In the summer months I am the kayak/wilderness adventure guide at Orca Adventure Lodge. I take clients on glacial kayak, ocean kayak, guided hike and photography tours around Cordova. I am also a coordinator at the lodge helping with the many moving parts of the business. We support science, conservation and education and it is humbling to work in a place so connected to the natural world. Below is a short essay I wrote for Science & Memory.
Why Cordova Matters to the World
Quiet hikes, prodigious landscapes, abundant nature. This is Cordova. After living in this isolated community for several months, a specific quote from Jane Goodall I heard at the start of my time here comes to mind: “You cannot get through a single day without having an impact on the world around you. What you do makes a difference, and you have to decide what kind of difference you want to make.”
Cordova, Alaska, is a special place. It is an example to the world. A place where humans coexist with nature. People come here for the lifestyle, independence, seclusion. When hard work and passion is the norm, you are bound to meet some interesting people. Enthusiasm is something people can feel - and you feel that here. Everyone in Cordova is an adventurer. They are looking, in some way or another, to explore a broader perspective on our place in the natural world and how we can live a sustainable lifestyle.
Cordova is a small fishing community in remote Alaska and is home to some of the most sought after salmon in the world. The environment has changed and community have overcome those changes, large and small. Although I could dive into both of these events in detail I will give you a short overview. On March 27th, 1964 a 9.2 magnitude megathrust earthquake hit six hundred miles of fault at once. Many communities in Alaska were affected by tectonic uplift, some worse than others. Luckily, there was only one fatality in Cordova. The most damage was done to the Copper River Highway and total cost was estimated at $1.7 million.
The quake caused significant uplift in the Copper River Delta and surrounding Prince William Sound, resulting in a 6.2-foot average land uplift that wrought major changes in the local industry and landscape. Cordova was the razor clam capital of the world before the quake, with an annual commercial harvest of 1.5+ million pounds. The change caused diggers to shift to a new location, Kanak Island, roughly 65 miles from Cordova. The decline in razor clams around Cordova caused problems not only for the commercial clam fishery, but for the coastal ecosystem as well. Razor clams are a vital food sources for crabs, birds and sea otters. Besides the change directly where land meets sea, other areas, where there was once salt water, now are intertidal sloughs. The change occurred literally in minutes; adaptation, especially for wildlife, is a slow process.
Twenty five years later, almost to the day, March 24th, 1989, the Exxon Valdez oil tanker struck Bligh Reef in the Prince William Sound (PWS). The tanker spilled 11 million gallons of crude oil into the sound which spread and eventually covered 11,000 square miles. It destroyed wildlife; both land and sea creatures were affected. It ruined fisheries, beaches and other important parts of the environment and local economy. This drastically changed the fishing industry and way of life for many residences of Cordova and in the surrounding PWS. Businesses and families went bankrupt, boats and fishermen were docked, depression set in.
Thirty years later, it seems Cordova has come back to life - The harbor is bustling and the fish have returned. Although much of the region has recovered, they are still seeing the effects of the oil spill disaster. The orcas are still near extinction and herring fisheries aren’t what they used to be. Cordova was forever affected by these events. But Cordova is a community that truly triumphs over hardship.
As part of the settlement from the oil spill, Exxon agreed to underwrite The Prince William Sound Science Center (PWSSC). Because of these two events, being located in Cordova gives the center “a unique vantage point to understand the earth during a time of dynamic change.” According to their 2017 annual report, “Studies by our researchers reveal insight into many challenges, including: climate change, resource use and sustainability, food webs, ecosystem management, and more.” Try to find a place with more diversity within a 100 mile radius. With a pristine temperate rainforest, glaciers, and 12 distinct ecosystems, there is really nowhere else like it in the world.
Cordova is surrounded by untamed wilderness and naturally protected waters and many Cordovans make a living off the natural abundance of the land and sea. Over 70 percent of Cordova’s 2,400 residents are employed in the fishing industry - either harvesting or processing. And the number is expanded if you include seafood marketing, forest service/watershed protection, and scientific research.
Lessons Cordova can teach the world:
• Subsistence lifestyles - living remotely means people turn to the land for food, they get crafty. The locals forage and continue to use local cultural traditions that go back generations and provide various means of preservation of food all winter (smoking, fermentation, pickling, dehydrating, juicing, canning; the list goes on). The culture depends on using every bit of what is available. There is a deep appreciation for local food, where it comes from, and its power. The U.S. Department of Fish and Game has a Division of Subsistence that focuses on scientifically gathering, quantifying, evaluating, and reporting how Alaskans harvest and use wild resources.
• Fishermen/Hunters as conservationists - “They kill the animals. How can you say they care for them?” is a dialogue I have had on more than one occasion. I was uneducated and unaware, as most are, of our natural resources and how they are managed. Those people whose livelihoods depend on natural resources want to have those resources for years to come. The Office of Fish and Game controls what fishermen and hunters do, but ultimately it is the individual that decides to poach out of season or exceed limits. With any resource there are bound to be people who don’t think the law applies to them. But within a small community there is always talk and the residents tend to monitor people, both locals and visitors. For the most part, fishermen practice sustainability in their catching, i.e. throwing particularly small or large ones back or not overfishing one area. F&G preserves the health and viability of Alaska’s fish and wildlife populations by protecting the lands and waters these species depend upon for their survival and reproductive success. So although it is difficult to manage everyone and everything, they try their best to protect those resources while explaining to the public why they do what they do.
• Responsible Commercial Fisheries - Cordova’s small-boat harbor has a capacity of 727 vessels, making it one of Alaska’s largest single-basin harbors. Quite impressive for a town with a year-round population of 2,400 people. Cordova’s boats operate within the PWS fishery, one of the most, if not the most, sustainable salmon fisheries in the world. The PWS is home to all five North American species of Pacific salmon - King, Red, Silver, Chum, and Pink. Management plays a huge role in the longevity of the commercial fishing business. It is fundamental and important that government agencies like F&G exist and continue the work that they do.
• Alternative energy - Cordova is one of very few places in the world that use a battery to power a grid. Cordova’s energy-efficient LED street lighting and power lines are all below ground, making power more reliable and easier to fix in the face of wind and storms. Because of its location, the community is not connected to the State Highway System making it a “micro grid”. Cordova Electric Cooperative (CEC) owns and operates all power production and distribution facilities for the whole community. With the development of low-impact hydroelectric projects, Cordova produces as much as 80% of the community’s electricity with renewable energy projects. The CEC is currently testing a Battery Energy Storage System (BESS), technology developed for storing unused electric charge from hydroelectric plants by using special batteries to get that percentage even higher.
Cordova is a hidden gem. All of its inhabitants want to keep its wonder alive. There is no real desire for growth, no need for a road in. Of course you have the few that would like growth for personal endeavors. But for the most part, Cordovans like Cordova the way it is: remote and close to the wild. Cordova can help people understand how one place on earth can maintain a reliable economy & natural environment for the long term. Cordova is a place to see how natural resources, sustainability and human economies impact our environment.
What better place to tell stories about people adapting to climate change than Cordova? Science & Memory started here in 2014. When I joined the program it was growing and shifting focus to other locations in 2017/2018.
After traveling to Accra, Ghana and throughout the Oregon Coast, a small group returned to Cordova in August 2018. We worked to re-establishing Science & Memory's presence in the town.
Now being in Cordova, working at Orca, I was able to help coordinate people and stories for the program in my free time. The 2019 team came back to follow up on stories we had covered in previous years, catching up with what the Forest Service is studying, and what stories can we start for the future.
An example of site design from 2018: project navigation page, galleries and long form pieces. site here.