Alaska, Fishing, History, Outdoors

The Last Ferry

The Last Ferry is an autobiographical essay by Michael Hankins depicting the Seward area in the late 1960s. Mr. Hankins grew up in Alaska and graduated from East High School in Anchorage in 1972. He wrote this essay out of a desire to share his experiences with the current Seward community, and for his children and grandchildren to learn about his early life in Alaska. He currently resides and writes in Lake Havasu City, Arizona.

The Last Ferry

By Michael Hankins-

Combat Fishing. Photo: University of Alaska Archives

There was a time I loved to fish. It’s no longer a priority. On certain days when the urge calls, I venture out in search of pecan crusted halibut, marinated vegetables, and a crisp Cobb salad. Add to that iced tea. That’s as close to fishing as I get.

When my family moved to Alaska in 1966 fishing was #1 on my mind. I thought about it day and night especially during school hours. Back then Chester Creek ran through our East Anchorage neighborhood for the most part unpolluted. This slow moving stream contained various species of fish. The day I snagged and brought home a huge dog salmon made me proud. Never mind the fact it was red as a newly-painted barn.

I envisioned mom baking it that night, and the accolades I’d receive from dad and brother in landing such a trophy. That never happened. Thankfully a neighbor friend Chuck Staley informed me the fish was inedible. With disgust I tossed it in an outside garbage can.  The rapidly decaying monster languished for a few days before being hauled away. Its smell lingered several months longer.

Fortunately I had a friend named Bob Malone. Bob knew a thing or two about fishing. Bob’s father Josh taught his son the basics and Bob shared those lessons with me. When my pal asked if I’d go salmon fishing with him at Russian River, I jumped at the chance. The plan entailed Mr. Malone driving us to the Kenai Peninsula for a 6-day expedition. Because Russian River campground quickly fills with trailers and tents by Friday night, we departed town early Tuesday morning. Our plan was to come back home on Sunday. Thankfully we had use of a small camping trailer.

To get on the side of Russian River where fishing is best, people have to take a ferry. This wooden ferry utilized current to propel the craft back and forth across water. A thick steel cable kept it on track. As a kid I was amazed at how this worked. I wondered if the cable had ever broken. That would make for one swell ride! The ferry wasn’t free. Folks had to purchase tokens at the campground general store. I believe it cost $2.00 back then for a roundtrip. I brought along twenty bucks of paper route money believing that was plenty.

One morning as we ate breakfast Bob noticed 2 girls walk by. He instantly recognized them. “That’s Melody Osborn and Pat Kircher!” Peering out a small trailer window, I saw reason for his excitement. The students were a couple of the nicest looking gals at Clark Junior High, and they had fishing poles to boot. At that precise moment although never knowing it, they became superstars!

My buddy, being a friendly and outgoing person, wanted to say hello. Within seconds, reality slapped him ‘side the face. After 3 days of being in the wilds of Russian River Campground without a shower, we’d become uncaged orangutans. Out of absolute fear for embarrassment sake, it was decided to keep our distance and not be seen. Now almost fifty years later and reflecting back on such, I doubt we looked that hideous. In the overly cautious mind of a fledgling teenage boy however, one pimple or blemish is reason enough to vanish from earth.

Much of my free time was spent shopping at the campground general store. The tiny establishment was well stocked with HoHo’s, Ding-Dongs, ice cream bars, plus a variety of cold beverages. Never mind the fact we still had additional boat trips to make. My stash of ferry money disappeared like juicy slices of watermelon on 4th of July.

Combat style fishing during the daylight hours wasn’t to my liking. People lined up shoulder to shoulder like mourners at a funeral. For a short person, standing there could be very dangerous with the amount of hooks being tossed around. I ended up getting nicked in the head not once but twice. Thankfully the hooks never penetrated skin so no damage was done. 

I ticked off more than one person because of ill-timed casts across their lines. It took skill and practice to get in sync. That never happened during my shift. Some of the crusty language coming from irate fishermen was new to my ears. Finding a safe spot to safely stand was next to impossible. I was slowly and methodically shoved downstream. The rapid current plus slippery rocks had a way of moving me as well. I did not catch a single salmon under those circumstances!

I desperately needed funds for one final ride. Thankfully Bob had been a good custodian with his money. I borrowed enough for what was to be my most punishing excursion; the last ferry.

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The Russian River ferry makes one last run at 10:00. If you took that boat you were stuck on the other side until early morning. I viewed it as ‘no biggie’. Common sense on my part was lacking in those days.

As Bob and I boarded we handed the captain our tokens. The man plopped them into a box firmly attached to his vessel. Looking at us he said in a stern voice, “You boys know this is the last ferry?” I understood yet suddenly became apprehensive. The fellow made it appear we were on the Titanic.

“Yes sir!” Bob politely replied.

My friend brought along a jacket, hat, and gloves. Those were items I didn’t need. I had my sack of HoHo’s, Ding-Dongs, plus ice cold sodas to get me through.

Standing for hours in frigid water wearing thin rubber waders quickly chilled my bones. Never mind the midnight sun was obscured by hanging clouds. Misty fog enveloped Russian River much like that seen in a horror movie. By 2:00 a.m. my teeth were chattering. I still had 4 hours to go before the ferry returned. Bob on the other hand continued to cast and reel, quite comfortable in his warm hat and jacket.

Thankfully a nice lady seeing my predicament offered a blanket. Huddling under it for a lengthy period of time, heat slowly returned. A Ding-Dong helped relight the fire in my tummy. I desperately wanted to fish and time was running out. Walking back to the river somewhat revitalized I hoped for the best.

It wasn’t but minutes later that a sharp tug was felt on my pole. Some guy yelled out for me, “Fish on!” Other fishermen out of courtesy moved aside. Not entirely sure how to handle things the man doing the yelling came over to assist. He told me to keep the tip of my fishing pole high. As I reeled and tugged the stranger quickly grabbed a net. Within minutes he had my salmon securely in nylon webbing. A hard knock on the head with a club put the sockeye in ‘La-La Land’.

 

When I saw the ferry coming with a fresh load of people relief overcame me. The boat couldn’t move fast enough. Walking back to our camper I looked over to where the girls and their parents were staying. There was no movement. My body shaking and teeth chattering, I held my salmon high and proud hoping someone might take notice. After Bob and I woke later that morning the girls were gone. We still had a day of fishing left, yet spent the majority of time recuperating. At least I did. Unfortunately I was snack less during that period.

I’m sure my salmon weighed a good 7 pounds when pulled from the water. By the time we got home the sockeye gained additional weight. A year later I deemed it okay to round things off at 20. Had Melody and Pat seen the lunker they would’ve been impressed. Who wouldn’t?

Desperately wanting to re-experience a last ferry outing, I realized after nearly suffering hypothermia that warm clothing was foremost in doing so. Bob had that one figured out. Twenty bucks spending money wasn’t going to cut it either. I’d have to double or triple the amount.

Sadly I never made it back to Russian River. There were other lakes, streams, and hiking destinations taking its place.  From that trip almost 50 years ago I learned 3 important lessons:

“Good friendships can last a lifetime!”

“Girls like to fish; even the pretty ones!”

“Always bring sufficient money for snacks, and then some!”

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