“If you haven’t learned to drive by the time you are 7 years old, you are not a real man!”

Second grade school picture

Those were my dad’s words to me in the spring of 1964, about three months before I turned seven. Dad was fascinated by anything with a motor and was happiest sitting on a motorcycle or in a car. He often told us stories about his experiences growing up. Back then if you answered, ”Yes”, to the question, ”Can you drive a car, young man?” you were given a driver’s license. Then it was up to you to learn how to drive. I think my dad drove a few hundred yards for his driver’s test. It was that easy, but he became a good driver. He drove fast and every time he went over 100 km/h mom opened the door and threatened to jump out. She was only joking, of course, but it scared us when we were young. Most exciting was when dad showed us how to turn the car around on a narrow paved road by pulling the handbrake. We burned a lot of rubber, but no one considered the environment back then. (Being able to use the handbrake to quickly turn the car around later saved my life. Read about that on my blog from June 12, 2017)

So, in the spring of 1964 I was nearly seven and if I didn’t know how to drive a car by my birthday, I was not a real man. Before letting me start the car and drive, dad wanted to be sure I knew how to steer and stop. He sat me in the driver’s seat and showed me which pedals were the gas, brake and clutch. Then he pushed the car down a hill about 100 meters and I was to stop the car at a precise spot. I was too little to reach the pedals sitting on the seat so I had to stand up behind the wheel.

I steered the car to the correct place and found the right pedal and, stepping on the brake a little too enthusiastically, rammed my chin into the wheel. But I had stopped the car in the right place. “Now we can try driving with the engine on,” my dad said, laughing. I drove back and forth in our yard, out past my dad’s workshop and into a small forest glen where I had to turn around. I had to learn how to use the clutch, shift into reverse and back up a few yards, and then shift back into first gear to go forward. My dad didn’t give up until I was proficient at using the pedals and the gears.

It was no easy task for a small boy to drive a real car since I couldn’t sit down on the seat. Standing up to drive was tiring and sometimes I banged against the door, or worse, in a tight curve sometimes lost my balance and was thrown to the floor. Falling on the floor was problematic. But, to my dad’s relief, I was able to drive a car by my seventh birthday. He was proud of me and I could call my self a “real man:”

When I was eight years old he gave me my first car, a Dodge. My brother, who was two years older, got a Ford. They were big, 3-geared American cars that we were given to play with. We drove on a small road that went through a forest glade and over a creek, bouncing around as we raced each other.

The cars were gas-guzzlers so we often had to scramble for money. Dad had given us the cars but it was up to us to pay for the gas. We’d bicycle along the highway looking for bottles we could take to the store and collect the deposit. Then we’d bicycle to the gas station and fill a milk bottles with gas. With a liter of gas in the tank we could drive a few more laps.

Before long I was driving on the highway when dad wanted a break. My dad was a bit nuts, but as a boy I thought it was fun and exciting.

Grand Canyon

When I was 20 years old I decided to go west to America. By that time I had already produced a few ”serious” wildlife documentaries that had been purchased by Swedish Television. In America I found the inspiration, that injection I needed. I fell in love, not with a girl (she came later), but with an incredible wilderness. The first exquisite infatuation occurred early one morning in northern Arizona after a few months of crossing the American continent.

In the middle of the night I had parked my Volkswagen camper van in a quiet spot a little ways from the road. The roof of the van was raised to create a tent with openings in both directions. After driving over 600 miles, I was exhausted and not picky about the parking spot. Sleep came as a welcome relief when I had crawled into the bed under the raised roof. I was awakened in the morning when the sun’s rays shown into the tent. Slowly opening my eyes, I gazed, somewhat confused, at the scene outside the screened windows. At first I couldn’t really grasp what I was looking at; it was so indescribably breathtaking.

Suddenly I was wide-awake. During the night I had parked right on the edge of the Grand Canyon. All that kept the van from rolling into the abyss was a few rocks sporadically placed along the edge. The ragged and steep ravine was filled with rock formations of various colors with shadows dancing in the morning light. The canyon spread before as the eye could see. Describing this jewel of creation with words is futile, inadequate, humbling. The Grand Canyon has to be experienced first hand.

After hiking along the edge that first day, trying to absorb what I saw, I couldn’t wait to descend into the gorge. Early the next morning I was on my way down the Bright Angel Trail. I was so excited that I forgot my water and food in the car. Six miles later gazing out over the Colorado River and with temperatures over 100 degrees, I realized my mistake.

On my way back up I stopped to rest at Indian Gardens. As I sat there trying to gather the energy to start the steep and difficult climb, a woman came out of the ranger station and invited me in for some water and a sandwich. At the time she seemed to me to be an angel sent from above. I have often wondered just how horrible that hike up the long, steep trail would have been for me if that woman hadn’t shown up and noticed my predicament. Shortly after nightfall I reached the top, exhausted but exhilarated and wiser, from the experience. (I met the woman who gave me food and water 15 years later on a ferry between Kodiak and Homer in Alaska. We had a few memories to share with each other.)

I spent the next few days exploring the south side of the canyon, hiking and climbing in the most impossible areas. I decided that I would return the next year and begin work on my first film about the Grand Canyon and the area around the Colorado River. In 1979 I returned and produced a film called “Grand Canyon” that Swedish Television purchased and aired the following year. I was already dreaming of rafting the Colorado River through the captivating landscape of which the Grand Canyon National Park is just a part. That dream was realized 12 years later.

Since my first river trip in 1991 I’ve had the privilege of running several expeditions down the river which was once thought to be the entrance to hell, but which is actually a ride through paradise. But, that too, is another story…

Kodiak Scandinavian Culture & Film Fest a Big Success!

A Scandinavian Culture & Film Fest on Kodiak, a remote island in Alaska! Great success! How is that possible? Well, because there is something special about the people on the ”Island of the Great Bear.” They come from many different countries and cultures: Europeans, Mexicans, Filipinos, Samoans, Sugpiaqs, et al., as well as all of those with Scandinavian heritage. In earlier blogs I’ve written about many of my friends on Kodiak who’s father or grandfather came from Scandinavia.

From November 6 -12, 2017 we highlighted Scandinavian culture. During the festival participants could learn to bake Norwegian lefsa, research genealogy, discover Scandinavian history, clothing and tools, and find out about the Sami reindeer herders of Alaska. Hundreds of students learned about Scandinavian music and dance, and even built simple instruments similar to those the early immigrants had brought with them from Scandinavia. There was a lecture on the Finnish influence on Alaskan architecture, and a Crosscut Saw where participants had to learned to work together using the 2-man saws that were used in logging before we had chain saws.

I first came to Kodiak 30 years ago, in 1988, with the plans to produce a film about the Kodiak bear, an idea that developed into so much more. I met Mike Rostad, a young man from Minnesota with Norwegian roots. Mike was interested in people and their stories, an enthusiasm that rubbed off on me. When I realized that most of the native people on Kodiak were also of Scandinavian heritage, I was intrigued. How had that happened? I began interviewing people and heard many exciting stories about people from a far-away land, about overcoming difficulties and remarkable encounters. My film archives expanded with hundreds of hours of interviews.

It must be more than 10 years ago that Mike Rostad approached me with the idea of arranging a festival centered around the film material  I had collected throughout the years. It was a good idea, but kind of daunting so I pushed it off into a distant future, but Mike didn’t give up. He kept asking me year after year, coming with different ideas about a Scandinavian film festival.

I think it was in the fall of 2013 that the plans began to ripen. I told Mike that, if there was going to be a festival, we needed to decide on a date and start planning. We were four people around the dinner table at the Rostad house: Sonny Vinberg and myself, as well as Mike and his wife, Kathy. We decided on a date in 2015 which was later postponed to 2017. All good idea need time to ”ripen.”

Last fall, 2016, we called our first meeting, planning for the festival. There were many different ideas and opinions about what should be included in the festival, but Mike took the helm and steered the committee until November 2017 when the first Kodiak Scandinavian Culture & Film Fest opened. The festival was a great success and all who participated were amazed and grateful that we had organized an event like this on Kodiak.

For my part the festival became a sort of film editing marathon. I began last winter to organize the enormous amount of material I had accumulated over 30 years. All available time went to working with he films I planned to show at the festival. But, like so often happens, I was working up until the very last minute. I planned to show seven longer documentaries, plus a few shorter bonus films. This was, as far as I remember, the largest project I have ever worked with.

Luckily I had jetlag from the 10 hour time difference from Sweden. I’d wake up at 2 am every morning, but that was ok. I’d get up and start working and then continue throughout the day. For 10 days prior to the festival and throughout the festival week I worked nights polishing the films I would be showing. There is always small details that need adjusting – sound, lighting, music and transitions – things most people don’t notice but that I wanted to get done to make the films as nice as possible.

There were many people involved, and who were a tremendous contribution to the festival. Four of our friends from Minnesota, Ross, Art, Bruce and Char came to Kodiak and added luster with their music and dance. Everyone on the planning committee and in charge of various events deserve a round of applause, but without Mike and Kathy Rostad’s early vision and diligens the festival could never have happened.

Plans for another Kodiak Scandinavian Culture & Film Fest are already underway! The vision lives on!

If you missed the festival the films will soon be available on our Vimeo pay per view site. Check the festival website for details

Capone’s Mechanic

One day, we took a boat to Larsen Bay to visit with Jerry and Elaine Johnson. I knew that Jerry had some interesting stories about his father, who was born in Norway and had been Al Capone’s personal mechanic.

“My dad was a fantastic mechanic, who could tell what was wrong with an engine just by laying his hands on the fender,” Jerry told me. “He only had three years of schooling, but he was a mathematical genius. He couldn’t do figures on paper, but he could solve just about any mathematical problem in his head.”

Alphonse Gabriel “Al” Capone, a.k.a. Scarface, the notorious Chicago gangster of the 1920s, is probably best remembered for the Valentine’s Day Massacre in which he annihilated members of the O’Bannion gang. “Dad said that he was a good employer. He always paid on time, and he never tried to cheat you.” It was his attention to detail that finally got him arrested. He kept careful records on all his business deals and was convicted for tax evasion.

“Two goons stood guard, 24 hours a day, at the garage. Any time Capone wanted to go somewhere, they called my dad. If a part was needed, the goons could find one within 15 minutes. Capone had good contacts,” said Jerry laughing. “Capone’s cars were tanks. ‘Bulletproof,’ dad said. Whenever Capone came back from a trip, my dad was called in to service the cars. He wasn’t involved in smuggling, prostitution, or murder, of course; he was just the mechanic.”

When Capone went to jail, Jerry’s family moved to Alaska, and his dad got a job as an engineer at the cannery.

“One day he was mugged. The police found him lying on the ground behind the cannery and declared him dead. They called Gravedigger Odell, who also declared him dead, loaded the body in the back of the hearse, and filled out the necessary papers. Inside the hearse, it was warm and dry. Odell jumped in and began to drive to the morgue. Half way there, my dad sat up and asked, ‘Where are we?’ Gravedigger Odell nearly had a heart attack and almost crashed the car. My father survived, however, and lived many more years.”

Excerpt from the book “Kodiak, Alaska – The Island of the Great Bear” which can be ordered from Camera Q.

At the Kodiak Scandinavian Culture and Film Fest I will be premiering a new films about the Scandinavian-Sugpiaqs of Kodiak.  See festival site for more information.

Kodiaks Scandinavian Heritage – Reindeer herders

Lois Stover in Sami dress

People were drawn to Alaska for various reasons. Some arrived almost by accident, others came on a mission.

In 1882, the United States government initiated a program to aid the native people who were starving in southwestern Alaska. Sheldon Jackson, a Presbyterian minister who had established many schools up and down the Alaskan coast, was appointed to lead the project. In Siberia, he had seen herds of domesticated reindeer kept by the Chukchi people and thought that it ought to be possible to raise reindeer in Alaska. With government funding, he purchased 171 reindeer and arranged for a group of Chukchi herdsmen to accompany the animals across the Bering Sea to Alaska and teach the Yupik people how to raise them. It wasn’t easy to teach the Yupiks to herd reindeer, however, and when relations broke down completely between the Russian Chukchi and the Alaskan Yupiks, the project was terminated.

In 1894, they tried again. This time they hired Norwegian Samis, promising them a three-year contract, good wages, and free room and board. A group of 13 Sami reindeer herders left Kautokeino in Norway to come to Alaska and teach the Yupik people how to raise reindeer.

Four years later, a second group of 113 Samis were contracted and 537 reindeer were purchased from Norway. The project was a success and continued for several years. The animals increased in number and were divided into several herds. When their contract was fulfilled, some of the Norwegian Samis returned to Norway or moved elsewhere in the United States, while others married native women and stayed in Alaska.

Lois Stover and her sister, Mary Eyman, are descendants of the Norwegian Samis from Kautokeino. Lois moved to Kodiak from Bethel, Alaska in 1959. When I met her at a Sons of Norway meeting, I asked if I could visit her and hear more about her ancestors. Her house, ensconced in a grove of beautiful spruce trees, was located on the outskirts of town. We sat on the deck, and she and her sister, Mary Eyman, showed me their collection of Sami clothing and handiwork.

Lois and Mary’s grandparents came from Norway with the reindeer herd in 1898. Their grandmother, Ellen Sara, was only 15 years old when she arrived in Alaska and was pressured into an arranged marriage with a considerably older Norwegian Sami man. Ellen cried throughout her wedding day. “It made me so sad to hear about her marriage,” said Lois. “Grandma had three children in her first marriage. Then she divorced her husband, married another Norwegian man, and had four more children.”

“I’ve heard that the Russian Chukchi were rather rough on the reindeer, especially their milking technique,” continued Lois. “They would throw the reindeer on the ground and then suck the milk out, spitting it into a bottle. The Yupik couldn’t accept the way the Chukchi treated their animals. It was easier for the Norwegian Samis to teach their milking techniques – using their hands much the way you would milk a cow or a goat. The Samis from Norway had a much better relationship with the Yupik people than their predecessors from Russia, mostly because they showed respect to both people and animals.

“I think another reason was that the Samis and the Yupik people had similar cultures. They ate similar foods and clothed themselves in a similar fashion. The Samis adapted quickly to the Yupik way of life.”

Lois remembers that her grandparents often spoke Norwegian to each other “When my father started school he refused to speak English, and had to repeat first grade three times,” she said. “My grandmother told him that, if he didn’t learn to speak English, he would be in first grade until he was 30! That didn’t sound very good, so he learned English really fast!”

Tim, Lois and Mary’s father, continued his studies and, in 1937, became the first Sami-Eskimo to graduate from the University of Alaska.

“We were taught to be proud of our Sami-Eskimo heritage and to fight anyone who teased us!” Lois laughed. “But, of course, we didn’t really fight anyone.”

The girls learned both Yupik and Sami traditions, including how to preserve fish and dry reindeer meat. “I still love reindeer jerky. We were raised on reindeer meat and cloudberries. Cloudberries grow all over the tundra around Bethel where we lived.”

It wasn’t easy to raise reindeer in an area where caribou roam. They inspected the herd every morning, looking for the larger caribou bulls, which had to be chased off or shot. If they were not quickly removed, they might take off with several of the reindeer cows and weaken the herd.

“Many of the Yupik didn’t really want the responsibility of taking care of the herd,” explained Lois. “They often abandoned their herds during the fishing season. You can’t do that. The herds must be protected from caribou and wolves. Many lost their herds that way.”

In 1922, a herd of reindeer was transported to Akhiok on Kodiak, but no one took care of them, and they turned wild. There are still reindeer roaming the hills of southern Kodiak. “It would be fun to round up a few reindeer and start a new herd,” said Lois, her eyes glowing with excitement. “Grandfather always said that we were not here for the reindeer, the reindeer were here for us.”

Mary remembered all the good food they made following the slaughters. “Mother filled the intestines with blood, oats and spices to make blood sausages that we boiled and ate either hot or cold. She also made bread from reindeer brains, brain bread. It was hard and brittle, like Rice Crispies.”

Excerpt from the book “Kodiak, Alaska – The Island of the Great Bear” which can be ordered from Camera Q.

At the Kodiak Scandinavian Culture and Film Fest I will be premiering a new films about the Scandinavian-Sugpiaqs of Kodiak.  See festival site for more information.

Burton’s Ranch

Narrow Cape, the beach at Burton’s buffalo ranch, is a place on Kodiak I return to often. This is, without a doubt, the end of the road – as far out into Kodiak’s wilderness that you can come by car. Indeed, before the Kodiak Launch Complex was built in the late 1990s, the road was sometimes impassable. Back then, the 45-mile trip from Kodiak to Narrow Cape could take two to three hours.

In the late 1980s, the only paved roads were in the city. “The Road,” as it is called, was only gravel, and often riddled with deep holes and large rocks that had to be carefully avoided. The trip was long and tedious, and very few people ever bothered to visit Narrow Cape.

To get to Burton’s ranch, you drive east from the city along the winding road that follows the rugged coastline, rounding three inlets, Womens, Middle and Kalsin Bay. With all the twists and turns, the distance is more than doubled, but behind every curve awaits a new awe-inspiring view. The steep mountain slopes are blanketed in plush, green vegetation, dotted with wildflowers in white, blue, red, and yellow.

Just before turning off toward Burton’s ranch, the road passes Pasagshak Bay, a cove that, in the right light, resembles a tropical sea. There are always at least one or two people fishing in the Pasagshak River, which empties into the bay. During the Silver salmon run, the riverbanks are crowded with eager fishermen from Kodiak.

After Pasagshak, the road turns up into the mountains where the buffalo graze. Twenty years ago, when the road was at its worst, it was necessary for someone to walk ahead to guide the driver past the worst of the holes and rocks. Just before reaching the ranch, the road crosses a small creek. Today there is a bridge, but when I first came out here, there were only a few logs thrown across the ravine on which to cross.

Visiting the ranch used to mean a lot of extra wear and tear on the vehicle. Several times I’ve had not one but two flat tires driving from the ranch. Once, when I was approaching Narrow Cape, we heard a loud crash followed by a nasty crunching noise under the car. Jumping out to inspect the damage, I saw that the exhaust system had caught on a huge rock. Carefully, I put the car in reverse and backed up slowly, but the exhaust pipe was torn loose. After that, the car sounded like a Formula 1 race car.

The first time I visited Burton’s ranch, I felt like I’d entered a time warp. Animals wandered freely between the rugged buildings. Horses stood, saddled and ready for use. Until the late 1990s, the horse was the primary mode of transportation on the ranch. Ranch owners Bill and Kathy Burton and their son, Buck, were living the life I’d dreamed of as a boy. The first time I met Bill, it was like reuniting with a long-lost friend. For Bill, no one was a stranger.

Bill Burton came to Kodiak from Florida in 1966, to work at Joe Beaty’s ranch by Narrow Cape, which at that time was a traditional cattle ranch. The following year, Bill and his wife, Kathy, decided to buy the ranch from Joe and stay on Kodiak.

“It was a constant struggle against the bears,” Bill explained. “Raising cattle on Kodiak is hard, they are easy prey. When I bought the ranch, bear hunting was not very regulated, and poaching was fairly common. But there are fewer cattle owners today, and shooting bears to protect livestock is no longer accepted.”

“In 1979, bears killed 127 of our cattle,” he continued. “We had to make a difficult decision – quit or try something else. We decided to stay, and the following spring, we bought 40 head of buffalo.”

Unlike cattle, buffalo retain their natural instincts and are better equipped to defend themselves against bear attacks. A bear that has once approached an angry buffalo will seldom make the same mistake again.

Exchanging cattle for buffalo proved to be a profitable venture. Not only can the animals protect themselves, but the meat is also more valuable, and the bulls are attractive trophy animals for hunters. Today the herd has grown to over 500 head and is the largest buffalo herd in the state.

The ranch is enclosed by a high mountain range that meets the ocean. There is no need for fencing and the buffalo roam freely. The road out to Pasagshak Bay is the only breach in the natural enclosure. When too many buffalo have wandered off, the Burtons gather a posse on horseback to drive the animals back over the Pasagshak River and up through the passage where the road winds along the bay. I’ve participated in a few of those drives. Sitting on horseback, driving a herd of buffalo through one of the most scenic areas on earth has been the fulfillment of all my boyhood dreams.

Excerpt from the book “Kodiak, Alaska – The Island of the Great Bear” purchase it here.

At the Kodiak Scandinavian Culture and Film Fest I will be showing films from my 35+ years on the island. Meet Bill Burton and many other “old timers” in the film Voices of Kodiak. See festival site for more information.

Kodiak’s Scandinavian Heritage – Emil Norton

Emil Norton’s father, Johan Norgård, was born in 1870 to Swedish parents in Vasa, Finland. Their family was poor, so Johan left home when he was 16 and went to sea. He arrived in the USA later the same year, 1886, and tried to join the navy. The recruiter asked him how old he was.

“I’m 18,” replied Johan.

“Good,” said the recruiter, “what year were you born?”


“Then you’re only 16! Go home son.”

But Johan didn’t go home, he signed on to another ship for a couple of years and eventually ended up in Alaska. He was working on one of the mail boats when the captain told him that his last name, Norgård, was too hard to spell. Johan changed his name to John Norton.

In 1893, John came to Woody Island, a small island not far from the city of Kodiak, where he was offered a job as store manager/fur trapper with a salary of $15 a month. He married a Russian-Sugpiaq woman and, since he dealt primarily with native people, learned to speak fluent Alutiiq.

John and his wife had six children. When Emil, the youngest, was one year old, his mother died. The oldest girls helped raise their younger siblings.

Emil described his father as a big, strong man. One day an unusual cargo arrived at Kodiak’s harbor, large crates of gold that weighed 250-300 pounds each. John lifted a crate to his shoulder and carried it to land. Everyone watching was astounded by his strength. “The Scandinavian men came from good, hardy stock,” Emil declared.

Most of the Scandinavians that came to Kodiak were successful. They married native women and had large families, but they rarely spoke of their homeland or taught their children their own language. “The few words we did learn were swear words we picked up by eavesdropping,” says Frieda, shaking her head.

John Norton lived to be 88 years old. Emil remembers how, in his old age, his father talked in his sleep, in a language they couldn’t understand.

Emil began working when he was 14 years old. His first job was stamping fish crates for 15¢ an hour. He worked in the fishing industry for 61 years before he retired.

“Of course, you have to deduct a few years for the war,” interjects Emil. After boot camp he was sent to Italy. “We chased Germans and Italians in Northern Italy. We saw some hard battles and lost a lot of men in our battalion.”

“One day,” he continued, “I turned a corner and came eye to eye with three German soldiers. I lifted my gun and was just about to shoot, when the Germans suddenly threw down their weapons and raised their hands in surrender. I was shaking from fear and adrenalin but was so grateful that I didn’t have to shoot. I was the first in my company to take prisoners, but I didn’t get a medal.”

Excerpt from the book “Kodiak, Alaska – The Island of the Great Bear” which can be ordered from Camera Q.

At the Kodiak Scandinavian Culture and Film Fest I will be premiering a new films about the Scandinavian-Sugpiaqs of Kodiak.  See festival site for more information.

Good Friday 1964

Afognak was devastated by the earthquake and tsunami of 1964.

The 1964 Alaskan Earthquake, also known as The Great Alaskan Earthquake, began around dinnertime on March 27th – Good Friday. Emil and Frieda Norton and their children had just sat down to eat when the light in the ceiling began to sway and the table shook violently.

“We all jumped up and ran outside. We hung on to each other, because if we didn’t we would have fallen to our knees – it was shaking so violently. The asphalt in front of our house was rolling in two to three feet waves,” Emil told me. We had gathered at Gene and Phyllis Sundberg’s home to talk about their Scandinavian heritage, when the conversation drifted to the earthquake.

According to testimony, the entire town of Kodiak rolled, as if carried by a gigantic wave that lifted buildings up in the air and then lowered them again. Lasting almost four minutes, the earthquake was one of the most powerful ever recorded, reaching a magnitude of 9.2 on the Richter scale.

“I recall the mountain looked like a bear’s stomach, breathing out and in, and moaning. When I explained this to the scientists that came later, they said it was just my imagination,” Phyllis muttered derisively.

“You had to see it to believe it,” added Frieda.

“We thought it was the end of the world. We stood in a ring holding on to each other, praying the ‘Our Father’,” said Gene.

“When the shaking stopped, we hopped in the car and drove down to the cannery where I was the superintendent,” Emil continued. “We were stopped by a marine who told us we couldn’t go any further. He told us to turn around and go up to Pillar Mountain. At 11 o’clock the tremors had stopped, so we tried to drive home, but we were stopped again by a marine, who told us it was too dangerous to go back. So we drove up here, to Gene and Phyllis Sundberg’s house instead.”

Eighteen people found shelter at the Sundberg home. Another fifteen stayed with the teacher who was renting the basement apartment. “One of them had an infant,” said Phyllis. “We didn’t have any diapers, but I told her not to worry; I had plenty of towels. We had to cut up the shower curtain to use for plastic panties.”

“With so many people in the house, and everyone using the bathroom, the first thing we ran out of was toilet paper!” Phyllis continued. “But there’s a little creek just outside, so we had plenty of water.”

“Now we have a lot of toilet paper stored up in the attic waiting for the next tremor,” laughed Gene.

The first Tsunami wave hit less than an hour later, destroying the entire harbor area, the canneries, and the shops along Main Street. The highest waves that swelled in over the city crested at 30 feet. The waves that destroyed Old Harbor and Afognak Village were an estimated 45 feet.

“We could hear buildings being crushed. I was looking through field glasses, focused on the Orpheum Theater, when all of a sudden, a boat sailed right past the window. I was so shocked, I screamed and threw the binoculars across the room,” Phyllis remembered laughing.

It took months before they could rebuild the city. “It was so depressing to see the fires that burned continually for months just to get rid of the trash,” sighed Phyllis. “They had to get rid of the old Kodiak before they could build the new.”

The fishing industry was hit the hardest – fishermen lost their boats and canneries were destroyed. Nearly a year went by before the cannery where Emil Norton worked partially reopened.

“Kodiak has a long and unique history. You know, despite the volcanoes and earthquakes, there is no better place to live,” concluded Emil.

The powerful earthquake triggered a series of tsunami waves that washed over Afognak, the second largest island on Kodiak archipelago, destroying most of the village Afognak. The ground sank six feet in some places, and wells and lakes were contaminated by salt water. The people of Afognak faced a difficult decision – rebuild or relocate.

The decision to relocate passed by one vote. The new village, built in a more protected location in Kizhuyak Bay, was named Port Lions.

An eerie silence engulfed the decaying village when I last visited Afognak village. Plates and cups were left standing on kitchen tables, and knickknacks lay helter-skelter on the shelves.

The schoolhouse that once echoed with the laughter of children, stood silent and empty. The church lay toppled on the beach, and the graveyard, with all the graves, had been washed away by the waves. In a few years, what was left of the village will be overgrown by vegetation or buried under the sand.

Excerpt from the book “Kodiak, Alaska – The Island of the Great Bear” which can be purchased here.

At the Kodiak Scandinavian Culture and Film Fest  November 6-12, 2017 I will be showing films from my 30+ years on the island. Don’t miss the film Good Friday 1964. See festival site for more information.

Kodiak’s Scandinavian Heritage – Old Harbor

Old Harbor (1988)

Old Harbor is certainly worthy of its nickname – Little Scandinavia. Most of the village’s 220 inhabitants are descendants of young Swedish and Norwegian men who arrived on Kodiak in the early 1900s. The village is nestled between a narrow beach and the steep slopes of the grassy mountains. Nearby islands protect the harbor from the Pacific storms.

Rolf Christiansen, was born in 1890 in Kristiania (now Oslo) during the time when Sweden and Norway were a union. Arthur Haakanson, was born in 1886 and came from southern Sweden via Langeland in Denmark. Both of them ended up, through remarkable circumstance and after many years at sea, in Old Harbor on Kodiak.

As a boy, Arthur Haakanson dreamed of going to sea, but his father thought that, at 14, he was too young, so he arranged for him to work at the docks instead. It wasn’t long, however, before he was offered a job on a ship heading for Greenland. Returning home a year later, Arthur found that a life at sea suited him better, and he soon signed on to a new ship.

In New York, he met a young Norwegian sailor, Rolf Christiansen. They became good friends but soon went their separate ways. Many years later, their paths crossed again when they ran into each other in a bar in San Francisco. The conversation drifted to Alaska and the possibility of making good money. The two friends separated again, but the thought of Alaska lingered in their minds.

Arthur got a job on the herring boat Hunter, en route to Alaska. On August 30, 1917, with its hold full of cod, the ship hit a rock outside of Chignik on the Alaska Peninsula. The ship sank in just four minutes, but everyone on board escaped in the lifeboats. The rock that sank the ship is still known as Hunter’s Rock.

In Chignik, the last ship going south had already sailed, so the crew boarded a ship headed for Kodiak where they had to spend the winter. At the time, the population was only 300, and the town had very little to offer the shipwrecked survivors. In the spring, a passenger ship arrived with cannery workers, and most of the crew from the Hunter booked passage south. Thirteen decided to stay – Arthur was one of them. He spent the next ten years working at different jobs around the island, until he was offered a position as foreman at a cannery in Three Saints Bay.

One day, he heard that a Norwegian whaling ship was docked at Port Hobron, near Old Harbor. A dance was held every weekend in Old Harbor, and the Norwegian crew was expected to attend. Arthur and several friends hopped in a boat and rowed to Old Harbor, a four-hour trip, to attend the dance and to meet the men from Scandinavia. As Arthur’s boat pulled into Old Harbor, he was surprised to see his old friend, Rolf Christensen, arriving in another boat. “What have you been doing for the last 15 years?” he shouted in greeting. The two friends had a lot of catching up to do.

At the dance in Old Harbor, Rolf and Arthur met young girls from the village. The following spring, a big double wedding was arranged for the two friends and their brides. Both families were blessed with many children, and in time, Rolf’s daughter, Mary, married Arthur’s son, Sven.

The most common name in Old Harbor today is Christensen. These are descendants of Arthur Haakanson’s best friend, Rolf Christensen, who arrived in Old Harbor in 1931. I met with Rolf’s son, Carl Christensen, at his beautiful fishing resort on the edge of the village.

“Dad said that he ran away from home when he was 15,” Carl told me, “and he sailed around the world three times before ending up here on Kodiak.”

Shortly after arriving, Rolf was offered a job as a cook at the Port Hobron Whale Station on Sitkalidak Island, just across the bay from Old Harbor. After meeting Sasha Kelly, a young Sugpiaq woman, he would row across the bay to Old Harbor every weekend to court her. When they married, Rolf was 41 and Sasha was 17. Sasha loved Rolf’s blue eyes and often said that she would like to pluck them out and eat them. Considering that seal eyes are a delicacy among the natives of Kodiak, it may not have been just an idle threat. Happily, Rolf held on to his eyes throughout his life.

Excerpt from the book “Kodiak, Alaska – The Island of the Great Bear” which can be ordered from Camera Q.

At the Kodiak Scandinavian Culture and Film Fest I will be premiering a new films about the Scandinavian-Sugpiaqs of Kodiak.  See festival site for more information.

Close encounter with an Elephant

Many people ask me if I’ve ever been scared, if I’ve every experienced something frightening in the wild. Sure – sometimes situations occur that can be a little…disconcerting.

We once had a bull elephant that every evening, right at sunset, crossed a shallow lake just a short distance from our campsite. I had seen him several evenings in a row and as he crossed the lake the sun’s rays danced across the ripples spreading out from his enormous body. I tried to find a spot from where I could film him but it was difficult because there were only a few low, thorny acacia bushes around the lake.

One afternoon I chose one of those bushes about 75 yards from the path where the elephant walked every evening. Sure enough, he came on time that evening, too. I had set up my camera so I could capture the glittering sunlight on the ripples as the elephant crossed the lake, but this evening was different. The elephant stopped near the water’s edge for a moment, then turned suddenly and walked briskly, straight to the little bush I was using as camouflage. He stopped right next to me and began to eat the bush, which just barely covered my head. I bent over the camera and held my breath. This was not good. Why had he changed his habits this particular evening and chosen my bush to eat?

I could see the enormous feet just in front of me and heard how he tore and pulled at the branches with his trunk just a hand’s width above my head. I also knew that the elephants in this area didn’t have the best reputation. People had been killed in encounters with angry elephants, especially the bulls. Now one was standing right in front of me. Running away would be futile. There was no other place to hide and outrunning an irate elephant is impossible; they are too fast. If I startled him, it would only make my situation more precarious. No, I sat still and contemplated my perilous position.

After a few minutes that seem to last an eternity, the elephant turned slowly to the next bush. I took a deep breath and felt that my chances of surviving increased with every step the elephant walked away from my bush. He stopped about 15 yards away and then turned around and came back! He finished off the last few branches that remained in my dry old bush that was now completely useless as camouflage. I sat still expecting him to grab me by the hair or wrap his trunk around my body. Strangely enough he avoided touching me at all, even though he ate every branch surrounding me.

When the last leaf was consumed the elephant turned slowly and walked away from my severely damaged hiding place and crossed the lake surrounded by thousands of glittering stars in the final embers of the sunset. I was far too stunned to start the camera and capture the mighty bull on film as he walked away. It’s quite humbling to be in close contact with one of the largest creatures on earth. I came away from there without a film sequence of the elephant but with images imprinted permanently in my mind. The words of my young friend from the Ahikuntaka came back to me – “Sir! Sir, don’t be afraid!”

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