Why Cordova? by Mel Burke Published on December 19, 2014
We went to Cordova. And when we came home, we were repeatedly asked “why?” The answers focus on the land, community, resiliency, salmon, and people. And, interestingly enough, those answers always lead to more questions about how Cordova adapts to change. Cordova is 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”: in a word, 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 the long term. 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 approximately12,000 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. 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. As 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 including lifting sections of the Copper River Delta up six to nine feet, earthquakes seem to just be an accepted part of life when living on a large fault line. That lifting of acres of land created new ecosystems, freshwater marshlands that had once been saltwater. The 9.2 magnitude quake lasted over four minutes on March 27, 1964, and still holds the record as the most powerful recorded quake in U.S. history. The event lives in legend here in Cordova. Earthquakes seem to just be an accepted part of life when living on a large fault line. The Exxon Valdex spill happened 25 years later almost to the day. On March 24, 1989, the Exxon Valdez tanker hit Bligh Reef in Prince William Sound and spilled 11 million to 38 million (depending on sources) of crude oil into the Sound. The Spill lives in legend in a different way. It 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 hard to find some. And that’s why we went there—not for answers, but for the pursuit of questions.

Cordova is a magnet for the adventurous and ambitious. Maybe it’s the draw of Alaska’s staggering wilderness and natural beauty, or maybe it’s the potential to make a lot of money off a few hard but fast months of work. Whatever the reason, a singular sense of longing and optimism saturates the air there. Alex Tizon knows the feeling well.


A Pulitzer-winning journalist, former bureau chief for The Los Angeles Times, author of Big Little Man, and professor at the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication, Tizon’s gift is the written word. But his was not a direct path to success. In college, he studied political science and assumed he would end up in law school. That was the practical thing to do. Yet the impractical version of twenty-something Tizon daydreamed of being an author and living out Kerouacian adventures. It was this dream, and the promise of quick cash and lots of it, that first brought Tizon to Cordova in the summer of 1981.


“After college, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do,” Tizon says. “Going up to Alaska was my version of On the Road. It was a journey. I went up to Cordova not really knowing what to expect, and this little fishing town turned out to be this really important place for me.”


By ‘81, Tizon had finished most of his coursework in political science at the University of Oregon. He then left college without applying for a degree and, as he puts it, “just wandered around” for a while.


He knew friends who had been going up to the small town of Cordova, Alaska in the summers and coming back with pockets full of cash. So, when his friends asked him to join them that summer, he boarded a plane and headed for the last frontier.


In the early ‘80s, there were five major canneries operating full-time in Cordova. Each summer, hopeful workers from the lower 48 states and around the world flocked to Cordova’s canneries looking for seasonal work. Once all of the jobs were taken, leftover hopefuls spent their days standing outside of the canneries from early morning to evening waiting for workers to quit or be let go and open up a position. A greenhorn, Tizon waited that first summer for almost a month, standing in line outside canneries all day hoping for someone to hire him.


Tizon wasn’t nervous going up to Cordova with little money, half a plan, and no experience. “Going up there, you know, I was 20 years old and fearless,” he says. “I knew I’d be alright, that I’d figure out a way. I was dumb and fearless.”


After nearly a month of waiting for work, he started running out of money and knew he had to either get a job or move on. As with all last-ditch providence, it was then that he landed his first cannery gig. His first job was the “lowest and dirtiest” of all cannery work, known as working the “slime line.” Responsible for gutting fish as they slid past on a conveyor belt, Tizon says slime line workers spent 12 to 18 hours per day standing in a “shower of blood and viscera.” Despite the job’s uncanny resemblance to Dante’s ninth circle of hell, Tizon stuck with it that summer, worked hard, and put in his time. He returned three more times, in the summers of ‘82, ‘83 and ‘85, and eventually earned his way up to the elite cannery class of “case up” workers, a dry job on the opposite end from the slime line.


Tizon describes his first experiences in Cordova as a “heady mixture of romanticism and dirty reality.” His first summer in Cordova, he couldn’t afford a hotel room or car and the local churches were full to capacity with other migrant summer workers, so he slept in an abandoned house. A short distance outside of town, damaged and forgotten after the Great Alaskan earthquake of 1964, a house had split and leaned precariously along a high overhang looking down at a bay. That summer, Tizon spent most of his nights in a sleeping bag laid out on its sloping floor. There were broken windows, no electricity, and no plumbing.


He bought his first gun that summer, to ward off bears and intruders. He knew nothing about guns, but someone had told him he should have one for protection up there, so he got one. He chose a .357 Magnum to start. Once during that first summer, he was robbed. A watch and his only coat were stolen from the house, and the few things he owned suddenly became fewer.


Tizon shrugs and says that’s what happens when you live as a squatter. “Here I was, a smart, suburban, university-educated kid with a political science degree who was living like a homeless bum,” he says. Part of the magic of Cordova was the “revelry, the carelessness and carefreeness” of shedding one’s identity and becoming someone else up there.

During the last two of his Alaska summers, he took the passenger seat out of a 1979 Volkswagen Rabbit, built a makeshift cot in the empty space, and traveled and lived in his car.


Tizon kept returning to Cordova for the money, but also for the experiences — he had never encountered anything like it before. He describes his summers living on the edge there as an otherworldly and magical time in his youth. Tizon says he’s never drunk as much or danced as much before or since.


He remembers spending 90 percent of his time while working the long, mindless hours on the slime line daydreaming about writing and women. He says workers on the slime line “had to cultivate a very active imagination just to stay sane.”


When he was still looking for work that first summer, Tizon recalls standing in line outside canneries from 7 or 8 a.m. until dusk. Once it got dark, he and his friends hung out at the local bars to dance and drink. If he wasn’t in an unemployment line waiting for work, Tizon was at the public library or one of the clubs.


He remembers wild characters, like the patrons of Old West frontier saloons, coming from work at the canneries and seiners to dance in their waders and rain coats and rubber boots. “We were all just young people having adventures and finding our way to the next step,” he says of himself and his friends.


Tizon fell in love with Alaska during those four summers. “That sense of longing and searching colored the whole place,” he says. He liked that, planted in the middle of serious wilderness for hundreds of miles in every direction, with no roads into or out of town, the people of Cordova weren’t isolated. Everyone needed everyone else in order to get by.


During his third summer working in a cannery, Tizon realized his seasonal affair with Cordova would eventually have to end. It was time to buckle down again, time to go back to school, time to get a real job. He decided to apply to law school, “because that’s what people do.”


His father had gone to law school and it was Tizon’s default option. Yet, in one small but life-changing conversation, a teacher back home convinced him to go to journalism school and be a writer. He says he originally “approached journalism school with the same ambivalence as law school.”

After he had been accepted to Stanford, he went back to Cordova for one last summer and “one more wad of cash for grad school.”


When Tizon finally came home, he unwittingly opened the door to what became a successful career in journalism and, over the next three decades, established him as a writer and took him places that far exceeded even the expectations of youthful, quixotic, adventure-chasing Tizon.


He still sometimes returns to those old stories he dreamed up but never published as a young wanderer. He says they remind him of who he was, a “lost little kid, the way most 19- and 20-year-olds are.”

“[The stories] were written very preciously,” says Tizon. “I was a kid who wanted to be a writer who wasn’t yet a writer. They’re a record of my thoughts, an evolution of my own thinking.”


Tizon returned to Cordova in 2008 to do a story for The Los Angeles Times on the deterioration of the cannery industry there. Today, he says, it’s a shadow of its former glory when he worked there in the 80s. But, he says, it was secretly an excuse to visit Cordova again. Though the fishing industry there has changed over the past 30 years, some things have remained exactly the same. Tizon says most of the streets and some of the buildings, like the historic Alaskan Hotel, haven’t changed an iota since the early 80s.

He knows he’ll go back again soon. He’d like to take his wife and children, who have never been to Cordova, just to visit. If he were a millionaire, he says, he’d own a home near there. For Tizon, Cordova and its tiny, tight-knit fishing community is a part of his personal story now.


“No other place brings me to that exact moment in my own history,” says Tizon. “I’m never going to have that exact same angst again. When I went there in 2008 and walked down Main Street and went to the library and to the Reluctant Fisherman (an inn whose lounge is one of Cordova’s most popular), I remembered what I felt like sitting there, eating their fries and having five dollars in my pocket, and looking out the windows at this incredible sight and not really knowing what my life was about yet.”

Many of us who have wandered far enough north to have stayed in that quiet little place, nestled among glaciers and cut off from the rest of the world by a landscape so gorgeous and rare, remain haunted by that same adventurous longing. Mvvvvvvvvvaybe it’s the pure air, or the open sky, or the close proximity to such powerful, true wild. Over and above its sometimes gritty reality, Cordova exudes an innocent romanticism and a sense of promise that is as intoxicating as it is umatchable.

Slime Line Kerouac by Jessica Hollowell Thurman Published on May 28, 2015
No Road by Kevin Mataraci Published on October 17, 2014

We left a lot of things behind when we departed for Cordova—high-speed Internet, hairdryers and happy hours. Though we were in a new landscape with different sights, sounds and customs, there were plenty of reminders that we weren’t too far from the lower forty-eight. For me, those reminders came as bumper stickers, and the most ubiquitous bumper sticker here was one that read, “NO ROAD Cordova, Alaska.”


The longest road in Cordova ends fifty miles outside of town at the Miles Glacier Bridge, paved on top of a railroad that was once used to transport copper ore. Though the road ends on the far side of the bridge, the now abandoned railroad continues past the nearby town of Chitina. Throughout the years, this abandoned railroad has been the proposed path for a road connecting Cordova to Chitina and thus the Alaskan road system. This connection would undoubtedly bring in more tourists, more fishermen and other outside economic interests—all with the potential of unbalancing an ecosystem and economy already vast and fragile.


The Good Friday earthquake of 1964 destroyed part of the bridge, dumping one end of the span into the river below. Repairs were made to keep the bridge usable, but the road to the bridge has been washed out for years about 35 miles from town. After we left this year, the road washed out only 14 miles from town. It’s a tough place to maintain a road.


In Cordova, “no road,” is not a simple reference to the fact there are no roads connecting Cordova to anywhere else in Alaska, or the world. It is a sign of respect, a bow, an acknowledgement of our inferiority to the power nature will wield. Comparatively, there is no road in Cordova and there is a lot of nature—and rightly so, the salmon fishery here is so deeply ingrained in the economy, ecology and lifestyle that anything but the dominance of nature would mean failure for humans.


P146-21; Alaska State Library;Loreta Larsan Photograph Collection