At about this time a half a century ago, Kodiak was ready for spring. Fishermen and cannery workers geared up for the upcoming salmon season. Kids looked forward to their three-month respite from school. Good Friday services pointed to a glorious Easter Sunday.
Then the earth shook, water violently transcended coastal boundaries in deadly, humongous waves; all hell broke loose. How could a day that began with joyful sunshine and a sense of peace and well-being end so chaotically?
Before the day was over, canneries would be leveled, homes and business buildings taken out to sea, boats dispersed in the most unlikely places, lives lost, villages wiped out.
Kodiak was pummeled, but rumors of its demise were even more ominous.
Guy Powell, a king crab biologist for Fish and Game at the time, was in Seattle working with a company to develop tags for king crab research. His wife, Merle, pregnant with their first child, was by herself in the Powell home, the same residence they live in today.
When Guy got word of the quake, he turned on the radio to get more information.
“All these guys on the radio were screaming and yelling; it was utter chaos. They said that Kodiak sunk beneath the sea.”
Guy sent a telegram to Merle’s parents in Louisiana, assuring them that Merle was fine and there was nothing to worry about. How did he know? Being of a scientific mind, Guy concluded that as long as Merle stayed put in their home on Kouskov Street perched safely on a cliff, then there was nothing to worry about.
A tidal wave follows channels, Guy said. The Powell home was buffered by Long, Woody and Near islands.
“The only way (for the tidal wave) to go is up and down the channel. The only reason it hit downtown Kodiak is that it came in Chiniak Bay. (Not being able to go anywhere) it followed the lowest point, which was the boat harbor, and that’s why it came ashore.”
Guy got on the first post-tidal wave commercial flight to Kodiak. The plane was packed with people, most of them reporters, photographers and television newsmen.
“I was the only guy that lived in Kodiak. They were asking me all kinds of questions. That plane circled Kodiak so that the news people could take pictures and look at the havoc below.
“What an experience that was!” said Guy.
As he expected, Merle and their house were fine. She told him that she had spent Good Friday evening with their neighbors, watching the town float by.
Merle told Guy that their good friends, Eugene Shultz, the Kodiak High School music teacher, and his wife, Rose Marie, had been killed by the second wave at Kalsin Bay Road. On Friday morning, before the Shultzes left for the drive, they had asked Merle if she wanted to join them. For some reason, she declined.
The bodies of the Shultzes had not been found. Guy, who was a commercial diver, decided he would look for them and other victims. His friend, David Henley, a Kodiak pilot, flew Guy to Kalsin Bay and landed on the beach.
“I started diving in those holes,” Guy said. “Every little depression was full of water. There were dead cows all over the place.”
Guy eventually found the body of Rose Marie Shultz.
Some time later, he retrieved the body of another tidal wave victim who went down in a salmon seiner in the boat harbor.
“I carefully brought the body to the surface and I swam over to the beach,” said Guy.
A man in a skiff informed the harbormaster of the body and soon an ambulance arrived to pick it up.
Guy spent a lot of time looking for sunken fishing boats with his helper, Dick Reynolds. When he discovered the Sea Quail, he noticed that its anchor cable was wrapped around a 50-gallon oil drum. The barrel had only about 10 gallons of oil in it, Guy said.
Using a hack saw, he cut away the strands of anchor cable that held the drum. When he severed the last cord, the liberated drum rose violently to the surface, causing an explosion of mud and muck.
“I laid there quietly for awhile,” Guy said.
By the time Guy surfaced to his skiff, his helper was frantically donning his diving gear. He was afraid that Guy had been badly hurt in the explosion.
Guy and his helper came on a great find when they went back and forth along the coast across the bay from the Woody Island dock.
“We went any place and every place. I dove down and, wow, I found the Jaguar on the bottom of the ocean.”
Owned by Antril Suydam, the boat was “one of the prizes of the Kodiak crab fleet,” Guy said.
Plans were made to raise the boat by using two gigantic empty oil tanks that had been retrieved from a railroad car at Seward.
“We drilled two holes in each tank and ran a pipe in the holes and welded them in there,” Guy said.
The divers strung steel cable through the pipes and underneath the boat.
“I filled the tanks with air,” said Guy. “When they started getting full” the boat began to rise to the surface.
Antril sold the boat to Fred Brechan, who had it rebuilt. He named it the Walter N in honor of his stepson and his wife, Ruth’s son, Walter Nestelle, who died in a job-related accident.
The Walter N continues to be active in the Kodiak fleet.
The boat is a fitting metaphor for the community of Kodiak. Laid low by a deadly act of nature on that Good Friday of 1964, Kodiak rose to the top, outfitted with a new look, endowed with a fresh spirit, steeled with a hardy determination.
A community of great diversity, Kodiak remains united, strongly knit by the cords of adversity.