Alaska is a place where much of its history is still fresh, yet with so many stories on the verge of disappearing forever. Such is the case with the double-ender sailboat, pushed by the wind and the tides across Bristol Bay in pursuit of salmon. 

For more than 60 years, they were the workhorses of the canneries that brought in fishermen from all over the world in big sailing ships -- to work the boats and pull in nets, heavy with sockeyes -- all by hand.

The sailboats may have been beautiful, but they were dangerous. And although motorized boats appeared on the market in the 1920s, Bristol Bay fishermen weren’t allowed to use them for commercial catches until the 1950s.

So the big question is: Why were the sailboats used long after they had become obsolete?

In this episode of Frontiers, we attempt to answer that question with help from two self-described “fish-torians,” Tim Troll and Bob King, who share a passion for the history of Bristol Bay.

Tim is author of the book “Sailing for Salmon” and president of the Bristol Bay Heritage Land trust.

Bob had a long run as news director of KDLG, the public radio station in Dillingham. He also served as Governor Tony Knowles’ press secretary and was a fisheries policy advisor for Mark Begich when he served as a U.S. Senator.

When I was a green reporter, who had just arrived in Bethel, it was Bob King who helped me understand why following fisheries makes for fascinating journalism. It was Bob who said, Alaska fisheries have all the elements of great story telling -- drama, science, politics, working class struggles, and of course, great characters. Years later, I’m even more certain Bob is right -- and this week’s Frontiers is proof.

Here are some of the highlights.  

  • Sailing for Salmon: Tim Troll explains how the federal government and the canneries controlled the Bristol Bay fishery -- and after fishermen fought for years to open the bay to motor boats, what finally brought the sailboat era to an end. 
  • Of Wooden Boats and Iron Men: The boats are just part of the story, the men who sailed them, another. Bob King likes to call them “iron men,” because of the strength and stamina the sailboat era required, not just to steer the boats, but the physical labor necessary to haul in catches, which averaged more than 20,000 fish every season. Bob will tell us about the records he found of an Italian immigrant who caught more than a half-million fish over the course of about 20 seasons. His record catch for one season will astound even the modern day fisherman.
  • Remembering Richard Nelson: We say our goodbyes to a Sitka man, known for his books about Alaska Native culture and his youthful, enthusiastic voice on his radio show, Encounters -- in which he shared his love of science and Alaska wildlife. Rick Steiner, a biologist who was inspired by Nelson’s work, shares memories about his friend and colleague. Our tribute was too brief. For more about Nelson and efforts to continue his work, go to his website, EncountersNorth.org.

In some way, there’s a common thread in this episode of Frontiers -- people who tell stories about Alaska -- that help us understand, through the richness of its history, people and resources, how lucky we are to call this state home.

For help in traveling back in time, we want to thank the Alaska Moving Image Preservation Association and the Alaska Film Archives at the University of Alaska Fairbanks for use of their historic Bristol Bay footage. Also, special thanks to the Loussac Library for use of its elegant Ann Stevens reading room to record interviews. It’s one of Anchorage’s hidden gems.  

 

 

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