Evangel Island Journey 7 - Shelikof Strait Stops

(Harvester Island, Zachar Bay, Uganik Bay, Village Islands)

The Evangel’s Journeys to Favorite Stops Along Shelikof Strait

By Timothy Smith (revised in 2020)

Introduction: Preparing the EVANGEL for Sea Voyages

Author’s note:  The time period of this article is of a typical trip we usually took in the spring: heading from Larsen Bay to the town of Kodiak by way of all our usual stops in the bays and islands on the Kodiak Island side of Shelikof Strait, a fifty mile-wide stretch of often rough water that separates the islands from the Alaska Peninsula.  The year of this voyage is roughly 1957. But the photographs include many taken on our last Evangel voyage in the summer of 1964, and feature photos from my very first roll of film (shot using a 616 Kodak box camera) along with slides from my Dad and my sister Jerilynn. 

Rev. Norman Smith had unique responsibilities as the captain of the Evangel. Keeping a wooden boat seaworthy in the North Pacific is a time-consuming task, and our springtime duties included scraping and painting the hull, repainting the superstructure and even overhauling the engine.  By the time I was old enough to remember, the Lathrop gasoline engine on the Evangel was considerably older than the engines in other local vessels, and Dad had a hard time getting parts.  He would make his own head gaskets out of thin sheets of cork, carefully tracing and cutting using the previous one as a pattern.  The Lathrop ran from 1950 to 1970, an incredible length of time for a marine gasoline engine, a testament to Norman Smith’s patience and skill as a mechanic.  If he had not been such a careful steward of the equipment, he never would have been able to continue a boat ministry in some of the most challenging waters in Alaska (not to mention managing to work within a very thin budget from the church organization that supported him).

The photos show the rare times when the Evangel was hauled out of the water for repairs. Normally, we beached the boat on a nice sandy shoreline and painted the hull, as depicted in the articles on Larsen Bay.

Below left: in a storm in the winter of 1957-58, the Evangel ran aground and was partially swamped, along with other damage. Here it is undergoing repairs at Alvine’s in the Kodiak channel. Below right: in 1971, after my parents bought the Evangel (7 years after the Baptists had sold it to the Sea Scouts) the boat was in a terrible state of disrepair. The photo shows Mom scraping away. She, Dad, and a small army of volunteers got the hull scraped, repaired, and painted – a tough task after 7 years without proper maintenance.

Shelikof Strait Stops: Heading Out Into Uyak Bay

About the photo:

It was always exciting to start the engine, untie the lines and head back out to sea.  This photo was taken through the open window of the Evangel’s pilot house (in waters near Kodiak).  The ship’s bell hangs above.  Dad often opened the front pilot house window in good weather, to catch the brisk  breezes off the ocean. (Date unknown)

Scenes of Harvester Island

Harvester Island, at the opening of Larsen Bay and within sight of our neighborhood, was the homestead of Edith and Lloyd “Swanie” Swan, and a favorite place for my older siblings to visit, partly because of their menagerie of animals.

It is finally springtime, or at least my older siblings are out of school.  It is early May, and in the tradition of the village schools, there won’t be another school day until early September. But the plants and trees won’t sport full green leaves for another month and a half. Families all around the island are repairing the nets, painting the seiner or heading out to the gill net site to see how the cabin fared the winter. The Smith family is no exception. Dad has gone to the Evangel and fired up the oil stove to help rid the boat of the winter mustiness.  He is checking tide tables to see when would be the best time to slap a new coat of copper bottom paint on her. And we are packing up clothes, hymnbooks, filmstrip projectors and the rest of our gear for another summer of travel adventures aboard the Evangel. After a couple of days of bustle and preparation, the time finally comes to let loose the tie lines and head out.

When the engine starts, and especially when the Evangel pulls away from the dock, I always feel a strong sense of excitement at the adventure that always awaits. Most of our destinations are not far from each other this time (such as the long open-water trip between Akhiok and Karluk), but are a series of canneries and homesteads on the Shelikof side of the island.  These are our usual stops as we head in to Kodiak for more supplies, or to serve at Camp Woody. And they are places where we can find some of our favorite people.  The Evangel goes only a few miles, just barely beyond the waters of Larsen Bay, when we drop anchor and scurry ashore at our first stop: the Swans’ place on Harvester Island.  

Edith Swan is one of our family friends, and a strong Christian, and she and her husband (we always call him “Swanie”) have quite a menagerie of interesting animals at their homestead.  A pet crow, a diving dog, a couple of semi-tame magpies, some chickens, and a sheep or two are all part of the Swan family.  We have even been known to help transport crates of goats and other small livestock for them and for other families we know around the island.  We have a very nice visit and a great fish fry dinner, but I’m disappointed that Edith did not make us her fantastic perok this time, consoled by the fact that Mom has her recipe for that local favorite of fresh-caught salmon and rice pie. Edith has added a half-dozen other ingredients, from cabbage to bacon pieces and chopped hard boiled eggs, and by all local standards it’s a killer recipe. Perhaps another time. When we finally pull up anchor and leave, it is late. Our next stop is Zachar Bay, one of the side bays across Uyak, a fairly short journey. I curl up in my little green sleeping bag in a little compartment over the stairs in the Evangel, and fall fast asleep as I have since infancy, to the steady hum of the engine and the motion of the waves.  

Our destination is a mothballed herring cannery at Zachar Bay, where our friends the Imlochs serve as watchmen and caretakers. It is Dad’s intention to cut across Uyak Bay and down into Zachar, tie up at the old cannery dock, catch some sleep, and then visit the Imlochs in the morning. They are long-time friends of Mom and Dad, and always make for an interesting visit. They are some of the best storytellers around, and although I don’t always understand what is being discussed, I can tell that the adults are having a very good time. The last time I was there we had sourdough pancakes with a side of canned Rath sausages, a real delicacy for me. Then Mr. Imloch made me a birdhouse to take back to Larsen Bay. Mrs. Imloch has made friends with a local Kodiak bear they named Chester, who wanders around outside their house from time to time, seemingly more for company than anything else. (Continues below…)

Top: the Swan homestead on Harvester Island. Left: My brother Noel with Bozo the diving dog. Lower Left: “Swanie” with a chicken and two magpies. Below: My sister Robin, “Swanie,” and Binkie the lamb.

Mrs. Imloch gave Mom a page from her scrapbook, featuring Chester the bear. These photos were taken in 1959 at the Zachar Bay cannery. Her experience with Chester became an article in the “Alaska Sportsman” magazine sometime after these photos were taken.

We don’t get a chance to see Chester, because as we are sailing down the bay, we meet the Imlochs in their boat, heading out! There is a midnight visit in the bay, with the two boats tied together, and coffee and sodas and cookies all around. I hear the laughter and bits of animated conversation in the dim twilight which passes for nighttime this time of year, but I’m too tired to hop out of bed and go aboard. I’m sound asleep by the time the two boats part company. Dad later ties up to a “dolphin” (piling stuck out in the bay for mooring or navigational purposes) and catches a few hours of sleep.

When I wake up, we are already on our way to our next stop: Uganik Bay’s San Juan cannery and what we call the “Village Islands,” a collection of homesteads and bear camps scattered along the bays and inlets.  Mom is about to serve breakfast when we pass Little River Rock, a full-time hotel for hundreds of sleek brown sea lions. I clamber out on the bow to have a closer look, and can hear and smell them as we pass! On one occasion, we anchored in a bay for the night, and in the morning took our skiff ashore, and landed on a beach practically in the middle of a metropolis of sea lions. They were in the middle of mating season apparently, because the males were staring and bellowing and lunging something fierce. But they paid us no nevermind, and we kept our distance, not just for safety, but to preserve our nostrils! (Continues below…)

Little River Rock is a fine place to be a sea lion! We always liked to pass by close enough to watch them and even hear them. Seeing wildlife such as seals, sea lions, porpoises, killer whales, and right whales, as well as multiple species of sea birds, was a common, daily occurrence while we traveled on the Evangel. But it was one of the things I most enjoyed about boat travel.

We  turn southeast into Uganik Bay and dock at San Juan cannery, the home of a fleet of emerald green and white seiners (the Evangel’s color scheme is white with “San Juan” green trim, but our home base is among the Halloween-colored black and orange seiners of the  Alaska Packers cannery in Larsen Bay!) That evening, we hold a prayer service and show some movies and film strips for the off-duty cannery workers in the mess hall, once their supper is over. But it’s still light outside, and so a couple of boys I met (whose folks are working in the cannery no doubt) go exploring when no one is looking. We climb up into the net loft and jump out a barn door on the second level and onto several pallets of nets stacked on the dock below. We accomplish several jumps before some adult warns us away. But it was great fun to find other kids in a cannery where there’s usually not much for me to do. I get back to the Evangel without actually getting in trouble from anyone.

By late that evening, the weather has changed for the worse. We stay a little longer than we expected, because a major gale kicks up, and no one is traveling. We all have a hard time sleeping in the drafty boat, due to the howling wind, creaking tie up lines, and the only somewhat effective old tires we use as bumpers to keep from smashing into the pilings of the dock. We wake up feeling like we slept on a flatbed truck as it drove on a road of potholes. In the morning, I try to walk around on the dock, but the wind takes my breath away, and the williwaws (sudden downdrafts which roar off the mountains) are so strong that the only way to walk is to lean into the wind and crawl along.  

Another night and the weather is calm again, the sun is bright and there seems to be no trace of the storm. I am grateful that we will spend another day in the comparative shelter around Uganik Bay visiting some local families, so that by the time we head back out to Shelikof Strait, we should have calmer seas. Before we leave, I walk down the shoreline to an old shack I saw when we arrived. As is often the rural custom, the building is unlocked but has not been vandalized.  Walking in, I see curtains made from flour sacks, shelves of “Blazo” boxes lined with oilcloth, and a large table made out of scrounged plywood and two-by-fours.  Just like our home in Larsen Bay!  Continues below…)

Two photos from my very first roll of film, in the summer of 1964. I must have thought it would work out to take a photo through one of the Evangel’s cabin windows, but it shows the cannery’s logo well enough. Dad fixes our “18-horse” Evinrude “kicker” out on the dock at San Juan, after it got damaged in a storm. He uses an open 55-gallon drum filled with water to test run the outboard motor, with gas can, tools, and WD-40 handy. Another unconventional task for an unconventional Baptist minister!

Our next stop, right down Uganik Bay, is the homestead of the Al Owen family.  We drop anchor in the bay, hop in the skiff and head to the shore. Al Owen is the local representative in the legislature, but in the summer he and his family live out in the “boonies” with a little dock and a comfortable two-story lodge on the ridge with large windows. My sister Jerilynn is friends with the elder Owen daughter, and the adults have much to talk about after a long winter. Dad and Mr. Owen are soon walking down to the little dock to check out some piece of machinery in his diminutive cannery. We once visited a little cannery such as this, where the entire operation was run by a Willys Jeep up on blocks and connected to the line with a series of wheels and belts!  The Owen operation is more advanced, but lives in a series of ragtag shacks on a slightly shaky-looking dock.  Complete practicality reigns here and almost everywhere we visit. If it works for the purpose, and keeps function and reasonable comfort, then be happy and get back to work! And as a Larsen Bay boy, I’ve never been around the yacht club crowd in my life, so this place seems just normal and comfortable. And one unspoken principle I have absorbed as a village kid is that people live this way because they choose to.

Meanwhile, the ladies are discussing all the local news over tea, which is not “my cup of tea.” So I amuse myself by walking around the Owens’ homestead, noticing their well-fenced garden and checking out the beach.  I know not to go too far, because there are undoubtedly plenty of bears around, much less friendly than Mrs. Imlochs’ Chester!  It is eventually time to leave. Mom and Dad often give the families we visit a couple of inspirational books and devotionals (and likely as not are given a few cans of salmon or a jar of local jam to enjoy) but I didn’t notice anything other than a few adults enjoying each other’s company.  Soon we are in the skiff (the Opheim-built “Rockin’ Robin”), dad pulls the cord to start the little blue Evinrude “kicker,” and we head back to the Evangel. (Continued below…) 

Two photos from my first roll of film, 1964.

Left: the Owen dock and cannery, the Evangel, and Dad in the “Rockin’ Robin” – a very typical summer scene for us. Above: Al Owen and his daughter pose for my camera with Dad, our puppy Oscar, Kelly, and (far right) my sister Jerilynn, with us for our last Evangel summer.

The next place on our route is the homestead of Nan and Daniel Boone Reed, another one of my many favorite places to visit.  Nan hails from New Jersey, and Dan is a Native Alaskan. I’m too young to be curious as to how they met, or how Nan feels about living in this remote and often difficult place. For me, they are just neighbors we get to visit a couple of times a year. They have no children, but they have one of the most interesting homesteads on Kodiak Island, plus a disarming friendliness that puts me at ease. Besides, they have goats, two donkeys, and a collection of ancient native artifacts that Daniel has found at nearby ancient village sites.  I am amazed at all the strange things Nan and Dan have in their large one-room house, hanging from the rafters or propped against the walls.

I amuse myself turning the handle of a knife sharpener with a spinning stone wheel. Dad politely refuses to loan me his side knife. Then Dan takes us outside to view his latest artifact finds, but soon the conversation turns to dull, adult topics. Once again, I enter my own amusing little kid world, while the adults talk seriously and deeply as good friends do. I take a little walk around the homestead. On the way out to their barn, I am suddenly surrounded by a group of way too inquisitive goats.  They are almost as tall as me, and stare like a child at a toy store window! This is the only place I have ever seen goats up close, and I am definitely not used to their intense gaze and pushy manner! Eventually I manage to wade past the goats, who seem to have forgotten me once they notice I’m not feeding them. I turn to take a look at the two donkeys, who gaze at me politely while I keep a respectful distance. For a kid familiar with deer and bear and any manner of sea animals, ordinary farm stock are the unusual creatures, and to me, this is like being at a zoo!  (Continued below…)

Left: My sister Jerilynn’s slide of the Reeds with my brother Kelly, and my black and white photo showing more of their house. Right: Kelly with Dan’s artifacts, and the Reed’s house from the bow of a bouncy skiff. Since it’s the only photo anyone ever took of the shore view of Nan and Dan Reed’s place, it can stay. The homesteads were such charming places with great folks!

Far too soon for my taste, we are heading back to the skiff and out to the boat after hearty good-byes. If Dad and Mom did any “missionary work” while visiting the Reeds, I didn’t notice it, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t going on. As a child, I often get the impression that Dad and Mom’s ministry consists of having a lot of friends to visit, and in a sense that’s not wrong.  I can’t think of any place around the islands where an approach of “I’m a missionary—sit down and listen!” would have been an effective method.  The style of Norman and Joyce, after years of friendship evangelism, is perfectly suited to this rural and relational environment. Years later, I find letters on file in Dad’s office from dozens of island residents, requesting letters of reference,  asking for a Bible or Christian literature, asking for prayer, or thanking my parents for some small, seemingly insignificant act that nonetheless demonstrated the Gospel. But for me as a young child, this is all just another day on the Evangel, getting to visit some cool places, see familiar faces, and have fun all summer.

As if to illustrate my life of strange adventure, as we head up Uganik Bay bay toward the more challenging waters of Shelikof Strait on our way to Port Wakefield on Raspberry Island, we are honored by the presence of a couple of whales. They find the plodding monotony of the Evangel’s engine momentarily interesting. One whale comes up right beside us, spouting with a loud whoosh, which from a few feet away sounds more like an enormous burp. Now if you ate sea critters and then held your breath for a half an hour, what would it smell like once you exhaled? It’s almost strong enough to overturn my never-been-seasick stomach! It takes a good half hour before the stench of whale halitosis clears from the cabin, in spite of the fact that Mom opens a couple of windows, so I go back and sit on the stern for awhile, where I can bask in the comparative fragrance of engine exhaust fumes! I can hardly complain though – this is island life at its finest, and I’m glad every time they drop by!

A friendly whale puts on a show for Dad’s 16mm movie camera in this color sequence shown here in black and white. Since the boat and the whale were moving, the camera had trouble getting the right exposure, and it was impossible to match color between frames. Left: The center frame above is shown in close to the original color. It’s also the sharpest frame of the sequence, and shows the Right whale’s fluke clearly. Taking photos and videos is so much easier now, but it was so easy to be in the right place at the right time while we traveled on the Evangel, surrounded by abundant North Pacific wildlife!

In Praise of the Small Places: a Photo Gallery

So many places we visited were small, out of the way homesteads, gill net sites, bear camps, or mothballed canneries. That didn’t seem to matter to my parents, who would drop in to see their friends regularly on their way to some “bigger” place to serve, and all the while they were doing the work they’d been called to do. It was a unique ministry, not just in what they were doing (running a traveling church) but in how they went about it. And we as their children were front and center participants in all their adventures.

Some “small places” –Top photo: Harvester Island, where we started this article, with the Evangel at anchor. Middle: the boat is tied up at a homestead on Sitkalidak Island. Bottom photo: probably Mush Bay, taken from our skiff. Our trusty 18 horse Evinrude “kicker” is visible in the lower left corner. (years unknown)

The next article is

“The Evangel Visits Port Wakefield, Afognak, and Port Williams

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Information from this site can be used for non-commercial purposes with attribution. The text of all the articles on Tanignak.com and TruthTexts.com are copyright 2020 by Timothy L. Smith (see the “About Tanignak.com” link). The photographs are copyright the estate of Rev. Norman L. Smith, or are copyright Timothy L. Smith unless otherwise attributed. Many thanks to the people who have shared their stories and those who have allowed me to use their photographs on Tanignak.com!

San Juan cannery, Uganik Bay, in 1966. Dad took this photo out of a plexiglas window on a Kodiak Airways Grumman Goose, and I restored it as best I could.