Cordova Chronicles: Lessons from Odiak Slough

Eighth graders on a field trip learn the importance of hands on science

Upper Odiak Slough before a railway trestle was built across it in the early 1900s Photo courtesy of the Cordova Museum

Our house is located on Odiak Slough, across from the Cordova Rose Lodge.  A couple weeks ago, I glanced out our dining room picture window, and saw a group of young kids out beyond the snow-covered flats, exploring the narrow waterway on a falling tide.

It was a nice sunny day, and closer examination revealed it was high school science teacher Lance Westing with several students gathering some sort of samples from the icy waters.  Curious as to what they might be finding, I decided to wander out.

Turns out they were 8th grade earth science students testing the water for oxygen content. I asked Lance how the process worked, and he passed the question on to one of his young scientists.

Odiak Slough in March 2017. Mr. Westing’s Earth Science class did their field work here. No paddle-wheelers in sight. Photo by Dick Shellhorn/The Cordova Times

A young lad named TJ Hatch displayed the test kit, showed me the sample, and gave me an explanation far clearer than the one I recall in an oceanography class at Oregon State many years ago.

Turns out the oxygen level was a little below average. Mr. Westing had another group up at Odiak Pond and a third at city dock doing similar tests. It would be interesting to compare the results.

Then followed a series of events, questions, and discussion that reflected the importance of hands-on science and experience. It was a delightful 20 minutes, and made me miss the days of teaching mathematics at CHS.

For example, the question of what low oxygen content might mean to fish. That’s a rather important one in this community.  And what impact higher water temperatures might have on oxygen content, in light of recent warm surface water in Prince William Sound.

I mentioned having seen a pair of land otter scoot across the snow covered flats just an hour earlier.  We went over to look at the tracks. Someone commented “what tracks?” They deduced that land otter really aren’t that well suited for land travel, for the trough through the snow showed how they skidded along, with the imprint of their paws barely visible on the outer edges.  The intricate claw marks fascinated the students.

The tide was falling, yet a student noticed some of the ice in the slough was going up stream. Mr. Westing asked how that could be. Finally they figured out that the water draining out of a pond and gutter near Ken Hill’s place entered at an angle that faced up the slough, creating a back eddy effect.

I mentioned how different the slough looked since the 1964 Good Friday earthquake, and asked them to speculate on the resulting uplift. They needed a little help on that one, so I mentioned that before the event, the tides almost reached to the floor my nearby warehouse, and now they barely touched the base of the pilings.  The comparison gave them a big hint on the change, which was about 8 feet.

From our viewpoint, we could look all the way up the slough to the highway that crosses it.  I asked if the highway had always been there.  Someone said no, recalling a photo of a railway trestle across the slough. So then I asked if the trestle had always been there. Not sure, someone ventured probably not.

Right. Originally Odiak Slough went all the way to the location of today’s Cordova Community Medical Center, which in the late 1890’s was the site of a large cannery and docks prior to the construction of the railway. So I suggested it might be fun to research old photos, and notice sternwheelers chugging up this now shallow waterway on their way to offload supplies and pick up canned salmon at the edge of what is now Odiak Pond.

The Rose Lodge across the slough was the next topic.  How did it get there? What was its history? Well, prior to the earthquake, it was the site of a floating cannery that belonged to the Clemens brothers. Each spring they would come up and tow it to Eshamy using a small WWII surplus Navy subchaser.  it was fascinating to see this grey craft looming up in Odiak Slough.  A large barge built in 1924 in Kodiak named the Berry No. 1, which had been used as a pile driver and fish trap setter, was towed to the site in 1964, and has remained there every since, eventually forming the Main Building of the lodge.

I asked if any of them had noticed some of the other structures near the Rose Lodge.  Someone mentioned a big rock with a cement figure leaning against it.  Ah ha.  I explained that Bob and Rose Arvidson bought the place after the earthquake.  Bob was a CHS grad, and eventually earned a PhD in Psychology.  At some point he decided he would rather try to outsmart salmon than people, and returned to Cordova to resume  gill netting career.

Dr. Bob was well read, and perhaps a bit eccentric, but not very much so, by Cordova standards.  He built the lighthouse and sailing ships rigging based on research and authentic blueprints. The rock sculpture is based on the Greek mythological character Sisyphus, who was punished by Zeus to push a rock up a hill forever.

The story in local folklore is that Bob’s philosophy was that everyone has their own rock to push –  perhaps inspired by the fact that he hauled a lot of them to build a large rock breakwater all around the Lodge Fortress.

Speaking of pushing, by now we were approaching the time limit for the next classes to start at nearby CHS.  Plus one of the student’s feet were cold.  She had gone over her boots while trying to take a short cut across frozen sea ice.  I loved Mr. Westing’s response to that one:  What does that tell you about the strength of fresh water ice versus salt water ice, and why?

As they wandered off, I pondered the discourse.  Topics:  oceanography, physics, chemistry, biology, history, Greek mythology, sociology, psychology, geology.  And how much can be discovered, and learned, in a trip to Odiak Slough.

Shucks, I had forgotten to tell them about the copper “still” that I found in the old warehouse,  and the days of “”rum-running” up Odiak Slough during the Prohibition Era.  Maybe on their next multi-dimensional trip.

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Dick Shellhorn, author, reporter, ref and grandpa, can be reached at shorn@gci.net. Shellhorn was born and raised in Cordova, Alaska, and has lived there his entire life. He has been writing sports stories for the Cordova Times for over 40 years. In his Cordova Chronicles features, he writes about the history and characters of this Alaska town. Alaska Press Club awarded Shellhorn first place for Best Humor column in 2016 and third place in 2017.