Wednesday, November 10, 2010

A Visit to Puget Island on the Columbia River

By James A. Cole

A recent visit I made to Puget Island on the Columbia River rewarded me with impressions and stories that went beyond the subject of Columbia River fishing vessels. Puget Island is across from Cathlamet, Washington, approximately 40 miles from the river’s mouth. It was the home of a number of boat builders and fishermen who fished mostly in the Columbia River and Bristol Bay, Alaska gillnet fisheries. Most of them were Norwegians who settled there in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and many of their third generation descendants are still on the island.

The Lower Columbia River is also populated by Finns who chose Astoria, Oregon and the Washington side of the river (known as the Northshore), and Italians, Greeks, and Slavs, who settled in Clifton, Oregon downstream of Puget Island. All of these groups started by clearing the land. Some families went on to become farmers; others became fishermen or boat builders, having only a vegetable garden, some fruit trees, a cow or two, a pig, and some chickens.

Some of the boat building families on Puget Island were the Andersons, Blixes, Enges, Gilbertsons, Johnsons, Nelsons, the Rennes and Don Drew who came later. The reason for my visit was to learn about the fishing and boat building, and I enjoyed visits with four men who are members of third generation Norwegian families - Rod Prestegard, Gilbert and Art Vik, and Dennis Blix. All of them share common experiences, such as having picked cucumbers on Puget Island cucumber farms during their youth. The cucumber farms are gone, and so is the custom of young people working “in the fields” during the summers.

But there still are signs of resourcefulness here. There are vintage flat bed trucks among the pick-ups, and some one-man sawmills because the men of Puget Island would retrieve logs that showed up on the island beaches when the river was high during the winter and spring rains. Some of the logs were choice, straight grain Douglas fir that had been cut in the higher elevations where the timber grows more slowly. This makes the grain more dense, and the wood is stronger and more durable. Many of the men who didn’t build boats for a living were capable of doing so, and occasionally would help someone get their boat built for the upcoming season.

Rod Prestegard is one of these. He lives on the shore of Cathlamet Channel on the Washington side of the island; his shop is across the road from his home. The shop is large and has been the site of some interesting projects - one of them was the building of the vintage design sailing gillnetter, seen here hitched to a vintage tractor. This boat is a classic 26-foot by 8-foot by 3-foot double-ender. The design was taken from a half-model made by Marcus Gilbertson from lines done by Dennis Blix’s grandfather Sigurd. Rod built the hull, the hollow mast and the spars in about 2003, and the workmanship is first class. The deck is straight grain Douglas fir from a log that Rod pulled out of the river, dried and cut into lumber. It had been a float log for some time and was from an old growth tree that must have been cut up in the mountains. The annual rings of the grain are about 1/16-inch apart.

Rod offered to move the gillnetter and trailer out of the shop so that I could take some pictures. He did it with panache by hitching up to the trailer with a fully restored vintage Ford tractor. The one lung engine in this beautiful boat is a 4 HP, Frisco Standard gasoline engine. Rod Prestegard claimed to not be a boat builder because he didn’t do it for a steady living. Other people I later talked to said that he was a boat builder alright, based on his skill if not the number of boats that he built.

That evening we visited Gilbert Vik, whose grandfather, John Vik, had come to Puget Island from Ulstein Vik, Norway in about 1913. Gilbert took us to the home of his uncle Art, who is 95 years old and lives up the road in a one room cottage that had been his net shed during his fishing days. This is on the Oregon side of Puget Island where you can look out at the main ship channel.

Art Vik started fishing on the Columbia River in 1934 in his father’s 26-foot gillnet boat that was built in 1917. He remembered that the hull was shallow and not blown around by the strong winds, which made it easier to pull the net in by hand. He went on to fish in Alaska for about 28 years in his own 32-foot gillnetter. After World War II, he built a new boat. His uncles framed it, Art and Marvel Blix planked it, and Art made the summer season in Bristol Bay, Alaska.

A visit with Dennis Blix was the last of the three stops on this trip. Dennis’s grandfather Sigurd started boat building on Puget Island using the skills that he brought from Norway. He became a major builder of gillnet boats which led his sons Marvel and Sankey to come into the business in the 1930s. Sigurd worked at the US Navy Shipyard in Vallejo, California during World War II and returned to Puget Island to resume boat building with his sons. Sigurd’s grandsons Jerry, Arvid and Dennis came into the business in the 1950s when the Blix Boat Building Company shop on Welcome Slough was built. Arvid Blix is still doing boat repair and although Dennis has left boat building and repair, he has built some fine models of the local boats.

I knew that this trip was going to be a good one because an old shipmate from my 1950s Coast Guard duty on the Oregon Coast joined me. We hadn’t seen each other in 42 years and he had as much fun as I did.

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