Time and Tide: Adventures on Alaska's Copper River Delta

By Dick Shellhorn; Publication Consultants, 2014, $19.95

When Dick Shellhorn's parents won a lottery in 1959, allowing them to build a duck shack on land managed by the U.S. Forest Service, it proved to be a turning point in family history. Shellhorn is still reaping the rewards from that stroke of luck. In "Time and Tide: Adventures on Alaska's Copper River Delta," he shares some of his family's good fortune with the rest of us.

A duck shack, or duck cabin as Shellhorn calls it, is not a place for ducks to sleep. It's where people sleep and socialize when they are hunting ducks.

I suspect Shellhorn could have written a book about 54 years of waterfowl hunting. How many ducks were flying, how many shots were fired, how many ducks ended up in the pot -- a narrative that would appeal only to other hunters. Instead, his book is an homage to family juxtaposed with the local history and environmental changes wrought on the Copper River Delta over the past century.

Getting to the cabin: half the fun

The Shellhorn cabin, like most on the delta, was located miles from the nearest boat launch. Access by boat typically involved negotiating shallow, winding sloughs, sometimes in the dark.

Battling time and tides was a constant theme, particularly in the beginning when the couple's scrounged boats proved less than ideal for navigating shallow, winding sloughs. The author's dad retired two skiffs in the first year.

About the time the family figured out how to get to and from the cabin safely, the entire delta was heaved skyward an average of 6 feet by the Great Earthquake of 1964. The Copper River adjusted to the insult by shunting less water down its sloughs.

Duck hunters also adjusted to changing conditions. Shellhorn chronicles the evolution of transport on the delta's sloughs, from fishing vessels and V-hulled skiffs to flat-bottomed riverboats and from outboard propellers to jet units to airboats that can skim across a dewy lawn.

Learning to navigate the sloughs meant suffering through the school of hard knocks. A typical lesson involved plowing into a sandbar with the throttle wide open. On the Copper River Delta, a run to the cabin was considered successful -- even if the skipper ran hard aground -- if you didn't spill your drink.

Ode to family, friends

On their first visit to the cabin, Shellhorn's parents started a journal. After 54 years, the written record of times spent in the cabin -- with contributions from family members, friends and visitors -- spanned more than 1,600 pages with 3,100 entries by 458 people. Shellhorn drew heavily on the entries to write his book and salted the text with examples.

The journal entries are often humorous. In 1982 Shellhorn's daughter Heidi, who was nearly 9 years old, wrote, "I made cartoons and drew pictures. We took the Lower Cutoff. Grampa's motor caught on fire. We had fun."

Shellhorn is a born storyteller. He's stitched the journal entries together with personal recollections and added stories told by others. Over the course of decades, many of these jewels have been polished until they've become family legends.

One of the cabins on the delta belonged to renowned Bush pilot Merle "Mudhole" Smith. His son Ken told Shellhorn about a night they were sleeping in their cabin. When the shack began shaking, Mudhole thought a bear was trying to steal the dead ducks hanging outside on a cabin wall. He stuck his shotgun out a window and fired three blasts. The next morning, when they learned the rattling was cause by a shifting underground fault, the family began calling the adventure "The Night When Dad Shot an Earthquake."

"Time and Tide" is fun to read because of the stories, but Shellhorn also took the opportunity to compile histories of most of the cabins and avid waterfowl hunters dating back to the earliest days in Cordova. This is local history at its best, informed by old-timers and those who paid attention to their tales.

Lost in the maize

Oral tales have several advantages over written, not the least of which involve spelling. The book had at least 30 such errors, including misspelled words, words unintentionally substituted by a spellchecker, missing words and grammatical errors like using "he" instead of "him." That's too many.

An epic example was the word "maize," which Shellhorn used three times when he meant "maze."

These were minor distractions. The worst editorial glitch -- and I'm sure Shellhorn will agree -- was in an appendix that listed all the cabin visitors by year. A footnote attached to his mother's name reported her last trip was in 1960, the year after the cabin was built, whereas her last visit was in 1990. The index had problems as well.

An author is ultimately responsible for reading and editing the final proof. However, the website for Publication Consultants claims that "Unless you object, your manuscript will be read and corrected by a qualified member of our staff. Spelling, punctuation, sentence structure, and style will be corrected." Unless Shellhorn objected, he didn't get his money's worth.

Don't let my nitpicking put you off. Despite some technical difficulties, "Time and Tide" is well worth reading, particularly if you include your family in outdoor adventures.

Rick Sinnott is a former Alaska Department of Fish and Game wildlife biologist. The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News.