The Muddy Copper: Alice Gene Rescues Ronnie Sanford At The Fishwheel

The Copper River. (Photo, Neil Hannan)  Rescue At The Gakona Fishwheel  A Story From Rescue Me . All Rights Reserved.  It was J...

The Copper River. (Photo, Neil Hannan) 

Rescue At The Gakona Fishwheel 

A Story From Rescue Me. All Rights Reserved. 

It was July, 1997 along the Copper River of Alaska. For centuries, local people had spent this time of year down on the windy shores of the river, catching salmon and rejoicing in the long days of summer and the bounty of its rushing waters. It was like that in the past, and it was no different now. The river was the great, flowing source of sustenance – the bringer of food. And life.

The Gene family of Gakona had a fishwheel on the river. And so did many other families all up and down its 290 mile length. At their riverside fishcamps, everyone reveled in the slow rotation of the cumbersome, homemade wheels, the thud of a salmon into the box, the little walkways out over the muddy water, the cleaning and smoking of the fish... It all made life meaningful and worthwhile.

Fishwheels are now a major part of life along the rivers of Interior Alaska. But they were not traditional Alaskan devices, although the wholesale catching, drying and smoking of salmon was always part of life.

In the old days (long ago, but not so distant that people had forgotten them) the Ahtna people used to dipnet for their fish. They used homemade, long-handled dipnets and stood on log platforms that jutted out over the roaring Copper.

Ahtna girl dipnetting in the Copper. (Historic photo)

Traditional dipnets were not like the loose-netted string and metal kind you buy today at a Fred Meyer department store in Anchorage or Fairbanks for dipnetting at Chitina or in the Kenai. Those who had once used the old nets, like Fred Ewan of Gulkana, said the original tapered spruce root ones were vastly superior to modern commercially-made nets, from which big salmon can easily flop out. The old style nets trapped the salmon’s head: “He wouldn’t get off; it never broke them things at all. Even king salmon didn’t damage them; it gets more strong in the water,” said Fred.

Just as fishermen all over Alaska do today, Ahtna people fished long into the dim midsummer night light. “You never sleep all night,” commented Fred in 1994, thinking back on those giddy days of his boyhood at fishcamp. “It runs really good at 4 in the morning. At 5:30 or somewhere, you get tired.”

Even more effective than the dipnet was the fish trap. Used in smaller streams, fish traps were a powerful tool for preparing the larder for winter. Morrie Secondchief, from Mendeltna, which lies west of Glennallen on what is now the Glenn Highway, recalled Mendeltna Creek’s fish traps.

Athabascan Fish Trap. (Fairbanks Museum)
She described how they worked. “I remember when I was small, we had fish traps at Mendeltna Creek, where the wooden bridge crossed the river. We put fish traps in there, down the south side: wide open. I remember it was about 10 or 15 feet long. Wide mouth. The end was really small. Fish can’t turn around when they go in. Pretty smart trap, I tell you. It was made of dry wood. Cut, you know; plane it with a knife; scrape it. Spruce roots - tie it with spruce roots, like a rope.”

Miles north of Mendeltna, near what is now the Tok Cutoff, it was the same. Ahtna elder Bell Joe remembered a time when the Athabascan fish trap had been the true champion for catching fish of any kind. Recalled Bell Joe, “They didn’t have a fishwheel them days; had a fish trap. A handmade fish trap. We lived right by the village. All clear water, you know. We’d get salmon and whitefish, grayling. Everything. Ling cod...”


The first fishwheel didn’t make its appearance in the Copper Valley until around 1912. It was a big event; the introduction of new technology to an age-old activity. Over 80 years later, Bell Joe still remembered the local stories surrounding the fishwheel’s sudden arrival, and exactly how it happened, even though he was only a young child at the time. He recounted that a Copper Center man whose first name was Frank – and whose last name began with the letter “C” – introduced the first fishwheel to the Copper Valley after seeing one in the north. Frank “stayed at the left side of the
Johnny Goodlataw's fishwheel at Ahtna Heritage Center.
Klutina River,” said Bell Joe. “He used to have a log cabin there. He started a telephone station from there. He’s an old-time white man. He visited in Fort Yukon, someplace. And he see a fishwheel running down there, and the white man, he made it. He got the measure, and he come back. And he make one fish wheel. That’s where it started from, they say. We didn’t have a fishwheel before.” The concept was a hit. Copper Valley people quickly adopted the fishwheel as part of the Alaskan way of life.

Today, tourists find fishwheels exotic and strange, and struggle to try to understand how they work. When they first arrived in the Copper River region,  fishwheels would have seemed unusual to the Ahtna, too. But they were not unusual to Westerners of the day. To the average American, fishwheels were just another form of waterwheel; something they were quite familiar with.

There were lots of similar devices in the late 1800s and early 1900s. And they dated way back. For example, the local country grain mills, where people ground their wheat harvests into flour, were water-powered.

America’s other mills, too – its sawmills, cidermills, knitting mills and papermills – were all powered by water, tumbling through countless mill races from fast-flowing rivers and creeks.

There were similar water-powered rotating machines all over the world. And there had been for over a thousand years. They were scattered across the continents. In North America, China, India, Greece and Italy. And all of them were something like a fishwheel. Water power predated the Industrial Revolution. It had powered the Roman Empire.

Alice Gene with her grandson, Ronnie, in August, 1997. (Photo, Country Journal)
Fishwheels follow the same basic principles as the standard waterwheel. Their job is to scoop up the salmon that swim upstream, along the convoluted shoreline of the rivers. The Copper Valley fishwheel is turned by the nonstop flow of the Copper River, as the torrent hits the wheel’s built-in paddles. Between the paddles are scoops, open-mouthed and ready to catch the fish coming upstream. When a salmon enters a scoop, it’s lifted by the wheel, and automatically shunted down a slanted board into a holding box.

One of the brilliant things about the fishwheel is that it really works. Another is that it can be made of just about anything: arched willow saplings, spruce roots, plywood, chicken wire, plastic webbing or aluminum tubes. The fishwheels of rural Alaska are a simple, homemade demonstration of the basic, effortless, enduring strength of what we now call “alternative energy.”

Alice Gene was a matriarch of the fishwheel; one of a number of culturally attuned grandmas who took a keen interest in the entire enterprise of catching fish. In the summer of 1997, women – and grandmothers, especially – loved going to fishcamp on the Copper. It’s no coincidence that one of the few historic photographs we have of an Ahtna dipnetter shows a young girl, standing on her log perch, wielding her dipnet. Ahtna women fished. When those girls grew older, fishcamp continued to symbolize all that was good about being Alaskan.

Buster Gene. (Photo, Journal)
Alice had been the late Buster Gene’s wife for many years. She was very traditional, very small, really fragile, and 84 years old. She went to fishcamp even though she was so frail she could barely walk across the parking lot when she would come down to Glennallen from Gakona in the Copper River Native Association senior van to buy groceries at Parks Place Supermarket.

People would rush to help this tiny little woman – easily several inches shorter than 5 feet tall – as she negotiated the uneven terrain around the grocery store. She needed help to get through the heavy glass double doors.

So it was quite a surprise when Alice Gene – crumpled by hard work and old age – managed in a single, superhuman moment, to save the life of her big, lanky, restless 33-year old grandson, Ronnie Sanford.

And it happened at the fishwheel.

Ronnie’s job, in these productive long evenings after the 4th of July, was to go down to the river to check the wheel. The Copper River, though beloved by its people, is not to be messed with. It’s a mean and muddy river; and it runs along at the rapid clip of 7 miles an hour, dropping 12 feet every mile, as it hurtles downward toward the huge mud flats of the Copper River Delta, hundreds of miles to the south.

On this particular midsummer night, the Gene family fishwheel was bumping around clumsily in the choppy waters, the small board-and -log walkway made slippery by the waves. As Alice watched over him from alongside the river, Ronnie worked the wheel. Usually, Ronnie tried to take another adult male relative with him to the river. But tonight he didn’t have a backup. “I was solo,” he recalled later. Solo, except for his tiny little grandma.

The reason you need a backup is that fishwheels are dangerous. They get jammed up by floating debris. When the wheel stops, the fishing stops. When the wheel starts up again, it’s like the well-known danger of all powered wheels that you can’t turn off – like chainsaws, escalators, gym treadmills, or tractors. They’re relentless.

Tonight, a log had wedged itself into the wheel, halting its rotation. As Ronnie muscled around with the log, his leg got caught, and he was dragged down by the family fishwheel, into the roaring icy summer waters of America’s 10th largest river.


Almost nobody falls into the Copper River and lives to tell the tale. The waters of the Copper Valley's rivers are too cold, too fast and too full of silt to survive.

Addison Powell, an explorer and chronicler of life in the region, wrote several books about the Copper Valley and his adventures in the early 1900s. Powell fancied himself to be the Mark Twain of the north, and attempted to use homespun humor in his narratives about gold miners and others. But he could only go so far.

Powell's engaging stories about the high jinks of early days of American adventuring in the Copper Valley were frequently cut short by the stark reality of multiple deaths in various Copper River streams: “In 1903, seven persons attempted to float down the Nizina River in a small boat, and four of the seven were drowned. One woman swam down stream a long distance, but finally sank. A little boy wept when assisted into the boat, and he, too, was drowned," wrote Powell. "A man was going down the river on a raft with his two dogs. The dogs returned the following day, but the man never was heard from. Another drowned near Taral, and another lost his life in an air hole in the ice, during the early part of the spring. Bundy, a colored man, was drowned in the Tazlina River where Gokona Charley had been drowned the year before…”

Jim Buckley's Memorial Tree. (Courtesy Fred Williams)

Not a mile from the Gakona Village fishcamp, at the same of time of year on July 11th, 1898, a Minnesota gold miner named Jim Buckley fell into the Copper River and drowned. He was pushing a handmade boat away from steep and muddy bank, below what is now the Gakona overlook at Mile 1 on the Tok Cutoff. His body was found miles downstream, in Copper Center, on September 5th, and a small memorial tombstone was carved into a cottonwood tree by some other miners.

And there were even more drownings in this wild land where there no bridges. “Thos. Conally was drowned in the Kotsina River,” wrote Powell. “Horace Tuffin and Mr. Riley had been frozen to death during the previous winter, and a few more were drowned in the Chitina.” On his way to an exploration trip, Powell wrote, “I handed my watch to Mr. Archer, an obliging gentleman, to keep until my return to the coast. He went back with the solders part of the way, but was drowned in the Tonsina River. Afterwards my watch was found with some other trinkets in a sack which had been tied to the raft he had abandoned.”

There were the near-drownings, too – the close calls: “I saw a man attempting to wade the Tekeil River with a heavy pack strapped to his back. The current washed him from his footing, and, with the pack holding him down, he would have drowned had I not ridden my saddle horse in there and pulled him out.”

The Copper River at Gakona. (Photo, Country Journal)
It didn’t matter if the rivers were deep or shallow. “We rested at a camp called Twelve Mile,” wrote Powell. “A man was drowned there in two feet of water. The thick and swift glacier water rolled him over and over until he was drowned, and in sight of his companions.”

Death by drowning grew so common in the early days of Western settlement in the Copper Valley that it got to the point where yet another drowning barely merited a sentence or two in Powell’s memoirs: “We swam our horses across the Tazlina River. Here Charley Stobell, of Port Angeles, Washington, was drowned in an attempt to cross on a mule. Man and beast drifted down and rolled over a large boulder. Charley never came to the surface,” Powell wrote. From the Tazlina River bridge, you can see that boulder to this day.

On the mighty Copper, almost a hundred years after Powell’s stories, nothing had changed. A routine outing at the Gakona Village fishwheel, to bring home some salmon for the family, had turned into a disaster.

There was nobody who could help the flailing, panicked Ronnie Sanford – huge, strong, and now in the deadly Copper River.

Nobody but Grandma Alice Gene. She marshaled all her strength. She sprang into action. She rushed forward. She told her husky grandson to grab the fishwheel. He couldn’t. Then, she watched as he began to bob down the river, and it wasn’t a hopeful sight. “Sometimes his head was gone,” she commented later.

Propped against the wheel was a long stick. Using a lifetime of Copper River knowledge and basic wilderness rescue skills that had been taught, parent to child, over thousands of years, Alice Gene hurried back downstream. She jammed the stick between two trees. “I said, ‘Grab that stick’,” she recalled.

In the water, gasping for breath, Ronnie knew this was the end. He fully understood this dark river of his homeland, and that he would never get out of it. “She said, ‘Try’,” remembered Ronnie later. “But I couldn’t do it. The current was too strong.”

And then, little Grandma Alice Gene – somehow – singlehandedly pulled a soaking wet, fully-grown man from the jaws of the Copper and deposited him on shore. Ronnie couldn’t believe this was possible. And that he was still alive. “She pretty much yanked me out on the bank,” he said, in total bewilderment. “She pulled me out like a wet fish. I laid there 20 minutes. She was pounding my back. My dog was there, licking my face.”

A month later, at around 10 pm one August evening, Alice Gene and Ronnie Sanford stood outside a cabin on the Gakona Village compound, side by side, in the low, rosy light of the now-fading summer. They filled in the details of the story for each other, though the tale became somewhat fuzzy at times. It was weeks later, and Ronnie was still struggling to explain how she did it. He towered over his little grandma beside him.

Buster Gene’s unassuming, yet surprisingly confident, small and elderly wife straightened to her full height. Which, of course, wasn’t very tall. She adjusted her scarf. “I’m still in good shape,” she smiled. The real key, she firmly believed, was all those years of handling her dog team.

ABOUT THIS STORY: This is a Copper River Country Journal original story. In August, 1997, Ronnie Sanford and his grandmother, Alice Gene, told the story at Gakona Village to the Copper River Country Journal. The photographs were taken at that time, too, by the Country Journal. There were other interviews of local people that seemed to fit with the story:  A Journal interview with Bell Joe of the upper Copper River, in June, 1994. An interview with Morrie Secondchief of Mendeltna Creek, also in June, 1994. And an interview with Fred Ewan of Gulkana that same June.  Nothing ever changes in the Copper Valley, so stories from a hundred years ago were also tapped for this one: Addison Powell told stories about the dangerous rivers of our region in his Gold Rush-era book, Trailing & Camping in Alaska. Horace Conger recounted the story of his friend, Jim Buckley, drowning in the Copper near Gakona at the bend of what is now Mile 1, Tok Cutoff, in his book, In Search of Gold This story is the second chapter of a book about Copper Valley courage, Rescue Me: Life & Death In Rural Alaska.  We are printing it here for Copper Valley people to read and enjoy – and to gain inspiration in difficult times. The story is the property of the Copper River Country Journal and Red Truck Printing Company of Gakona, Alaska. Copyright © 2020, Northcountry Communications, Inc. All rights reserved.


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