Egegik, Bristol Bay

Egegik, Bristol Bay

by | Oct 9, 2021

Egegik is a small Yup’ik village on the south bank of Egegik Bay on the eastern shore of Bristol Bay, about 69 miles (111 km) southeast of Dillingham and 37 miles (60 km) south-southwest of Naknek, Alaska. The name was first published in 1835 as Ougagouck by Admiral Adam Johann von Krusenstern of the Imperial Russian Navy. In 1888, it was shown as the Ugaguk River by the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries, and in 1915 as Egegik River by mineral surveyor G.A. Parks. The Egegik River drains Becharof Lake on the Alaska Peninsula and flows northwest for about 15 miles (24 km) to Egegik Bay. Becharof Lake is about 37 miles (60 km) long and is the second-largest lake in Alaska after Iliamna Lake. The southern shore at the mouth of Egegik Bay, encompassing most of South Spit and the adjacent mainland, is a sensitive habitat within the Egegik Critical Habitat Area, one of five state critical habitat areas established in 1972 to protect major estuaries along the southern shore of Bristol Bay. The remainder of Egegik Bay contains tideland habitat important for birds and marine mammals, and extensive areas of eelgrass used as habitat for juvenile fishes. The entire watershed is an important salmon habitat and the Egegik community is a major commercial Pacific salmon fishing area. Pink, chum, sockeye, coho, and Chinook salmon are caught by drift gillnet commercially in Egegik Bay and at the mouth of the Egegik River. The economy is based almost entirely on commercial fishing and fish processing that provides seasonal employment from May to August. The population swells from 100 year-around residents to several thousand fishermen and cannery workers during the commercial fishing season. Five onshore processors are located on the Egegik River and numerous floating processors also participate in the Egegik fishery.

Archeological evidence suggests that settlement of the Bristol Bay region first occurred over 6,000 years ago. Most of the historic and archeological sites occur near Egegik and along the western shore of Becharof Lake. Yup’ik and Athabaskan people jointly occupied the area. Historically, Athabascans would travel each year from Kanatak on the Gulf of Alaska coast through a portage pass to Becharof Lake, and from there they would hike or kayak on to summer fish camps on Egegik Bay. In 1791, Alexander Andreyevich Baranov, chief manager of the Shelikhov-Golikov Company in Russian America, ordered Russian navigator Dmitry Bocharov of the Imperial Russian Navy to explore Bristol Bay and the northwest shore of the Alaska Peninsula. His orders also directed him to seek a portage across the peninsula that could be accessed from Kodiak. He commanded 20-30 men in two walrus skin-covered open boats of about 30 feet (9.1 m) long. They sailed and paddled from the Russian trading post at Unalaska along the northwest shore of the Alaska Peninsula as far as Bristol Bay. In search of the Athabaskan portage route, he traveled up the Egegik River into a large inland lake, which now bears his name with an Americanized spelling of Becharof Lake. He probed the lake to its most eastern extent and then portaged 5 miles (8 km) across the Alaska Peninsula to the village of Kanatak on the Gulf of Alaska, and then proceeded to Kodiak to report his findings to Baranov. Russian fur traders and their impressed Aleut sea otter hunters may have arrived in Bristol Bay as early as 1818. The Alaska Purchase of 1867 transferred the territory from the Russian Empire to the United States. In 1868, naturalist William Healey Dall of the Smithsonian Institution named the lake after Bocharov.

In 1895, an Alaska Packers Association established a salmon saltery at the mouth of Egegik River, on the right bank about 5 miles (8 km) from the mouth. In 1899, the Alaska Packers Association, under the name of the Egegik Packing Company, began construction of a salmon cannery on the left bank opposite and a little upstream from the salting station, and it went into operation in 1900. In 1903, the North Alaska Salmon Company built and operated a cannery on the opposite shore from the Alaska Packers Association, and after several years it was bought and changed its name to Libby, McNeill & Libby. Only gillnetting was allowed and fishing operations occurring from about 3 miles (5 km) upstream of the canneries to the South Spit near the mouth of Egegik Bay. From 1908 to 1941, the Alaska Packers Association kept records of the fishermen who caught sockeye during the sailboat era of salmon fishing. Many were U.S. citizens and Native Alaskans but most fishermen were immigrants from the Mediterranean and Scandanavia. These Bristol Bay fishermen worked in pairs from open wooden sailboats with no motors, hydraulic net rollers, or power reels, they pulled their nets in by hand and pitched each fish to the tally scow with a ‘pew’ or pike pole. When the weather was calm, they pulled oars to get to the fishing grounds. Later the boats would be towed to the fishing grounds by a steamer. The season consisted of 5 months including a month to sail north from San Francisco, a month to set up the cannery, a month to fish, a month to close the cannery down and load the pack, and a month to sail back to San Francisco. A Bristol Bay fisherman averaged 120,000 to 140,000 pounds (54,431-63,503 kg) of sockeye every year out of a total regional catch of about 15 million sockeye annually. One famous highliner was Gennaro Camporeale who was born in Italy in 1893 and came to America and lived in San Francisco near Fisherman’s Wharf. He started fishing in Egegik in 1914 at age 21 and fished for 19 seasons. He routinely landed 20,000 and 30,000 fish by hand per year, or an averaged of about 170,000 pounds. In 19 seasons, Camporeale landed over half a million sockeye at Egegik or about 3 million pounds. In 1914, Bristol Bay fishermen were paid 3½ cents per fish, or just over half a penny a pound. Read more here and here. Explore more Egegik and Egegik Bay here:

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