Just to the north of town a group of historic cannery buildings hover over the water on pilings. Among these buildings, owned by Copper River Seafoods, a community of some 30-odd people live in a 100-year-old bunkhouse. Open from April through September, the Fisherman’s Camp bunkhouse provides low-cost communal housing to a variety of individuals, ranging in age from 22 to 78, men and women, young and old with various occupations and nationalities.
Room sizes vary. Most are around 8-by-10 feet, with a shared kitchen and dining room, living room, and bathrooms.
Many tenants have paid to keep their room for secure storage in the winter and return every spring, year after year, to a place they call home.
This winter those rooms will be left open and empty.
Earlier in the summer, tenants received an official notice under their doors that this would be the last summer for the bunkhouse, due to concerns voiced by Copper River’s insurance company. Plans are to tear down the building and build a new, smaller bunkhouse across the street for loyal Copper River fishermen.
Rodney Sproul, the manager, was unsure of a timeline for the project.
“If it happens, we will know it happened,” he said.
For many old-timers this is a big deal, not just because they are losing their home but because it marks the end in an era of bunkhouses for fishermen.
“Years ago, everybody had bunkhouses,” said Patrick Rockwell, a fisherman who has been coming to Cordova in the summer for almost 30 years. “The canneries owned the boats and guys just fished for them.”
Over time, people started buying their own boats and the canneries would offer you a room if you fished for them. When Rockwell started fishing in the late ’80s there were only a couple bunkhouses left. He started out at Orca, but soon moved to Fisherman’s Camp, which was owned and run by Olaf Gildnes. Gildnes ran things a little differently, and that is why it appealed to Rockwell.
“It wasn’t attached to a cannery,” he said. “We could deliver anywhere we wanted, and you didn’t feel like you were having the screws put to you.”
That was around 28 years ago and Rockwell has occupied the same small room every summer since.
The bunkhouse was rented out to fishermen, net menders, net hangers, food service workers, a banker, marine surveyor and cannery worker. The interesting mix of people was appreciated by many occupants.
“It’s a large reason that I’m even up here,” said John Stack, a fisherman who has lived in the bunkhouse for 18 years. “I like meeting interesting people. If you lived in a house by yourself you would usually never meet most of the people who are here. We can never have a political conversation, but we all eat together and get along just fine.”
For each resident, the bunkhouse experience has been a little different. “For some people, this is a place they sleep,” said Marc Carrel, a fisherman who spends winters in Cordova. “They come and they go, but there are a number of people who really treat this like a home. You do projects together, cook food together and hang out.”
For Carrel, the bunkhouse started out as nothing more than a practical housing solution.
“I needed a place to stay,” he said. He had been sleeping on his boat inside the Orca Warehouse. “I was crawling up the ladder and it was dark and there was water dripping from the ceiling — that was not working for me.”
He laughs at the memory; “Then I came here and it was nice people and friendly couches, everyone hanging out. It was very nice.”
For Stack, the shared kitchen was where things really came together.
“I think it’s neat to break bread with people, it crosses all boundaries,” he said. “You can bring a group of people together that are diametrically opposed and have dinner together and everything is fine.”
Rockwell has lived at the bunkhouse for a different reason.
“The shower, that’s why I’m here,” he said. “And maybe the view off this little porch. It’s home, ya know. When I come up in the spring and open the door it feels good. I’m bummed that this place is going away.”
Although many are sad to see the place go, the end of the bunkhouse doesn’t come as a surprise.
“It’s fair, but it’s a shame,” said Cindy Vegetabile, whose room was provided for her summer job at Baja Taco. “Every time someone parks their car, the whole house shakes. I’m really sad, but you can’t argue the logic.”
Rockwell agreed, but wishes he could stay.
“I don’t care [about safety],” he said. “I’m on the shore end and on the uphill side the way I figure it’s going, so I’m not too worried about it. I sure as hell wouldn’t insure it though.”
Future lodgings for most of those who live at the bunkhouse is uncertain. While many of them are fishermen, and have the option of living in the harbor, most are hoping that something else will come through for them.
Carrel anticipates challenges.
“I think the housing market in Cordova is terrible, rent is absurdly expensive, and buying a place to live is very expensive,” he said. “I don’t exactly know how and where I’m going to be living after this and how affordable or practical it’s going to be. This was both very affordable, very practical, and very lovely.”
As the end draws near, one by one residents move on. Each dinner lingers into the night as people share stories of times past, and people who have come and gone from this place.
“It’s sad,” Stack said. “This group will never be together again in the way that it is. It’s good and it’s bad, everything changes and everyone moves on. It’s just life. But this is a really neat thing that most people will never experience.”
Brad Evans doesn’t share that sentiment.
“It’s not sad this place is going away, it’s a blessing in disguise!” said Evans, long time Cordova fisherman who spends winters in the Pacific Northwest with his grandchildren.
And why is that?
“It’s a disguise,” he said with wide eyes. “We don’t know yet!”
Originally published in The Cordova Times on September 29, 2017