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Despite low water and wind-blown grit, dipnetters seek silver treasure at Chitina

Craig Medred
Craig Medred

CHITINA -- Even as a sandstorm raged along the Copper River on Thursday, dipnetters by the dozens, if not hundreds, poured into this remote community in eastern Alaska, apparently driven in part by a bad rumor that there would be no personal-use dipnetting on the Kenai River next month.

There is no truth to the rumor. No truth at all.

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game's preseason forecast for the Kenai calls for a return of 6.1 million sockeye salmon this year, and early indications from the Copper are that sockeye, or red salmon, runs might be coming back a little stronger than projected.

Given the sheer size of the return, state fisheries biologists said, it should be obvious to everyone there is no threat to July's hugely popular Kenai dipnet fishery. Common sense alone dictates there is no need to worry.

Sense, unfortunately, is not always so common.

Anchorage dipnetter Maria Robinson, who was chuckling a bit at the absurdity of the suggested Kenai closure, said she first heard about it from "the two guys who were standing next to us."

"We thought it was absolutely insane," she said.

But then, she said, the rumor was repeated by the man behind the counter at a coffee shack at O'Brien Creek, where many dipnetters go to catch charter boats into Wood Canyon, where they're dropped off at dipnetting holes at the base of the steep cliffs.

Robinson joked about this to husband Dean.

"I told my husband, (the guy) had a Bible scripture on his sign. He wouldn't lie," she said, laughing.

Repeating rumors, of course, is not lying. It's just gossiping.

Some might be tempted to blame the Chitina Chamber of Commerce for this latest rumor, given that dipnetting is the main thing the community has going for its tourism business come summer. But Chitina -- population 126 -- has no chamber.

It isn't even a real town. It's what's called a "census designated place." But it does have a post office, a hotel, a restaurant, a bar and a general store. They are the remnants of what once was, now hanging on through the long, slow winters between the short, busy summers.

Chitina hit its zenith in the early 1900s after the Kennecott Mining Co. started digging into one of the world's richest copper deposits. Ore that proved to be 70 percent copper was valuable enough for the company to build a railroad for almost 200 miles through some of the roughest country in the state to reach the seaport of Cordova.

Chitina boomed as a railroad town. By the second decade of the century, it had five hotels, several rooming houses, a dance hall, a movie theater, bars and stores. They all went out of business after the mine closed in 1938. Most of the buildings fell down. Only a few remain today.

Gilpatrick's Chitina Hotel, which now houses the community's restaurant, is housed in a renovated, historic building next to Spirit Mountain Artworks , which occupies another restored historic building. Most of the rest of historic Chitina is gone, as is the railroad.

And the attraction now isn't copper but silver in the form of sockeye salmon pulsing back from the sea. They help fuel enough tourist traffic to keep the hotel and restaurant going May 1 to Oct. 15. Nearby, Uncle Tom's Tavern, named for owner Tom Wesner, occupies a building of more recent vintage.

It manages to hang in year-round and was recently featured in the reality show "Alaskan Bush People." The show started in the Chitina area but fled after a short stay. Some folks, it seemed, didn't like having film crews hanging around making noise and getting in the way -- any more than they like tourists doing similar things.

A former stop on the long defunct Copper River and Northwestern Highway, Chitina -- like many Alaska communities -- has something of a love-hate relationship with tourism. Some might say this of Alaskans in general -- loving the economic boost while hating the crowds.

There were hundreds of visitors along the roads and trails near Chitina this week. A very informal state campground and boat launch at Mile 35.1 of the Edgerton Highway at the south end of the Copper River Bridge was full to overflowing.

Campers spilled out onto adjacent roadside pullouts as well as the sand and gravel bars of an unusually low Copper River. A big, braided, glacial river, the Copper has yet to flood with summer glacial melt.

There was still a lot of water roaring toward the sea at speeds upwards of 5 mph, but the river coursed through a broad system of meandering channels. Only a third of them had water.

Four-wheel-drive trucks and sport utility vehicles were motoring across places where people usually fish. The water was so low that many traditional fishing "hot spots" were dry or had slipped so far down along the Wood Canyon cliffs that people weren't sure where to fish anymore.

That drove down fishing success. Some whined. Others took the opportunity to go exploring. Some spent a warm, sunny, windless Thursday morning sunbathing. Then the winds came up, blowing strong upriver, and there was no thought of sunbathing.

Many dipnetters retreated in the wake of the storm. Others just pulled on masks or pulled up bandanas to protect their noises and mouths from all the dirt in the air and kept on fishing. They knew there were still salmon pulsing upstream in the turbid, glacial waters of the river.

Why quit?

You never know. The state "could" decide to close the Kenai in July, though that would come as a big surprise to fishery managers.

"That's the first I've heard of that," area sport fisheries supervisor James Hasbrouck said Friday when asked about the rumor. In response, he could only do what the Robinsons had done.

He chuckled.

Reach Craig Medred at craig@alaskadispatch.com.


By CRAIG MEDRED
craig@alaskadispatch.com