The Evangel at the Village of Karluk: A Photo Album

Evangel Island Journey 5 - The Evangel at Karluk

By Timothy Smith (restored/revised 2020)

The Evangel underway, year unknown, towing one of our two rowboats, in this 16mm movie frame. There are no photos of the southwest voyage – all barren landscapes and open ocean.

Navigation Note: To get from Alitak Bay to the village of Karluk, we have to skirt the southwest coast of Kodiak Island for many hours, with no villages or canneries to landward, and nothing but the Pacific Ocean to our left, all the way to Hawaii! For the last quarter of the trip, we duck northeast into Shelikof Straight until we turn towards Karluk. Both bodies of water can be very rough, especially for a small and slow boat like the Evangel!

The Evangel approaches Karluk in 1952 in this cropped and processed scan of a dark slide. As dramatic as the village looks from a distance, it is even more dramatic once we navigate the river and tie up at the dock.

Note: The pictures tell most of the story of Karluk, because it was one of Dad's favorite places to photograph. Entire books have been written about the salmon fishing and the canneries that were built on the spit and at the mouth of the Karluk river. But by the time we arrived in the early 1950’s, the canneries were gone or abandoned, and the local residents were back to fishing as they had done for generations, using long skiffs and nets drawn out from the shore.

This stop on our simulated Evangel journey takes place in 1956, when all of the family was together on the boat and Dad and my brother Noel took most of the great scenic and beach seining pictures that are in this article. Some of the photos are from the family’s first summer in Alaska, and others probably come from the summer of 1956. All these photos are historic now. I left most of them large on the page.

It is a long haul from Akhiok and Lazy Bay to our next stop, and yet another extended stretch on the open sea. We will  round the southwest end of Kodiak Island and turn northeast into Shelikof Straight. Our destination is the historic village of 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 northwestern tip of the spit, and village homes in three separate locations. 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. Those residents are connected by a rickety suspension bridge near the mouth of the Karluk River to the southwestern end of the village, which 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. And the only dock is part of the abandoned cannery complex on the north side, at the tip of the spit. What’s worse, the dock is in the river, which flows from a lagoon, making the mouth of the river like a flushing toilet whenever the tide is changing. The only possible time to tie up at the dock is at slack tide. It’s best to try to explain using the fabulous photos taken by my dad and older brother over many visits to the village of Karluk. (Continues below…)

Scenes of the Karluk River (1951-52 photos)

Top: the Karluk River boils in this extreme crop of the mouth of the river from the hill above the Russian Church. The dock is obscured by a ridge. Left: the Evangel in the river at the only dock, as the tide comes into the lagoon. Note the wake behind the boat, and the tie up line stretched taut in the current. No boat could safely navigate in or out until slack tide. (Early 50’s photos)

The Evangel tied up beside a fishing boat (note the extra mast) in the river in this early 1950’s photo. These old cannery buildings were abandoned, and are long gone now. Note the long skiff on the bank behind the Evangel. Some historic beach fishing scenes are pictured further on in this article.

Two people are crossing the suspension bridge between the old cannery buildings and the church hill. The church and those houses are out of camera view to the right, and below out of sight is the dock and the old cannery. Another section of the village is down the spit in the distance. (Early 1950’s photo)

When we tie up at the ancient dock in the Karluk River, I waste no time in walking across the suspension bridge to the southwestern half of the village. Mom won't let me on that bridge alone, so my sister Jerilynn walks me across. 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. That’s where the school building is. It’s a nice, refreshing walk through the beach grass after hours of being cooped up in the boat. On the way back to the dock and the boat, we stop to watch the fishermen using their long skiffs to pull their nets to shore. Karluk, although not the cannery capital 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.

Scenes of Karluk Village (1951-52 photos)

Top: The unusual Russian Orthodox Church and its cemetery, with houses below (note the smoke from a chimney), east village beyond across the lagoon.

Left: houses and villagers in the east village

(Both photos probably summer of 1951)

Left: My older brother Noel on a 1952 visit to Karluk, takes black and white photos while Dad takes color slides from behind, on a hike to the top of the mountain above east village. Right: a crop of the village and lagoon taken the same day. In the foreground is east village, the church hill and village is to the southwest, and the old cannery and dock is to the northwest (top right). The towers of the suspension bridge are barely visible near the mouth of the river.

Below: the “money shot” from that hike: the village, lagoon, and beautiful, dramatic geology of Karluk from the top of the mountain above the east village. (1952)

Note on the photos: The outlet for the lagoon is now roughly the middle of the spit, due to recent storms and tide action. This complicates life in Karluk, further isolating the three sections of the village, and making this photo historic! It was featured in a recent book about Karluk, and it’s no wonder. Living on Kodiak Island in the early 1950’s, possessing several cameras, and being willing to hike up a mountain to get a good shot (plus the spectacular weather no doubt) makes this photo very special! The same kind of comment could be said for the other photos in this article, including the beach fishing sequences shot in 1956 featured later in this article.

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 against the pilings the way it would if we left it tied up in the river. 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. It was much easier at our last stop in Lazy Bay. But the folks here appreciate the visit.

As in other villages, the youth activities and the evening services we hold make for more exciting nights than the young people of Karluk have likely 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 boatman and a navigator are as essential a part of his mission work as his seminary training!   (Continues below…)

We stay in Karluk for a couple of days, and we get several opportunities to watch the local fishermen at work. In most villages, the fishing grounds are far from town, require seiners and tenders and the like just to get there, catch the fish, and move them to whichever cannery the fishermen are contracted to. Its unlikely that you will find any great catches right next to your home port. 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). Karluk river still produces spectacular salmon runs, even though the heyday of canneries on every inch of beach may be long gone. However, the labor is still backbreaking without the assistance of the power blocks and jitneys 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 hip boots. 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 on the beach in front of your house!  (Continues below…)

Beach Seining at Karluk Village (1956 photos)

The photos were probably taken in 1956, the black and white prints by my older brother Noel, and the color slides by my Dad, Rev. Norman Smith

Noel Smith photos. Top photo: On the left side, the seine is pulled out from the beach. On the right, one of the long skiffs prepares to help haul in the heavy seine after it captures the salmon.

Left photo: Rev. Norman Smith observes as the net and its haul of fish is pulled ashore. Then the fishermen use long poles with hooks on them to pick up the fish by the gills and toss them into the waiting long skiff. Salmon that have been speared are rejected by the canneries. Then the skiff with its haul of salmon will head out to a waiting seiner, who will take the haul to the cannery, in this case the Alaska Packers cannery in Larsen Bay.

Top photo: The small skiff has returned to the beach. Norman Smith watches on the left, and in the center is my sister Robin. Right photo: A young Karluk boy has no use for the flounder, as the salmon behind him thrash about after being freshly hauled in. Both the boy and the man on the shore are wearing hip boots. Flounder is perfectly tasty, skin on and fried up crisp, but it’s nothing compared to world-famous Karluk salmon!

The three slides of Karluk fishing duplicate some of the action of the black and white photos, but glow with Kodachrome glory. The center photo above may be a different day, because all the others reflect a cloudy and foggy day. But Kodiak Island weather changes rapidly, so it’s hard to say. In the photo directly above, my Mom, Joyce Smith, holds my hand as we watch, while in the foreground is our Cocker Spaniel dog, Sootball.

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 volcanic 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!  A major eruption in the summer of 1961 will drive the campers on Woody Island indoors for a couple of days until the acrid air clears again.

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 there. I’ve not known ay other existence yet in my young experience, but nevertheless I realize: what an exciting life!

My older brother Noel looks out across Shelikof Straight at the Alaska mainland. Karluk’s proximity to the “Valley of 10,000 Smokes” means that the beach is littered with pumice in 1952 when this photo was taken.

Goodbye to Karluk! In this 1956 photo taken by my brother Noel, Karluk’s east village is visible in the distance beyond our skiff, towed behind the Evangel.

Next up is a three-part series on the Evangel in Larsen Bay, which was the Smith family’s winter home from 1952 to 1957, and an article on our last journey there with the Evangel in 1964.

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