As Legends go

A true pioneer of salmon trolling passed away today. Hard to believe. And I was quoted in the article since I put down an observation about John in my blog a few years ago. John Claussen was a true pioneer, and still lived in the remote village of Pelican. More can be read about him in trolling books like Pacific Fisherman. Here’s an online memorial from today’s Alaska Dispatch:

Alaska fishing legend dies
Craig Medred | Dec 27, 2010

For more than 60 years, John Howard Clausen survived everything the wilds of Alaska and the Gulf of Alaska seas could throw at him, only to fall victim to a bizarre accident fueled — some suspect — by pre-Christmas excitement. Clausen was backing an oversized all-terrain vehicle up to an floatplane in Pelican two days before Christmas to unload to gifts for friends when the vehicle went off a dock. The 89-year-old longtime commercial fisherman was trapped in the ATV’s enclosed cab. By the time a diver got to him 38 feet underwater 18 minutes later, he was dead.

The pilot of the plane had offered to unload, but Clausen was a man used to doing things for himself, even in his later years.

“He said, ‘No, I’ll get it,'” friend Karen Stepanenko said by telephone from Pelican Monday. “He was just so excited and in a hurry.”

Nearly all of Pelican, which has lost so much in recent years, spent the Christmas holiday grieving. Almost since the founding of the small community built on a boardwalk along Lisianski Inlet near the northern end of the Alaska Panhandle, Clausen had been a community mainstay.

When an Alaska Coastal Airlines plane went down in the Chichagof Island mountains south and east of Pelican in 1954, Clausen was the first to rush to the aid of the survivors of the crash. “A fisherman identified as John Clausen left on foot for the wreck scene soon after daybreak from Pelican, carrying only a gun,” wrote one of the newspapers of the day.

Clausen actually had more than a gun with him. One of the survivors of the crash, noted Alaska Native elder Charlie Joseph Sr., in his autobiography remembered the cookies and comfort Clausen gave the injured man and his wife.

“Fisherman” would be Clausen’s perpetual identity, though he was more than that. As with most who succeed at life in rural Alaska, he was a capable jack-of-all trades. He built his own offshore boat for trolling salmon and helped pioneer the salmon troll fishery on the Fairweather Grounds off the northern entrance to the Alaska Panhandle. The area was destined to become famous for the king and coho salmon supplied to high-end Pacific Northwest restaurants, the tough-minded people who worked there, and the treachery of its seas.

Clausen somehow survived it all.

“John is a mountain of muscle and sinew and bone,” fellow troller Mark Stopha of Juneau wrote on his blog only three years ago. “I saw him climbing up the ladders to attend to his tattle tales and trolling pole tag lines in the morning. Not that unusual in most circumstances, but John, I believe, is well into his 80s. A quiet, reserved man, he’s a living legend and commercial fishing pioneer and still lives with his lovely wife in Pelican, Alaska.”

Clausen would move his wife, Betty, to the Sitka Pioneers Home not long after, but he himself couldn’t leave his beloved Pelican — a community that had fallen on tough times.

Once a major Southeast fishing port, Pelican was built around a company — Pelican Cold Storage. The community was, in fact, named for the F/V Pelican, the ship that came north with the materials to build the first cold storage in 1938.

By the end of the 1980s, the year-round population of Pelican was up over 200 people with twice that many or more collecting there in summer. Then the Alaska fisheries began to change. The halibut derbies that had resulted in short fisheries with big catches that fueled the cold storage were restructured to guarantee fishermen more time to fish and a steadier supply of flatfish.

Suddenly, both halibut and salmon fisheries became all about “ocean-fresh” product, and ocean-fresh was more easily delivered from Sitka, south along the coast from Pelican. Sitka has a runway servicing jet aircraft. Pelican doesn’t even have an airstrip. As markets changed, the cold storage struggled. In 2004, the Juneau Empire, the newspaper in Alaska’s capital city 70 miles to the east, headlined “Pelican, Alaska: A company town without a company.”

Eventually, the cold storage closed. The city now owns it and is trying to get it restarted.

Pelican, Stepanenko said, “is still a going place,” but it just can’t seem to catch a break. The latest tragedy only adds to the suffering.

Someone tried to grab the ATV just before it went off the dock, Stepanenko said, but it got away with Clausen still trapped inside.

“It lurched off the dock and struck the pontoon of a Dehaviland Beaver (floatplane) where the ATV hesitated before entering the water and sunk with Clausen in the cab,” troopers said.

An obituary in the Juneau Empire described Clausen as “a square-headed ol’ Norwegian, as stubborn as he was, well, stubborn.”

His friends said he would not have objected to the description. “John always assumed he’d live forever, and now no one will ever be able to convince him otherwise. It’s just like him to win an argument,” the obit added. “A memorial will likely be held in early February, weather permitting. A small Viking longship full of afterlife necessities will be cast aflame into the sunset in his honor.”

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at) This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

Mark Stopha
Alaska Wild Salmon Company
4455 N. Douglas Hwy
Juneau, AK 99801

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