach!  This seems to be true for most of the houses.  Compared to the treeless South-End villages, this village is in a fairytale forest wonderland.  It is one of only two villages built in the northern islands’ spruce forests, Ouzinkie being the second one.  The whole village seems to be one long series of houses along the road which fronts the beach, and doesn’t seem to be more than two or three houses deep at its widest point.  The whole place is peaceful, inviting and picturesque, with lots of exposure to the sunlight all day long.  Since it was once a retirement community during the days when Alaska was known as Russian America, it is completely understandable why it was chosen for that purpose.

 

An Epitaph of Sorts for Port Wakefield and Afognak

When the Tidal Wave hit in March of 1964, it changed the fate of Port Wakefield and Afognak forever.  While not destroyed by the wave, the subsidence of the Kodiak Archipelago, including Afognak and Raspberry Islands, by as much as six feet, quickly made the two communities unlivable.  A new site was selected, and the Lions Club, the Salvation Army and other organizations donated money and materials to build a new village on higher ground.  Afognak moved to Port Lions, as they called the new village, by the end of 1964.  Shortly thereafter, Wakefield Fisheries moved their operations to Port Lions as well.  They built a fine new cannery in a much more accessible location, with a good dock and harbor facilities, and connected it to the new village by means of a long causeway and a new road.  They moved many of the beautiful log homes I admired so much onto barges and transported them to Port Lions, where they still stand to this day.  For more on Port Lions, see “How Not to Get to Port Lions,” which features a few photos of the village toward the end of the article.

 

The dock of the new village of Port Lions, which was built out of the combined communities of Afognak and Port Wakefield after the 1964 Tidal Wave.  This photo is from a trip the Smith family took in 1974 in the restored Evangel.

 

Afognak still exists, but is vacant.  The families removed everything except the buildings, and there they stand to this day.  When I visited the village again in the summer of 1976 I was without my camera (Norman’s Photo was out of my size of film)!  I toured the village, remembering the old places, seeing them now as a ghost town.  One corner of the church was perched precariously over a small bluff on the beach, and looked to be in danger of destruction from wave action.  I climbed up the bell tower of the church, and in the attic I saw the log and planking construction method I alluded to earlier.  The building was a testament to the sturdy construction methods and fine craftsmanship of a bygone era, as befitting a House of Worship (it was recently dismantled and burned by the former residents of Afognak, when restoring and moving it was deemed impossible). 

 

At the Von Scheele house, in the side shed I saw the remains of a grand piano. I went inside the main house and climbed the grand staircase to the upstairs, peeked in the attic, and saw stacks of magazines and newspapers from the 1920s and 1930s.  They had been stuffed between the ceiling joists as insulation.  I walked down the beach and went into one of the older homes with its distinctive village-style architecture, and was swept back in time to an era generations ago when English was a foreign language, and electricity and running water were unknown, and even Kodiak was a village with cow paths.   I wonder what will finally become of Afognak; it was truly an eerie experience to view it as a ghost town, especially since many of the buildings were still in fine condition for many years after it was abandoned.  But its people live on in the beautiful new village of Port Lions, with new homes spread out among the spruce trees, new lives to live, and new dreams to guide them.

 

A Photo Travelogue

(Author’s Note) The following locations are described via a few photos, but they are all places we would have visited at least once every summer, and I have vivid memories of each.

 

Port Vita

I love abandoned buildings and ghost towns, and that love came from many visits to old, retired canneries such as this one, Port Vita.  This photo was taken from the little rowboat we kept on the deck above the main cabin, and shows the Evangel tied up to the aging pilings of Port Vita at low tide. By the time I can remember, it was no longer in operation, but we would visit with the caretakers on our way to other canneries and villages.  I also have fond memories of Port Hobren (an abandoned whaling station), Uyak Cannery opposite Harvester Island, and the herring plant at Zachar Bay, which was actually restored to use many years after we stopped our island travels.

 

Kitoi Bay

 

Kitoi Bay, a small body of water off Izhut Bay on Afognak Island, has been a salmon hatchery for many years.  It was a favorite place for us to visit, because the scientists working there would show us so many interesting things in their laboratories.  I remember the tanks full of salmon in various stages of development, the fish elevators that allowed the salmon to spawn in several streams, and the lake that served as a temporary home for the soon-to-be seagoing salmon.  Then in the late summer the cycle was reversed, and aging, misshapen and swollen salmon would crowd over the rocks as they flopped upstream to spawn.  Here the Evangel anchors off one of the spawning streams in the summer of 1957 (from a very faded print).   Kitoi also had terrific salmonberry and blueberry bushes.

 

Port Williams

 

Port Williams, on Shuyak Island, the northernmost island in the Kodiak archipelago, was one of the first cold-storage plants in the Kodiak Area.  In this photo taken from the Evangel’s skiff in 1957, the Evangel  (far right) is tied up at a very busy dock.

 

The Evangel is dwarfed by most fishing boats, but here it seems almost a speck tied up to the Port Williams dock at the stern of a freighter.  In the late 1950s, Dad and I took a trip alone from Ouzinkie to Port Williams, and we had a great time with some of the cannery workers, who came aboard and sang hymns with us late into the night.

 

Port Williams as it looked from the window of a floating Kodiak Airways Grumman Goose in the winter of 1966.

 

Go ye into all the (ports) — as a fisher of men:  Rev. Norman Smith (with a coffee cup) talks to a fisherman (in a white hat) on the deck of his boat in this candid shot captured by my brother Noel in the summer of 1957 (Evangel in foreground).  This is one of my favorite photos, not because it is so clear and well-composed, but because it captures the essence of what the Evangel ministry so often was: one on one, meeting with people where they are, a sea-level ministry for a sea-level population.

 

On to the next port!  The little rowboat is astern as the Evangel heads to Ouzinkie in this 16mm frame from the early 1950s.

 

Next stop:  The Evangel visits Ouzinkie in the 1950s

 

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: Tanignak@aol.com) 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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