Cordova Chronicles: A COVID Christmas

A broad array of angels and snowmen, highlighted by Leslie Justice’s famous Boswell Bay clam shell creations, greet guests from our dining room hutch. Photo by Dick Shellhorn/for The Cordova Times

Another Christmas is upon us, and one would be hard pressed to label this one as “the most wonderful time of the year.”

Normally we would have a packed house on Christmas morning, enjoying Swedish pancakes, pickled fish and famous Pete Dahl Snappies (a secret Bloody Mary concoction).

The dining room, living room, kitchen and even laundry room would be packed with family and friends; bowls filled with strawberries and Cool Whip to top the crepe-like pancakes would need constant refilling; and background Christmas music would barely be audible over the cheerful din.

If properly flipped, a Norwegian-Swedish pancake, topped with strawberries and Cool Whip, will look like this. Photo by Dick Shellhorn/for The Cordova Times

It’s a tradition that dates back to 1973, when we purchased a little house on Odiak Slough that originally belonged to Louis Stenson, a Swedish fisherman who housed his double-ended Columbia River style craft in a nearby warehouse that was eight times as big as his home.

Yet what we serve should rightfully be called Norwegian pancakes.

I first learned how to make them under the tutelage of Olaf Gildnes, a true son of Norway who spent summers fishing in Cordova his entire life.

In the ’60s and ’70s, I crewed on various seine boats with Captain Gildnes, including the Fairmont, the Cheerful II and the Hook Point. Back then Prince William Sound openers were marathons that ran from 6 a.m. Monday morning through 9 a.m. Saturday, and rare was a night when we didn’t finish off-loading fish by hand to tenders in the wee hours of the morning.

In the early years, the salmon were all wild stock, and catching 100,000 fish was considered a big season, worthy of an upside-down broom high in the rigging.

On Sundays, Olaf would let the crew sleep in, scour the surface of the small oil cook stove, and then serve us his specialty, flat Norwegian pancakes, formed by pouring the batter over a single strip of bacon that sizzled on the hot stove top.

By coincidence, cooking in our first home was done on a large oil-fired range that Stenson had used, and its smooth metal surface was the perfect place to cook several pancakes at once.

With such a broad cooking area at hand, we overlooked the seating capacity of our then 20×30- foot home, and proudly invited everyone over.

A tradition was born, and the annual pandemonium was marvelous.

Alas, this year only a very small bubble of family members will come, as pandemic numbers have soared to incredible heights.

However, we have decorated our home as always, in hopes for brighter years to come.

A winter wonderland sits atop the Ekemo family piano, which was shipped to Cordova from Valdez in the early 1950’s when John and May Ekemo moved here to start a grocery business. Photo by Dick Shellhorn/for The Cordova Times

I strung outside lights on a 25-foot spruce that was a sapling on the beach when we first moved in, and my wife Sue has filled every available inside space with a collection of Christmas decorations, recounting the history and origins of each one in the process.

Yet this 47th Christmas at our home on Odiak Slough will be strangely quiet.

We can only hope for joyous days of yore to return, with Swedish-Norwegian pancakes flying off the grill.

In the meantime, may Peace on Earth, and goodwill toward all prevail, in a year we will always remember as a COVID Christmas.

During the holiday season, 17 Santas help my wife Sue do the laundry. Photo by Dick Shellhorn/for The Cordova Times
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Dick Shellhorn is a lifelong Cordovan. He has been writing sports stories for the Cordova Times for over 50 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 and 2019. He also received second place for Best Editorial Commentary in 2019. Shellhorn has written two books about Alaska adventures: Time and Tide and Balls and Stripes.