How The Odds Were Overcome & Alaska's Salmon Were Saved For The Future By Ken Roberson

The Copper River Chronicles: Alaska' s Unsung Heroes

Plastic Buckets, Warm Water, & Copper River Ingenuity Built Alaska's Gulkana Hatchery

  Northcountry Communications. All Rights Reserved. 

The Gulkana Hatchery.

The Story Of Ken Roberson & The Saving Of The Salmon Of The Copper River Watershed

Digging the groundwork for the world's largest wild salmon hatchery. With shovels.
Ken Roberson was the fish biologist for the Copper River Valley. Several years ago, he retired and moved with his wife, Vera, to warmer climes.

In the time he worked for Fish & Game out of the Glennallen office, he practically single-handedly led the charge to preserve and enhance the red salmon run in the Copper River by finding a good location, in (somewhat) warmish spring water north of Paxson, Alaska in which to start a home-grown, from-the-ground-up fish hatchery for the Copper River.

The Gulkana River Hatchery was begun in 1973 with Copper River ingenuity.

It was only a fluke that Ken Roberson was also a state employee.

First and foremost, he operated with a seat-of-your-pants innovative drive that had nothing to do with how government does things. 

Everything he did when he began that hatchery was based on sheer intuition, ingenuity and bravado -- the Copper River way. He worked to invent homemade incubators for the fish to thrive, banging together plywood and whatever was available in the sparse world of the Copper Valley, far from easy supply lines of specific scientific gear and equipment. 

Plan For The Gulkana Salmon Hatchery. (From
He ran bucket brigades, with a rope tied across the creek. Workers stood in the water, moving the buckets across the stream. The workers were protected from falling into the icy water only by holding onto the rope, as they physically transferred eggs and fish.

The entire operation was put together on a shoestring. It was a duct-tape operation of the first order -- the quintessential "Copper River" style enterprise. By 1984, this little hatchery on a lonely creek just north of the scrappy little roadhouse of Paxson Lodge had turned into the largest operation of its kind in the world. 

It was a facility with heart, firmly tied to the needs and peculiarities of Alaskan rural life. For example, for years, the salmon that had been stripped of their eggs were piled up on the riverbank, and local dogmushers (who were paying dearly for the commercial dried dogfood eaten by their teams) were encouraged to drive on out to the hatchery and retrieve the salmon. The spent fish were then taken home and boiled up for their animals throughout the winter. It was a small touch -- caring about the region's sled dogs and the mushers -- but vitally Alaskan; the hatchery was a part of the upper Copper Valley community.

What Came Before Ken Roberson

Ken Roberson's is one of the few positive stories about the Copper River watershed and its salmon that exists.

The impact of outsiders on the Copper River fishery has a greedy and  shameful history.

In 1885, Lt. Henry Allen struggled his way through the Copper Valley, and  successfully became the first outsider to enter the region. 

The young Lieutenant's success started a debacle. Two years later, in 1887, a commercial cannery was put up at the mouth of the river, by Pacific Packing Company, a San Francisco firm. In 1889, there was another cannery, by another San Francisco firm. By the 1890's, before the gold miners arrived, there were two hundred  outsiders living at the mouth of the Copper River, taking salmon.

Salmon can labels at a B&B in Cordova, Alaska.
In 1916, an estimated 300 Copper River Athabascan Indians were living along the rivers -- the  equivalent of one for every mile of the 300 mile long river's length. They lived along tributaries --  the most significant being the 75 mile long Klutina, and the 80 mile long Gulkana.  The Copper River was like the trunk of a mighty tree, and its branches, its tributaries,  came from glaciers deep in the valley. Every salmon in every river in the Copper River Valley was a "Copper River" salmon, and all of them had to pass through Abercrombie Canyon on their migrations back and forth to their spawning grounds upriver.

At Abercrombie Canyon, 55 miles upstream from Cordova, entrepreneurs built an inland cannery, to block the salmon entering the Copper River Valley. They used the Copper River & Northwestern Railway to transport their product back to Cordova, where it was shipped south.

Salmon were railed across trestles like this.

The Copper River Railroad, which started in Cordova, crossed over the upper delta 20 miles upstream, and traveled along the river banks, 131 miles upstream to Chitina. It was a perfect means of transport. 

The canneries grew exponentially. In 1914, 299,699 salmon were caught. In 1915, 670,416 salmon were snagged. By 1916, the thousands of fathoms of gill nets, and 48 dip nets where "one fisherman may dip as many as 1,000 salmon in a single day, when the run is heavy" according to the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries, brought in 869,350 total salmon to the 5 canneries that were filling the railcars with food from the Copper River Valley.

While all this was happening, people upriver -- the original people -- were desperate. 

At that time, when there were those estimated 300 Ahtna living upriver from the canneries, the Ahtna  complained that their livelihood, their fish, were being blocked.  The U.S. government scoffed at the idea. "With respect to the complaints of the Indians, it may be said that as long ago as 1905, when but one cannery was in operation in the Copper River district, the same story of shortage of food  was heard and the same cry of destruction of the salmon fishery was made as at present when  five canneries are in the field, yet the Indians have lived through the intervening years and  have had an ample supply of salmon whenever they made reasonable efforts to get it." 

The muddy Copper River. Photo, Neil Hannan.
By 1918, a million salmon were being hauled from the lower Copper River, and shipped out from the canneries, through the use of 50,000 fathoms of gill net. (That's 300,000 feet of net, crisscrossing the Copper River.)

The growth of misuse of Alaska's big, muddy ice-cold salmon stream, with its 5 types of the fattest, highest quality fish in Alaska, was phenomenal. The 2-mile long 1,000 foot wide Abercrombie Canyon was a squeeze point where wholesale slaughter could take place. 

(There are photographs on the internet today of Abercrombie Canyon at its worst, They are used as examples of "Proof of Traditional and Customary Use" on Alaska dipnetting websites. The photos show dozens of paid dipnetters at dipnetting stations in the canyon, scooping up fish.  It didn't seem like it was a problem back then. And to many, it doesn't seem like a problem even now. Above a photo of an early commercial dipnetter with a trough full of Copper River salmon, a modern-day dipnetter has wryly quipped: "Check this out, subsistence fans. Is 1914 far enough back to qualify?")

Then, in 1918, it began to be obvious that something very wrong was happening.

Workers at the Gulkana Fish 
Hatchery, north of Paxson.
The Native Ahtna upriver were right.  Even the U.S. government agreed, writing (somewhat
defensively):  "While there may have been some disagreement with regard to details there was a unanimity in opinion in respect to essentials -- the run of salmon was being depleted and something should be done to stop it."

 During that long-ago crisis, U.S. Secretary of Commerce had completely taken over control of the Copper Valley's salmon, and was holding hearings -- not with the Ahtna and people in the Copper Valley -- but in Seattle.

As is so common, local people who actually live in the Copper Valley are considered non-important -- or even non-existent. This problem continues to this day. 

Anchorage Fred Meyer Grocery brags about having "Copper River Salmon."
The Right Person In The Right Place

Like all of us who have come to the Copper Valley and who grew up elsewhere, Ken Roberson was an "outsider." But, unlike many outsiders (and this includes the confusingly-named "Chitina Dipnetters" who are not from Chitina, but mainly from Fairbanks) he decided to give. Not to take.

In this brief review of what happened upon the "discovery" of the Copper River's salmon, it's pretty clear that "taking" was what it was all about. 

Ken Roberson (right) was also a longtime 
volunteer at the local Chamber of Commerce, as well
as head of the Copper Valley EMS program.
Ken Roberson went in the other direction. Every single person who uses Copper River reds -- including Chitina Dipnetters, Cordova fishermen, sports fishermen, Copper Valley immigrants and the Ahtna people, who continue to see these fish as a cornerstone to local life, culture,
health and basic everyday survival --  owes something to Ken Roberson for working to right the wrongs, and to bring a steady stream of high-quality fish to the region. 

Photo of low-tech wooden hatcheries from a 
report by Ken Roberson on the internet.
Enlisting the professional advice of others, Ken Roberson worked in a manner that dramatically reversed the type of decimation that the canneries had inflicted on the river. He began to work out a plan for how to replenish, and ensure the future of, Copper River salmon.

In 1973, with a single homemade incubator, there were 220,000 salmon eggs at the fledgling Gulkana Hatchery. The next year, Fish & Game added four more units, with a capacity of 1.25 million eggs. By 1979 there were 10 units. In 1980, 20 units. 

By 1984, there were 50 units, with a capacity of 25 million eggs. In 1988, it had shot up to 70 units, with a capacity of 35 million salmon eggs. Tens of millions of salmon fry came out of that little roadside hatchery -- stocking Paxson Lake, Ten Mile Lake, Summit Lake, and Crosswind Lake. And showing that human beings -- Copper River Valley human beings -- can choose to right wrongs and to go forward, instead of backward. 

Today, Cordova, the small coastal commercial fishing town that is just outside the Copper River watershed, near the delta of the Copper River, has organized what is known as "The Copper River Watershed Project." The group recently began looking for "Watershed Heroes" but, to date, they hadn't tripped over the obvious. They had yet to choose the Copper Valley's Ken Roberson for the honor.

So what's a "hero?" A hero is somebody who doesn't even know what they're doing is heroic. Somebody who is quite ordinary, but driven. A hero is not a "good" or "cool" person. Or a charismatic person. Or a totally beloved-by-everybody person. Heroes are more complicated. And most heroic deeds are never seen, understood, or formally noted -- by the hero himself, or by those around him.  Especially in the Copper River Valley, which, per capita, is crowded with the most unlikely bunch of genuine heroes that you can imagine. It's a place that is so difficult to live in that it lends itself to heroics all the time -- in everyday life. 

People cleaning fish on the Gulkana River, downstream 
from the Gulkana Hatchery. 
In this overlooked world of unheralded heroes, if you want to officially name somebody -- especially for the specific work of doing something positive about enhancing the Copper River watershed, Ken's a really good choice.

Ken Roberson is a hero because he was in the right place, at the right time -- armed with some sheets of plywood, some rope, some drywall buckets and a determination to set things straight with the Copper River watershed.

Before there were awards, or committees, or organizations dedicated to the Copper River, Ken Roberson did something that turned around the river's history. The entire Copper River watershed would be very different right now if Ken Roberson had not been working out of that little office in Glennallen in the 1970's, and then followed through on his idiosyncratic, bullheaded and incredibly effective ideas to build -- from the ground up -- the world's largest salmon fry production facility. In the wilds of Alaska. Because it was the right thing to do.

© Copper River Country Journal, 2015, Linda Weld, Editor
All rights reserved, including photographs and maps.

Share this post

Post a comment

Next Post
Newer Post
Previous Post
Older Post