Cordova Chronicles: Winter storm damages historic Orca Road

Orca Road, a two-and-a-half-mile paved byway that winds from Cordova to the Orca Adventure Lodge, was built in the early ‘60s to connect the city with the large New England Fisheries cannery that operated at that location.

Prior to that, a passenger launch ran from New England to town on a regular basis, also hauling mail and supplies.

On Jan. 2, high seas pounded the edge of Orca Road, causing significant erosion. Wendy Ranney photo

That same craft was used to ferry cannery workers to Cordova on Mondays, which were usually an “off” day after getting caught up on processing fish.  Main Street would be bustling with activity on what was nicknamed “Sockeye Sunday.”

I remember riding on that launch while in high school.  It was late in August, the pack was complete, and a large Alaska Steamship freighter had arrived at Orca to take the countless cases of canned salmon south. 

Charlie Nestor, who ramrodded long-shoring operations in Cordova at that time, would hire a number of high school lads to help load the fish on board.

On May 7, an orange cone placed to warn runners in the Bay to Bay run shows just how close the damage is to the edge of the Orca Road pavement. Dick Shellhorn photo

What an operation that was. The cases, each holding 48 one-pound cans, were stacked on pallets, lifted off the dock, and swung down into the holds of the ship, where forklifts took them into the deep recesses to be stacked by hand.  One year, it took 30 hours non-stop, and by completion we were at the very upper levels of the ship’s decks, trying to fit more boxes in.

Construction of the road to Orca eliminated the need for the launch, and gradually shipping methods became more sophisticated. 

Eventually, canning operations there went bust, and the Ranney’s purchased all the facilities, converting them into a very popular and successful adventure lodge.

Amazingly, for over 60 years, the road, which abuts often stormy Orca Inlet, weathered pounding by wind and waves. 

Until January 2, 2022. 

On that day, a 15.7 tide, one of the biggest of the year, plus high winds that had williwaws and waterspouts roaring across the Inlet, caused waves to actually cross the road. Damage and erosion on the outer side of the road quickly became evident.

On Jan. 2, waves crash across the highway near the City Boat Pullout area on Orca Road. Wendy Ranney photo

While the road survived, it is definite need of considerable repair.  In several places, including sharp curves, the outer banks have eroded all the way up to the white line marking the edge of the pavement. 

The scenic road is popular for biking, walking, sightseeing, and one of Cordova’s unique pastimes, called “running your dog.”

Wendy Ranney’s well-liked Whale’s Tale bistro at the Lodge has attracted a considerable clientele, and the lodge is also a top choice for hosting wedding celebrations.

Work is in the planning stages to repair the damage to the state road. 

“DOT (Department of Transportation) is aware of the problem”, said Rob Mattson of the Cordova station.  “Getting permits to do the work is ongoing, as are requests for state emergency funding.  If the state funding comes through, the repairs will be contracted out.  If not, the work will done “in-house.”

Either way, the repairs will be completed by this winter.

In the meantime, exercise caution.  

During the Bay to Bay Run on May 7, orange cones to make runners aware of the hazards were placed along the road where erosion had reached the edge of the pavement. 

It was startling to see how many there were.  

So continue to enjoy Orca Road – while heeding the pace, and giving those on the outside lane considerable room.   

On May 7, a pair of walkers approach a cone warning of damage to Orca Road caused by a big storm on January 2, 2022. Dick Shellhorn photo