Hjalmar "Ofi" Olson was interviewed on August 17, 2014 by Karen Hebert in his home in Dillingham, Alaska. In this first part of a two part interview, Ofi talks about growing up in Dillingham and along a trapline, commercial and subsistence fishing, and working for the canneries. He also talks about changes in fishery management, the Limited Entry permit system, his involvement with Bristol Bay Native Corporation (BBNC), and changes in the community of Dillingham.
Digital Asset Information
Project: Fishing and Natural Resources in Bristol Bay
Date of Interview: Aug 17, 2014
Narrator(s): Hjalmar "Ofi" Olson
Interviewer(s): Karen Hebert
Transcriber: Landmark Associates, Inc.
After clicking play, click on a section to navigate the audio or video clip.
Childhood and family background
Life in Dillingham in the early years
Life on the trapline
Movies and Christmas program
Community composition, and access by boat and airplane
Getting electricity, telephone service, and television
Meeting his wife, getting married, and living in Koliganek
Changes in Dillingham, road construction, and population growth
Set net fishing at Igushik
Being a company fisherman for Alaska Packers
Fishery management, and local involvement in fishing and the fishery
His grandparents, Ernest and Olga Olson
Introduction of outboard motors and aluminum and fiberglass boats
Painting and maintenance of wooden boats
Changes after the Limited Entry program
Involvement with Bristol Bay Native Corporation (BBNC), and land selections
Changes in BBNC
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KAREN HEBERT: Hello. My name is Karen Hébert, and the date today is August 17, 2014. And I’m here in Dillingham, Alaska, with Hjalmar “Ofi” Olson, who can introduce himself.
Ofi, why don’t you tell us when and where you were born, and some details about your early life?
OFI OLSON: Well, I was born in Kanakanak Hospital right down here. There was quite a few people living there back then. They had a BIA school. Of course, the hospital. The orphanage was closed. My mom was raised in that orphanage.
And my dad was also born in Kanakanak. So, I went to school there for a year or two. And then they closed it up, and we went to school at Dillingham. Up in Dillingham.
KAREN HEBERT: Hm. OFI OLSON: Yep.
KAREN HEBERT: And what year was that?
OFI OLSON: 1940 -- '46, '7? Yeah. And let’s see. I stayed with my -- my parents were out trapping in -- back here, Weary River. And I had to stay with my aunt and go to school, ‘cause I was -- I was school age, you know. And I stayed two years with her? Two years up there. Yeah.
KAREN HEBERT: And where did she live?
OFI OLSON: She was a clerk at the Fisherman’s Co-op store. They had an apartment upstairs, which was real handy, because I was walking distance to school. KAREN HEBERT: Hm-mm. OFI OLSON: Yep.
KAREN HEBERT: What about your brothers and sisters?
OFI OLSON: They were too young to go to school, so they went out on a trapline with my dad. Stayed in a cabin. Yeah. Yeah. Hm.
KAREN HEBERT: Maybe you can tell us more about what things were like then, and how Dillingham and Bristol Bay have changed over the years since, in your memory?
OFI OLSON: Well, we had three -- three stores uptown. There was the Dillingham Commercial, the Felder and Gale store, and we had Lowe Trading Company, and then we had Fisherman’s Co-op.
And three big stores, all doing pretty good. They bought furs. And they had general merchandise. Lowe Trading Company had the Standard Oil franchise selling oil there, which they still do today.
It was a community of about, oh, 500 people maybe? Nowadays, it’s 2,200. KAREN HEBERT: Hm-mm. It’s grown a bit.
OFI OLSON: So it’s really grown. Of course, we’ve got way better roads. Airport. Hospital. We’ve got a good school.
And we’ve got an incorporated city here. And they provide police, fire protection, and -- and clean the roads around town.
KAREN HEBERT: How did people get around if there weren’t as many roads back then? OFI OLSON: All by dog team. KAREN HEBERT: Wow.
OFI OLSON: Well, they had this five-mile road from Dillingham down to Kanakanak. And then they had the four-mile road to Wood River. And that was all the roads we had. Not too many cars in town.
And in the wintertime, people mostly traveled by dogteam. Dogteam. And, of course, airplanes, too. Mostly people would come in with their dog teams from the village and shop a little bit. Maybe sell some fur, and then go back home again.
KAREN HEBERT: So, did a lot of people like your parents spend time in the winter trapping then?
OFI OLSON: Yeah. Yeah, everybody trapped. Most of the people here trapped and fished in the summertime, you know. Yeah.
KAREN HEBERT: And did men and women trap together or -- ?
OFI OLSON: Well, the women done probably the skinning. Quite a bit of the skinning. And stayed home and kept the fires going, you know. In the wintertime, it’s cold.
And some of 'em had kids to take care of. You know, young kids, younger than school age. Yeah.
KAREN HEBERT: But, they would stay up near the traplines? OFI OLSON: Pardon? KAREN HEBERT: They would stay up near the traplines?
OFI OLSON: Oh, yeah, they had cabins. Yeah. There was a lot of cabins along the river.
I remember when I first started moose hunting, gosh, there was cabins every few bends in the river. You know, trappers. They had their trap blind right there. They were good log cabins. Nice and cozy. KAREN HEBERT: Hm-mm. OFI OLSON: Yeah. Yeah.
KAREN HEBERT: And what -- what time of year did people stay up there in those cabins? OFI OLSON: Wintertime.
KAREN HEBERT: Right. When’d they come back?
OFI OLSON: They’d go up in the fall with a grubsteak and some you never see again until spring. Some of ‘em came down and sell their furs and went right back. Maybe do a little shopping.
And then in the spring, they’d come down and go fishing. And that was kind of the routine. KAREN HEBERT: Hm-mm. OFI OLSON: Yeah.
KAREN HEBERT: And what all was in those grubsteaks? What did they bring up there?
OFI OLSON: Oh, gee, they had -- them days everything -- we had no refrigeration. Of course, bacon didn’t need refrigeration, or hams. But they had a lot of things in salt barrels. KAREN HEBERT: Mm. Wow.
OFI OLSON: In brine. Butter came in brine. Several types of meat. Spare ribs. And -- and, oh, what do they call -- all kinds of stuff came salted. And then in addition to that, my dad, he salted beaver and salted ducks before he got a canner. And then he used to can ducks and geese.
But it was good food. KAREN HEBERT: Yeah, it sounds it. OFI OLSON: Not like now. Yeah, too much junk food these days.
Things were cheap in the store. Nickel for a bar of candy. I think it was fifteen cents for a bottle of pop. You go to a movie for --
Dillingham had two movie halls back then. Lowe Trading Company and Felder Gale. And they’d alternate. One week they’d have a Wednesdays and Saturdays they’d have movies in one theater. Then the next Wednesday and Saturday in the other theater.
They had cowboy shows and all kinds of movies, you know. They shipped ‘em in on the boats and they were tapes. Yeah.
KAREN HEBERT: Did a lot of people show up at those films?
OFI OLSON: Oh, yeah, sometimes it was packed. Yeah. Yeah. And that Lowe Trading Company, they had the Lowe’s Igloo Theater. The name of it. It was a pretty big place. It had a balcony. And used to have the Christmas programs there, the school. KAREN HEBERT: Oh, wow. Oh.
OFI OLSON: Because there was no gym then. And that’d be a packed house, easy. The high school kids went out and cut a tree. Christmas tree. And it was damn near tall as the ceiling. Yeah.
And everybody brought their presents there and kids hand ‘em out. Yeah. Sometime you get a lengthy program. Other times it was two, three hours. KAREN HEBERT: Wow. OFI OLSON: It was nice. Yeah.
KAREN HEBERT: And where was that building? Is it still standing? OFI OLSON: No, they tore it down. It was right around where Delta Western is now. Their office. Right around that vicinity. Yeah. Yep.
KAREN HEBERT: And so most of the commercial fishing people who came up in the summer, were they still there in the winter? Or mostly they left and -- ?
OFI OLSON: Oh, they left, them Outside fisherman. They came up for the fishing season, and then they left. Yeah. And quite a few of the cannery workers came from the Kuskokwim and the Yukon River. Mostly Native. Quite a few Natives.
And what they had the Filipinos, Japanese, Chinese. You know, it was, I guess, in early days, most of the cannery workers came from San Francisco. Orientals, you know. Yeah. Some of ‘em stayed. Some of ‘em raised families here. Some of ‘em left, you know.
Yeah. Yeah. Then we got airports here. And everybody didn’t have to go out by boat to Seattle or San Francisco. Went by boat.
KAREN HEBERT: When did that happen?
OFI OLSON: Oh, we started getting airport -- a good airport here in the early ‘50s. They started building this airport. Yeah. And before that, we only had that 800-foot strip up town. Short. Yeah.
KAREN HEBERT: So the canneries were still shipping people up on boats in the forties, then, it sounds like, or -- ?
OFI OLSON: Oh, yeah. Yeah. Yeah. They were just starting to fly people in then, in about the '40s. Yeah.
KAREN HEBERT: When did everyone get refrigerators? You were talking about all the salted foods. When did that change?
OFI OLSON: Oh, Nushagak Electric started here, oh, I think it was in the ‘50s. And then people started getting refrigerators. You know, I mean, you didn’t have to hunt so much.
I think it was a good thing. And you preserve your moose and whatever small game you got. You know, berries. Fish. Yeah. Yep. Flick the switch and turn the light on. (Chuckles) Yeah.
KAREN HEBERT: So most people in the '40s, they didn’t have electricity? OFI OLSON: No. Those in -- well, we didn’t have it. Yeah.
KAREN HEBERT: And where was your family living at that time in the -- ? OFI OLSON: At Kanakanak. KAREN HEBERT: Kanakanak. In Olsonville?
OFI OLSON: Yeah. I remember Red Tilden talking about cutting the first light poles for Dillingham. They’re all gone now. But it was native spruce. Yeah. They cut several hundred logs or spruce poles. Yeah. And then Nushagak eventually went to creosote treated stuff. No maintenance, you know. KAREN HEBERT: Right.
OFI OLSON: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah, times have changed. Now we get flights three, four flights a day here. We get almost the same day service from Seattle. You could leave New York in the -- one -- one early morning and almost make it home. One day.
Red Flensburg, he was the early-bird pilot here. He had an air taxi. He mentioned to some people, local people here, he says, “Pretty soon you’re gonna make Seattle in one day.” And they thought he was crazy.
You know, at that time, you flew a small pane through Lake Clark Pass and into Anchorage. If the weather was bad, you were stuck on either end.
And they start flying direct from Seattle to Anchorage, and then the jets came, you know. Yeah. Yeah, it’s a lot of changes. I’ve seen a lot of changes.
KAREN HEBERT: And when did the telephones come in?
OFI OLSON: When did the telephones come? Late ‘60s. Everybody was on a party line. And when it rained, you had bad reception. I don't know why. Yeah. Yeah, it got better, way better after Nushagak Electric took over. Nushagak telephone. Yeah.
KAREN HEBERT: So how did people learn about news all over this area?
OFI OLSON: We had no TV, no telephones. Only news we had was if you had a good antenna, you hooked up antenna and you got Anchorage station for the news. Yeah.
Nowadays, gee whiz. We used to see kids playing outside. Nowadays, they’re inside watching TV. Yeah. Or tapes, or whatever. KAREN HEBERT: Hm-mm. OFI OLSON: Yeah.
KAREN HEBERT: No internet back then?
OFI OLSON: No internet, either. No. Bristol Bay Native Corporation at its first annual meeting gave out prizes. Door prizes. And a couple from -- a guy from Koliganek won the TV. They had a TV set, but no TV.
KAREN HEBERT: When was that, Ofi?
OFI OLSON: ’73, I think it was. Anyway, what the heck is the name of that? AT&T. I’ve forgotten what they call the Alaska division of it.
But anyway, they were putting in dishes in the villages about that time. And so the guy had the TV for about a year, maybe two years, up in Koliganek. And when they called a -- they had one telephone. It was in the store up there. And they called Koliganek, and they said, “The TV’s on.” And this guy had the only TV in the village. So he turned it on. Nice, big screen. And his house just filled up with kids, you know. There were -- Ooh, that was the day. That changed everything, I think.
KAREN HEBERT: How many channels did you get back then?
OFI OLSON: You know, I don’t remember. The first TV from Dillingham was relayed through King Salmon. King Salmon Armed Forces radio. They had a relay station up here at Black Point, and another one behind Portage (Creek). It was -- it was pretty good entertainment. Black and white.
KAREN HEBERT: And you were living in Koliganek at that time? OFI OLSON: Yeah. Yeah.
KAREN HEBERT: So maybe you could tell us how you wound up going from Kanakanak to Koliganek.
OFI OLSON: Well, my wife was upriver. And we had some good friends. We used to go up there quite a bit. And we both wanted to move up there.
We spent six year -- we built a small cabin and spent about six years up there. Yeah. Kids were all born up there. Well, they were born in the hospital, but we were living up there when they were born. Yeah.
KAREN HEBERT: And how did you meet your wife?
OFI OLSON: I met her in Ekwok. Yeah. That’s where she was from. Yeah.
KAREN HEBERT: And what were you doing in Ekwok at the time?
OFI OLSON: We were living in a cabin, my uncle and I, down below. Trapping. And we went up there for something. I forget what it was. Yeah. Ekwok was a pretty big village then, you know. A lot of people living there. Most of them old timers are gone though. Yeah. If you need anything, a guy had a small store there. Yeah. Yeah.
KAREN HEBERT: So, how old were you, and what time of year was this? Must’ve been wintertime, somewhere but -- ?
OFI OLSON: Yeah, when I was like 23. Yeah. That was in wintertime. Hm-mm. Yeah.
KAREN HEBERT: And so, do you remember where you were when you first met your wife? OFI OLSON: In Ekwok? KAREN HEBERT: Yeah. Just around town, or -- ? OFI OLSON: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Yep.
KAREN HEBERT: And then how much longer after that did you get married? OFI OLSON: A couple years. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.
KAREN HEBERT: Did you get married down here in Dillingham or -- ?
OFI OLSON: Yeah, down here in Dillingham. Dillingham Courthouse. Yeah, a quick and easy marriage. Yeah.
One of the things that really changed Dillingham was this road to Aleknagik. They built that road in the early ‘50s. And, of course, it was just a muddy road then. The only time you could travel on it was when it was dry. It was full of holes.
And then they eventually -- it was -- it was like that for quite a few years. And they eventually upgraded, graveled it. And then, now it’s paved. KAREN HEBERT: Yeah. OFI OLSON: Twenty -- twenty-two miles of road, I think it is. And it’s a -- it's a beautiful drive.
KAREN HEBERT: It sure is. OFI OLSON: Yeah. Yeah.
KAREN HEBERT: Now, did everyone want that road to Ekwok -- I mean, I’m sorry, to Aleknagik?
OFI OLSON: I never heard any controversy. Yeah. No, I think people wanted it.
When they made that road, they bulldozed the -- the wood on the side. And talk about wood! People went out there loading their pickup trucks up with wood. It was just handy. You backed up to it and sawed it into chunks, and load up and come home. Yeah. Yeah.
KAREN HEBERT: And for how long has there been talk about maybe roads to connect up with the road system (main Alaska highways around Anchorage and Fairbanks)? Was that always something that was -- people talked about or -- ?
OFI OLSON: That started with the Hammond administration, believe it or not. They had a guy there, DOT (Department of Transportation) commissioner. And he talked about a road from here to Anchorage. But it’s so expensive. I don't think we’ll ever get it. It’s millions of dollars a mile. That’s too damn much. Oh.
People say it will be cheaper goods here. But gas is $7.07 a gallon. I -- I don’t see it. No, the cheapest way to get stuff in here is by boat. Yeah.
I guess if the road was paved and stuff like that. But you don’t build a road and pave it right away. Yeah.
KAREN HEBERT: When did the community start growing in the way that it did? You said it was 500 people when you first remember and not it's --
OFI OLSON: There was about 500 people here, I think. Yeah. Of course, the -- Dillingham, Wood River, Squaw Creek. There was no road to Aleknagik then. And then Kanakanak. People living along the road at both ends of the road. Yeah.
KAREN HEBERT: And when did it start to really grow? Or was it sorta just gradual?
OFI OLSON: Yeah, I think it was probably in the ‘70s? '60s? Late ‘60s, ‘70s? Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. KAREN HEBERT: Any reason why --
OFI OLSON: I think after the state -- after they found oil up in Prudhoe Bay and got some money, the state, I think we saw a lot of changes, you know. Better airports, schools. Just about everything was impacted by that oil boom. KAREN HEBERT: Hm-mm. OFI OLSON: Yeah. The state was rich back then. Yeah.
KAREN HEBERT: And so, how old were you around that time, and what were you up to? OFI OLSON: When they found oil? KAREN HEBERT: Yeah.
OFI OLSON: Oh, I was about -- about 30. KAREN HEBERT: Hm-mm.
OFI OLSON: You know, I had a chance to go on the pipeline, but I didn’t go. I stayed here and fished. Yeah. But just about anybody who wanted to work up there can work. If you know how to start a piece of machinery, you were hired. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.
The hospital grew, you know. I remember the time when we had only one doctor there. And a small crew. Now, I don't know how many doctors we got. We got a dental clinic. You know, that place really grew. I think there’s about 400 employees down there. I think. More if you count the health aides of the villages. Yeah. That place really grew.
Behind the hospital, towards the VORTAC site, those duplexes were never there. They built them in the ’60, I think. ’61. And used to -- when I was a young kid, I used to ski behind there, hunt ptarmigan. Good -- good -- especially when it’s snowing and blowing, ptarmigan, there was shelter in there. It was a pretty good open spot. They built them houses, and sure changed things. KAREN HEBERT: Hm-mm. OFI OLSON: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.
KAREN HEBERT: So maybe you can tell us also when you started to get involved in the BBNC (Bristol Bay Native Corporation)? And-- and -- and it sounds like you were involved in fishing for quite some time.
OFI OLSON: Well, I first started fishing in 19 -- late 1940’s. With my parents and set net. Yeah. KAREN HEBERT: Where did you do that? OFI OLSON: Huh?
KAREN HEBERT: Where did you set net?
OFI OLSON: Down here at the limit stake. They had set nets all the way up to Snag Point. All on down. And they moved the limit down. Limit stake down there. But my dad and mom both had set net sites down there. And then they moved to Igushik. Yeah.
KAREN HEBERT: Did your mom have family who -- or did they have family in Igushik or who went to Igushik -- OFI OLSON: She was born down there. KAREN HEBERT: Oh, she was? OFI OLSON: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Yep.
KAREN HEBERT: So did your whole family go down to Igushik then for the summers?
OFI OLSON: The whole family, yeah. Yeah. Monkey boat from the cannery came. A power 36-foot boat moved us down there. Yeah. At that time, you were company fisherman. You belonged to the company. They furnished everything. Nets. Everything. Yeah, it was pretty good. Yeah.
KAREN HEBERT: And what company did you guys fish for?
OFI OLSON: Alaska Packers. Clarks Point. Yeah. That was a big operation back then. Ooh. In the ‘40s, I don't know how many lines they had, but two mess halls. A lot of people working there. Yep.
KAREN HEBERT: Tell us more about what that was like. When you first started doing that, did you first start with going with your dad?
OFI OLSON: Yeah, worked on the set nets. Yeah, with my dad and mom. Yeah. KAREN HEBERT: Did your dad drift at all?
OFI OLSON: Oh yeah, he drifted. Yeah. I went with him part of a year when I was young -- young man. Yeah.
KAREN HEBERT: Okay, so you were describing what it was like fishing for Alaska Packers in the ‘40s.
OFI OLSON: Well, at that time, you were required to go and get the cannery ready. Work -- if you were a fisherman, you worked in a cannery. They called it run money. Whatever the cannery wants you to do, you worked. And you got paid, I don't know, $100, $200 for two weeks’ work.
And same way in the fall. After fishing, you had to load the salmon cases. And that took about two weeks, I guess.
But anyway, the company furnished everything. Furnished you a boat. If you were a set net, they furnished you a skiff. And I don’t remember a kicker. I think -- I don't know if they furnished you an outboard motor. Maybe they did.
And after you ruined the net, you went to the company and got a new net. Linen nets. They rotted faster. And you fished five days a week. Monday through Friday. Monday through Saturday morning. Yeah.
KAREN HEBERT: When did that change?
OFI OLSON: Oh, that changed in the ‘50s. We started to get those poor fishing seasons. Poor returns. And they went to two days a week. And some districts were even closed.
It was so, so low a run. And then two days a week. Oh my God, you know, it went to four days a week, and then two days a week, and now it’s hours. You know, eight hours, four hours, whatever it is nowadays. There’s so many fishermen. Ooh. Yeah.
KAREN HEBERT: And in the ‘50s, when there were those bad runs, were people really worried at the time? Or did -- ? OFI OLSON: Oh, yeah. Yeah. Yeah. In the ‘60s, you mean?
KAREN HEBERT: Or even in the ‘50s, you said, when they were --
OFI OLSON: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. At that time, you blamed all the poor runs on the Japanese high seas out there. But now you can’t blame it on ‘em.
KAREN HEBERT: So you blamed it more on the Japanese high seas fishing than you did on the federal government?
OFI OLSON: Yeah. Yeah. Before it was the state here, the feds managed the fishery. They had a fish commissioner. I guess he -- he announced the times you could go fishing. Of course, it was all week. Yeah.
Better managed now, by the state. At least the local people got an advisory committee, and they can go there and make proposals or suggest changes. Yeah.
KAREN HEBERT: And so, you know, they always say that more local people got involved during World War II in the fishing industry here. But obviously there were some people involved earlier, like your -- like your dad. So maybe tell us how local involvement changed over the years.
OFI OLSON: Well, when the canneries first started here, they wouldn’t hire any locals. I don't think they even got a job, or unless you were like my grandpa, I guess. He was pretty well-known, you know.
And it went along like that for many years. And during World War II, from what I hear, they were short of manpower. And that’s when they started hiring the Natives to -- in the fish boat, and more workers in the cannery. Yeah. Yeah.
KAREN HEBERT: Now why was your grandfather -- tell us more about your grandfather. You said he was well-known.
OFI OLSON: Well, he came up here in 1902. He didn’t stay the first few years. I think he didn’t stay until 1910, ’11. And married a local gal.
And he was the ninth member of the Alaska Fishermen’s Union. And so, he was -- he was kind of known, you know. He was a -- he wasn’t from here. He was from Sweden.
KAREN HEBERT: What was his name? OFI OLSON: Ernest. Ernest Olson.
KAREN HEBERT: And who did he marry? What was your grandma’s name?
OFI OLSON: He married Olga Nelson, another Norwegian family down here. And they had a lot of kids. And they had -- my grandma was one of two sisters, I think. And he married her. They had a dozen kids. Yeah.
KAREN HEBERT: And that was your dad’s father? OFI OLSON: Yeah, yeah. Yeah. Yeah.
KAREN HEBERT: So your grandfather, then, he fished on a sailboat? OFI OLSON: Oh, yeah. Yeah. He fished on a sailboat all his life. Yeah. Yeah.
KAREN HEBERT: And what was the cannery like? You said there were two mess halls. Were they different?
OFI OLSON: At Clarks Point? Yeah, there was two mess halls there. There was a regular mess hall and then behind the cannery was a Native mess hall, cannery worker’s mess hall. And both of ‘em when they were canning fish was open all night.
It was like I say, it was a big operation there. They put up a lot of -- a lot of canned salmon, you know. That’s all they done. Yeah. Alaska Packers.
KAREN HEBERT: And did your grandfather fish for Alaska Packers, too?
OFI OLSON: He fished for, I think, Libby’s? And I don't know who else he fished for. He must’ve fished for a variety of canneries.
When I first remember, when I was a little kid, there was four canneries here. There was Libby’s, Ekuk. Alaska Packers, Clarks Point. Peter Pan. They called it PAF in them days. And Bristol Bay Packers, that's where Bristol Alliance is operating. I used to watch them tow the sailboats out. Man, I don't know, a long string sometimes. Yeah. Yeah.
KAREN HEBERT: So, how old were you when you first went on a drift boat? OFI OLSON: I was, ahh, 13. 13. Or was I 14? Yeah. KAREN HEBERT: And that was with your dad? OFI OLSON: Yeah. We had an outboard motor alongside. When it was -- the wind was blowing, we'd sail. When it was dead calm, we’d start the motor. Yeah.
KAREN HEBERT: So, what year was that? OFI OLSON: ‘52, I think it was. Or was it ’53?
KAREN HEBERT: So that was just the beginning of the outboard motors, right?
OFI OLSON: Yeah. Everything got power. Power came in in ’51. And that made a dramatic change on the fishery here. You know, power? What the heck? Yeah.
KAREN HEBERT: Did your dad -- did he want power to come in?
OFI OLSON: Oh yeah, yeah. Yeah. They voted for power, I guess. I don’t know what was the results. You could run to Naknek and Egegik and all over. Yep.
There was some private power boats before that, though, you know. Never used ‘em in the fishery. Yeah, some of the locals had power boats. Yeah. All wooden boats back then. No fiberglass, no aluminum. Yeah.
KAREN HEBERT: And when did that change?
OFI OLSON: Aluminum boats came in the -- I think the ‘60s? Early ‘60s? 1960? Yeah. Same with the fiberglass, it came in about 1960. Yeah. That made another drastic change, ‘cause you didn’t have to paint them, you know. You didn't -- No maintenance. Less maintenance you had, the better. Yeah.
KAREN HEBERT: Do you remember painting the boats a lot when they were --
OFI OLSON: Oh, yeah. Yeah. You had to paint the sailboat and paint the skiffs, and -- Yeah.
KAREN HEBERT: That was your job?
OFI OLSON: We used to go to the cannery. I remember when I first started fishing. You looked at your boat. If it needed painting, you paint it. I managed to paint my boat every other year.
And, so, you’d go a few days early, in May. Latter part of May. You’d paint the boat, pour some water in it and soak it up. Let the wood soak and the corking. And a day or two, it’d soak right out.
Okay, you’d go to the store and get your groceries, a box of groceries. You’d go to the office and get your fish license. And they launched a boat and went fishing on the -- by the first part of June, fish king is here.
That was five days a week. It was like clockwork. Then, oh gee, in the ‘80s I think there was too many fishermen. They cut back on the king -- king openings. Too much pressure on 'em. Yeah.
KAREN HEBERT: So tell us how there got to be so many more boats over the years. OFI OLSON: Huh? KAREN HEBERT: I said, tell us how there -- how there came to be so many more boats.
OFI OLSON: Well, a lot of people ordered boats, got new boats every so often. But I think the most change came with Limited Entry. Yeah.
Limited Entry authorized 1,800 and some -- 1,800 plus fishermen with permits. And that’s quite a number. That’s quite a number. Plus 1,100 set nets.
The set net fishery, years ago, was with widows, and housewives, and young kids. Elderly people. Now, you got high-speed outboard skiffs, hundred, two hundred horsepower on ‘em. Six people on board, and they’re like a machine, man. KAREN HEBERT: Hm-mm.
OFI OLSON: Yeah. And they -- every -- every piece of beach is taken up by set netters now. Limited Entry said -- Before Limited Entry, we had 350 set nets in the whole bay. The whole bay!
Along comes Limited Entry, and they said, “Well, we’re gonna have an optimum. Eight hundred set nets. Well, by the time it was all over, we had 1,100 set nets. Yeah.
Of course, all the good sites were taken then. By then. Yeah. Yeah. I don't know if there're gonna be any changes to this fishery or not. I imagine there will be. Yeah.
KAREN HEBERT: What are you thinking might be the biggest changes that you foresee? OFI OLSON: Pardon? KAREN HEBERT: I said, what seem like the biggest changes that you foresee?
OFI OLSON: Well, I’ll bet you we're gonna -- fishermen are gonna -- pretty soon they’re going to put in a proposal to have longer nets. They have already. But it hasn’t passed. That’s one of ‘em.
This boat length, I don't know. Every year, every -- everytime Bristol Bay comes up, somebody puts the proposal in to lengthen the -- lengthen the boat out. Yeah.
I think we got enough. We got our -- our boats are big enough now. Turn ‘em loose and they could -- they could catch every fish in this bay. KAREN HEBERT: Hm-mm. OFI OLSON: Yeah.
KAREN HEBERT: So we could probably talk a lot more about changes in the fishing industry, but we haven’t talked at all about your involvement in the BBNC (Bristol Bay Native Corporation). How did you first come to be involved in the BBNC?
OFI OLSON: Well, I was living up in Koliganek. There was an old-timer up there by the name of Charlie Nelson. He says, “We need somebody to go to the meetings.” So, I hesitated, and finally I said, “Charlie, I’ll go.”
And that was in ’73, I think it was. Right after BBNC got organized. Not long afterward.
And I was on the finance meeting. I wasn’t on the board. I was on the finance meeting. I was on the big board, yeah.
And ’74, or ’73, or -- they had the first annual meeting, I think it was. I got elected. And I stayed there ‘til 2000 and -- When did I retire? Last year. KAREN HEBERT: Wow.
OFI OLSON: 2013, I retired from the board. But I was chairman -- chairman of the BBNC for 28 and a half years. KAREN HEBERT: Wow. OFI OLSON: Sixteen of those years was chairman and president. KAREN HEBERT: Wow.
OFI OLSON: Yep. Yeah, we had a lot of responsibility back then. I mean, we had to select three million acres of land. We, of course, we didn’t get all the money at one time. Had to borrow money and it was expensive to organize this, you know.
I -- I sure respect Nels Anderson for coming here and organizing the corporation. And, of course, Harvey Samuelsen who hired him. And it was a lot of responsibility. People didn’t realize how much responsibility we got dropped on us all of a sudden. Yeah.
Yeah. And then we had to look for investments, you know. That wasn’t easy. What do you know about corporations? We didn’t know anything.
You know, it was like a time bomb with the -- with the certain time limits on everything, like the enrollment. That had to be done in two years. Land selections. Yeah. Plus investments. What did we know about corporations? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. At least I didn’t know. Yeah. Yeah.
KAREN HEBERT: And how did you figure out the land selections?
OFI OLSON: We had some good people that we had. William Johnson and several other locals. And, you know, it had to be compact and contiguous. And so, along with the villages, we managed to select some of the better lands. Yeah.
KAREN HEBERT: What criteria were you using to think about -- ? Was it -- ?
OFI OLSON: Hunting and fishing. Subsistence was a priority. Maybe for development, a little development. What else was there?
A lot of people had knowledge of the -- of the out -- outlook of the -- I mean, yeah, the outlook of the land. KAREN HEBERT: Hm-mm. OFI OLSON: Yeah. Yeah.
KAREN HEBERT: Have you -- have you -- do -- do you feel like those lands were good selections that have -- ?
OFI OLSON: Yeah. You know, if they had to be compact and contiguous, you -- you couldn’t -- they had to be connected, you know. Yeah. I think they done okay.
One of the things I think the land claims left out was subsistence sites. You know, there’s areas where the villages practice their subsistence lifestyle, and they coulda had some subsistence sites. Yeah. Yeah.
KAREN HEBERT: So that compact and contiguous made extra complications in trying to -- OFI OLSON: Oh, yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Yep.
KAREN HEBERT: And did you -- do you think that things with the BBNC have changed a lot over the years? Or --
OFI OLSON: Oh, yeah. Yeah. Changed quite a bit. When I was there, we had about what? Started out with 13, 14 employees. Now, we got about 50. KAREN HEBERT: Wow.
OFI OLSON: In the central office. Yeah. Yeah, it’s grown quite a bit. Yeah, it’s grown from might as well say zero.
Well, the government gave us 32 million dollars. That was the cash settlement. And when that was invested, that was kind of gone. And now -- Now, BBNC is almost two billion dollar corporation. KAREN HEBERT: Wow.
OFI OLSON: Two billion dollars. Yeah. Boy, windy, huh? KAREN HEBERT: Yeah, really windy.
And some of your early investments were in -- were they in fisheries? Or that was just one little slice? I remember --
OFI OLSON: Yeah. In 1975, we purchased Peter Pan Seafoods, and in 1979 we sold it. That was a kind of a heartbreaker.
Peter Pan was -- was a pretty big outfit, but it was owned by the Bez family, and they wanted to get out of it. They were getting up there in age.
And so our manager at that time, Bob Bacon, he negotiated a price with them. And we purchased the company, everything, lock, stock, and barrel.
It never made any money. The only time we made money is when we had a fire at King Cove. When the cannery burned down. It was -- we were faced back then with twenty-two percent interest rates. Twenty-two percent. Had a couple of botulism cases. KAREN HEBERT: Right.
OFI OLSON: That was in Europe. Lucky, it wasn’t here. KAREN HEBERT: Right. OFI OLSON: Yeah.
KAREN HEBERT: So, that made things pretty difficult, it sounds like.
OFI OLSON: Pretty difficult. Yeah. And at that time, when we bought Peter Pan or purchased Peter Pan, the banks in Seattle financed the pack loan. The pack loan being the canned salmon. And as your inventory went down, you paid the bank back. And they changed that.
The banks came to us in Seattle and says, “Hey, if you want to get financed, you gotta -- you gotta finance about half of it. Half the pack loan.”
Peter Pan didn’t have the money. Then it was twenty-two percent interest rates. The Carter years. What’d they call that? Prime rate was about 22 percent. And it was just killing us. So we had to make up our mind. Either sell Peter Pan or bankrupt BBNC. KAREN HEBERT: Hm.