Life in Alaska

A "Relaxing" Week in Chitina

Written by
Linda Myers-Steele

Main Photo: Watercolor of the Copper River by Kevin Wesser

The year was 1976, the bicentennial of the United States of America. I had a goal to knit my two children, Jenny, age 10, and Sam, age 8, sweaters with patriotic red, white, and blue yarn. All I needed was the time to sit and do it.

While at work one day, my friend Barb announced she was looking for families to help operate her family fish wheel the coming summer. It would entail committing to stay a week in the remote community of Chitina. That sounded interesting, I knew my husband liked to fish, and I thought to myself, I’ll have some peaceful and relaxing time to catch up on my knitting. 

Where The Hell Is Chitina? was a popular bumper sticker slogan during the late 70s. It was an apt question considering Chitina is a long way from populated areas. In those days, after leaving the serenity of driving on smooth asphalt, the small community was over an hour farther on a gravel road—a long gravel road. Chitina serves a part in Alaskan history associated with the copper mining in the Copper River Valley and Kennecott Copper Mine near McCarthy dating back to the early 1900s. The Chitina of 1976 was a sleepy little spot in the road. I did hear of one person who lived there year round, but most used the area as their favorite summer fishing spot. Almost 40 years later, the population blossomed to 126 people per the 2010 census. 

Manning a fish wheel seemed like a challenge our family could handle. It is a fairly large device, about the size of a refrigerator, although they do vary in size. They are designed to stay in place along a rocky edge in a river where salmon are likely to swim. The river current makes the scoop rotate continuously and drops the fish into a basket which is below water level keeping the fish fresh. 

Manning a fish wheel seemed like a challenge our family could handle.

My friend’s husband, Jim, worked for the Bureau of Land Management. In the course of his work, he knew the Copper River like the back of his hand. His job was to study the river and the routes of the red salmon, their habits, the current of the river, and the estimated yearly fish escapement. Copper River Reds are prized as the best tasting salmon of all four species. In recent years, there has been much publicity about eating the first of this salmon of the season. Jim had watched and studied fish wheels for years. The most attractive ones were made by the Alaska Native people, usually from wood tied together with leather straps from animals they had hunted. Even the baskets were made from the leather. If metal was used, it was a more “modern” fish wheel. Over time, caging material became commonly used.  

Jim was not Alaska Native. He made his fish wheel out of whatever he had in his Anchorage garage stock pile. His fish wheel consisted of Styrofoam sheets, pipes, airplane parts, chicken wire, and rabbit-cage wire, plain old wire used like a twist-tie, nails, screws, bolts, and even some wood. Once constructed it was placed on a trailer to be hauled to Chitina. This was not an easy task since it entailed a 246-mile drive from Anchorage. Upon arriving in Chitina, the fish wheel had to be unloaded, hand-carried down to the shore, and then placed into the river. To keep it from escaping while it was being placed into the river, holding ropes were attached to prevent it from floating away. This is a job for three to four strong men wearing hip boots and heavy gloves. It stands to reason that placing the fish wheel for one week was not practical. Thus, my friend was recruiting families they could depend on to stay for at least a week to tend the fish wheel around the clock. The volunteers had to promise not to leave the fish wheel until the next scheduled family arrived to take over the watch. Jim and Barb’s plan was to keep the fish wheel in the water for six weeks.

The bonus for spending a week in Chitina and working 24/7 was we could keep all the fish we caught. At that time, Alaska Native people could keep 400 fish per season, and other Alaska residents could keep 200 fish per season. Two hundred salmon is a tremendous amount of fish; more than enough to feed a family of four for several years. The whole scenario seemed like quite the adventure, so we agreed to be a part of Jim and Barb’s schedule to operate the fish wheel for one week.

It just so happened that our daughter, Jenny, was going to spend that same week at Girl Scout Camp. We dropped her off on the way, and Art, Sam, and I headed to Chitina. We had a simple camper on a 1965 pickup truck. It was adequate, but certainly lacked some of the modern conveniences of home. There was no shower or toilet. We made due with a portable potty that needed to be tended to after each use. A two-burner stove and small refrigerator finished off the amenities. A table made into a bed and there was sleeping quarters above the truck cab. A lounging chair inside would have been nice, but there was no room for such luxuries. Still, I knew I would have plenty of time to knit those sweaters sitting in a camping chair.

On the outer edge of Chitina on our way into town, we noticed a garbage dump off the side of the road. It was fairly typical in rural communities at that time to find an easily accessible sloping hill and use it for a dump. There was little concern about contaminating the land in those days… people did whatever was convenient. We noticed that there was a freezer in the dump with bullet holes in it. 

We relieved the Van family who were anxious to get back to civilization after their week on the river. The Vans introduced us to the fish wheel, told us how it worked, and about their catch. They also mentioned that the beautiful wooden fish wheel near ours belonged to a Native family and we’d see them coming and going to check their catch.  

Fish wheels on the Copper River outside of Chitina. Photo by Doug Noon / Wikimedia Creative Commons

In order to empty the fish wheel basket, someone had to traverse a narrow wooden plank, bend over while trying not to fall into the fast moving river, haul up the heavy fish, and carry them back to shore, once again traversing the narrow wooden plank. This was not a task for a weak-hearted soul. It had to be done. If the basket became overloaded with floundering fish, their weight would ruin the entire fish wheel. Resting was not an option either. The fish were in charge of this operation and they were running like crazy!

When we met the Native family next door they were not happy. Their beautiful fish wheel was not catching. Their week had been dismal, and they depended on that fish to feed their family all winter. Their catch was out of our control. Each of the fish wheels had been placed and there was no way to move them without a lot of disruption to others.  

Our 8-year-old son was in heaven. There was water, mud, rocks, fish, boulders to climb, and no bathtub or shower. He was in his element! His dad was on-duty day and night, traveling across the wooden plank bringing fish to be cleaned and wrapped, and trying to catch a little sleep now and then. My job was to cook meals and process fish, which consisted of cleaning, wrapping them in plastic, and making room in the ice chest. I was actually able to get some knitting done as well.

Within two days the ice chest we brought was full. I believe we squeezed 20 salmon in a chest designed for eight (I’m not sure what we were thinking bringing the one ice chest). We were looking for any alternative sources of freezer space. The little refrigerator in the camper was cleared to make room for more fish. We had fish in every container we could find and they just kept coming. Where were we going to put 200 fish? We explained our dilemma to our new friends and they put their thinking caps on. At this point, we offered to share fish with them as they still were not catching.

Our new friends told us that they could let us into the Chitina Emporium (general store). There was a freezer in the old store, but the power had gone out last winter and they hadn’t been in the store since. If we were willing to clean out the freezer, they would plug it in to the electricity and we could store our fish there until we left town. Of course, we were willing to do that. We weren’t afraid of cleaning or hard work... 

Armed with a jug of Pine-Sol as a cleaning agent, we walked into the decades-old general store. It was a step back in time. There were very high shelves behind the counters on each side of the store, just as I had seen in historic photos of merchandise stores of the early 1900s. In the unheated back room was a black faded door labeled “Coffin Room.” Inside the Coffin Room were long shelves, enough to hold perhaps six or eight coffins. This was a necessary storage area for those dearly beloved who passed away during the winter months when the frozen ground could not yet be dug.  

Ah yes, and there was the chest freezer. Upon opening the lid, we discovered it was half full of maggots! Ugh! Like I said, we’re not afraid of hard work, but bad smells are something else! With handkerchiefs over our faces and shovels we cleaned the freezer of maggots by putting them into a plastic-lined trash barrel, and then we wiped the whole freezer numerous times with more Pine-Sol. When that task was completed, the freezer was plugged back into the electric outlet to cool. Each fish was wrapped several times with plastic and frozen as quickly as possible.  

By the end of the fourth day, we had our 200 fish. That seems like a good problem to have, but alas, it caused greater issues. We could not leave to take our fish back to Anchorage until our relief family arrived at the end of the week. Not only did we have several days before departure, we had 200 frozen fish to haul home without a container to accomplish that mission.

Our friends were almost relatives by now. The wife loved my husband because he was so big and strong. Was I jealous? I guess a little, but I really didn’t figure he’d give me up for this cutie pie. In reality, we both smelled pretty much like old fish. We removed the state fishing permit tag from our fish wheel and allowed them to place their tag on our wheel since ours was catching and theirs was not.  

The next problem to solve was transporting the fish home. We remembered that old freezer we saw in the dump. If we could figure out a way to get that pulled out, we could clean it up, put it on the trailer, and use it for transporting the frozen fish home. First, however, we had to find a winch. Again, our friends helped us out. They were more than willing to lend a hand. Inch by inch the freezer was drawn up the hill through the trash heap. Although the freezer had bullet holes in it, there was enough insulation in the walls to keep the fish frozen solid for the 246-mile trip back home. Of course, out came the Pine-Sol and face handkerchiefs again for the cleanup job. Oh my gosh, I had never been so dirty in my life!

We breathed a sigh of relief when the work was done and we still had a few days left to enjoy our visit to Chitina. I was ready for a little rest and relaxation. “How about going out to dinner?” I asked Art. “I thought I saw a little restaurant on the way coming in last weekend.” Yes, it was a tiny yellow house and had red tin Coca Cola signs all over the front. They must have sandwiches or something there.  

We cleaned up as best we could and went to the restaurant. Upon walking in the front door we noticed there was only one table, but that was not too surprising as Chitina is a very small community and only comes to life once per year, during fishing season. Sam, Art, and I sat at the table waiting for our server to appear. In a few minutes someone appeared and asked us what we were doing at their table. “We just stopped in for a bite to eat,” I replied. Realization set in all at once on every face in the room. This was not a restaurant, but a private home with a large collection of Coca Cola signs! There we were making ourselves comfortable in someone’s house. Of course, we apologized profusely and repeatedly. Our hosts broke out in laughter and we all enjoyed the silly mistake.

The next day or so was spent relaxing—no more walking the plank day and night. I kept knitting and did finish the two sweaters I’d planned to make before we headed home. We’d had a successful trip to Chitina, made some new friends, had plenty of fish for the home freezer, and a big story to tell. 

No items found.

A "Relaxing" Week in Chitina

Life in Alaska

Author

Linda Myers-Steele

Moving from California to Alaska in 1963, when she was 18 years old, changed the direction of Linda’s life for the better. Believing that knowledge is power and willing to step out or step-up, she has been able to create a life story with many happy trails along the way.  Now that she is retired from the Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District, her travel business, and her framing business, Linda enjoys traveling, gardening, and volunteer work. She lives in Wasilla, Alaska, with her husband, Jim, in what they like to call, “Our little corner of the world.”

Main Photo: Watercolor of the Copper River by Kevin Wesser

The year was 1976, the bicentennial of the United States of America. I had a goal to knit my two children, Jenny, age 10, and Sam, age 8, sweaters with patriotic red, white, and blue yarn. All I needed was the time to sit and do it.

While at work one day, my friend Barb announced she was looking for families to help operate her family fish wheel the coming summer. It would entail committing to stay a week in the remote community of Chitina. That sounded interesting, I knew my husband liked to fish, and I thought to myself, I’ll have some peaceful and relaxing time to catch up on my knitting. 

Where The Hell Is Chitina? was a popular bumper sticker slogan during the late 70s. It was an apt question considering Chitina is a long way from populated areas. In those days, after leaving the serenity of driving on smooth asphalt, the small community was over an hour farther on a gravel road—a long gravel road. Chitina serves a part in Alaskan history associated with the copper mining in the Copper River Valley and Kennecott Copper Mine near McCarthy dating back to the early 1900s. The Chitina of 1976 was a sleepy little spot in the road. I did hear of one person who lived there year round, but most used the area as their favorite summer fishing spot. Almost 40 years later, the population blossomed to 126 people per the 2010 census. 

Manning a fish wheel seemed like a challenge our family could handle. It is a fairly large device, about the size of a refrigerator, although they do vary in size. They are designed to stay in place along a rocky edge in a river where salmon are likely to swim. The river current makes the scoop rotate continuously and drops the fish into a basket which is below water level keeping the fish fresh. 

Manning a fish wheel seemed like a challenge our family could handle.

My friend’s husband, Jim, worked for the Bureau of Land Management. In the course of his work, he knew the Copper River like the back of his hand. His job was to study the river and the routes of the red salmon, their habits, the current of the river, and the estimated yearly fish escapement. Copper River Reds are prized as the best tasting salmon of all four species. In recent years, there has been much publicity about eating the first of this salmon of the season. Jim had watched and studied fish wheels for years. The most attractive ones were made by the Alaska Native people, usually from wood tied together with leather straps from animals they had hunted. Even the baskets were made from the leather. If metal was used, it was a more “modern” fish wheel. Over time, caging material became commonly used.  

Jim was not Alaska Native. He made his fish wheel out of whatever he had in his Anchorage garage stock pile. His fish wheel consisted of Styrofoam sheets, pipes, airplane parts, chicken wire, and rabbit-cage wire, plain old wire used like a twist-tie, nails, screws, bolts, and even some wood. Once constructed it was placed on a trailer to be hauled to Chitina. This was not an easy task since it entailed a 246-mile drive from Anchorage. Upon arriving in Chitina, the fish wheel had to be unloaded, hand-carried down to the shore, and then placed into the river. To keep it from escaping while it was being placed into the river, holding ropes were attached to prevent it from floating away. This is a job for three to four strong men wearing hip boots and heavy gloves. It stands to reason that placing the fish wheel for one week was not practical. Thus, my friend was recruiting families they could depend on to stay for at least a week to tend the fish wheel around the clock. The volunteers had to promise not to leave the fish wheel until the next scheduled family arrived to take over the watch. Jim and Barb’s plan was to keep the fish wheel in the water for six weeks.

The bonus for spending a week in Chitina and working 24/7 was we could keep all the fish we caught. At that time, Alaska Native people could keep 400 fish per season, and other Alaska residents could keep 200 fish per season. Two hundred salmon is a tremendous amount of fish; more than enough to feed a family of four for several years. The whole scenario seemed like quite the adventure, so we agreed to be a part of Jim and Barb’s schedule to operate the fish wheel for one week.

It just so happened that our daughter, Jenny, was going to spend that same week at Girl Scout Camp. We dropped her off on the way, and Art, Sam, and I headed to Chitina. We had a simple camper on a 1965 pickup truck. It was adequate, but certainly lacked some of the modern conveniences of home. There was no shower or toilet. We made due with a portable potty that needed to be tended to after each use. A two-burner stove and small refrigerator finished off the amenities. A table made into a bed and there was sleeping quarters above the truck cab. A lounging chair inside would have been nice, but there was no room for such luxuries. Still, I knew I would have plenty of time to knit those sweaters sitting in a camping chair.

On the outer edge of Chitina on our way into town, we noticed a garbage dump off the side of the road. It was fairly typical in rural communities at that time to find an easily accessible sloping hill and use it for a dump. There was little concern about contaminating the land in those days… people did whatever was convenient. We noticed that there was a freezer in the dump with bullet holes in it. 

We relieved the Van family who were anxious to get back to civilization after their week on the river. The Vans introduced us to the fish wheel, told us how it worked, and about their catch. They also mentioned that the beautiful wooden fish wheel near ours belonged to a Native family and we’d see them coming and going to check their catch.  

Fish wheels on the Copper River outside of Chitina. Photo by Doug Noon / Wikimedia Creative Commons

In order to empty the fish wheel basket, someone had to traverse a narrow wooden plank, bend over while trying not to fall into the fast moving river, haul up the heavy fish, and carry them back to shore, once again traversing the narrow wooden plank. This was not a task for a weak-hearted soul. It had to be done. If the basket became overloaded with floundering fish, their weight would ruin the entire fish wheel. Resting was not an option either. The fish were in charge of this operation and they were running like crazy!

When we met the Native family next door they were not happy. Their beautiful fish wheel was not catching. Their week had been dismal, and they depended on that fish to feed their family all winter. Their catch was out of our control. Each of the fish wheels had been placed and there was no way to move them without a lot of disruption to others.  

Our 8-year-old son was in heaven. There was water, mud, rocks, fish, boulders to climb, and no bathtub or shower. He was in his element! His dad was on-duty day and night, traveling across the wooden plank bringing fish to be cleaned and wrapped, and trying to catch a little sleep now and then. My job was to cook meals and process fish, which consisted of cleaning, wrapping them in plastic, and making room in the ice chest. I was actually able to get some knitting done as well.

Within two days the ice chest we brought was full. I believe we squeezed 20 salmon in a chest designed for eight (I’m not sure what we were thinking bringing the one ice chest). We were looking for any alternative sources of freezer space. The little refrigerator in the camper was cleared to make room for more fish. We had fish in every container we could find and they just kept coming. Where were we going to put 200 fish? We explained our dilemma to our new friends and they put their thinking caps on. At this point, we offered to share fish with them as they still were not catching.

Our new friends told us that they could let us into the Chitina Emporium (general store). There was a freezer in the old store, but the power had gone out last winter and they hadn’t been in the store since. If we were willing to clean out the freezer, they would plug it in to the electricity and we could store our fish there until we left town. Of course, we were willing to do that. We weren’t afraid of cleaning or hard work... 

Armed with a jug of Pine-Sol as a cleaning agent, we walked into the decades-old general store. It was a step back in time. There were very high shelves behind the counters on each side of the store, just as I had seen in historic photos of merchandise stores of the early 1900s. In the unheated back room was a black faded door labeled “Coffin Room.” Inside the Coffin Room were long shelves, enough to hold perhaps six or eight coffins. This was a necessary storage area for those dearly beloved who passed away during the winter months when the frozen ground could not yet be dug.  

Ah yes, and there was the chest freezer. Upon opening the lid, we discovered it was half full of maggots! Ugh! Like I said, we’re not afraid of hard work, but bad smells are something else! With handkerchiefs over our faces and shovels we cleaned the freezer of maggots by putting them into a plastic-lined trash barrel, and then we wiped the whole freezer numerous times with more Pine-Sol. When that task was completed, the freezer was plugged back into the electric outlet to cool. Each fish was wrapped several times with plastic and frozen as quickly as possible.  

By the end of the fourth day, we had our 200 fish. That seems like a good problem to have, but alas, it caused greater issues. We could not leave to take our fish back to Anchorage until our relief family arrived at the end of the week. Not only did we have several days before departure, we had 200 frozen fish to haul home without a container to accomplish that mission.

Our friends were almost relatives by now. The wife loved my husband because he was so big and strong. Was I jealous? I guess a little, but I really didn’t figure he’d give me up for this cutie pie. In reality, we both smelled pretty much like old fish. We removed the state fishing permit tag from our fish wheel and allowed them to place their tag on our wheel since ours was catching and theirs was not.  

The next problem to solve was transporting the fish home. We remembered that old freezer we saw in the dump. If we could figure out a way to get that pulled out, we could clean it up, put it on the trailer, and use it for transporting the frozen fish home. First, however, we had to find a winch. Again, our friends helped us out. They were more than willing to lend a hand. Inch by inch the freezer was drawn up the hill through the trash heap. Although the freezer had bullet holes in it, there was enough insulation in the walls to keep the fish frozen solid for the 246-mile trip back home. Of course, out came the Pine-Sol and face handkerchiefs again for the cleanup job. Oh my gosh, I had never been so dirty in my life!

We breathed a sigh of relief when the work was done and we still had a few days left to enjoy our visit to Chitina. I was ready for a little rest and relaxation. “How about going out to dinner?” I asked Art. “I thought I saw a little restaurant on the way coming in last weekend.” Yes, it was a tiny yellow house and had red tin Coca Cola signs all over the front. They must have sandwiches or something there.  

We cleaned up as best we could and went to the restaurant. Upon walking in the front door we noticed there was only one table, but that was not too surprising as Chitina is a very small community and only comes to life once per year, during fishing season. Sam, Art, and I sat at the table waiting for our server to appear. In a few minutes someone appeared and asked us what we were doing at their table. “We just stopped in for a bite to eat,” I replied. Realization set in all at once on every face in the room. This was not a restaurant, but a private home with a large collection of Coca Cola signs! There we were making ourselves comfortable in someone’s house. Of course, we apologized profusely and repeatedly. Our hosts broke out in laughter and we all enjoyed the silly mistake.

The next day or so was spent relaxing—no more walking the plank day and night. I kept knitting and did finish the two sweaters I’d planned to make before we headed home. We’d had a successful trip to Chitina, made some new friends, had plenty of fish for the home freezer, and a big story to tell. 

No items found.

Author

Linda Myers-Steele

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