Big Port Walter

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A late spring afternoon, 1972: I am a commercial salmon troller, towing lures and baited hooks for the wily king salmon. A slow day, just aBig Port partner boat and us on the vast and empty canyon that was lower Chatham Strait. “You boys should stick your nose into Big Port,” a friend had said, and so we did, hauling our gear and swinging west toward the crack in the mountain wall of Baranof Island that was the entrance to Big Port Walter. We knew that it would be uninhabited, but we also knew that once the Standard Oil tanker had wound its way into the protected inner bay to supply a fleet of boats in the big herring boom in the 1940s. That a big wooden pipe was laid down the mountain from the lake above to generate electricity for what was then a whole little town. That there had been herring plants at Pillar Bay and Washington Bay just across the Strait. That the local fishermen at Port Alexander to the south had said that the king salmon that they depended on in turn depended on the herring in Chatham Strait, that they were worried that if the herring were all caught the king salmon would leave as well.

American star“Oh, no,” they were reassured, “There’s plenty of herring there for everyone.” And so the plants were built, the fleets came, summer after summer, loading up every day, the plants running around the clock, cities of light, visible for miles in that vast wilderness. Tons and tons and tons of herring, cooked down into fish meal, fish oil, and money.

The fishermen were right. When the herring were gone, the big kings weren’t far behind and at Port Alexander, just ten miles south, where the harbor used to fill right up with trollers, in the old days some even rowing and camping on the beach to get out there each day and get in on the amazing run of kings, the boom was over, just like that. Port Alexander, where in boom days locals used to joke that it was illegal to walk around sober, becoming a ghost town in just a few years.

In we went, through that awesome winding canyon, to the place that registered Buildings at Big Portsome of the highest rainfall in the US of A: 240 inches in a single year. Where we knew that when the sun went over the high mountain in October, a dark and sunless winter lay ahead for the man and his family that was to caretake the cannery during the long winter.

Old Herring Plant, Big PortBut still, it was eerie, to walk the old rotted boardwalk, past the collapsed herring oil tanks, the rusted pipe that came down from the lake. And after dark, just the lights from our little boats, looking out on that vast and wild land all around.

And from my journal in the morning, when once again we set out:

“The day came cloudless and still. To pull the anchor in the pale predawn off another lifeless cannery, and slip out into the empty strait. To put our gear in the water before the sun comes over the mountain, just our two boats in maybe a hundred miles of shoreline: this is my bell, ringing, ringing, ringing.”

2 troller dawn