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Historic schooner to salmon tender: the Aleutian Express sails on 100 years of history

The Aleutian Express in Chignik after the 2015 salmon season.
Courtesy of John Clutter
The Aleutian Express in Chignik after the 2015 salmon season.

This summer, an unusual looking salmon tender is anchored in the Naknek-Kvichak District. The Aleutian Express is a historic, 3–masted schooner that came sailing up from Washington State for the Bristol Bay sockeye season. With three masts and filled sails, this iconic vessel has been instrumental in many chapters of Alaskan history.

Owner John Clutter first laid eyes on the boat in Chignik waters in 1993. He’s captained the vessel across Alaska and the Pacific Northwest for the last eighteen years, and he says it's become recognizable in many ports and across many generations.

So this guy was standing there looking up to the boat.” Clutter said. “He had a son with him about 10 years old, and he pointed up to the boat. He said, ‘That's the coolest boat in Alaska. My dad told me that and his dad told him that.’”

The Aleutian Express was originally built in 1912 as a fire boat for the City of Portland, Oregon. There, the vessel started out under a different name: the David Campbell, in honor of the City’s late fire chief.

The keel was actually probably laid right about the time of the Titanic sinking,” he said. “And it was commissioned a year before that. But they actually started building in 1912 and it was fully operational then for the City of Portland sometime in late May that it actually got underway as a fireboat.”

Clutter says in 1912, the boat’s history started off with a bang.

The first operation, I guess they couldn't get the boat out of gear and they crashed into the bridge. And I think that dent is still in the bow,” Clutter said.

A postcard depicting the original vessel, then named the David Campbell
Courtesy of John Clutter
A postcard depicting the original vessel, then named the David Campbell

Over the last hundred years, the vessel has had many different names, and lived many different lives. It’s been a fur trading vessel in the Aleutian Islands, an oil tanker in WWII, a tow boat on the Columbia River, and a crabbing boat in the Bering Sea. Most recently, Clutter has captained the Aleutian Express as a salmon tender in Bristol Bay.

Since 2004, Clutter has retrofitted the 125 foot historic boat to bear resemblance to the vessel’s rigging in the 1920s.

The boat, it had a couple of douglas fir masts where they cut them off to give them more of a tow boat look. And so it did have masts on it up until the early 1970s. And then I just decided to put the masts back but I made these out of galvanized pilings,” he said.

He says on long voyages, he’ll set a jib sail in addition to using the engines.

That jib alone would move the boat at three knots, just one big jib dragging the props. So it's actually pretty efficient,” Clutter said. “And now that I have a mizzen boom built, I do believe it'll make five to seven knots under the right conditions.”

He says sails not only help with speed, but cut down significantly on fuel use and carbon emissions. On one voyage from Alaska to Washington, Clutter calculated just how much.

I crossed the Gulf, took it down to Port Orchard, Washington and made it in a week and I pretty much ran on one of the engines and sails. And I figured I'd saved about 1500 gallons of fuel on that one week run,” he said.

Clutter says the challenges of owning and operating a historic vessel are extensive, but with his restorations, he hopes the Aleutian Express will be a working vessel for generations to come.

It's a great sea boat, I mean, this is an incredibly smooth ride. They just don’t build it like this anymore,” Clutter said. “I kind of see myself as a curator. With the work I've done in the last 18 years on this boat. It's good for another 50.”

This season, the Aleutian Express is anchored at the Y on the Naknek River, working as a tender bringing loads of sockeye salmon from the water to Naknek’s docks. So keep your eyes peeled on the water this summer, for a 3-masted schooner coming around a bluff—a living piece of Alaskan history.

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For more on the Aleutian Express, check out John Clutter's website

Jessie Sheldon is a fisheries reporter for KDLG. She has spent several summers working in Alaska, both on the water and in the recording studio. Jessie is passionate about marine ecosystems, connection through storytelling, and all things fishy.