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!”

People from Different Worlds

One little girl stands out especially in my memory, even though I only saw her for a few seconds. No more than six years old, she was digging through a pile of garbage in southern India. There was nothing unusual about the girl. In fact, I might not have noticed her if it hadn’t have been for the gigantic black pig digging through the same garbage pile. Just as we drove slowly past her, she looked up and caught my eye. While I sat comfortably in the car on my way to the hotel, she was struggling to find a little bit of food before the pig found it and gobbled it up.

My first production in India, 1980, was a documentary film about the Swedish orphanage, Elida Children’s Home. That trip to India gave me experiences that have influenced my life in many aspects. We landed in Bombay (now called Mumbai) early one morning in April. We left the airport before 6 AM and the taxi dropped us off in the middle of the city where we walked along streets where people dressed in rags still slept or were just waking up. A few luckier individuals slept on collapsed cardboard boxes. I was only 22 years old and never experienced anything like it – thousands of people! Many were children that appeared so frail they probably didn’t have the energy to wake up again. Others sat up, rooting among their few possessions – a rag, a bottle, a cup. A few eyed me carefully. It was surreal – everything seemed to move in slow motion.

Before embarking on this trip an older man told me, “When you come home you will be a completely different person. No one visits India without being deeply affected.” Why our Lord has given us such divergent circumstances and how we can find it so difficult to be grateful, are questions that have often crossed my mind. India has changed a considerably since my first visit in 1980, much to the better, but the memories remain.

A few years later, in 1987, we filmed a series of educational films. I had also been asked to film some desert excursions for a Swedish charter company. Tourists rode on camels from Sakkare to the pyramids in Giza. (A fantastic experience that I’ve had myself.) Stopping at a small oasis with palm trees and Bedouin tents to rest, they were invited into the tents and offered a cup of tea.

I stood outside and filmed as the tourists went into the tent. After a while two women came out, enthusiastic and grateful for everything they had seen and received. One of the women expressed her gratitude speaking loudly, “Such beautiful children! Imagine these poor people opening their home to us and sharing the little they have. What a wonderful experience!”

They moved on and soon two other women came rushing out of the tent. They were not happy. As they came closer I heard them griping, “Did you see the flies in that little child´s eyes sitting on the ground? So disgusting. How could the tour guides takes us to such a dirty tent and expect us to drink that awful tea?” They hurried away toward the camels, complaining loudly about their experience inside the Bedouin tent.

People react so differently when confronted with something foreign or difficult to understand. You can face it with a positive or a negative attitude. When we’re looking for film ideas, we look for the good, the positive, even among the difficulties and problems. Our aim is to encourage hope and happiness even in situations that appear trying and despairing.

If everyone could focus on the positive in life, what a celebration it would be.