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Monday, November 18, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Jack Emel ran fish cannery in village

Seattle Times staff reporter

His son describes Alakanuk, Alaska, as a primitive place where you wouldn't want to vacation — but to Jack Emel this tiny fishing village at the mouth of the Yukon River made a perfect home.

Mr. Emel, who operated a salmon cannery in the village for 30 years, died of complications from pneumonia Thursday at his home in Edmonds. He was 87.

He was born in 1915 in Valdez, Alaska, where his parents ran a cannery and where he fell in love with the Alaskan fishing culture. The family moved to Seattle when he was a teenager.

After graduating from the Lakeside School and then, in 1939, from the University of Washington, Mr. Emel headed back to Alaska for a career in roughing it. He and his cousin built a boat and traveled from Fairbanks to Alakanuk, near where the Yukon River opens into the Bering Sea. The village was home to only about 50 people in the wintertime and maybe a couple hundred in the summer, said his son John. Fishing was the only job to be found there, until Mr. Emel built a timber-frame salmon cannery.

Mr. Emel ran his fish-processing business in Alakanuk even though it was a place where some of the population lived in tents and where the only way to get out of town for a vacation was by plane or motorboat (he owned both).

He married Ruth Johnsson of Marshall, 100 miles away. Since there was no school in Alakanuk, she taught the couple's six children at home some years. Other years the family relocated to Edmonds for part of the year so the children could go to schools there.

During the slow, dark winter months, Mr. Emel fed his mind by reading history and philosophy, topics he discussed with the village's resident Jesuit priests.

"He was very self-sufficient," John Emel said. "Everything he needed to do he learned to do himself."

The late 1950s brought two big changes: the decline of the king-salmon population and the establishment of Alaska's statehood, which gave rise to cannery regulations too expensive for Mr. Emel. He kept the cannery going for a few years but moved to Edmonds permanently in the 1970s. He started a charter-boat business and bought property in southern Alaska but never returned to Alakanuk.

His life in Edmonds was much more relaxed than his life at the fishing village had been, his son said.

"He was a great man and a very loving husband and father," said his wife, Ruth Emel. "We had a wonderful life together."

In addition to his wife and son John, who lives in Chicago, Mr. Emel is survived by son Robert of Seattle and daughters Barbara of Poulsbo; Gwen of Alakanuk; Jackie of Arlington; and Margaret of Shoreline.

A memorial service will be at 1 p.m. tomorrow at Beck's Funeral Home, 405 Fifth Ave. S., Edmonds. The family suggests remembrances be made to the Hospice of Snohomish County or to Medic 7.

Catherine Tarpley: 206-464-8255 or ctarpley@seattletimes.com.

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