AHS Blog

Alitak Superintendent Finds Purpose for Everything

Date Posted: October 4, 2013       Categories: Alaska's Historic Canneries       Tags: Alitak, Kodiak, Ocean Beauty

By: Mike Rostad

(Note: This article was originally published in Mike Rostad’s column for the Kodiak Daily Mirror, “Kodiak Tapestry, on October 4, 2013.)

Woody Knebel, superintendent of Ocean Beauty’s Alitak processing plant in Lazy Bay, sees beauty in the ordinary. Everything serves an aesthetic purpose — even rusty old wrenches that crumble with the slightest torque or an old wooden dory that was used in beach-seining operations at the turn of the century. The dory is the centerpiece of a museum Knebel has been developing for the last four years.

Alitak Brand salmon, showing the location of Alitak on the south endof Kodiak Island. Image courtesy Rick Metzger. 

“You can see rub marks on the side where they pulled the web, corks and leads,” said Knebel. Once Knebel had cleaned up the aging, dirt-corroded dory, he considered painting it. But, respecting the fact that it took 100 years to get this way, he covered it with linseed oil instead. After all, “original” is beauty in museum terminology.

The museum is located next to the mug-up room in the very first cannery building that officially opened at Lazy Bay in 1918. Since then, Alitak has been operating continuously under different owners, including Alitak Packing Company, Pacific American Fisheries, Wards Cove and now, Ocean Beauty.

Items for the museum were donated by local seiners and set-netters and gathered from Alitak, Moser Bay, Olga Bay and other canneries. The Akhiok-Kaguyak Native Corporation, which owns the land where some of the canneries are located, gave Knebel permission to transport artifacts to the museum. Some board members donated historical paraphernalia. The museum is a “community” project. “It’s a work in progress,” he said.

The weather-beaten equipment and gear tell the story of how fishing, processing and marketing were done a century ago: labeling machines, old salmon cans with Norman Rockwellish labels, cannery store ledgers, buckets, pues, tool boxes, wrenches, salmon seine and pilot-house wheels. The museum even has a pair of hand cuffs used by a superintendent to keep rowdy, drinking workers in line. Enclosed in the museum is a radio room that has a lazarette covering for a door. Pictures of Chinese, Filipino, Native and Caucasian workers show the cannery’s ethnic diversity, which continues to this day.

If Knebel can’t find a spot for his treasures in the museum, he’ll use them as artistic ornaments which make Alitak perhaps the most unique processing plant in the state. Metallic and wooden art, paintings and murals catch the attention of cannery worker, fisherman and fish buyer. A metal sculpture of an Alutiiq hunter with bow and arrows is firmly planted on a wall of one of the buildings. Knebel designed it in five minutes. “I found all the pieces in the recycle bin. The body is from old copper pipes, the head from a broken grinder/chopper assembly and the arrows at one time were used to drill holes for drift pins used in dock and piling work.” 

The wind gauge is a metal salmon on top of a flag pole. “We bring it down during the winter and, prior to putting it back up, we have people engrave their names on it.”Local artists have also contributed to Cape Alitak’s uniqueness. Ralph Christiansen of Old Harbor carved the mask on the tin warehouse; Knebel added the tusks. Kay Underwood, one of the set-netters who sell fish to Alitak, painted a life-size picture of a Kodiak brown bear that looks a lot like the one that charged Knebel at Cape Alitak. Underwood’s mural of the mythical god, Trident, guards the entrance to the bathrooms.

Recently Knebel constructed a chapel that provides spiritual refreshment during the long, weary summer. Topped with a cross, the buildings stands away from the cannery complex, with a mountainous backdrop. People of any creed can come to the chapel to pray and meditate. The son of a Lutheran Church Missouri Synod pastor, Knebel said the chapel allows room for the spiritual and mystical.

The novelties at the Alitak cannery break the monotony of a job that can be exhausting and painfully routine. When fishing is at its peak, cannery workers stand 16 hours a day on their feet at the canning and slime lines. “They always seem to get the brunt of everything,” Knebel said. By the end of summer, workers are ready to shed their rain gear and boots and head to warmer climes.

“We can’t wait to get out of here this time of year,” Knebel said one early September day as the skeleton crew was closing the place up. “But come January and February, we wonder what’s going on up here.” By spring, Knebel looks forward to returning to his summer home, where the atmosphere and “hardworking, good people” provide good company. “I think that’s what I like the best about the place,” he said. “I’ve met people from around the island and different parts of the country. There is something that brings them together here.”

In spite of periods of monotony at Alitak, there always seems to be some diversion that keeps Knebel and his crew from letting their guard down and slipping into the misconception that life is ordinary and predictable.  Often they are reminded of the wonder that surrounds them.

The ancient petroglyph cliffs at Cape Alitak a few miles away, provided Knebel with many hours of fascinating study and research which gave him abundant material for a book.During his field research, Knebel had the terrifying privilege of coming close to a bear. He found friendlier company while diving with a beluga whale that had been hanging around the docks for a couple of months. “The whale let the kids rub his tongue, but he wouldn’t let adults pet him.

Knebel’s escapades, encounters and accomplishments are depicted in his photographs and in sketches painted on a piece of walrus ivory by artist, Dick Freeman. A group of Kodiak Island fishermen commissioned Freeman to do the work as a gift of appreciation to Knebel. Knebel is well known for his rapport with fishermen and his employees. That relationship is a “two way street,” he said. “I’ve met a lot of interesting people and I get along with them pretty well.”That conciliatory attitude probably explains why roughly 95 percent of the workers at Cape Alitak return, year after year. Knebel said it’s important to be “upfront with people, and treat them the way they like to be treated.”

The ivory story board is a testimony to Knebel’s adherence to the Golden Rule. Some day the art piece will make a nice entry in Knebel’s museum. But for the time being, it will stay in his office where he can keep a good eye on it.