Cordova Chronicles: What about Alchuck?

Tina Tapley, left, shares a fireweed moment with Barbara Hoover. For decades, Tina was a local icon well known for her willingness to speak out at meetings regarding public issues. Cordova Museum photo

One of the true delights of Cordova Chronicles is responses received from readers. They always seem to be filled with valuable new information, and often humor as well.

The feature about the history of the Alaganik Landing Road triggered a couple missives from George Covel, who worked with the USFS here in Cordova from 1980 through 1986 before later moving on to a very successful career as a local gillnetter.

It turns out that shortly after arrival here as a young USFS forester, he was tasked by District Ranger John Standerwick with addressing concerns about the badly deteriorated Alaganik boat ramp.

Built in 1966, it was in rough shape, with the concrete slabs victims of frost heaves and tidal actions. Both he and Standerwick agreed that the construction of the original road in such quick fashion was an undertaking that would not be possible in the political environment 14 years later.

But Covel contacted Jack Joslin, who did a quick survey, prepared a contract, and had it done in short order, all for $3,000.

Perhaps as a reward for such efficiency, Forester Covel soon found himself tasked with another challenge.

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In 1980, newly arrived USFS forester George Covel did a fine job of spearheading repairs to the Alaganik Landing but was soon flummoxed by outspoken Tina Tapley at a community-wide meeting about wood stoves. Photo courtesy George Covel

Here is his description of the event:

“In 1980, Cordovans, like most, were rightly concerned about inflation, interest rates and particularly the high cost of heating oil. Many bought Earth Stoves — Larry Gentry was selling them as soon as they came in. Slip-shod installation, poor operating habits and wet wood all contributed to a rash of stack fires and an air quality on calm days in the Old Town area similar to Fairbanks. Someone thought it would be helpful to the good citizens if that new, young, know-it-all at the Forest Circus put on a presentation at the high school and duly educated said citizens about the rights and wrongs of wood heating.”
“So, one evening, I put on my best green Forest Service uniform, went to the high school library (where everything of importance took place in those days) and was greeted by an unexpectedly large and loud audience. Once we got everyone settled down, I began my presentation — sans PowerPoint since also in those days, an expert was required to actually know something about the subject matter. Wood stove design, installation, operation, all of the local wood species and their respective heat values, etc. I was about to wrap it up and pat myself on the back when, without warning, a stern, old, half-Scots, half-Tlingit woman named Tina Tapley yells out (she never whispered) What about Alchuck?’ I said 'What?’ She repeated even louder, 'ALCHUCK, YOU KNOW, ALCHUCK!’ Well, I’d never heard of that species in all of my schooling and limited experience and began feeling the beads of perspiration and dread of doubt of the 'so-called expert.’ To my relief, another old-friend and mentor, Ed King piped up and informed us that Tina was referring to the local name for Mountain Hemlock — which I had already covered. Phew!” 
“Tina and Ed became my good friends and instructors and rarely a day passed when one or the other climbed to the third floor of the old Post Office to further straighten me out.”

Ah, Tina Tapley. For decades, she worked her special magic on quite a few others, often at public meetings. When she showed up in the audience, everyone knew fireworks were in store. After all, her first and last initials matched TNT.

My favorite Tina story occurred at the nurse’s station at the Cordova Community Hospital, of all places. I had been visiting my mom, and on the way out, stopped to thank the pair of nurses for all the marvelous care they were providing — and who came marching down the hallway from the outside entrance? None other than Tina. 

She was dressed in a bright peach-colored jump suit, and underway with a typical full head of steam. The nurses happened to be a pair of young men that were very good at charming elderly ladies, but she was having none of it.

Before they could even utter “Why Tina, how good to see you …” she tore into them with “There’s something wrong with this d— oxygen tank! It’s already empty!” (Just then I noticed the small breathing apparatus hooked up to her nose, and a small tank on wheels beside her.)

Perplexed, the two nurses glanced at each other, and one then said:

“Well, that can’t be. It was a week’s supply, and you just picked it up yesterday.”

The other nurse walked around the counter, looked at the tank, and sure enough, it was empty. He then looked at the valve on the tank.

“Well, Tina, no wonder your cheeks are as rosy as your outfit. You just turned the valve wide open and went through a week’s supply of oxygen in one day!”

In short order she left with a new tank of oxygen, and a valve that was tamper-proof.

And it turns out, Mountain Hemlock is one of the hardest and best heat-generating firewood options around here.

But for Tina, it didn’t take Alchuck — or extra oxygen — to make her burn brightly.

Just ask George.

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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 2020, 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. Reach him at dshorn44@gmail.com.