Van Baker was born in Gig Harbor, WA, on March 7, 1938. He and his family lived eight miles away in Olalla. The town had become mostly residential, as most of it was burned during the depression in the 20s. If a man needed to get out of a failing business, he set a fire to destroy the buildings. Van lived in Olalla through high school, then went into the Coast Guard. He went to boot camp in California and then back to Groton, CT, for diesel engine school.
The diesel engine training supplied the reason to join the Coast Guard. Everyone on Van’s mother’s side of the family was a fisherman, and the occupation interested him from his youth. He fished with his uncle in 1954 for the first time, purse seining in Alaska, right here in Icy Strait, between Gustavus and Ketchikan. He fished here with his uncle each summer until he got out of high school.
When Van first started fishing with his uncle in 1954, there were huge icebergs in Icy Strait, hence the name. By the time Van started fishing on his own boat, in ’64 and ’65, there was still ice but not a large amount, and not as huge in size. You could pull up to a small berg (about the size of a 16-foot skiff) and knock off chunks to put in the cooler. Once he got his own boat, Van found an old refrigerator and laid it on its side to be used for a cooler. A few chunks of iceberg in there kept things cold.
Van went into the Coast Guard in January, 1957. After 3 months of boot camp, he completed the diesel engine course in another 4 months. Then he was sent to Grand Isle, Louisiana, at that time the only place in Louisiana where the road went to the beach. There was no other town or habitation close by. The shore line was all marshy, with no beach access. Grand Isle had been a main port for the oil industry, but this function was over by the time he arrived. At that time, the island was the site of a Coast Guard lifeboat station.
In 1959, Van left Grand Isle and went to Kodiak on the vessel Storis. This duty occurred before the Kodiak tidal wave. From Kodiak he was sent to Seattle for a year, where he served on the Seattle buoy tender, the Fir. When he got out of the service in 1961, he went back to fishing with his uncle.
Two years later, he bought his first fishing boat from a cannery. He had married Karla Keene in 1 963 and got the boat in Ketchikan right after the earthquake. At the time he was still purse seining. He brought the boat to Blaine, fixed it up, got his own crew and fished the boat until 1966, when he moved to Sitka with his family: his wife, Karla, and two children, Kathy and Todd. He fished in the summer and worked at the pulp mill in Sitka in the winter. He and Karla divorced in 1968; that winter Van moved to Ketchikan.
Van’s first boat, which he owned from 1964 to 1969, was called the Peasant. The Peasant had a very rotten bottom. It was so bad no one would buy it. The cannery had taken it back from a Native family in Ketchikan. It was the last gas-powered seiner in Southeast. The boat had not been maintained. An exhaust pipe leaked engine gas fumes into the foc’sle and a young boy died. (Foc’sle is the standard abbreviation for “forecastle,” or the fore part of a ship, below deck. The crew often stayed there.) The cannery gave the boat to Van for $500.00, so Van flew to Ketchikan to get the boat, sight unseen. He was told it was a good boat, and had the misfortune to believe he had been told the truth. When he got to town and inspected the boat, he discovered that nothing would run. The former owners had gotten the oil stove so hot that the top was melted and the stove was warped and sagging. There had been a fire in a bunk in the pilot house, burning the wood of the bunk. The high-water mark in the foc’sle was almost knee high. The oil mark on the wood was ‘way up the side. When he looked for parts to buy to fix the engine, store owners would ask him which boat. One man asked how much money he had in the boat. Van told him $500.00. “Write it off and go home,” the man said.
Van wasn’t one to give up. It took him two weeks to get the engine running. He finished in such good time because he had a friend with a boat that had a large alternator, which would help keep his batteries charged while he worked. He put the boat on the grid to clean the bottom off. On the first high tide that came in while he was on the grid, he discovered that the whole forefront of the boat had so much water in it that he had to recork the entire front end, down into the keel.
Once he got the engine running, it seemed reliable. He prepared to leave to go fishing. A watchman at the cannery outfitted the boat with many missing supplies — mattresses, pots, pans, dishes — the boat had nothing on it. “Anyways,” says Van, “this man was a super-good guy who found everything I needed.”
Van met with the cannery representative who sold him the boat. This man supplied a good solid anchor, fathometer, power block, and various deck equipment he just happened to have as spares. He’d had a boat that hit a rock and sunk. He told the cannery it was a total loss; then enlisted friends to help him strip the boat and store the gear. Thus he saved the equipment and sold it to Van for a very low price.
Before Van and his wife left to go to Blaine, the watchman gave him a box of boat nails, corking cotton, and oakum, to use in case of leaks. The watchman didn’t think the boat would make it, but it did. Van got a net and a crew and started fishing. Van says, “Everything worked fine as long as you didn’t worry about details too much.” He fished that boat until 1969.
In the spring of 1969, Van came back to Sitka and bought an island. He had a friend who lived on a small island close to Sitka, and while Van visited him, he learned that the island next to the one owned by his friend was for sale. Van agreed to buy the island, called Maude Island. It was about an acre in size. He bought it for $25,000; sold it in around 1974 for $38,000. Islands were just beginning to be choice property when he sold it. Maude Island had a very nice small house, generator shed, docks, and floats. Van sold it to two young lawyers. Says Van, “The wife could live on the island, because she could run an outboard and get a skiff back and forth. Her husband did not even know how to start the outboard.” These folks kept it for 1 1/2 to 2 years. They sold it to a man from Sitka who paid $70,000 for it. The buyer rented out the house, which was heated by a small oil stove. The renters didn’t bother to maintain the stove, and about a year later, the place burned down because the stove no longer functioned properly.
Van started trolling in 1969. Once he started trolling, he always fished alone. Van’s cousin and good friend, Jeff Pfundt, fished herring in Sitka every spring. One year, one of his crew members, Fred Fayette, wanted to go trolling, and Jeff asked Van if he would teach him how. So, after the herring season, Fred and his wife came with their boat. Van showed him where to fish and helped teach him how it was done. They ended up running together for at least 35 years. Fred, though, was an experimenter and tried different methods, often quite successfully. Van stayed with the same fishing method.
A simplified explanation: Commercial trolling is like fishing with sports gear, but rather than having just one line, the boat can have multiple lines. There are two (and in some cases, more than two) poles, port and starboard, amidships, that extend out from the vessel. At intervals, a line of gear snaps on to the main line coming down from the pole. Thus, the troller can have multiple lines and as many hooks as the depth of the water allows.
In 1969, while living on the island, Van took the Peasant back to the cannery to retrieve a net he owned. The cannery told him they didn’t want the Peasant trolling; they wanted it to purse seine only, and they took the boat away from him. (Interestingly, it never purse seined again.) So, Van paid all his bills for the winter and went south to look for another boat. While visiting cousins in Bellingham, he saw an advertisement for a boat that was back in Ketchikan. He went to see the owner, who lived in Washington, and bought the craft, called the Saga, for $5,000: $1,000 down; $1,000 a year, no interest. Again, he bought a vessel he hadn’t seen, and when he returned to Ketchikan in January to look it over, he discovered that it, too, was rotten. It was a case of not having much money, and taking what you could get. As it was the first of two boats named the Saga, it came to be known as “the little Saga.”
Van thought he remembered the Saga, but when he looked for it at the dock, it was a different vessel. The back half was rotten because it had been closed up for so long. It wasn’t built right and was rigged badly. The poles on deck were too tall. Van said that when you stood on the side of the boat, you thought you would tip over because it was top-heavy. Van shortened the poles to balance the weight.
The stove was in good shape, and started right up. The engine started the next day without any real problems. Van put the boat on the grid and discovered blue mussels three inches thick on the bottom. Once these were removed, he discovered that the entire bottom of the craft from the water line down was completely sheathed in copper. Therefore, there were no leaks. However, parts of the back of the boat above the water line were so soft you could have put your foot through them. Van fished this vessel for two years and then got rid of it.
In mid-January, on his first trip out of Ketchikan with this new boat, Van headed for Sitka. The weather was below freezing. The boat had no radio; only a fathometer. Van was by himself.
He left Ketchikan and put the stabilizers down when he got into Clarence Straits. About four hours later, the mast fell down and all the poles fell over to the port side of the boat. In this crippled condition, he finally got into Meyers Chuck, a small town, arriving just before dark. It had taken him an additional two to three hours to get there. People there helped him reset the mast and stabilizers. He took down the trolling poles so he could get the mast back up. He straightened up the deck as best he could.
The next morning, he left for Petersburg. It was snowing very hard, so he had to travel by compass to Snow Pass. Then the weather cleared so he could see. Though it was cold, the water was calm. He visited his cousin, Jeff Pfundt, in Petersburg.
The next leg of the trip he also accomplished in one day. When he left Petersburg the next morning, it was still clear and cold. He got all the way to the south end of Admiralty Island. However, Van says, “being young and foolish, I made a mistake.” The boat had not been used for several years and the fuel tanks had been left empty. Rust formed along the bottom, inside. Van did not bring any extra fuel filters. In calm waters with no sloshing, he was fine. However, when he tried to cross Chatham Straits, the wind was blowing northerly at least 20 knots down the Straits. Fortunately, the boat was a stable one. Half-way across the Straits, the engine started to quit. Van switched fuel tanks and was able to get to Baranof Warm Springs. He tied to the float, cleaned the filter, and blew out the fuel lines until the engine was running okay.
Says Van,”Anyways, next morning Young and Stupid gets up. It’s blowing at least 25 knots northerly. He starts going north up Chatham. Between the hot springs and the turn toward Sitka at Peril Straits, the engine quit 5 times. Each time Young and Stupid had to clean the lines, getting gasoline in the bilge in the process and hoping the boat wouldn’t blow up when he started the engine…and to think I could have soaked all day in that hot tub and waited for the wind to come down.”
At Poison Cove, Van decided to anchor up. It was the first time he had anchored the boat. The next morning when he got up, the bay had almost frozen over during the night. He tried to start the hydraulic anchor winch and discovered that the hydraulic pump was a “haywire operation.” The engine, a Chrysler Ace four-cylinder gas engine, did not have a power take-off. (The power take-off refers to any of several methods used for taking power from a power source, such as a running engine, and transmitting it to an application such as a hydraulic pump.) All the engine had was a sprocket, or gear, on the front. The pump was mounted on a piece of plywood that was hinged to the side of the boat. A loop of chain, like bicycle chain, only heavier, hung on a hook on the wall next to the engine. To make the hydraulic pump work, this loop was hooked over the gear on the pump and the gear on the engine and had to remain tight. The tightener was a reasonably heavy spring, but it was not strong enough. When Van started the engine, the chain would jump off the sprocket on the hydraulic pump. Part of the reason for this problem was that the former owner had used heavy 30-weight oil in the pump, and the oil was too thick to move until well-heated.
The only way Van could get the hydraulics started was to go up on deck, turn the anchor winch valves on, then go back to the hold, and hook up the chain between the engine and the pump. He had to brace himself against the side of the boat, put his foot on the pump to keep enough tension on it so the chain would stay in place, and reach up and turn on the engine. He could barely reach it. Once he got the engine started, he could hear the anchor coming up. However, the engine was going too fast, as he had not adjusted the idle down enough. He had to judge when he could let go of the chain.
Finally, he was able to move his foot and stood up to shut the engine off. Just then the anchor came over the bow of the boat and off the roller, where there was no mechanism to check the speed, and headed for the wheelhouse windows. It stopped short of the windows as it reached the end of its chain, and then was jerked back the other way, and crashed into the winch. Van shut off the engine to undo the mess.
It took Van another day to get to Sitka. Fortunately, he was now in calm inside waters, and the rest of the trip went smoothly.
Van met Carole in Sitka on a blind date. Another island friend was married to a woman who ran the lab in the Public Health Service hospital on Mount Edgecombe. Carole was working at a temporary position there. When Van’s friends invited him to dinner, he met Carole. They were married in 1970. Carole quit work after their marriage and went fishing with her husband on the little Saga. Their son, Lee, was born in Sitka in November of 1972. Carole and fishing didn’t get along together too well, as Carole was often seasick. After the baby was born, she stopped fishing.
Carole interjected a story about a little cat that they took fishing with them. On its first trip out in the boat, it jumped overboard and swam to shore. On its second trip, it jumped overboard again, but they were farther from shore, and had to rescue the cat from the water. It simply didn’t take to fishing. Finally, once when they were docked in Tenakee, the cat jumped ship. The couple stayed in the area for a time, looking for the cat; trying to lure it with food, but never did find it. Sometime later, when Van went on a hunting trip with some friends, including a man from Tenakee, the man told him that the cat had found some friends of his, moved in, and they adopted him.
Van and Carole came to Gustavus to visit Van’s uncle, Cecil Pfundt. It was a beautiful day in late August, 1973. The strawberries were ripe and plentiful and many flowers bloomed. Carole was impressed by the place. Van’s uncle said that Fred Matson had land
for sale for $750 an acre. They bought an acre that day, and came back the next week and bought the rest of the piece of land, about 2 1/2 acres total. They spent their first winter in the house that is now called Aimee’s Guest House. They lived there while they built their present house. They started building in the fall and moved in the next spring. In bountiful Gustavus fashion, it rained over 30 inches when they were trying to close in the house.
They owned their third boat by then. The second boat, the 32-foot little Saga, Van purchased just after he married Carole. In 1970, they bought the big Saga, a 40-foot boat. Because of a fuel shortage at the time, Van couldn’t get another credit card with a different boat name on it. As they needed the card to buy fuel for the boat, they gave the new boat the same name.
The big Saga was a 40-foot boat with a navy hull. It had been made into a yacht by a man in Seattle. Van bought it in Seattle, loading it with things to bring home. The fishing hold was full of new purchases. Van remarked, “Thank goodness it was heavy! It supplied ballast. The boat had a narrow bottom and didn’t draw much water. It rolled a lot. Carole, their son, Lee, and their friend from the neighboring island in Sitka were with them. The trip was uneventful all the way from Seattle until they got to an island south of Petersburg. A north wind was blowing out of the Stikine River and it got really rough going into Wrangell Narrows. Once into the Narrows, a boat passed them, the first one they had seen on the whole trip. The Saga was quite a fast boat. Just as they got into Petersburg, they realized they were going very slowly. Their reduction gear had gone out when they went into Wrangell Narrows. They pulled into Petersburg and all flew to Sitka. Van had to take out a loan to buy the reduction gear. He then flew back to Petersburg to do the repair work, and then brought the boat to Sitka.
Now that they had another boat, Van stripped all the gear off the little Saga
and put it on the new boat. He then sold the little Saga. The new boat was a good fishing boat, though it was 3/4 living space and 1/4 fishing space. In Gustavus, mooring was a problem, as there was no real boat harbor. Van kept it in Bartlett Cove for a couple of years. Then he had a cradle made for it and hauled it out on the Gustavus side for a couple of years. Being a wooden boat, it was hard to maintain.
They had the big Saga until 1980. At that time Van had a brand-new boat built in Port Angeles, the Apex, at 37 feet. The boat was named the Apex because Van’s grandfather had a boat with the same name. Van’s uncle had fished with his father and brother on the original Apex, so the name carried forward a family tradition.
The new boat had no breakdowns or problems the entire time Van had it. Everything on the boat worked. It was fiberglass, so was low maintenance. It remained a good boat for the 30 years that Van fished it. He sold the boat and permit about four years ago.
Van said it was an excellent fishing boat, once you got used to the ride. There is a big difference between wooden boats and fiberglass vessels. Wooden boats are slower and heavier. Fiberglass boats are much quicker to turn and to roll.
The Saga’s steering wheel and pilot house were at the back of the boat. On the new boat, the wheel and house were right in front, so the navigator would feel the action of the boat in the water a little more. Van had to make a few adjustments in figuring out how to store things in the boat or how to place the gear. It took a while to get used to this faster craft, rather than the slower-moving wooden boat.
Other than setting the engine, Van did all the work on the boat himself: Plumbing; wiring; hydraulics. It was one of the few boats he’d been on that never had a mechanical problem that stopped him from fishing. He had dealt with all the problems on his other boats, and knew what to do right. The only time he ever lost time from fishing was when he finally had to put in a new engine. The manufacturer had made an error in putting together the new one, and created some maintenance problems.
In the early days, fish were iced, so the boat carried several tons of ice. Normally the boat fished 7 days, with one day to get out to the fishing grounds and one day to get back. The rest of the time Van fished, until the boat was loaded.
With the Apex, Van iced the same way the first years. Then he changed to “slushing” fish. He made an ice slush for the fish in insulated totes on deck. This method shortened the trip to three days. It was much less work than icing fish in the hold, and the fish were better-quality. Van delivered to one of the cold storage places in Sitka, usually the Sitka Sound Cold Storage. He could also deliver to tenders on a “buying scow.” The canneries built 50-foot wooden scows that could be loaded with fish from the fleet, for delivery. The cold storage company bought some of these scows so they could put them in out-of-the-way places, allowing fishermen to deliver every day if they wished. The cold storage companies sent regular tenders to pick up the fish once a week from the scows.
When Van first started trolling, the season often ran seven days a week. Later, when Limited Entry was introduced, the season was shorter, sometimes open for just a few days. Van mostly fished in summers, starting in April and fishing through September. Winter was for home projects. During the season, weather was a determining factor in deciding to fish. Van didn’t fish if the winds were over 25 knots. He says it seems that since the late ’60s, the weather has gotten worse than it had been in earlier years.
One of Van’s home projects involved building a fine little shop for Carole’s artwork. Van says he located it originally behind their house. It was only half the size of the present shop. Van constructed the place to teach his son, Lee, how to build a house. A few years later, when Carole wanted a shop, Van put skids under the structure and Morgan DeBoer came over with his front-loader and dragged it to its present location. Van says that he had a floor out of another building that was exactly the same size as the one in the little house, too good to throw away, so he placed it next to the small place and added a new addition.
Out on the grounds, the fisherman could not always tell if he had picked an area where he would find lots of fish, until he put his gear down and checked it out. One year Fred and Van both anchored up in a bay the day before the season opened on July 1. Six other boats also lay at anchor in the bay, awaiting the opener. The next morning, they discovered themselves amidst a fish bonanza. The fish were so thick they could barely keep up with catching and cleaning. They got 180 fish the first day. As soon as the opening started in the morning, one of the boats in the bay, who was a highliner and part of a “code group,” all highliners, called the group, who were scattered up and down the coast, and told them about the fish-filled bay. These boats would leave their spot and head for the bay, and when they did, the boats nearby would follow them. By noon there were 65 boats in the bay. By evening, there were many more. Van and Fred stayed for two days and were pretty full, so they left, not wanting to work anymore in an area that was so crowded.
Once when Van was out on the Apex, waiting for an opener, he decided to do a little beachcombing. He pulled into a cove and used his field glasses to search the beach. Down on one end, he noticed the bright orange color of a survival suit, and left the boat to go and investigate. The suit appeared to be full of sand, but when Van cut a hole in the leg of the suit, he found denim fabric with a leg still inside. He called the Coast Guard, who flew over and dug the body up. He never did find out who it was.
The Apex made two trips a year to Juneau to get groceries and supplies. On these trips, generally a couple of extra people went along, and everyone loaded up with freight. For the rest of the time Van took her trolling until he retired four years ago.
Van named his final boat well. By the time he had the Apex ready to fish, Van had figuratively completed his schooling and built his boat to qualify for his Fisheries PhD. It might be an imaginary degree, but considering the amount of knowledge he gained, the comparison is apt. Not only did he know how to fish, but he understood exactly how his boat operated and became well-acquainted with all of its varied gear. More importantly he knew the proper way to assemble it all. He knew fishing regulations and had his favorite fishing spots. He could repair most things and kept a cool head in emergencies. He held in his memory all the specifics he needed for his chosen career.
Van Baker is one of a vanishing breed of men. Not that many years ago, it was possible for a man to provide for his family by making fishing his career. These days the “little guy” who wants to fish as a lifestyle has been largely displaced by big boats fishing for big money. A few hardy souls still fish by themselves or with a small crew but, sadly, that era may soon be just a memory. Thank you, Van, for keeping the dream alive for a few years longer. You are a part of a host of hardy Alaskans who have helped develop the Alaskan fisheries and our way of life.