Why Cordova?

We went to Cordova. And when we came home, we were repeatedly asked “why?”

It’s sparsely populated. Nestled in the Southeastern corner of the state, hidden on one side by mountains and glaciers and the other by the Prince William Sound, Cordova is both connected to and protected from the ocean. The only way in or out is by plane or boat and even that is a quite a trip as it’s fifty-two air miles from Valdez and 150 from Anchorage. This means there isn’t a whole lot of superfluous human traffic—no one comes or goes without specific purpose.

It’s lush—listed as a “temperate rainforest” on the State of Alaska website. The town and surrounding mountains have been a hotbed of natural resources since the first Native Alaskans arrived. They stayed for the steady supply of food and furs. The explorers who came after opened the door for the gold rushers, the oil entrepreneurs, commercial fishers, cannery corporations, the railroad and later, scientists and researchers to stick their hand in the Cordovan cookie jar.

Which leads us to the third and final part of “Why Cordova”: science! In conjunction with its insular location and the two community-altering events of the 1964 earthquake and 1989 oil spill, the Prince William Sound has become a unique place to study what happens to an environment when humans start mucking about. Which led us there. Because where there is new science, there is news, not just about science, but about the people affected by and affecting the results, about the community those people created and perpetuate, about their memory of what once was and what is now their home.

Oregon and Washington would continue to serve as cautionary tales to Alaska.

But it isn’t easy.

In place of asking for a direct cause and effect—because species ecology research is a long-term process and no one has direct answers yet—we tried to look at what kind of dramatic natural or human changes had happened in the area. Two instances cropped up: The 1964 earthquake and the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill. Each had a direct impact on salmon either permanently or in a long-term sort of way. The earthquake altered the habitat of much of the delta, causing salmon and many other species to adapt and find new areas for survival and reproduction. The oil spill killed off huge populations of all types of wildlife with the added bonus of covering major food sources in oil.

Part of the story of science here is understanding the science of salmon—counting and conserving in this case—and where it is today.

The other part is in memory, because you really can’t start the story of a place without knowing some of its backstory.

Start with the Native Alaskans that first settled in the Prince William Sound. It’s been estimated a few times over how long ago the first people crossed the Bering Strait (some say approximately 12,000 years ago, some say approximately 17,000 years ago, and no one can really explain why there’s evidence of human life in the southern part of the states dated just about 50,000 years ago) and then argued whether or not that was the only way human life made it to this set of continents. I was taught a long time ago to refuse belief in overarching statements that included “all,” “every,” or “only”—they were phrases meant to trip you up on true-or-false quizzes. However they got there, the first people to settle in Alaska did it a long time before anyone else did.

They were what is now known as the Chugach peoples—or the early ancestors of them. The Chugach National Forest and the mountain range just behind Cordova are named for these Alaskan Natives, who in turn earned their name from the decision to settle in the area. The story goes that while out in boats, native hunters heard a voice cry out “Chu-ga, Chu-ga” or “hurry, hurry.” Following the voice they found the mountains poking free from the glaciers that had covered the Sound for so long. As the glaciers further receded, these first Chugach made their way down to the modern day site of Cordova and were soon joined by roaming Tlingit, Aleut and Eyak peoples, populating and thriving in the southeastern bay.

Wikimedia commons; Engraving by John Webber, “Chugach man wearing spruce root hat, beads, earrings, nose piercing, woven cloak Prince William Sound, Alaska”

A string of Russian explorers were the first Europeans to make it to Alaska as a part of the Great Northern Expeditions, followed shortly by the Spanish. The last round of Russian explorers was a part of the disastrous Zaikov expedition—the Chugach refused to befriend them and half of Zaikov’s 300 men died from scurvy before they could return to Russia empty handed—before establishing Russian dominance in 1785. The British, in no small part thanks to the James Cook expedition, became a part of the fur trade in the Prince William Sound at about the same time.

It isn’t fair to say that disaster struck shortly thereafter, but rarely in the history of the Americas has European exploration done much for the first peoples it contacts. By 1837, a disastrous bout of small pox brought by the influx of traders and fishermen had claimed just about a quarter of the Alaska Native population—a population that early Russian texts show had been on the rise until first contact. Additionally, exploration proved harmful to the resources that led so many to stay in the Sound. By 1910 a mere twenty-four otter pelts were shipped from Alaska—a staggering loss considering the 100,000 that had been shipped just twenty years prior.

Around the turn of the 20th century, after a series of names, Cordova was finally christened for one of the first Spanish explorers to swing through and put his name on maps. The Sound itself was named for a British prince—Prince William IV— who coincidentally also birthed the phrase “silly billy.” Here is where Cordova’s “dance to your own drummer” character starts taking shape.

By now the US had purchased Alaska from Russia and proceeded to do what any great American territory would do in that instance: put down railroads—the Copper River Railroad and the Northwestern. Additionally, Cordova built up docks with processing companies to handle the massive influx of commercial fishing and clamming—including the Orca Cannery which is now a lodge and was our home for 31 days this past July. Cordova, for the first time, was connected to the rest of the world.

You really can’t start the story of a place without knowing some of its backstory

A great chunk of the Alaskan Territory was blocked off as national forest reserve—including what would become the Chugach National Forest, 79 percent of which is made up of the Copper River Delta and the Prince William Sound and included local resources like Alaskan coal. This meant that Cordovan residents had to pay to import British coal despite there being a whole mess of it in their own state. This led to the Cordova Coal Party—a British Tea Party style dumping of coal into the harbor (minus the offensive Native American costumes). Later, angry again with the government and their land reserves, an effigy of Gifford Pinchot, the founder of the U.S. Forest Service and confidant of Teddy Roosevelt, would be led through town and destroyed.

P277-018-038;Alaska State Library;Wickersham State Historic Sites Photograph Collection

In protest of foreign coal entering Cordova, many residents dumped said coal into the harbor. P277-018-038;Alaska State Library;Wickersham State Historic Sites Photograph Collection

At about the same time that Cordova earned its name, the fish processing industry was in full boom in the Northwest thanks to a number of technological innovations. It became apparent over the following fifty years that the industry could continue to expand at its current rate but there would be consequences.

In 1916, Alaska’s clamming market expanded as it was introduced to the national market—a consequence of the depleted clam populations in both Oregon and Washington. These coastal members of the lower 48 would continue to serve as cautionary tales to Alaska as just about seventy years later Cordova ceased clamming operations as well—in part due to over-harvesting, in part due to the shift from the earthquake.

At about the same time, Alaska was taking center stage in the fish processing market as the canneries in Oregon were closing down. The Columbia River fishery in particular experienced a spectacular and brief fifty-year boom before stalling as the Pacific salmon runs depleted.

The fishing boom in Alaska spurred the need to decide who could fish where and for what reasons as more and more fishermen spread through the Sound every year – pressure that increased as salmon populations plummeted on major fisheries like the Columbia River in the middle of the 20th century.

The federal government created the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act in 1971 in which Alaskan land was distributed to Alaskan Natives and local villages so long as they were under a “corporation” title (no federal government plan involving indigenous peoples is without flaws and it should be noted that the ANCSA was not perfect).

Thanks to a series of subsistence laws passed in the late 20th century, all Alaskans can now practice subsistence hunting and fishing. Subsistence lifestyles aid Alaskans economically in that they can pay to import fewer items from abroad. Such a close tie to local resources gives people who live and work in Cordova a fierce loyalty and sense of ownership of the wilderness that they cohabitate with.

Which is why disaster events like the 1964 earthquake and the 1989 Exxon-Valdez oil spill had such a huge impact on the community. While the earthquake had its own series of intense ecological impacts and changes, earthquakes seem to just be an accepted part of life when living on a large fault line.

Earthquakes seem to just be an accepted part of life when living on a large fault line

The Spill, however, ignited a serious fervor and rage within the community. Unlike the slow burn of commercial fishing and clamming and the attempts to rectify those impacts in native species’ populations (things like federal regulations on fishing seasons and limits and hatcheries releasing bred-in-captivity fish), the Exxon-Valdez spill was all at once avoidable and irreversibly destructive. And the more the unequipped and untrained rescue teams attempted to purge the several million gallons of oil from the Prince William Sound and surrounding areas, the more damage occurred. Hot water washing beaches to get oil off the rocks exterminated whatever micro-organism populations hadn’t already been greatly damaged by the spill itself. Concerns over fish that had been covered in the crude substance poisoning predator populations were brought to fruition as the death toll of eagles, bears, otters, and fish grew to uncountable thousands.

That’s why we went there—not for answers, but for the pursuit of questions

The Prince William Sound Science Center (PWSSC) was established shortly after the spill as a way of committing to the conservation and study of the Prince William Sound area. Which brings us back to our reasons for Cordova. The scientists and researchers at the PWSSC look specifically at how things have changed and are changing.

They tell us it’s a great place to do that because it’s in its own world, its ecologically diverse, the people here care. They told us to get out there in the Sound, that if we looked we’d see it—what makes Cordova such a wonderful place to study, to learn. And somewhere in the rivers, the marshes, the deep wooded world of bears and eagles, somewhere in the one room library whose tables are covered in fliers to learn Eyak, in the small, dusty special collections shelf, somewhere looking out over the docks from the bus-turned-taco-shack, we figured out why we were there.

Cordova, much like the rest of the world, doesn’t have any definitive answers about climate change. But the people there are working damn hard to find some. And that’s why we went there—not for answers, but for the pursuit of questions.