Father and sons find adventure in a trip to Alaska
[by Archie Bowen]
Editor’s note: Mr. Bowen passed away shortly after he sent us this story of his first trip to Alaska. It’s such a classic tale of how people often arrive here—via a job offer—that we wanted to publish it despite Mr. Bowen’s passing. We’d like to thank his daughter, Charlotte Baker, for helping make that possible.
In the mid-1940s in Jackson, Mississippi, my father, Ross Bowen, subscribed to Alaska magazine, known then as The Alaska Sportsman. He followed every article about fishing with great interest, as he had worked as a commercial fisherman during the Great Depression to put food on the table for his family.
He read an ad in the magazine by a commercial fisherman in Valdez who wanted someone to help on board his fishing boat for the summer salmon season of 1949 and decided to answer it. A reply soon came, assuring my dad that the man indeed wanted a deckhand and would split the catch with him; as a crewmember, Dad would receive one fourth of the total amount the cannery paid out.
My Dad asked one of my brothers, Aaron, at 22 a very good mechanic, and me, age 17, if we would go with him for the summer to work at Valdez. The plan was for Aaron and me to work at the cannery owned by a Mr. Day, and Dad would take the job on the fishing boat.
In May, we took out the back seats of my Dad’s 1947 Plymouth and stocked it with a couple of cases of canned oil sausage produced by Bryan Brothers Packing and a case of Quaker oatmeal. We tossed in some assorted spare parts for the car, including additional cans of oil. We also packed a Remington 22-caliber rifle and a J.C Higgins (Sears) 12-gauge bolt action shotgun along with a couple of boxes of shells.
Once on the road, we drove ‘round the clock taking turns driving and sleeping as best we could either sitting or lying down atop the supplies in the back seat. I remember stopping at a creek or river crossing to cook our oatmeal and sausage. At times, we’d be lucky enough to shoot a pheasant or two coming through Kansas or the Dakotas, and that would be a welcome change from the sausage and oatmeal. There were no super highways then, and most of the roads in the states were either gravel or two-lane concrete—a very rural setting, so there was no trouble in shooting your own supper.
We crossed into Canada at Sweet Grass, Montana, and the Mounties sealed our guns with a metal band through the receiver and then allowed us to go ahead. From there we traveled through Calgary, Edmonton, and past Slave Lake, which seemed to go on forever. We continued on to Dawson Creek, where the Alaska Highway started; from there, the road surface would be gravel. The highway, built for military purposes, had only opened for civilian traffic two years before.
In Dawson Creek, we obtained our last supplies we thought we might need, as we were told there would be no more milk, candy, or other unnecessary items. The man was right—we would not have any luxury items until our return trip to Dawson.
A few miles from Dawson Creek, we started seeing moose, bears, rabbits, and some large, white-and-brown mottled birds we later discovered were ptarmigan. We ate rabbit and ptarmigan all through Canada, a welcome change from our oatmeal and oil sausage. That was beautiful country and it seemed the gas stations were spaced just right to keep us going.
The entire trip took one week of steady driving. On the Alcan highway we encountered a few 18 wheelers but saw no other automobiles from Dawson Creek to Valdez. At one creek where we stopped to cook our supper and to take a very cold—and very much needed— bath, there was a trapper’s cabin. No one was home but behind it stretched a wire between two trees, with a fresh bear skin draped over the wire. It impressed us with its six-inch claws that curved downward at the tips.
Upon reaching Valdez, we stored the car at a shop and made our way to the fish cannery across the bay. When we arrived, Mr. Walt Day, the owner’s son, showed us where to bunk and shower and where to find the galley.
The next day, Dad met his partner in the fishing boat (Johnny) and the first mate. They hit it off great and soon headed out into the bay and surrounding waters to start fishing. A week later, they returned with 3,000 salmon.
Mr. Day hired Aaron as maintenance man for the cannery, located a short way from town, and added me as a “slimer,” a fish cleaner working on the line with a few Natives. Alaska was still a U.S. territory then, and Mr. Day had a contract with a large American company that banned anyone under 18 from being a full-time employee. He got around that by working me at various part-time jobs to keep me busy. The prepared salmon were placed in cans, the cans were stacked on wooden pallets, and then several pallets were placed in a huge round pressure cooker; when removed from that, labels were applied and the cans were packed in cardboard boxes and moved to storage. The cannery sat at a deep-water port, and the ships would pull up very close to the dock to load cargo.
One of my jobs was to go to the power house, about a mile or so toward Valdez, located on a wide creek where Mr. Day had placed 50 or 60 feet of four-foot round metal barrels end to end; inside the last barrel was a turbine and the force of the water flowing down the mountain turned the turbine to create all the power the cannery needed. My job was to closely watch that equipment and report back to the main camp on any trouble. This creek was full of salmon making their way back up the creek to spawn. There was a freezer there stocked with a lot of bear or moose hamburger patties that were really good. I’d replaced a Native worker who’d been there for a few months alone, and he was overjoyed to see me and to get back to the main camp.
I stayed there for a few weeks and then was sent back to the cannery for odd jobs. My pay was $3.50 an hour, which was considered a high wage.
Mr. Day’s daughter, Faye, got married while we were there. Her fiancé traveled from Seattle to Valdez by way of boat and arrived quite late, around 11 p.m. There was no boat to get him and bring him to the cannery, so a young college man by the name of “Bud,” who had come up to work the summer as we had, and I were dispatched on foot for the task. On the way back, we had to cross a creek, so Bud piggy-backed the groom-to-be so he wouldn’t get his clothes wet. The couple married and had the wedding celebration there at the cannery galley. It was some feast! One of the locals had too much to drink and jumped up on the table to say some things that were very much out of line, whereupon a great fight started—complete with pistol shots. My brother and I jumped through one of the windows that had been broken out and listened to the fight from a safe distance. It lasted a good hour and was great fun from where we were.
One day when Aaron and I had nothing to do, we decided to go bear hunting. We knew there were bears in the area, as we had seen some, and late in the evenings, we could hear them munching on discarded fish heads. Aaron had traded his shotgun to a Native man for a 25/20-caliber rifle, which is not a very big caliber. We found a game trail and walked a mile or so in some kind of scrub bushes that must’ve been six or seven feet tall, looking for a bear. Thank the lord we did not encounter one. Afterward, we decided that had been a very bad idea.
Dad would come in from fishing once a week, unload the salmon, and then go back again. When the tide was out, the salmon would just be lying around on the beach; some weighed as much as 20 or 30 pounds.
We completed the summer there. Mr. Walt Day offered Aaron a permanent job, but he turned it down; by then, he just wanted to get back home to his wife and children. The return trip was uneventful and we made it back home in about a week. For a 17-year-old, that was a trip to remember. I am now 84 and remember my time in Valdez as something unique and special. And my father realized his dream of being a commercial fisherman in Alaska because of a magazine called The Alaska Sportsman.
Archie Bowen grew up hunting, fishing, and trapping with his brothers in Louisiana and Mississippi. A retired general contractor, he enjoyed traveling throughout the country