The Cordova Gansey Project - The Long Story (cont) #5 ... part A

Cordova Cannery by Karl Becker Cordova, Alaska

#5 of lockers and fishing boats, fishermen and those who love them  ....part A

Years ago, before we built our fishing warehouse at 6 1/2 Mile Copper River Highway,  we kept and stored our gear in an equipment storage locker in the Alaska Packers Association warehouses. APA, as it was called, was where our newly purchased first fishing boat had been stored by its previous owner, and so became our inherited new home of sorts.

f/v Tawnia Lynn, June 1978, Cordova, Alaska, Alaska Packers Warehouse, photo by Dotty WIdmann

In order to get to our storage locker, there was a maze of steps and corridors that wandered through the multiple story, old metal and wood buildings, which were connected by enclosed wooden catwalks.  At one time, these structures housed a cannery that used to pack salmon and later clams,  but these days, the old buildings were storehouses for both boats and fishing nets.

At first, because we were new, they gave us a locker on the uppermost level of the buildings.  At that time, we lived on the boat and didn't have a bunkroom yet, so whatever we owned in our fishing life either was on the boat or in the locker. In order to take things on and off the boat, we had to first climb up and over the rails and across the decks of all the boats we were tied up next to, at either the pilings or the floating dock at the end of the buildings.

From here, we had to climb up a precarious rusty ladder, or up a wooden ramp, depending on where we were docked, and then follow along on a very narrow wooden plank boardwalk under the warehouse structures, along the rows of pilings that supported and were just below the warehouses. From under the buildings you emerged, and continued around the dim walkways, winding through narrow passageways and multiple stairs, until you finally arrived at the locker.  Although some of the details are a little fuzzy, I just have this recollection that at low tide it was quite a journey, especially with boxes or armloads of gear.


I do remember, however, that at that time, everything I owned seemed to reek of diesel fuel and mechanical fluid.  We (mostly Fred our mechanic and crewman) had put a new engine into our "new" 35 year old  wooden boat before launching it for the season.  I remember standing there passing tools back and forth, when I wasn't busy repainting the exterior and letters of the boat name.  Launching it was an adventure in itself, as the whole building seemed to quiver as it was lowered into the water. Mechanically speaking, it was one thing after another, and from that point on, it just seemed like everything I had was drenched, and I mean drenched, in the fragrance of oil and fuel, hydraulic fluid, mildew from the dampness of endless rain, and the lingering aroma of past fish harvests. 

As it turned out, the roof above our first locker leaked profusely, and consequently, we were given a new and different locker on another floor, and so we proceeded to haul our soaked gear and goods down to our new spot. Now, if my memory serves me right, it seemed that from then on, Captain Bob, my husband, was in search of the perfect locker. Somehow, he would find that someone was moving out of their locker, and had us crew move everything to this new spot. Of course, these new lockers were never close by or on the same floor. And so, it seemed, that over the next several years of our time at APA, when we weren't out on the fishing grounds, we crewman experienced an endless parade up and down the stairs, and around and about the warehouses, hauling our gear from boat to locker, locker to boat, as well as from locker to locker...buckets, ropes, oil cans, net mending supplies, raingear, clothes, and a myriad of odds and ends.

Maybe being bound in that little space had something do with it, but regardless of the location, upstairs or downstairs, our locker never ceased to contain this distinct "fragrant" concoction of dampness, diesel, and fish. Anything you put into storage would quickly absorb the fragrance of the locker,  and I was always reluctant to store in there anything I really cared about, but often didn't have the option, and the same went for that old wooden boat, whose old wooden hull seemed like a sponge to every fluid it ever came in contact with. I thought about that in terms of all the people that had come in contact with that old boat and these buildings, once astir with the rattlings of a cannery and cannery workers, and then and moreso now, the hum of fisherman's voices and their discussions on fish prices and dreams of better boats, with a hint of secrecy about how many fish they actually caught. I often wondered if somehow a bit of them lingered as well. 

Eventually, we purchased our first fiberglass boat, and a few years later bought land and built a warehouse,  and even farther down the line, opened up the shop in the net loft of the new warehouse. Everything was new and fresh, and although I missed my friends and life at the bunkhouse, I appreciated having a fresh environment for my possessions.  It wasn't long after opening the store out the road that I started carrying lotions and perfumes in the shop as part of our repertoire.  I knew first hand the need to smell something of a different sort of fragrance, even more so while working on a boat or in the cannery. 

Fragrances are known to stir memories, and although as years go by, one may sometimes forget what they have forgotten, a whiff of a scent can somehow bring it back to mind. And so it was one day last summer, that our fisherman son, Nate, wandered into The Net Loft for a hug and a hello.  Surrounded by the usual Net Loft fragrances of lavender, lemongrass, perfumed Lollia lotions and candles, interlaced with fresh chocolates and wool yarn, Nate reached out and gave me a long hard hug, weary from working on his boat, which he had been tearing apart learning and figuring out how to fix and maintain. 

To my surprise, and without a conscious thought, in that moment of embracing him, loud and clear, I was instantly catapulted back to that old fishing boat and APA locker. I felt myself hesitate and had a sense of time collapse as past merged with present. In those brief seconds, I didn't want to let him or the memory go.  

Having been recently out on the water for a fish opening, and then without stopping to change, as is common in fishing life, working on his boat for the last few days changing hydraulic hoses and doing engine maintenance, Nate's clothing and body had accumulated and become saturated with that distinct strong aroma and combination of just the right formula of diesel, dampness, engine fluids and fishing.

As I breathed in its "perfume" it had transported me back in time 35 years, and all the memories of those early days came flooding in and filled me with nostalgia. One more hug please, I thought. What once was something I willingly tried to avoid but could not get away from, I now longed for more. It wasn't so much for the buildings and the boat, but rather the friendships formed and the lifestyle lived while being in the midst of them...of weddings on boat decks, babies in the bunkhouse, conversations in the cookhouse around the big black iron eight foot diesel cookstove, exploring attics and finding "treasure", of youth and vitality, new love and a new life.  

Our boat these days is down a dock, rather than at the end of an old cannery, and yet as you walk the docks you can still catch a whiff in the air in the Cordova Harbor of diesel, boat mechanics, and fishing. 

Though not quite so intense as that found in our old boat or locker, it is still a distinct combination, and evokes the thought of fisherman astir throughout the season.  Perhaps one could simply call it the aroma of "the diesel and the docks",  even though it really is so much more.  And those who know it can tell you, indeed so very much more...


Soon to follow...Part B   the docks of Shetland

stay tuned


Watercolors by Karl Becker , Cordova, Alaska

Oil Painting of Fisherman at the Dock by Jen-Ann Kirchmeier, Cordova, Alaska (there a few signed glicee copies of this fisherman at the docks painting available which may be ordered directly from Jen-Ann)



On a side note, our Net Loft Custom Colorway from Three Irish Girls Yarns was derived by the watercolor painting shown above by Karl Becker of the old APA Cannery.  Though not in our online store, these yarns are available in a variety of bases at the shop.  You can now understand where this color comes from and why it is so special to me.  Yarn inquiries for yarns in shop but not online may be made to

Karl Becker's Cordova Cannery Watercolor and Net Loft Custom Colorway "Cordova Cannery"  Cordova, Alaska

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Thank you Debra. Fifty-one years later from the days that Bob and Ken first arrived in Cordova for the first time, these friends have a lasting bond, regardless of whatever happens. I hope through this project and through our knitting them together, to provide an opportunity for us to create a collective history to be shared. There are many tales to be told, and stories to be shared. There is a vision and together we can collectively bring it to life.


I too was catapulted back in time. I distinctly remember the rice on the boat tasting like diesel, my clothes smelling fishy/sweaty/salty all at once, walking gingerly on slippery dock ramps, feeling my hair matted under my cap. Feels like yesterday, yet it’s 30 years ago! The memories run very deep. It causes me to reflect on the need to help Ken savor them while we still can. Thank you for the loving nudge to do so!


Thank you for sharing this, Dottie.

Patty McGuire

Vern’s shop – the smell of diesel, wet nets, those musty old lockers of chicken wire and lumber, and the attic of APA – full of treasures. Boats, engines, nets, old clam boxes and roe wooden roe boxes with Japanese calligraphy on them. Those huge dark old solid wood timbers and remember even the piles of the old linen nets they used to “bluestone”? I used to sharpen my net knives on Vern’s stone, which was at least a foot long and worn down in the middle, have a tiny sip of that thick black coffee with Darigold canned milk – “high grade”, listen to the weather on the radio and the gossip of the fishermen. The whole APA shop was saturated with diesel (and cigarette smoke). Vern was a mechanical genius. Well, you described the fragrance of our youths and lives perfectly.
As you explore and discover the genesis of the Cordova Gansey Project, it is fascinating to share these old stories and memories that are shaping our own traditions today, and our kinship with the fisher folk and knitters of the North Atlantic Isles. Fishing, Friends & Fiber, Traditions Old & New – What could be better?

Bonnie M. Phillips

That’s our Dotty…not only painting picts with colors and words, but fragrance and essence, as well!
You captured it PERFECTLY, once again :-)

Shoo Shoo

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