Monday, April 10, 2017

Ed Opheim Dories

The Kodiak Archipelago has a long, rich tradition of dory construction and use. This is a story of the rugged and capable dories built for the local fisheries by Ed Opheim.

The village of Ouzinkie is located on Spruce Island, approximately twelve miles north of Kodiak, Alaska.  In the early days of North American land appropriation, Ouzinkie became an outlying community for the Russian American Company, an official St Petersburg effort to expand settlement along the west coast of the North American continent. The Russians referred to the settlement in 1849 as "Uzenkiy," meaning "village of Russians and Creoles." In 1889, the Royal Packing Company constructed a cannery at Ouzinkie, which spurred the development of a modern fishery. This aerial photo is from 1960.

The earliest commercial fishing in Alaska was the salt cod industry. Hand-built dories used in this labor intensive effort were oar-powered until the 1920's, when small horsepower outboards were employed.
Ed Opheim, Sr. recalled that cod were so abundant around Unga, where he was born in 1910, that a red rag was all that was needed for bait.

Opheim had his own small lumber mill, processing the local spruce he used in dory construction. Hundreds of his boats were used in cod and salmon fisheries.
With his two sons, Ed Jr. and Norman, he built more than six hundred dories and skiffs from native spruce. For decades they were ubiquitous in the salmon gillnet fleet until aluminum and fiberglass skiffs replaced them in the 1980's - though his beautiful dories still ply Alaskan waters today.

Recently, I had a chance to look at an original 24-foot Opheim dory. Roy Parkinson owns this iconic piece of history and it has been fifteen years since he motored the boat to Port Townsend, WA, from SE Alaska. Roy fished this boat for several years in Alaska, everything from salmon to crab (the cod fishery has long since been decimated). His Opheim dory is outfitted with a 13hp Perkins diesel and once sported a sprit-rigged sail.

Building with solid timber has the advantage that all the parts can be replaced as needed, so as you might expect, Doryman is considering making Roy an offer on this fine old vessel. Despite years of neglect, it's sturdy carvel-planked hull is still tough, though the plank on frame bottom appears to be in sad shape. As I ran my hand along the still substantial shear-guard, years of plying the challenging waters of Alaska came to mind. This old dory as more life left in her, no doubt of that.

In his later years, Ed Opheim moved to Kodiak,
took up writing, and his books are now celebrated local lore. (Ed lived to be 100 years old.)
He wrote "The Memoirs and Saga of a Cod Fisherman's Son: Ten years of dory-fishing cod (1923-1933) at Sunny Cove, Spruce Island, Alaska", which is sadly out of print and as far as I can tell, no longer available.
If anyone knows of a copy, I'd love to hear of it.

Old photos of Ouzinkie courtesy of Timothy Smith.
Thanks to Marty Loken, boat restorer extraordinaire, for bringing this old work boat to my attention.


Bursledon Blogger said...

You can never have too many boats and that looks like a good one.

Interesting story about a part of the world I'd like to visit.



doryman said...

Come on by, Max. We'll outfit you with a stout dory and you can take the Inside Passage. It's only about 1000 miles. Some of the wildest scenery in the world.

none said...

the Alaskan magazine published two separate issues , about this man and his boats !!! worth finding !!!