Cordova Chronicles: Cruising down the river, Part III

Part III in a 3-part series

In September 1966, my wife-to-be Sue Ekemo hangs on for dear life, as Cordova State DOT Manager Walt Mantilla, in hard hat, ferries her across washouts and bridges at Mile 16 of the Copper River Highway. Photo courtesy of Dick Shellhorn

At the end of Part II of this saga, we had made it back to the Alaganik landing from our cabin at Pete Dahl, only to discover the Copper River Highway had washed out near the Sheridan River Bridge.

There were no cell phones in 1966, so we were stranded and out of touch. It was already beginning to get dark, so Captain Shellhorn, who always had a plan, suggested we drop the boat off at the Alaganik Landing turnoff, and head out the road to spend the night at the McKinley Cabin.

Lo and behold, a mile beyond the turnoff, we found a more regal shelter, namely a cabin right opposite the trailhead of today’s Muskeg Meander Trail. It belonged to Chuck Raymond. There were no vehicles in sight and no lights on, so carrying flashlights, we walked up and knocked on the door.

No one answered, and the door was unlocked.

Alaskans always help each other out in a pinch, said Dad, so I am sure they wouldn’t mind if we spent the night.

We quickly deduced that whoever had been there had skedaddled in a hurry. On the table was the half-eaten carcass of a goose, partly filled wine glasses, plus scattered plates and utensils.

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Evidently someone had warned them of the growing washout.

In September 1966, upon returning from our duck cabin via the Alaganik Landing, we discovered the Copper River Highway had washed out just beyond the Sheridan River bridge, and we were stranded on the wrong side. Photo courtesy of Dick Shellhorn

Lighting a couple candles, we cleaned things up as best we could, and then eyeballed the sleeping arrangements. Two almost double-wide bunks that also served as couches lined one wall, with a couple sleeping bags and a few blankets on top.

Awesome. Mom and Dad could sleep on one; Sue and I on the other. It was already cold enough in the cabin to see our breath.

Mom and Dad plopped on one bunk, Sue on the other. With romantic flair, I blew out the candles and climbed up to join her. Fully clad, of course.

Ooops.

Mom: What are you doing?

Me: Mom, come on. It’s going to get cold tonight.

Mom: No you don’t. Get out of that bunk.

I looked around. The only other option was the floor.

I wrapped up in an old wool blanket and curled up on bare plywood directly below Sue’s bunk.

I swear I could hear her giggling.

I spent the night listening to snoring. At daybreak it didn’t take an alarm to wake me up, as I hadn’t slept a wink.

Dad crawled out of their bunk, noticed frost on the windows, and brightly observed: “Wow, it must have gotten pretty chilly last night.”

No kidding.

We piled into the little Nash Rambler, turned the heater on high, and headed toward town.

Upon approaching the washout area, we could see something big and orange moving.

It was Walt Mantilla operating a massive D-8 Caterpillar, plowing through the water to work on the washout. Walt, a life-long Cordovan, was head of the State Maintenance crew at Mile 13, as well as an avid duck hunter.

He stopped his noisy monster, scratched his head, asked Dad what the heck we were doing on the wrong side of the washout, and laughed louder and louder as the story unfolded.

He then offered us a ride across, one at a time, saying it might be a few days before the road was repaired. He warned it might be a bit bumpy, so to hang on tight.

I went first, then next came my future-wife-to be, hanging on for dear life, but smiling from ear to ear, as was operator Walt in his white hard hat.

Luckily, old-timer Bob LIpf and his wife Chili had driven out to see the washout and offered us a ride to town in their little station wagon.

When we approached town, Dad said to Bob: “I don’t know about you, but I could use a cold beer.”

So, we stopped at the Powder House. I was old enough to join in; Sue had a Pepsi.

While the adults were jabbering away, she leaned over, and in a whisper, asked if all the trips to the duck cabin were like this.

I nodded yes and got a peck on the cheek.

We were married three months later.

No more sleeping on the floor.

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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.