Monday, March 16, 2020

The Fate of the Marten at Spruce Cape

The Marten. Photo: Michelle Fisk
The Marten was an 82-foot wooden power scow rigged for crab, a twin shafted boat with a white wheelhouse on the stern of a white hull. A Kodiak fisherman named Jim Fisk had owned and skippered her for years, but in February 1975 he had Jeff Alexander, 21, running the boat with three men on deck- Jim Rich, Mike Rowe, and Deere Alioski. 
After working near Sand Point for several weeks, the boat tied up in Kodiak around four in the afternoon of Thursday, February 20. Around 9:30 p.m. they untied and headed to the Wakefield processing plant in Port Lions, thirty-five miles away.
The Marten's planned route to Port Lions,
according to the Coast Guard.
Courtesy Don Bodron
A 40-knot northeast wind loaded with snow met them as they came out of the channel, passed Jackson’s trailer court and the red Number 10 channel buoy, and aimed for buoy Number 8, a flashing red light moored just east of Channel Rock, 500 yards from the cliffs on Spruce Cape Road. The snow obscured the light however, and the Marten’s radar was suddenly useless too, as snowflakes smothered the scanner. Alexander backed off on the throttle and idled ahead, trying to get his bearings.  
The smell of smoke suddenly diverted the crew’s attention but was determined to be engine exhaust blown back into the wheelhouse by the wind.
Just as Alexander returned to looking for the Number 8 light, the hull bumped hard against something solid and a mass of white water came out of the darkness, a wave breaking over shallow rock. The light they intended to pass on their port side was now somewhere off to starboard, and the rock that should have been even farther away to port was now under the boat. Twenty-foot seas repeatedly dropped the boat on the rock and the hull planks began splintering.
At 10:00 p.m., Alexander called the Coast Guard on the single sideband radio, but the Coast Guard did not hear him. The transmission was picked up instead by a local pilot named Herb Downing from his house near Mill Bay. Downing phoned the Coast Guard and by 10:30 a helicopter was in the air. The 84-foot steel vessel Theresa Marie also heard the call and left the harbor to come to the Marten’s aid
Alexander told Downing they were “off Spruce Cape near the red buoy… in the channel,” meaning the red buoy off Channel Rock. The Coast Guard and the Theresa Marie misunderstood this however, and headed for the Number 4 red swing buoy, a mile and half beyond Channel Rock, off the tip of Spruce Cape. Then Marten’s engine room flooded and the lights and radio died. The boat was invisible in the snowy darkness, and the helo flew past it.
Coast Guard search area and actual wreck site.
Courtesy Don Bodron
 In 1975 survival suits were common but not required, and there were none on the Marten. The crew donned their life jackets. They deployed the life raft off the wheelhouse roof, but it swamped in the breaking surf, and the weight of the water in it prevented the men from pulling it back to the boat against the wind and waves.  
The seas banged the boat across the rock and then rolled it upside down off the rock’s  shoreward side. The fishermen clung to the propeller shafts for forty-five minutes and then, one by one, were swept away.
Alexander and one crewman swam 500 yards to shore, but the crewman died in the surf. Alexander climbed the rock face almost to the top before seizing up. He watched the lights of the Coast Guard helicopter and the Theresa Marie searching out near the swing buoy, until the helo ran out of fuel and went back to the Air Station.
The capsized hull of the Marten at Spruce Cape
February 21, 1975. Photo: Don Bodron
At 2:30 a.m. a policeman found Alexander on the cliff, hypothermic but conscious. The bodies of the three crewmen were recovered along the shoreline the next day.
Alexander told the Coast Guard investigator they were headed for Port Lions to deliver 500 king crabs which they’d picked up from storage on the way into town that day, presumably from crab pots with the tunnels tied shut. He cited the urgency of getting another of Fisk’s boats ready for fishing as the reason for leaving that night, rather than waiting for the storm to subside.
Closeup of the Marten at Spruce Cape, February 21, 1975.
Photo: Don Bodron
Alexander did not mention that King Crab season had been closed for weeks by then, or that fear of being caught with illegal crab in Kodiak might have influenced the decision to make for Port Lions, where enforcement was less likely.
Jim Fisk was in Anchorage that night, and presumably reachable by phone, but whether he talked with Alexander before the boat left for Port Lions, or how much he knew about the boat’s activities before it arrived in Kodiak, is unknown. He died in a car wreck in 1995.
Kodiak Daily Mirror, February 21, 1975.
              KMM archives. 
Jeff Alexander hung around Kodiak for a year or so and then disappeared. In 2006 a Seattle reporter talked to him while doing a story on homeless people. He was on methadone, living in his truck and panhandling in Ballard. He’d done time in prison for drugs and assault and theft, but he showed the reporter a garden he’d built near the bridge. The orderly rows of kale and flowers seemed a minor miracle in an otherwise desperate story of trauma and addiction.
Later that summer, Alexander was jailed for failing to appear on a couple of traffic citations and a theft charge. In September 2006 he fell out of a bunk in the King County jail, broke his neck, and died.
It is impossible and unfair to conjecture on what Alexander’s life might have been had the Marten stayed tied to the dock that February night, or if the other men on the boat had survived. Alexander’s family and friends remembered him as intelligent and kind, a talented young man who could have done anything with his life. But knowing what we know now about the costs of trauma, it is not hard to imagine a trail of cause and effect from that night on Spruce Cape to heroin and panhandling at the foot of the Ballard Bridge. And for sure, not every sea story ends when the wind calms and the sun comes up the next day.


Kodiak Daily Mirror, February 21, 1975.
“Report on the Marten.” Don Bodron, former U.S. Coast Guard Investigator
“Blossoms of Hope Wilt Away.” Danny Westneath, Seattle Times, September 24, 2006

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

The Once and Mighty Kodiak Shrimp Fishery

Almost forgotten now, thirty four years after it ended, a mighty shrimp fishery once thrived around Kodiak and down the Alaska Peninsula. From a modest harvest of 31,000 pounds in 1958, to a peak of 122 million pounds in 1973, to the last deliveries in 1986, the fishery followed the classic bell curve of a boom and bust resource. But unlike some other once healthy fisheries, most observers believe the shrimp fishery died, not from overfishing, but from a natural cycle of warmer water and increasing numbers of cod and other shrimp loving fish.
Though dock prices were never spectacular- $.04 per pound in 1958 to $.35 per pound in 1986- the fishery was worth $11.5 million at its peak in 1979. About fifty boats fished shrimp that year for an average of $230,000 per boat, and crew shares between $18,000 and $25,000, before expenses. But of course, as in every fishery, the wealth was distributed unevenly, so some boats did spectacularly better than that, and their crews were the envy of the waterfront.
The fishery came to be after a NOAA research vessel, the John N. Cobb, did some test trawling in the Gulf of Alaska, beginning in 1950. The boat found large concentrations of northern pink shrimp, Pandalus borealis, around Kodiak Island and the Shumagin Islands. The findings got the attention of both fishermen and processors.
Shrimp processing workers, 1970s.
Photo: Dave Jackson
But while there were plenty of shrimp to be caught, the processing end of things was more problematic. Northern pink shrimp are small- 50 to 100 per pound- and getting the shells off the cooked shrimp by hand was slow and labor intensive. In 1958 however, a Kodiak processor brought in three peeling machines from the Gulf of Mexico shrimp fishery. With some tinkering they worked, and other processors rapidly set up their own peelers in Kodiak, Seward and Seldovia. By the late 1950s, the fishery was on.
A bottom trawl in action
Shrimp congregate on muddy bottom in depths of around 50 fathoms, or 300 feet. To catch them, fishermen tow or “drag,” a large, open mouthed, trawl net across the bottom. Once the net is hauled back the shrimp are washed with hoses to remove mud and small fish, and then carefully layered with ice in the hold. A well iced load can be safely held for three or four days, but a poorly iced load produces methane gas as the shrimp decompose, which has killed a few unlucky fishermen over the years.
A shrimp tow on deck.
Photo: Dave Jackson
Shrimp being washed on deck.
Photo: Dave Jackson
In the late 1970s it was not uncommon for a boat to haul in 20,000 lbs. in a single hour-long tow, and to leave the dock in Kodiak and be back with a 200,000 lb. load in 24 hours. At first the fishery was unregulated, but by the early 70s there were quotas and four seasons a year, which spread the effort and made processing and marketing the shrimp easier.
One of the first boats to go after Alaskan shrimp was the Mylark, which skipper Chet Peterson brought up from Westport, Washington. He was followed by many others, including the Burch brothers, Al and Oral, who went shrimping in 1959 with the Marigold. They delivered shrimp caught on the east side of Kodiak to the Halibut Producers Coop plant in Seward.
The Dawn
Photo: Dave Jackson
The Burch brothers fished the Marigold for a few years and then bought the Celtic, which ended up a mile inland in Seward after the 1964 tsunami. The brothers then bought the Endeavor, and because the Seward processing plant had been destroyed by the tsunami, found a market at Ocean Beauty in Kodiak, and relocated there in 1964. They went on to own and operate the draggers Dawn and Dusk until the mid-2000s.
While these facts of the Kodiak shrimp fishery are fascinating, other shrimping stories have their own historical charm.
In the late 1960s Frank and Eben Parker arrived in Kodiak to go shrimping after making a name for themselves whaling off the Oregon coast in 1961. (See “Whaling on the Tom and Al,” Following a successful shrimp trip in the early 70s, the men headed to an uptown Kodiak establishment for some relaxation.  They found however, that neither had enough money to pay the barman, so one of them went back to the harbor to retrieve his wallet. Exactly which brother went is now lost to history.
Arriving on the boat, either Eben or Frank found a miscreant aboard, stealing the crew’s personal belongings. The fisherman overpowered the robber, tied him by the ankles, hoisted him up with the single hook, and then lowered him overboard, upside down, so the man’s head was an inch above the water. He told the thief the tide was rising, but he’d be back as soon as he could with a policeman.
The thief, misunderstanding the nature of floating boats on rising tides, hollered and swore and begged a gathering crowd to be rescued from certain drowning, until lawmen and both Parker brothers arrived and brought him back aboard, with nothing wet but his hair.

Sources: ADF&G biologist Dave Jackson; “Back to the Sea, The Autobiography of a Marine Biologist,” 2008, by Dayton Alverson; and recollections of fisherman Al Burch.

Sea Otter Skins and the China Trade

Alexandr Andreyevich Baranov,
painting by Mikhail T. Tikhanov, 1818
 In the summer of 1792, Alexander Baranov, the 45 year old manager of the Russia’s Kodiak colony, chanced upon the British ship Phoenix in Prince William Sound, commanded by Hugh Moore, and his first mate, Joseph O’Cain, an Irish Bostonian. The three men hit it off immediately, using German to communicate and Boston rum to lubricate their new friendship.

From Moore and O’Cain, Baranov learned that American and British ships were carrying sea otter skins from southeast Alaska directly to China, where they were traded for luxury goods which were carried back to Boston and London at great profit. Baranov also learned that Southeast Alaska was far richer in sea otters than the Aleutian and Kodiak grounds, depleted by fifty years of relentless exploitation.

Baranov had been struggling to keep the Russian colony supplied with food, clothing, and hardware, which had to come by land across Russia, and then by ship from Siberia. The sea otter skins which paid for the supplies had to go back the same way to Irkutsk, and then to China where they were sold to keep rich people warm in the winter.

Sea Otter 1778, by John Webber,
ship's artist on Captain cook's third voyage of discovery.
But communication between Alaska and Russia was tenuous, and the colony often went several years without a supply ship. Baranov realized that if he had ships of his own he could eliminate the colony’s dependence on the Siberian route. He persuaded a British shipwright and adventurer, James Shields, to build the Phoenix in Resurrection Bay. It was the first ship built in Russian Alaska.

Baranov also decided to build a fort in Sitka to have access to the sea otters in Southeast. The Tlingit natives were not friendly, but the Russians prevailed, and soon the new station was providing the lion’s share of the annual harvest.

The Phoenix never sailed to China, but it made the trip between Okhotsk and Kodiak until it was lost off Kodiak in May 1799. All 90 people on board died, including James Shields and the Archimandrite of Kodiak. The loss of the ship and the supplies it was bringing to Alaska was devastating.

The following spring Joseph O’Cain was in Spanish California as first mate on the Enterprise, trying to trade foodstuffs for sea otter skins. California produced more food than it could consume however, and trade was going badly. O’Cain remembered his conversations with Baranov eight years before about the Alaskan supply problem, and told the captain of the Enterprise about this potential opportunity.  As it turned out, no Russian ship had arrived in Kodiak in several years, and the colony was desperate when the Enterprise arrived. Trading was brisk and O’Cain headed for Canton loaded with sea otter skins. He vowed to be back for more as soon as he could.

But when O’Cain returned in October 1803, as captain of the O’Cain, a 280 ton ship with eighteen cannons, and loaded with supplies and rifles, Baranov had no sea otter skins to trade.  A year earlier Sitka had been overrun by the Tlingits and Russia’s access to the Southeast sea otter grounds was gone.

The two men pondered the problem until O’Cain had an idea- if Baranov supplied the native hunters and kayaks, O’Cain would sail to Spanish California, hunt through the mild winter there, and split the harvest with the Russians, fifty, fifty.  Baranov jumped at the plan, with the condition that the ship’s cargo be held in Kodiak as security.

In three months, the O’Cain’s hunters killed 2,000 sea otters while the Spanish authorities watched, cowed by the ship’s cannons. Baranov traded his share of the harvest for the O’Cain’s food, supplies, and firearms, which he used to rout the Tlingits in Sitka.

Whampoa in China 1835 by William John Huggins
Peabody Essex Museum
O’Cain sailed for Whampoa, just downriver from Canton, China, where he traded  $100,000 in sea otter skins for tea and silk, which he sold in Boston to great advantage. He and his partners in Boston reckoned that a few more such voyages would set them up for life. In 1806 O’Cain sailed out of Boston in command of a brand new ship, the 340 ton Eclipse, bound for California and his old friend in Alaska, Alexander Baranov.

O’Cain loaded furs in Kodiak, sold them in Canton and then sailed for Okhotsk to take on supplies for Kodiak. In October 1809 however, the Eclipse was wrecked south of the Alaska Peninsula on its way to Kodiak. 

Baranov sent a rescue mission but the relief ship too foundered in a northwest storm on the west side of Kodiak. Some of the men stranded on Sanak made it safely to Unalaska, but O’Cain drowned in the surf off Unimak Island. (Read our January 2015 blog post about that here:

Baranov and O’Cain’s grand design, brilliant as it was, to use Yankee ships to carry Russian America’s trade, worked only as long as there were sea otters to kill. But like many resource extraction schemes, the drive for profit overwhelmed the resource, and the economic viability of Russian Alaska evaporated. When Russia decided to sell, the Boston sea captains who had come to know Alaska well were singularly poised to advise William Seward on the fire sale opportunity of future harvests of timber and fish, and gold.

Monday, March 9, 2020

Captain Cook in Alaska, 1778

In April 1778, the two ships of Captain James Cook’s 3rd voyage of discovery, Resolution and Discovery, left Nootka Sound, on Vancouver Island, and sailed north in search of the Northwest Passage, the fabled and perhaps imaginary sea route between Europe and the Orient. Over the next few weeks they would explore Prince William Sound and Cook Inlet, sail past Kodiak Island on their way to the Bering Sea, and reject walrus meat as “disgustful.” While the Russians had been in Alaska for thirty years, Cook and his sailors were the first Englishmen to visit this part of the North Pacific.

The impetus for the voyage had been a dinner in London in January 1776, attended by Cook and hosted by the First Lord of the Admiralty, John Mantagu, fourth Earl of Sandwich. Sandwich mentioned that the British government was launching a new expedition to find the Northwest Passage, which, despite centuries of speculation, numerous expeditions, and a £20,000 prize offered by the British Parliament for its discovery, remained unfound. Cook, back from a three-year voyage only since the previous July, and presumed to now be in glorious retirement with two young sons and a pregnant wife, volunteered to lead the new venture.

In July 1776 Cook and his two ships, the Resolution and the Discovery, left England, passing a military fleet gathering to repress the recent rebellion in the American colonies. Sailing around Africa, across the Southern Ocean and north to Hawaii, they arrived off what is now Oregon in March 1778. The plan was to sail up the coast looking for a chink in the Pacific wall of North America that would lead to the Atlantic

The British knew that Vitus Bering had sailed from Siberia as far east as Yakutat in 1741, and that he had previously determined that Siberia and America were separated by the Bering Sea. The British also possessed a chart Bering had made of Alaska’s coast, but it was vague in many details.

HMS Resolution in Cook Inlet, June 1778
So, during the late spring of 1778, Cook and his men felt their way north. In early May the Resolution’s sailing master, a young William Bligh, later of HMS Bounty infamy, mapped the various islands of Prince William Sound, and Cook buried a bottle with a note in it on Kayak Island.

The expedition then sailed into Cook Inlet and spent two frustrating weeks inching north on the flood tide and anchoring on the ebb, before realizing it was a dead end, and that if there was a viable Northwest Passage, it would be through the Bering Sea, not through the Pacific coast of Alaska.
Early 19th century French chart of Cook Inlet

On June 1st, at Point Woronzof, off the end of the what is now Anchorage International Airport, they “hoisted English colors on a pole… and left a bottle with a paper in it whereon was wrote the ship’s names and that of the Captain and the time of our being here as is usual on these occasions, and each drank a bumper of porter to his majestie’s health.”
The ships then passed down the Inlet and the east side of Kodiak Island. On June 6th, they struck a reef east of Shuyak Island but managed to get off safely. They passed Pillar Cape and Marmot Bay on the 7th, Cape Greville on the 8th, and Cape Barnabas on the 12th. Off the Trinity Islands on the 14th they saw people in kayaks in the distance.  

In the Shumagins on June 19th two men in a kayak paddled up to the Discovery and handed a small box with a piece of paper in it to the English sailors. While none on board could read the Russian writing, it was later determined to be a receipt for the payment of “iasak,” a fur tax imposed on the natives by the Russian government.  The British eventually came to believe the note indicated the eastern limit of Russian influence in Alaska. They were correct, at least for the moment, as the massacre and subjugation of Kodiak Sugpiak by the Russians at Refuge Rock near Old Harbor, was six summers in the future.

On June 21st, Cook’s sailors caught several hundred pounds of halibut and met a man in a kayak wearing “green breeches,” who seemed entirely comfortable in the presence of Europeans. Soon after, they entered the Bering Sea. On August 18th, north of Icy Cape at 70 degrees north, they ran into a 12 foot wall of ice, moving south at a mile and half an hour. Cook turned south.

Captain Cook, Royal Museum, Greenwich
On November 26 the lookouts sighted Maui, and on February 14, 1779, in a violent encounter with the Hawaiians, Cook, four Royal Marines, and an unknown number of Hawaiians were killed on the beach at Kealakekua Bay, Hawaii. Cook’s body was dismembered and roasted, but a few days later his remains were handed over to Captain Charles Clerk, now in command of the expedition, who buried them at sea.

The Resolution and the Discovery arrived home to England in October 1780, having been gone four years. While several memorials to Captain Cook exist in Alaska, the bottles and notes he buried on Kayak Island and at Point Woronzof remain yet undiscovered.

Sources: Explorenorthcom, Captain Cook Society, Royal Museums Greenwich

Route  of the Captain cook's third voyage, July 1776- October 1780
Outward bound with Cook in command in red, homeward bound,  after Cook's death, in red. Courtesy Wikipedia Commons.