Editor’s note: In a slight departure from our usual historical writings, we offer today a book review, but a book about history — an important local history, one that needs telling, and one that goes beyond what the author himself calls, “A tale of a young man who went to Alaska, met some amazing people, and had a crazy adventure.”
As Scott Ransom indicates in the epilogue of his recently published memoir, “Clam Gulch,” the community about which he wrote, the types of people he portrayed and the way of life he depicted are all still there — but they are much changed. What an accomplishment, then, to capture these moments in time and to leave them to posterity, frozen word-bound in 515 pages.
Clam Gulch is an engaging, well-paced narrative that illustrates the life of the Cook Inlet commercial fisherman in all sorts of pursuits — salmon, halibut, shrimp, crab and herring — and does so with good humor, an occasional bluntness or shocking episode, and a voice that the reader can trust through the best and worst of times.
One of the major triumphs of the work is that Ransom so carefully characterizes the main cast that the reader is able to feel a certain kinship with these characters and share in the smiles of their successes and the tears of their tragedies.
Even if Ransom misses an occasional minor fact (the exact location of Soldotna’s old Little Ski-Mo’s restaurant) or misspells an occasional name (Ray LaFrenere of the Corea Bar), he misses very little of the spirit of the community and its denizens.
Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly President Pete Sprague, who was Ransom’s college roommate and came to Alaska a year after Ransom did, said that his old friend “did a heck of a job” re-creating those times, noting that the book was remarkably accurate considering that more than 35 years had passed since the earliest events portrayed.
Dean Osmar, whose extended family is at the epicenter of this story, said, “I think (Scott) got most of it accurate. I mean, you can pick a few things out here and there that are wrong, but anybody that writes a book that complex and about that long ago, you can’t get it all right. Scott, he knows that it’s not a hundred percent accurate, but that’s his remembrance of it.”
Ransom himself admits as much in his preface: “Perspective is important. This story is told from the author’s point of view. Others may be of the opinion that events occurred differently or that their participation in them is not properly represented. Although I was always careful to entertain another viewpoint, my memory was often the final arbiter.”
He said recently that he began writing the book “as a catharsis” after a personal tragedy that occurred in 1994 and is central to the story. Over the intervening years, he continued to labor at his writing, constructing a detailed timeline of events, people and places to lay the groundwork, and interviewing friends and family in an attempt to get his story right.
As a result, the reader is treated to a slice of Kenai Peninsula history and a cast of characters that includes Per Osmar, patriarch of the Osmar clan; Seth Wright, the hard-smoking, hard-working, tale-telling commercial fisherman; Kevin Duffy, another commercial-fishing buddy whose good fortune seemed almost guaranteed; Jeff Ransom, Scott’s kid brother who became jokingly known as “Rico”; and Marcia Ransom, Scott’s wife, to whom the book is dedicated, and whom Scott married inauspiciously on a Friday the 13th.
Ransom first came to Alaska in 1972 when he hitchhiked all the way from upstate New York, ostensibly to spend the summer
fighting forest fires in the Interior. As fate would have it, he couldn’t find work in the firefighting business, and so he kept accepting rides until the last one dropped him off at a Clam Gulch fish-processing plant known as Osmar’s Ocean Specialties.
From that moment, he became a part of the Clam Gulch story, bunking in one of the battered trailers at the Osmar complex, working with Wright on the deceptively dependable Tanner, learning to longline for halibut, and spending a considerable portion of his free time and some of his money swilling Olys at the Clam Shell bar with the usual crowd.
It was at the Clam Shell that Ransom listened to deal-making and fishery lore, that he expanded his circle of friends and acquaintances, and that he proposed to Marcia. It was also where he and Marcia held a raucous wedding reception that roared on in various intensities for more than 24 hours.
“The Clam Shell was the center of the universe,” said Sprague recently. “The cannery was up on the hill, and the Clam Shell and the grocery store, and they had the gas station, and that was kind of the center of it all.”
Ransom spent so much time there because almost all of them back then spent so much time there.
“You know, we were all 25 then, and bulletproof,” Sprague said.
They worked hard and played hard. Sometimes they took chances, and usually they got away with them.
Meanwhile, some of the faces changed, but a core of them returned year after year throughout the 1970s and much of the ’80s and ’90s.
“For the most part, we were all very well-educated and were out for a sense of adventure,” Sprague said. “And no one was saying you have to go live in the subarctic with very little money and do a lot of hard work but you didn’t have a dollar in your pocket. People come and go, and we just chose to stay.”
The memoir detours on occasion into smaller chapters on hunting, working on the North Slope, Dean Osmar’s involvement with the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race and on the Exxon Valdez oil spill, but always Ransom returns — in his writing, as he did in his life — to the sea.
He fishes off Humpy Point and out of Ninilchik, across Kachemak Bay and deep in Bear Cove, across the inlet in Chinitna Bay, around the horn in Resurrection Bay and even Prince William Sound. The lure of another harvest calls him again and again.
And it is this detailed recollection of the way it used to be — in the days before east-side set-netters were pushed into narrower and narrower openings, before the rules and regulations changed the industry, and before the “old guard” was replaced by the succeeding genretion — that Ransom offers his best gift to the reader. This is the rollicking, difficult lifestyle that the fishermen loved — and tourists never saw.
Ransom builds his story slowly, beginning with a brief but interesting scene-setting history of how Per and Fran Osmar homesteaded in Clam Gulch in 1948. Most of the longer chapters occur in the first two-thirds of the book, wherein the majority of the main characters are introduced and Ransom’s eyes are widest open, taking in new environments and fresh experiences, learning one new aspect after another of the craft of commercial fishing.
After that point, the years speed by more quickly and the chapters appear more staccato, until the multiple resolutions in the thoughtful, often touching, epilogue.
At precisely the halfway point of the book are 25 pages of black-and-white photographs, many of them excellent, and the majority of them taken by Kevin Duffy. The only color photographs occur on the front and back covers — the back photo showing Scott and Jeff Ransom in 1979 on their way to Chinitna Bay, and the front photo, incongruous under the large letters of the title, showing Snug Harbor in Tuxedni Bay.
Ransom said he struggled with his choice of front-cover photo.
“A cover needs to attract attention,” he said. “None of the Clam Gulch/Redoubt photos that I ran by my editors and a small focus group of friends raised much enthusiasm. They all picked the Snug Harbor photo. Also, the picture was taken by my friend Kevin Duffy, so it was a bit of a sentimental choice, also.”
As he memorialized the contribution of his friend, so Ransom has memorialized a time and a place — and the inhabitants of that place. His book is well worth the time and energy necessary to journey through the colorful chapters occupying its many pages.
“Clam Gulch: A Memoir,” by Scott Ransom, was self-published. It is available locally at River City Books in Soldotna.