After almost 90 years in the current, an old fishing boat has come to rest in front of the Kenai Visitor Center.
The wooden boat, built in 1929, was donated to the Kenai Historical Society by its owners, Dave and Linda Hutchings, and was brought to the visitor’s center from their home on Sport Lake Saturday.
Retired fisherman and sailor Brian Johanson spent time in many boats during his career, but the boat now mounted on wooden struts near the Visitors Center parking lot was his first. It had been owned by his father, fisherman Alex “Ike” Johanson, who bought it in 1955 and used it to fish Cook Inlet salmon from the Kenai docks. Brian Johanson started working aboard it when he was nine.
Johanson said the boat began its career as a sail-propelled fishing boat in Bristol Bay. A gasoline engine was later installed when it came to Kenai to fish Cook Inlet, where it came into his family’s possession.
“He (Alex Johanson) rebuilt the boat up a bit from its original state,” Brian Johanson said. “It’s technically called a Bristol Bay double-ender, because the stern is pointed. You don’t see these around much anymore. Most boats these days are square-stern. … In the old days it was my job to paint it, and also to cork it. We had big bags of cotton, long strings of cotton. I had to cork each plank with a corking iron and mallet to tap that cotton in there. … When the wood swelled all those seams would tighten up, and the boat would become water-tight.”
Johanson said he remembered some “kind of hairy” moments sailing the boat through fog with no instruments except a map and compass. The nets he fished with were made of linen and wooden cork, “so heavy to work with,” he said. The boat’s cabin was heated with an oil stove, but had no electric lights.
“And no head, either,” Johanson said. “You had to use a bucket.”
Johanson said the boat — currently grey and green — went through different color schemes with its different owners.
“Back in the old days, when it belonged to Libby’s (the Libby, McNeil, and Libby salmon cannery that operated in the mouth of the Kenai River between 1912 and 1998) all their boats were Libby yellow,” Johanson said. “Then we became a state in 1959, and dad applied to the state of Alaska for a vessel registration and everything and legally put it in his name. So we got a sticker and an AK (state registration) number, and he had me paint his own colors on there. It was white with a red trim, and red anti-fouling bottom paint.”
After Ike Johanson sold the boat, it went through various other owners before coming into the hands of David Hutchings, owner of the Hutchings Auto Group sales and service center in Soldotna and a collector of old cars and boats.
“I saw it out here towards Sterling about 20 years ago on a trailer, and I looked at it and thought, ‘I could stick that on Sport Lake and cruise around the edge of it with my grandkids,’” Hutchings said. “Well, it would have taken a lot of work to chink it and make it float. So where it’s been sitting for the past 15 years is on steel piling in my pond out there, on display. … I got some old seining gear and draped it around the back. People that came over to the lake and sat on the deck would look over there and ask a million questions about that boat.”
Hutchings said he appreciated the boat’s aesthetics.
“It’s absolutely got beautiful lines, the way it comes back and cuts the water,” Hutchings said. “Back in the 30s they had a few vehicles, the Stutz Bearcat and a few others that had what they called a boat tail. They shaped back and came to a point in the rear. Boat and car design people were probably neighbors in thinking ‘that’s a cool design.’”
When he did research on the boat’s history, Hutchings — who had also spent summers working on fishing boats in his youth — discovered his own connection to it.
“I just stumbled across the AK number, and I pulled it up, and it said ‘Ike Johanson.’ I thought, ‘Oh my god. I know Ike.’ I sold cars to him through the years. He’s gone, but Brian and I went to school together. I called Brian and said ‘I’ve got your dad’s old boat.’”
Hutchings said he and Johanson had planned to donate the boat to the Historical Society for about a year.
“It looks pretty cute in my pond by my lake cabin, but I think it would get a lot more of its purpose being over there with the Historic Society and Old Town Kenai,” Hutchings said.
On Saturday the boat was lifted from Hutchings’ pond with a crane volunteered by Peak Outfield Services and carried to the Kenai Visitors Center on a Snug Harbor Seafoods truck, where it was mounted for display on wooden legs. Hutchings and Johanson said they intend to do some restoration work on the boat, and Johanson plans to write about his fishing memories for a plaque to be placed nearby.
In its new location, Johanson said the boat shares the visitor’s center yard with another artifact from the old Kenai docks: a coal-powered steam winch called a “donkey,” also installed as a historical exhibit across the parking lot. Johanson said it was the same steam donkey that used to pull his father’s boat out of the river in the fall.
Kenai Historical Society member June Harris said the boat had found a suitable final berth.
“The first thing people do when they come to Kenai is come to the Kenai visitor center,” Harris said. “They tour around the parking lot and see the donkey winch, then they take a walk around Old Town Kenai because they’re really interested in the Russian church, and they end up at the historic cabin park where they get a very good tour and more history of our area. (Johanson’s boat) is in a great location.”
Reach Ben Boettger at email@example.com.