Another Week, Another Cancelled Akwe Opener

Just found out they have closed the Akwe for another week due to lack of fish/lack of interest…  The water is so low and clear and warm,  no sockeye want to go up it.  Hordes of fish in the New Italio though.  That water is icy cold.  We have light drizzle today,  which is not enough to change the river flows,  but at least it is in the right direction!

This morning,  we have an all-time new flow record on the Situk.  The lowest flow had been 75 cfs for this date and now it is 73.  Woo,  hoo!  It is supposed to rain heavily over the weekend,  which is exactly what we need.

The weir counts have topped 43,500,  which is about 20,000 behind last year.  They will definitely reach their goals,  but not by much.  Unless there is just a huge load of fish holding in cooler water off shore just looking for a flood.  There are already a handful of silvers in the Situk,  with more and more pinks every day…

With the rain coming,  if we did get to fish,  the river would flush all the moss out and wipe us out anyway.  I can’t say I was excited about that prospect,  so I’m good with another closure.  It’ll give me a couple extra days to work on the toilets and water here at the hangar.  There is no water system here at the airport,  so each business has to put in their own well.  We will be collecting rainwater off the roof to hold in a cistern.  The ground water is 1) heavily contaminated by 75 years of who knows what,  2) we have naturally occurring arsenic and 3) it is so extremely hard and full of minerals,  you can barely clean anything with it.  The rain water is (usually) plentiful,  plus nice and soft.

When we eventually build the restaurant,  we’ll have to punch a 5″ well casing down 100 feet through a few layers of clay to get to the clean uncontaminated water.  In the meantime,  rainwater will make our potties flush!  Hopefully by Tuesday,  when we have the first of our two small cruise ships visiting town.  Toilets are handy for that…

The 75th Anniversary fly-in/air show

75 years ago, war came to Alaska and Yakutat was at the leading edge of our defense of the territory.  The first Army Air Base completed in Alaska,  Yakutat for a time had the longest runway on the west coast and became the model for other early air bases throughout Alaska.

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P-38 Lightening with hangar in background – this plane crashed on Attu 3 months after the photo was taken

 

2016 holds many 75th anniversaries to major WWII events,  most notably for the country is December 7th,  when Imperial Japan attacked the Navy Base at Pearl Harbor.  In Alaska,  they knew what was coming and began a massive build-up to defend the territory from what was to come.  Oddly,  some of the self-made obstacles toward Alaska’s defense became a tremendous advantage.

In early ‘42, there was really nothing the US could do to slow the Japanese advance throughout the Pacific.  Our best effort turned out to be a strategic failure called the Doolittle Raid.  Lead by Jimmy Doolittle,  we launched a handful of twin-engine land bombers off the deck of the carrier Hornet.  These aircraft were being ferried to China for them to use,  however all but two ran out of fuel and crashed.  On their way by Tokyo,  they dropped a handful of bombs that did little damage.  In other words,  the mission was a complete failure – except for that it had done to the Japanese psyche.  They had told their people they were invincible – that no one could touch them.  Yet,  here comes a collection of land bombers.

The only information the Japanese could glean from the Doolittle Raid was that Jimmy Doolittle grew up in Nome. This little factoid had absolutely no bearing on the raid,  but it fed into Japan’s obsession with Alaska.  As the Battle of Midway approached,  Japan had twice the carriers available,  along with the more experienced piltos and technologically advanced aircraft.  They divided their forces and sent two of those carriers to the Aleutians,  giving us an even fight.  In other words,  because of their obsession with Alaska,  we had 3 carriers and one island to their four carriers,  found their fleet first and sank all four of their carriers at Midway,  allowing the US more time to rebuild our devastated fleet and train our men.

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SBD Dauntless dive bomber parked on the ramp between the control tower and hangar – SBD’s are credited with sinking all 4 Japanese carriers at Midway

 

Up here in Alaska, we were at war with Japan,  but a war had been raging for years (or a century) between the US Army and US Navy.  They didn’t share information,  they fought over funding and jurisdictional control,  etc.  Since the President was a Navy man,  the Navy usually won these battles.  General Buckner,  commander of the Army in Alaska was told not to set foot in the Aleutians because islands are ships and therefore the jurisdiction of the Navy.

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Yakutat Air Base circa 1947

 

Initially in 1940, Buckner was given authorization and money to build three projects in Alaska.  Yakutat,  Annette Island and the Cold-weather Research Station in Fairbanks.  The Yakutat Air Base was supposed to have three runways and we only have two.  General Buckner secretly embezzled money from his three projects,  put it into a private bank account,  set up a private for-profit corporation and set out to build two “canneries” in the Aleutians.  When these “canneries” were done,  we had two new air bases.  Air bases so “secret” that the Japanese spy network didn’t have a clue because even the US didn’t know we had them!

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Typical layout of runways on WWII airbases in the lower 48 – Yakutat’s 3rd runway would have aligned with our westerly winds

 

When the Japanese struck Unalaska and the Navy Base at Dutch Harbor, they had three times as many men to land as the US had to defend the entire territory.  Suddenly,  they were hit by a P-40 fighter response so much stronger than they expected that they decided to withdraw and land their people on Attu and Kiska – a thousand miles away.  Yakutat’s third runway on Umnak and Cold Bay saved Alaska from that eminent invasion.  Had these bases been financed in the open,  Japan would undoubtedly have been prepared and Alaska’s role in the war could have been far different.

 

Although the first bomber landed at the new air base on May 8th (that is our official “establishment date”),  the formal grand opening ceremony took place August 6th,  1941.  This year,  Fairweather Day falls on that date,  so we moved our official Grand Opening Anniversary celebration to Friday August 5th,  2016.  We are celebrating with a state-wide fly-in and air show,  complete with aircraft from the National Guard and possibly the Canadian Air Force.  There will be WWII aircraft from up in Anchorage that weather permitting will give rides for a fee.  The event will close with a 6pm hangar banquet dinner (for a $30 donation PP) and speeches from General Hummel and Lt. Governor Mallott.

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The KWAAN BT-13 Valiant where it crashed near the mouth of the Situk – notice the train tracks in the background

 

This will be a busy weekend, with the new Sandy Beach Park dedication Friday at noon,  our events begin an hour later at 1pm with a paper airplane contest (we’re going for distance across the hangar bay floor when launched from the 2nd floor balcony),  short-field landing contest at 2pm and flour drop (the pilot flies over the target and tries to drop his baggy of flour as close to the mark as possible out the window) at 4pm.  Aircraft static displays will be on the ramp for visitors to explore.  Yes,  we need volunteers to help with logistics,  airport security and set-up.  Contact me at the fly shop if you want to lend a hand.

OK, here is my disclaimer…  We are obviously still a long way from being the museum we hope to become.  We just couldn’t let this particular 75th anniversary pass by without marking it in some way.  My grand hope right now is just to have a few toilets that flush and the hangar bay relatively clean for the event.  If it rains,  we’ll probably have no one from outside Yakutat show up,  but a beautiful day could bring in dozens – if not hundreds of aircraft from around the state.  As our first event,  our learning curve has been steep,  but we’ll get better over the years as we have more and more air shows under our belt.  Ultimately,  this event is about honoring those who serve our country,  not just the Greatest Generation,  but all the vets and active servicemen and women who protect our freedom.  Freedom doesn’t come from the promises of politicians,  or the words on old dusty documents.  It comes from the people who stand with their bodies as our shields,  to protect us from those who wish us harm.

Tentative Schedule of Events:

1300hrs Rasmuson Sandy Beach Park dedication

1400hrs Paper Airplane Contest

1500hrs Short-field Landing Contest

1700hrs Flour Drop

1800hrs Hangar Banquet

1900hrs Speeches

2000hrs Wrap/clean-up

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1942 original propaganda poster from our collection (hopefully will be displayed for the event…)

Situk Update

This past weekend,  the commercial fishery everywhere died.  Even over at Manby,  where they had been going gangbusters for the past couple weeks.  Extremely dry and hot weather is keeping the sockeye out to sea in cooler waters.

Situk did have a bit of a push the past couple days,  topping 41,000 through the weir.  Running about 20,000 behind last year’s numbers.  East has been slow and Akwe has been non-existent.  But…  we are supposed to be hit by a storm in the next few days.  Overcast has settled in today with a light wind out of the southeast.  Here’s hoping for some much needed rain.  With some cool added moisture,  everything should change.

Guys coming into the shop from the Situk have been saying consistently that the fishing isn’t good,  but isn’t bad either.  Just OK.  You can usually get your limit,  but that is only three fish right now.

I just talked with Fish and Game…  they are NOT expecting to raise the Situk sockeye limit this season.  Don’t come hoping or expecting that to happen.  But if this rain comes and we see a big surge,  well all bets are off.  Also,  two days ago,  30 kings passed through then weir.  They now have 75% of the escapement goal met.  We may be able to limp over that line over the next couple weeks.

Our Commercial Season (so far)

Well,  this has been one for the record books!  It is so hard to guess what the run timing will be,  especially following a steelhead run that was a month and a half early.  Salmon (each species actually) are sent to the rivers by completely different triggers than the steelhead,  so would this run end up early,  late,  or on-time?  Or not come at all?

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Mom saying goodbye,  as we head out for a weekend on the river

 

Tanis and I went out for our first week of fishing the Akwe,  with Eden in tow.  Teen is working for KNIK Construction on the runway project,  so it was just me and the kids.  Since Tanis is a whopping 17 years old now,  I decided to let him make all the major decisions this season.  That means he wouldn’t let me take my much-deserved nap on that first Saturday.  “Come on dad,  let’s get the boat down to the Akwe and get the logs cut out of the New Italio”.

I tried to “suggest” we wait for the outgoing tide,  so the sand would be more firm for towing the boat down the outer beach,  but Tanis would have none of that.  “No,  let’s do it NOW!”

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How the Middle Italio loos this season,  with lots of turns and holes in the lower river

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Looking up the Akwe…  The lower commercial fishing marker is where the river bank on the left rises and the sand starts.  Tanis’ net goes at the top end of the marker hole,  while mine is in the next hole above it on the ocean side.

 

So we loaded up and headed out.  He was responsible for getting the boat ready.  I just drove.  We crossed the Middle Italio and then I drove right into a big mud hole at the lagoon.  OOPS!  After lots of muddy pulling,  we got the ATV out and swung the boat away from the sloppy pit.  We were off again and out to the outer beach.

The drive went slow because with the incoming tide,  we were pushed up higher toward the tideline and into the lighter softer sand.  We made it though.  Launched the boat at the mouth of the Akwe and…  no fuel hose.  With the tide pushing in fast,  Eden and I raced back to the cabin to try and find the hose,  with no luck.  Back out to Tanis and the boat,  we couldn’t leave it there in the surf,  so we put the wheels back on and took it back to the Middle Italio.  No place to get the boat above the incoming tide in the soft sand other than back at the Middle.

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Thankfully there are no photos from our first week of fiascos,  so I’m filling this in with some of our goof-off pictures…

 

So,  we got to wait till the outgoing tide after all,  only without my nap…  Tanis apparently took my boat fuel hose to town last fall,  but he found enough parts to piece together a complete hose.  Back to the boat,  we had no trouble getting it down the beach when I had wanted to in the first place,  launched it,  drove up the Akwe to look at places to set the nets and then up the New Italio where Eden was waiting with the ATV.

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The Arctic Terns don’t nest in the same areas two years in a row.  Last year,  they were miles down the beach and will be again next year. They nested heavily at the Middle Mouth this year.

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Not exactly camouflaged…  Hard to get the shadow of the diving parent in the shot with my little digital…

 

Next morning,  we hit the river for our 6am opener with all the excitement of a fresh season.  We set Tanis’ net and immediately a nice big king hit.  That’s a great way to start your season!  Unfortunately the king escaped before we could get him into the boat.  Next, we set my net and waited.  And waited.  Nothing.  In fact,  Tanis’ brief encounter with his king was the ONLY fish we saw for the week.  NOTHING else hit either net.  Except a LOT of moss.

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One last shot for you nature lovers…  This is what a cuddly baby moose calf looks like after passing through the digestive tract of a brown bear.  There are several of these piles every year near the cabin.  This one was right in the yard.

 

We shook and shook and shook the moss,  but still no fish.  Through the high tide,  nothing.  I think we held out for about 14 hours of shaking moss for zero fish,  we finally gave up and pulled the gear.  Teen was a little surprised to see us taxi back up to the hangar before dark.

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One genuine photo from our first week of fishing – back home without a single fish to show for it

 

Next week,  everything was all set up and ready,  so we headed out pretty late.  We’d be out through 4th of July,  but we planned to stay up all night and fish through the big 11+ foot tide.  Again,  fishing was mighty slow.  Two nets through the entire day,  we had about 20 fish total.  I think it was 19 in Tanis’ net and 1 in mine.  After I was allowed my nap,  we went back out at 10pm ready to stay up through the night.  Through the night,  we actually started having some fish hit the net.  Tanis’,  not mine.  By 330am,  the bite died and the moss started again.  “We” decided to try and make it back to the cabin,  but I knew there was too much water for us to get back across the Middle Italio.  I brought along an empty fish tote on the trailer,  so we could use it as a boat to drift back across the river and down to the cabin.

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Ah…  Heading out in the beautiful weather

 

Two kids and an overweight dad in a fish tote can be a little tippy.  Tanis and I attempted to row across with our hands,  which usually just made us spin around in circles.  Eden insisted in periodically freaking out and shifting her weight,  so we would nearly tip over.  This needs to be a Olympic sport – competitive 3-man fish tote paddling.  With the three of us as groggy as we were,  we didn’t stop giggling till about 6am,  long after we settled into bed.  Obviously we made it across without drowning.

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Rub-a-dub-dub

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We made it ashore!  Add my fat butt to that “boat” and you can see why it took a miracle!

 

Next day – nothing.  The nets were back to loading up with moss,  even though we had seen a bit of a reprieve the day before.  We fished till about 4pm before we quit with just about 6 fish for the entire day.  No point in holding out for the last 2 hours.

Now for week 3…  I have to be back in town on Sunday night,  so I can do the ground handling for the morning mail plane at 330am Monday.  We fished hard all day through 2 full tides and had 14 sockeye and one chum to show.  OK,  “working hard” included going swimming in the Akwe at high tide…  That evening,  I brought our big load back with me,  after pulling my net and leaving the kids alone to pup-tent camp on the beach near Tanis’ net.  I told them I’d buzz the tent when I was back and ready for them to pick me up.  What a waste of a perfectly good buzz job!  They were already awake and driving back to the cabin.  I think I left tire marks on the top of the tent though.

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Getting the net set

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Untying the net…  we tie the leadline to the corkline when we head back to the cabin for breaks,  otherwise it just fills with moss in minutes

 

It was another gorgeous day and the fishing was even more dead than the day before…  We caught another 3 fish for the day and went swimming again.  I flew the load back,  then returned for the kids and gear.  If not for Tanis working through the entire night alone (although Eden kept the bon fire burning through the night),  we wouldn’t have had much to show for it.

And now (drum roll),  week 4…  Our local Fish and Game biologist stopped by the fly shop a couple days ago to tell me she is closing the Akwe by emergency order this week.  Yep,  the run is really that bad.  No fish above the markers at all.  The water is just so low and clear,  the fish don’t want to move.  Ahh…  the exciting life of a commercial fisherman!  Right now,  we’re a long way away from covering the cost of the boat and ATV fuel,  let alone pay for this darned airplane,  Forest Service cabin fees and all the other expenses that are built into our little operation.

So far,  this is officially my worst sockeye season ever.  We still have another 2 weeks of the season after this,  but then we have to change our focus.  If the run ends up coming late,  I won’t be able to fish it.  Our big 75th Anniversary celebration will consume the first weekend of August,  so we’ll have to call it quits before then.

Oh well.  Could be a lot worse.  I still get to play on the beach with my kids,  see nature in all her glory,  splash around in the surf,  chase baby Dungeness around in the lagoon and fly around the wilds of Alaska…  I may be broke this season,  but I’m rich in many ways.

Speaking of our Dungeness hunting…

The Run is Catching Up!

The sockeye run on the Situk is finally starting in in earnest,  with a weir count topping 18,000 fish as of yesterday.  We were way behind average,  but are now neck-n-neck with counts from the past two seasons and both those years hit 100,000 fish counted.  You can definitely catch fish throughout the entire system now,  whether above the bridge,  floating the river,  or walking up from the lower landing.

Fish size is still running a little smaller than average,  but not by much.  Expect to have 5lb fish primarily.  Fishing has been pretty good on the river.  In case you were wondering…  the commercial fishery has been poor.  This seems to happen every warm summer.  The nets are along the edge of the Ahrnklin Inlet,  with the deeper cooler water out in the middle.  Sockeye crave cool water,  so they seem to be bypassing the nets again and running right up the middle of the inlet missing the nets.  When you look at the weir counts,  there is no dip during the commercial openers this year.

Speaking of commercial fishing…  Tanis and I are going our thing on the Akwe River every Sunday and Monday.  Ordinarily Teen is here to cover the shop while we are out fishing,  but she is working day shift for KNIK Construction on the runway resurfacing project.  Chris is guiding most days,  so that leaves no one to work the shop Sundays and Mondays this month.  My apologies for the inconvenience,  but expect the shop door to be locked Sunday/Monday.  If you expect to arrive those days and need help,  send me an e-mail ahead of time and I’ll see about making sure we can accommodate you my hiding your order somewhere outside,  or arranging for someone to cover for a short time.

Bob, Stop Procrastinating!

OK,  here is a fishing update at last!

Sockeye fishing on the Situk has been OK over-all,  but not great.  Feels like the run is a bit late.  Looking back over the past 4 years,  we have 6,430 fish counted through the weir as of yesterday.  5,596 last year as of the same date,  but 15,602 in 2014 and 39,012 in 2013.  The river has been pretty low,  but rain this weekend should bring more fish into the system.  There have been good numbers down in the estuary,  with 20,000lbs of commercial catch on the opening day of the season last week.

We already have more than 15,000 sockeye counted in the East River,  so if you are heading there,  the run is going gangbusters already.  Not so much for fish in the Doame though.  Akwe has been a bust so far.  There are a few kings in the Akwe,  but the sockeye have yet to arrive.  Last week,  fishing for sockeye on the New Italio was pretty good for that early in the season.  Chris had been out there with friends and they did pretty well in the stretch in front of Ryman’s Cabin.

Speaking of rain and flows…  Tanis and I were blown off the Akwe for our opening commercial fishing week due to the flushing of moss out of the river.  It just loaded up the nets and we didn’t catch a single fish.  Apparently the Akwe and Italio received a lot more rain than the Situk,  since the Situk is only flowing 177 CFS and still below the average for this time of year.  It is dry today,  but supposed to turn back to rain in another day or two.  It has been VERY dry.

Losing a Friend

 

Just got word that a good friend of ours died in a plane crash down in Colorado this weekend.  Jere Ferrill was a pilot for Cascade Air and was the most instrumental part of me getting my plane (an old Cascade Air 206).  Not only did he teach me how to fly the 206,  when I bit the bullet and bought the plane back in 2011,  Jere flew up to Yakutat with me to make sure I didn’t kill myself on the couple-thousand-mile trip.

Jere was a contractor who loved to fly.  What a perfect combination for Cascade when they brought the DC-3 back and first acquired the lease on the Hangar.  Jere did a lot of work on the renovation prior to Teen and I taking on the lease when Cascade Air closed.  He put in the windows in my 2nd floor office and the front door of the fly shop…

Then in 2010,  Jere was the co-pilot when he and Rod flew the DC-3 back to Yakutat.  We really only knew Jere for a short while,  but without him,  I don’t think we’d have the hangar now,  or be working toward the museum.

Jere,  you will be missed.

http://www.denverpost.com/2016/06/15/three-die-in-small-plane-crash-in-southwest-colorado/

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Jere’s backside as we load fish into the plane in 2007

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Didn’t the kids look cute back then?

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Rod and Jere circle around in N91314 before landing in 2010

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Jere an I ready to depart Centenial Airport in Denver, 2011

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Stopping in gorgeous Alpine, WY for gas

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Somewheren along the route to Yakutat from Denver