Larsen Bay, 1964 (On the Evangel's Last Journey around Kodiak Island)

By Timothy Smith

Introduction: The Rev. Norman Smith family traveled around Kodiak Island on the mission boat Evangel from 1950 to 1964. This is my recollection of the last journey of the Evangel to my first village home in the summer of 1964. It is a supplement to the "Island Journey with the Evangel" series of articles and photos. To see the rest of those articles, follow the link listed at the end of this article.

Part of the huge Alaska Packers Association cannery at Larsen Bay as it looked in 1964, taken from the dock. The beach where the seaplanes loaded and unloaded passengers and freight is to the left of the buildings. When I visited there in 1997, it still looked much the same.

It is our familyís last journey to Larsen Bay aboard the Evangel, although I am too young to know it yet. It is late spring of 1964, and the mission boat has been abruptly sold by a distant and distracted Baptist mission board, and will soon never again venture beyond the waters of Chiniak and Marmot Bays. But on this particular morning such thoughts are far from me. I am happy and well-breakfasted on this sunny June morning, and excited, because it falls upon me to bring the boat down Uyak bay and into Larsen Bay for the first time. Dad points out a few already familiar landmarks to aid my navigation and crawls behind me to his bunk for a quick nap. Although I rolled out of my bag well before we made the turn into Uyak bay, Dad has been up since we left Ouzinkie last evening, and appreciates the short break. The sun glints brightly on the gray-green waters of the bay, and the lavender coastline in the distance gradually takes on more color and definition as we near our final course change, which will bring us into the long, narrow waterway called Larsen Bay. The first few houses of my first home town are clearly visible before I wake Dad. Although itís an unobstructed channel and an uncomplicated cruise to the massive docks of the Alaska Packers Association cannery, it is still a little beyond my talents as a learning eleven-year-old. I take my place beside Dad, just beyond the reach of the throttle and the shift lever, until it is my time to hustle on deck and help tie up. Dad inspects the lines, cuts the engine, and the boat sinks into an eerie silence, like some mythical beast suddenly turned to stone. The engine room will belch oppressive heat and petroleum fumes for the entire time we are unloading our gear, as pungent reminders of the aging Lathropís patient service.

My younger brother Kelly posing for Robin's camera in the summer of 1964. Note the Kodiak Airways plane just to the left on the beach behind him.

Moments later, the plane taxied out into the bay and took off, and Robin captured the intense interest of father and son.

I climb a twisted, rusting steel ladder up to the dock, juggling the first of many bags, boxes and paraphernalia needed for a week-long stay in the village. Dad follows close behind cradling Sootball, our black Cocker Spaniel, who after a decade of such escapades takes all the flurry of activity with canine aplomb. Kid brother Kelly, who is nearly six, starts walking down the long dock, his sack of clothes over his shoulder like an apprentice Santa. We all carry one load of supplies down the dock and past seemingly endless rows of corrugated tin buildings and stacks of the rusty racks used to heat the cans of salmon in the huge silver steam retorts.

Within a few steps I reach what has always been the most terrifying part of my journey, a passageway between cannery buildings which houses the long row of diesel generators. The iron grating reveals a series of huge radiators, belching heat. The noise is deafening, and the exhaust pipes far overhead are not nearly high enough to prevent diesel fumes from nearly choking me. To a boyís imagination, walking past this machinery is the same as trying to survive a gauntlet of dragons. For a boy raised on the water and well-familiar with every kind of motorized contraption known to the islands, this terror I feel is completely irrational. I shake it off as the dying remnants of an infantís nightmare. I am, after all, a big boy of eleven, who has just brought a boat into port. I realize with satisfaction that I am growing up, and that this place will never have the power to scare me again.

The village at low tide in 1956, as it looked from the beach with minor changes well into the 1960s. To the left of the shed is Edith Swan's house (the former school) and the chapel beyond, which obscures our small shack. The Carlson house is in center left, with the stairs leading down to the well (a spring really) which was nearly at the tide line. In the far left of the photo is Dora Aga's boat house, near which Stanley and I had our raft adventure (at high tide) in 1964. That dock was still standing in 1964, but has fallen down since then. In 1964 the Smith's warehouse would be visible just behind the chapel and Edith's place.

Eventually the massive dock suddenly gives way to a shaggy trail of beach gravel bordered by tall, pale green beach grasses. The APA cannery superintendentís house stands off by itself in a sea of beach grass like a Cape Cod cottage, sporting new gray paint and white-trimmed windows. Nearby is a small corrugated tin shack which served as the local post office for many years. As I cross a small footbridge over a stream, a graveyard of neglected black and orange APA seiners rest patiently on the ways, waiting for another chance to ply the fishing grounds. The salmon must be running this year, for only a few sidelined seiners remain.

Beyond the footbridge, the trail is essentially a worn spot along the beach, subject to the clutter and erosion of tides and storms. Being heavy laden with our summer materiel, I take a shortcut through the yard of the old gray former schoolhouse, now occupied by our good friend, Edith Swan, and her mother, my "adopted Grandmother" Alice Aga, now scarred and bedridden since a terrible fire destroyed her home. Edith rushes out to greet us; Grandma Aga has a mirror propped up at bedside to observe the bay, and has seen us arrive. We have not even had a chance to reach our warehouse before we have been invited to come to dinner sometime. I will spend some poignant moments at Grandma Agaís bedside, discussing school and little boy projects as though there were nothing else for her to talk about. And I will be nearly dumbstruck by the wreckage left by her horrible burns, shamed that I canít act more "normal" around her, yet pleased at all the deep love and friendship that is still there. Within a year, Dad will be flown in to conduct her funeral. But today, I just smile and wave, and call a cheery hello into the doorway before continuing on up the trail with the luggage.

Just past Edith Swanís old schoolhouse is the diminutive chapel, its little bell tower gleaming white against the violent green summer foliage of dandelions, pushki and assorted other weeds. We have it easier now than when we made Larsen Bay our winter home in the fifties, for at the crest of the bluff is a new long-handled water pump, eliminating the need for the long trip down the steps to the outlet of the beach spring and its often salty water. I rejoice greatly at this modern marvel, for it will make my task of carrying drinking water for the family that much less tedious. It will often be my job to fill the clean, new galvanized garbage can that sits near the stove in our warehouse. A few capfuls of Clorox and weíll have lots of good water for Kool-Aid and cookies at tomorrowís Vacation Bible School.

I turn past the chapel to the warehouse Dad built in 1957, a large building by village standards, which is divided into two large rooms. We will live in the front room for the duration of our stay, and I will find amusement on rainy days looking through the amazing assortment of paraphernalia stacked floor to ten-foot ceiling in Blazo boxes in the back room. No time for that yet, for the musty and cold front room must be made livable by bedtime or we will have an uncomfortable night. After several more trips to the boat for supplies, we are ready to get settled in. The plywood floor and walls of the warehouse are neatly painted, if a little dusty and dank after their winter of disuse. The white ceiling and walls dangle a few cobwebs; Larsen Bay seems to be the "daddy-long-legs" capital of the world. Three rows of small, square windows at ceiling height on the front and both side walls help light the room, and a bare light bulb hangs from a solitary socket for the occasional times that a portable generator is used. A large hook of wire hangs nearby for the more frequent use of a hissing gas lantern. The floors and a four foot wide section of the wall have been painted in "San Juan" green, named for the cannery in Uganik Bay that uses that emerald shade for the hulls of their seiners. It must be a favorite Smith family color, for it is also used as the trim on the Evangel.

The warehouse shortly after it was constructed, from a 16mm movie frame. The clay pipes stacked in front were to become part of a real sewer system had we stayed in the village. Even without running water, the place was a huge step up from the tarpaper shack we had formerly called home in the village!

Dad and Mom busy themselves with unloading and sorting and cleaning up. Big sister Robin starts sweeping the plywood floor, and then starts hanging old blankets on the inside clotheslines to serve as makeshift bedroom partitions. Not much for young Kelly to do, so he fishes around in his sea bag and finds a little plastic tugboat, and sets about building a dock for it using some old books heís found in a Blazo box shelf. Mom has unpacked the few stored cooking pans and is noisily laying them out on the stone-cold oil stove in the corner. There is no fuel for the cookstove, so I am sent back to the cannery dock one more time to get a five-gallon can of stove oil from the stern of the Evangel.

On the way back to the dock, I wonder where my best friends, Stanley and Roy, might be hiding. Not even Sootball has seen fit to accompany me. I gingerly coax the five-gallon can of fuel up the long ladder, taking care not to lose grip of it or me on the slippery rungs. This walk back to the village is a long and excruciating one, due to the fact that I do not have work gloves, and the metal handle of the fuel can cuts a red crease into my young hands. The longer it takes, the more I realize why Stanley and Roy have not shown themselves. Not surprisingly, my friends magically appear soon after my heavy load reaches its destination.

In a few minutes, the chores are done, all is ready and livable, the stove is lit and I am cut loose to go play. Judging by the afternoon sun, it will be many hours before hunger and tiredness drive me homeward. The well-loved docks, the grove of cottonwood trees by the new school and the beach all beckon me, and Stanley and Roy have had ample time to discover new adventures for us. Larsen Bay still feels like home for me, and my friends have been playmates since we were all toddlers. I retrieve some money from my carefully husbanded allowance (I am well prepared for the fact that Larsen Bay has a cannery store) and scurry down the steep steps to the trail outside, where my friends are waiting. The company store does not disappoint me, and soon we are dangling our feet over an out-of-the-way corner of the dock, watching the boats come and go, sipping Shasta creme soda, and munching on Uno bars and Black Crow licorice bits. The frenetic life of the cannery and the seiner is not yet our world, and we observe the adult goings-on with the detachment of children. Life is good.

Boys donít catch up by talking about stuff, but by doing stuff, and Roy has recently made a swing in the cottonwoods behind his house, so we amuse ourselves by seeing how far out over the swampy creek we can swing. The boys have more practice, since itís their swing, and itís a crude affair, no seat, no loop, and only a large knot tied on the shaggy rope to hold onto. Nevertheless, we invent a crazy little collision game with the swing and soon lie exhausted and happy among the dandelions. By some unknown sixth-sense (which fails as often as not) we all perceive the call to dinnertime and shamble off in various directions after sharing mumbled vague future conspiracies. Stanley mentions something about a raft before disappearing down the trail in the underbrush. By this time I am dead tired, but perk up to a delicious fragrance wafting through the open plywood door of the warehouse. Mom is busy frying a freshly-caught salmon, the gift of one of our village friends. My previous exertions on behalf of the little cookstove have had additional effect, for I also detect the pungent smell of another Larsen Bay delicacy. With all the other things she had to do today, Mom has still managed to find and raid our old rhubarb patch, and a bubbling hot cobbler is just emerging from the oven as I bound up the steps and through the door. How does she do it?

Pushing myself away from the table, I get assigned the task of ringing the bell in the little chapel (nice and slow now, nice and slowóitís a worship service, and not a fire!) From out of a dozen or so tarpaper and tin dwellings come young and old, back to the brown chairs and long benches of the little chapel once again. Sootball places himself squarely in the middle of the floor in the bell tower entrance as if to stand guard, but promptly curls up and sleeps. He is in full snore before the end of the song service. Weíre using the white, red and blue spiral-bound Youth Sings! songbook tonight, and Iíve memorized the page numbers of my favorites: #18, "Do Lord", #95, "Safe am I" and #111, "This World is Not My Home". We sing all of those and more tonight, with Dadís clear tenor ringing out over the wheezy clatter of Momís fold-up pump organ. The old dark green Broadman Hymnals, stamped "Baptist Evangel, 1955", are stacked unused on a bench in the corner. Dad walks behind the beautiful lacquered wooden lectern built for him over a decade earlier when this village was our winter home, and begins to speak. His voice is strong but gentle, and it is hard to tell where Scripture reading ends and Dadís comments begin. There is something very comforting, real and familiar to it, and by the looks on their faces, our village friends have the same impression, even if to some the biblical terminology is puzzling. Dad announces a closing hymn, #128, "Now I Belong to Jesus", and we stand for the liturgical benediction. We recite, "Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in Thy sight..." We are not even through the first phrase when Sootball, as if on some angelic cue, leaps to his feet, charging out of the bell tower at full clip, barking furiously up and down the trail to clear the path for the soon-to-be exiting worshippers. In his well-meaning but fuzzy-headed canine brain, those words signal a pressing need to play guard dog. It is a fitting, if unconventional end to Dadís unconventional and unpretentious worship service. Those in attendance get a good roar out of it, and everybody leaves happy.

In the strange way of springtime in the northern latitudes, our evening vespers have left a lot of evening still to enjoy. Even with the mountains that flank Larsen Bay, the sun still has a couple of hours to kill before setting in orange twilight to rise again in the very early morning. Overjoyed at the prospect of still more playtime, I find myself in an impromptu game of tag with a village girl that I have known since we were babies. The game continues furiously in prepubescent innocence, until we both collapse on the steps of the bell tower. We stare absently off into space as is the village custom when conversations get serious. "Do you know about God?" she asks. I concur, and launch into an earnest, if simple explanation of faith. I quote one of the verses featured at the end of all those Moody Bible Institute filmstrips, and give a childlike explanation of it. But I am an eleven-year-old boy, after all, and pretty soon it dawns on me that I am talking to a girl! She apparently has an equivalent revelation, for we bid a hasty and unceremonious good bye, and I run down to the beach to look for another adventure.

On his last trip to the boat, Dad has brought our little dinghy in to shore, and I untie it and row out onto the bay. The water is glassy calm, and the golden light of the waning sun intersperses with the ebony shadows of the mountains in the little ripples that my oars create. I row out a few yards from shore and take an appreciative look at the quaint houses and long shadows. As the dinghy slows to a halt, another consequence of the calm air catches up to me: a murderous herd of tiny gnats called "no-see-ums". I merely increase my speed to outpace them, for bugs at Larsen Bay are like seeds in a watermelonójust part of the experience.

Stanley hails me excitedly from the shore, and I secure the dinghy and join him. As we run down the beach, he makes good on his previous promise of a raft. We near the pilings of an ancient and leaning boathouse, and beneath it is the sorriest excuse for a raft ever invented by optimistic children. Most of the logs are under water even before we clamber aboard. Its limited buoyancy is the result of using driftwood from the tideline. Larsen Bay having very few trees, most of the logs are already designated as fuel for the many wood stoves, leaving only a few well-soaked pieces. The whole contraption is tied together haphazardly with cast-off bits of net twine and old tie-up lines. None of this matters to two invincible boys!

We borrow a long pole and one oar out of a nearby skiff, and set off on another adventure. I get the pole, and I earnestly stab the bottom of the bay until we are well out beyond the little sagging boathouse. My pole no longer reaches bottom, and so I am reduced to near-uselessness as Stanley and the oar take over. It doesnít take long before both he and I realize that the seaworthiness of a raft with no keel and only one oar is limited at best. We now struggle furiously to turn the contraption toward shore, and with each attempted turn, our craft sags and lists as if it were some perverse carnival ride. About thirty feet offshore I begin to realize that the sometimes knee-high seawater is about as comfortable as a bucket of ice cubes. With all our seafarersí skills we spiral our noble vessel close enough to shore for the pole to reach bottom, and we make short work of our retreat from the challenges of the bay. We slog off home in the twilight to place soaked Keds beneath our cozy oil stoves without a second glance at our greatly discredited yacht. Stanley doesnít even bother to tie it up, and the tide removes it by morning.

Larsen Bay VBS in the warehouse, summer of 1961. I am sitting beside Stanley, my childhood friend. The laundry hanging above our heads used the wires that also separated the room into bedrooms. The plywood sliding door opened to an unfinished storage room filled with Blazo box shelves stacked to the ceiling.

The next morning I am up early, and I help get the warehouse ready for a room full of village kids for Vacation Bible School. There will be a flurry of songs, stories, cutting, coloring and pasting, cookies and Kool Aid, and Bible memorizing. It isnít long before the pattern of morning VBS and evening services interspersed with furious playtimes all blur into one happy muddle. It is the best summer I have ever had, and it is the last time I will see Larsen Bay for over thirty years. How blessed it is that children are given the gift of Now, with no worry for Next. Who ever has the luxury of knowing in advance that any given experience is unique and never to be repeated? What benefit would there be in knowing? The experiences of a well-lived life may be some of the greatest earthly treasures. For one glorious week in 1964, Larsen Bay became one of my treasures.

A Vacation Bible School group at Larsen Bay in 1962. I'm in the very center, with my chin up! My sister Jerilynn is to the left in red, with my sister Robin beside her. We must have done some activity that involved silly hats!

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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