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Hjalmar "Ofi" Olson, Part 2

This is a continuation of an interview with Hjalmar "Ofi" Olson on August 17, 2014 by Karen Hebert in Dillingham, Alaska. In this second part of a two part interview, Ofi talks about commercial fishing, the role of canneries, and management of the fishery in Bristol Bay, Alaska. He also talks about living a subsistence lifestyle of trapping and fishing, the Kanakanak orphanage, and going to school.

Digital Asset Information

Archive #: Oral History 2016-12-03_PT.2

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.
Location of Interview:
Funding Partners:
National Science Foundation, The Whitney and Betty MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies, Yale University
Alternate Transcripts
There is no alternate transcript for this interview.
There is no slideshow for this person.

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Self-contained remote canneries and floating processors

Impact of canneries including local access to supplies

Ups and downs of the fishery, and being fed by the canneries

Management of the fishery

Using fish as dog food for dog teams

Seasonal hunting and trapping activities

Family background, Kanakanak orphanage, and boarding school

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After clicking play, click a section of the transcript to navigate the audio or video clip.


OFI OLSON: Getting back to the canneries, you know, they were remotely situated, where they were self-contained. They had the, of course, the superintendent, the boss, the accounting staff, bookkeeping.

They had the mess halls, the cooks, the waiters, everything. They had the blacksmith. He was making with iron works. And they could make anything.

They had the beach gang. And the net gang. You know, it was kind of a self-contained -- oh, it was a miniature city.

But, my, Karen, I’ll tell you, things have changed. I’ve seen it. I don't know if you noticed it, or -- And I’ve talked to several people about this.

You take the canneries now. They’re moving -- moving into where there’s power, where there’s sewer, where there’s a road, a good road to the airport.

You know, take a look at South Naknek. I never believed that Trident would close down shop there and move across the river to the north side. Simply, I think, is they got a road there. It’s cheaper to operate.

And take a look at here. Peter Pan has probably got a good location right in the center of town. They got power, access to the airport, a good road to the airport, good transportation. And, sure, it might be a little farther from the fishing grounds, but not very much.

So I think that the canneries are making a big move to -- if -- if there’s land available, to be close to where an organized municipality is.

KAREN HEBERT: Yeah, that’s interesting. OFI OLSON: Yeah. KAREN HEBERT: That sounds like that’s changed.

OFI OLSON: The remotest operation in the bay now is Egegik, with the Icicle plant. They bought that cannery down there a few years ago.

But other than that, every one of ‘em is -- they’re not canning any, outside the municipalities. Yeah.

KAREN HEBERT: Now, what about the floating processors and their -- ? You saw those come in?

OFI OLSON: Yeah. They were kinda self-contained, too. And a lot of ‘em had canning --

Alaska Queen had canning equipment right on board, until it moved on shore down here in Queen Slough. The other processors, I don't know. They were salting, I think. Salting their fish.

KAREN HEBERT: So Queen Slough was a floating processor before it moved on land? OFI OLSON: Yeah. KAREN HEBERT: I didn’t realize that.

OFI OLSON: Yeah. They bought some land down there from an old guy and built the cannery there. It’s a shame.

I remember when I was a kid, I saw that cannery grow from virtually nothing to a major operator in the bay. And then when the old man died, it just fell apart.

KAREN HEBERT: And that was Bendiksen?

OFI OLSON: Yeah. Of course, the location was obsolete. Like I say, everybody’s moving into town.

KAREN HEBERT: And when did that cannery shut down at Queen Slough?

OFI OLSON: Oh, what was the last year they canned? Early ‘90s, maybe? I think. Early ‘90s? Yeah. Yeah. Quite a while ago.

KAREN HEBERT: That was around the same time that the price really started to drop, I guess.

OFI OLSON: Yeah, yeah. Forty cents a pound. Ooh. Yeah.

These canneries, each one had a store. I remember the cannery up town here. Bristol Bay Packers at Bristol Alliance, they had a store there.

And Clark's Point had a store. Ekuk had a store. Queen cannery -- I mean Creek Cannery had a store. Then in Naknek, I think the store stayed opened there.

But you got everything from the cannery. Before the carpenter left in the fall, he cut up a kit, and you could -- he put it -- he bottled it up, and you could buy a whole kit to make a sled. Oak. Everything was cut out. All you had to do was steam it and put it together.

They had quite a variety for -- for being where they were located, you know. No delivery trucks.

KAREN HEBERT: When people used those sleds, did they take them to their traplines and --

OFI OLSON: Oh yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Canneries had a pretty big impact on our way of life here. Yeah.

KAREN HEBERT: Tell me more about that. How so?

OFI OLSON: How so? Well, if you wanted to learn to fish, you went to the cannery and see if you could get a boat or a fish partner for a while. And then you were -- you were obligated to fish for him, you know, if they gave you a boat.

And then year after year, if you done good, you got a boat. And some way to make a cash income.

Because you need -- you need the cash, too, to subsist. You gotta buy flour, sugar, butter. You can’t just live off of straight meat from the land. Yeah.

They carried a pretty good line. Clothing. Canned goods. Dry goods. Just about everything a person needed.

My dad talked about going to Clark's Point, and for $300, load up a sailing boat and come home with groceries. It was reasonable. Like I say. A candy bar was a nickel. And soda pop was 15 cents.

When we were kids, we used to play around the canneries. Play around the cannery, and when we get hungry, we just go grab a can and open it up and eat it. You can’t do it no more. You go to jail.

Yeah. Take your pocket knife and open it up and start eating.

KAREN HEBERT: ‘Cause you knew everyone in there so well? OFI OLSON: Huh?

KAREN HEBERT: You knew everyone who worked there so well? OFI OLSON: What?

KAREN HEBERT: You knew everyone who worked there, it sounds like? OFI OLSON: No. Knew quite a bit of ‘em, yeah.

KAREN HEBERT: Well, one thing I was curious to hear more about is seems like you’ve seen a lot of ups and downs in the fishery. You’ve seen a lot of really strong years for prices and runs, and then a lot of weak years.

OFI OLSON: Well, it was in the ‘50s, 1953. This bay, Nushagak Bay, was gonna be closed. And Ekuk set netters, Peter Pan, PAF, everybody went to Naknek to fish, because Naknek-Kvichak was gonna be open.

And Bendiksen, he stayed here, kept his cannery open. And the fish came in thick. He -- I don't know how many scow loads he dumped. Full scows out to the bay and dumped 'em. What a waste. What a shame. Couldn’t handle ‘em.

And then there were some poor years. Of course, all blame it on the Japanese high seas fishing. And it was really the down, you know, or --

I think, the lowest I could remember was maybe seven million fish returned. Eight million fish.

Of course, there wasn’t too many fishermen then. But still, they depended on the fishery for -- for a living. And, uh, but we survived ups and downs.

I mean, look at the last 10, 15 years here. Fishing -- price of fish was 40 cents a pound. Now a dollar and a -- what is it, $1.20 this year? A dollar and a half last year.

You know, you can always seem like scrape enough to make a living here. Yeah.

One of the things that if you were a company fisherman years ago, you get to draw unemployment, because, in the wintertime, because you're a cannery employee. Just like an employee. Yeah.

KAREN HEBERT: So did things change a lot when people started to go independent then?

OFI OLSON: Oh yeah. Yeah, they changed quite a bit. Before we were independent, they had the tally scow, and a scow with a house on it that they provided food for the fishermen.

And there was a cook on board. He must’ve cooked 24 hours a day.

And after you deliver your fish, after you cleaned your boat up, you went -- you slacken back, and you got a hot meal. They done that until, oh, I think, Queen Fisheries was the last one to do it. Early ‘70s. You get a hot meal on board. On board a tally scow. That was good.

KAREN HEBERT: Yeah, I bet.

OFI OLSON: Yeah, you know. You’re tired, and after pewing all that fish. There’s no brailers back then, either. KAREN HEBERT: Right.

OFI OLSON: No brailers. Boy, some of them scows were high. You had a pew, and if you missed, you know, overboard it went.

KAREN HEBERT: Oh, wow. Makes delivering fish a lot more work. OFI OLSON: Yep. Especially them kings. KAREN HEBERT: Yeah, really. OFI OLSON: King Salmon. KAREN HEBERT: I've done that before. OFI OLSON: Twenty-some pound king, overboard he go.

KAREN HEBERT: I did that once when I was fishing.

OFI OLSON: No, I hope this fishery continues the way it is. Gee, whiz.

KAREN HEBERT: Continues the way it is in terms of the returns or -- ?

OFI OLSON: Well, managing it. I mean, managing it. I think we’ve had -- we’ve been pretty lucky here. KAREN HEBERT: Mm-hm. OFI OLSON: Had good managers. KAREN HEBERT: Mm-hm. OFI OLSON: Yeah.

KAREN HEBERT: Those years when there were poor returns, was there ever talk of putting hatcheries in here? And what did people think about that?

OFI OLSON: No. I think the first thing when we became a state was to outlaw them hatcheries here.

KAREN HEBERT: Outlaw hatcheries in Bristol Bay? OFI OLSON: Yeah.

KAREN HEBERT: And why was that, even at the time?

OFI OLSON: It had something to do with the market. Interfere with the wild salmon. The ecosystem of the wild salmon. KAREN HEBERT: Hm.

OFI OLSON: You know, people don’t realize, but years ago, just about every household had a dog team. Some two dog teams.

KAREN HEBERT: Wow, that’s a lot of dogs.

OFI OLSON: You had to dry a lot of fish. KAREN HEBERT: Yeah.

OFI OLSON: My dad had a big rack down there. It'd hold 3,000 fish. You dry that much, of course, he’s --

My mom would sell some to some of these guys, single guys, who didn’t have a family to put up fish. KAREN HEBERT: Hm. OFI OLSON: Yeah.

KAREN HEBERT: ‘Cause they needed it for their dog teams? OFI OLSON: Oh, yeah. Yeah.

KAREN HEBERT: How many dogs on a team?

OFI OLSON: Oh, there’s seven. Nine. Five. Some families had two -- two teams, you know. Probably seven and seven. All good dogs, too. Yeah.

KAREN HEBERT: And what kind of fish did you put out for the dogs?

OFI OLSON: Any kind of dry fish. Any -- any kind of species. You split ‘em and hang ‘em up to dry.

Then we had to bundle ‘em in the fall. Yeah, 50 to a bundle, 20 to a bundle. Cut a lot of hay and grass for the dogs.

Yeah. It meant a lot of work. A lot of work. But we didn’t know any better. That was the real transportation mode. KAREN HEBERT: Uh-huh. OFI OLSON: Yeah.

KAREN HEBERT: And besides trapping in the winter and fishing in the summer, what else did you do in the falltime and the springtime?

OFI OLSON: Oh, hunt quite a bit. Hunt moose and stuff in the fall. And ducks in the springtime. Yeah. And fall. Yep.

It seemed like you were always messing with something. Had to do with food or something, whether it be for the dogs or for human consumption. Yeah. Yeah.

KAREN HEBERT: How far did you go when you were doing all that hunting and trapping?

OFI OLSON: Oh, my dad would go down the coast. I went with him several times down there. Down to Igushik, Point Protection.

Day trips we’d go to the Grass Island, Nushagak and back. Yeah.

Work with the tide, you know. Yeah. My dad talked about before outboard motors, they used to row to Grass Island and back. KAREN HEBERT: Wow.

OFI OLSON: Row to Nushagak. Yeah. Yeah.

KAREN HEBERT: And so your -- part of your dad’s family was from Sweden. OFI OLSON: Yeah.

KAREN HEBERT: The Yup’ik side of the family, where were they from?

OFI OLSON: I think my grandma or great-grandma was from the (Alaska) Peninsula some place.


KAREN HEBERT: That was the one who was in Kanakanak orphanage, or no? OFI OLSON: No, my mom.

KAREN HEBERT: Oh, that was your mom’s side?

OFI OLSON: Yeah, she was Yup’ik. She was born and raised in Igushik. Yeah. And then went to the orphanage.

KAREN HEBERT: And then how did your -- how did the Peninsula relative get into the family? How did, who --

OFI OLSON: You know, I don’t know. Well, she married my great-grandpa. KAREN HEBERT: Great-grandfather.

OFI OLSON: Yeah, that was my grandma’s mom. They died during the flu, 1919. KAREN HEBERT: Oh, wow. OFI OLSON: Yeah. So I didn’t know them.

KAREN HEBERT: So your grandfather lost both his parents to the flu, or no? OFI OLSON: My grandfather?

KAREN HEBERT: Or -- So who died in the flu? OFI OLSON: My great-grandma and grandpa. KAREN HEBERT: Hm-mm. Your grandmother’s?

OFI OLSON: Yeah, and then my grandmother on my -- No, she died after the flu. My grandma, on my mom’s side. Yeah.

I think my mom was three, four years old when my mom -- my grandma died. Yeah.

KAREN HEBERT: Who raised her then?

OFI OLSON: Oh, she went to the orphanage, and stayed with different people. My grandpa paid families to take care of her. Then she went to the orphanage. She didn’t like it there. Ooh.

KAREN HEBERT: Oh, really?

OFI OLSON: Yeah. She couldn’t even speak her Yup’ik tongue. KAREN HEBERT: Oh, really?

OFI OLSON: No. She’d get slapped. It was so bad that my uncle, he ran away from the orphanage. Twenty below zero, and he walked to Igushik. KAREN HEBERT: Wow.

OFI OLSON: Middle of the winter. And he froze his hands. The stubs -- his fingers looked like stubs. You know, he could still -- but the ends of ‘em were frozen. KAREN HEBERT: Wow.

OFI OLSON: And he didn’t like that orphanage. Yeah. He ran away.

KAREN HEBERT: And he never went back?

OFI OLSON: Never went back. No way. No.

KAREN HEBERT: So, now, no -- does -- does anyone live year-round at Igushik anymore?

OFI OLSON: No. They all moved up to Manokotak. Yeah. Yeah.

KAREN HEBERT: So is that where he lived, then?

OFI OLSON: Used to be a big village down there, Sintuk (sp?). KAREN HEBERT: Hm. OFI OLSON: Yeah. Yeah.

KAREN HEBERT: So your uncle then lived in Manokotak, or -- ? OFI OLSON: Yeah. Bartman, Simeon.

KAREN HEBERT: And that was typical of -- you weren’t allowed to speak Yup’ik in any schools around here?

OFI OLSON: No. They frowned on it, I guess. Especially these orphanages . I didn’t have any trouble going to school. 'Course I didn’t speak fluent Yup’ik.

KAREN HEBERT: Did a lot of kids from around here get sent off to boarding schools at all?

OFI OLSON: Yeah. I remember kids went to Mount Edgecumbe. Chemawa (Indian School, in Oregon). Yeah. Yeah, they went. Yeah.

KAREN HEBERT: What did they think of those experiences?

OFI OLSON: Some of ‘em liked it. Some of ‘em didn’t. Yeah. Always homesick, you know, I guess. I don't know.

KAREN HEBERT: So, it seems like you got to see around a lot of the state when you were pretty young, when you got involved in -- Was it the BBNC (Bristol Bay Native Corporation), or before that?

OFI OLSON: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Yep. I think we’ll knock it off, huh? KAREN HEBERT: Okay.