The History of the Nushagak River Region

nushagak riverWhile visiting anglers choose Nushagak River Adventures for our seclusion and world-class salmon fishing in Alaska, many are genuinely curious about the history of this once Yup’ik-inhabited wilderness. Before Alaska fishing camps slowly began to pop up along the peaceful Nushagak River, the nearby communities of Nushagak and Portage Creek were small, thriving villages. It wasn’t long after early settlers arrived that they discovered the incredible wealth of fish, including salmon, inside the Nushagak River. Thus dozens of canning facilities were built in the late 1800s and early 1900s in Nushagak and nearby Dillingham.

Early Russian Settlements

Fish the Nush is named after the salmon-filled Nushagak River, of course, but the river itself earned its title from beautiful Nushagak Bay and the once-thriving community of Nushagak, AK. Yup’ik and Athabaskan people initially inhabited Nushagak. In the early 1800s, Russian settlers built a redoubt and a Russian Orthodox mission shortly after. Alaska Natives from across the region visited the redoubt to trade and occasionally settle. The United States purchased Alaska in 1867 and later built a weather station inside this small but growing community.

The Canning Boom

The now world-famous Nushagak River salmon run was so lush that the Arctic Packing Company built a canning facility near Nushagak Point – several other canning companies soon followed suit. With the closures of several facilities between 1901 and 1909, nearly 80 percent of the population left town for better opportunities. Nushagak Point and the canning factories were eventually overcome by growing mud flats, coastal erosion, and siltation. These facilities were purchased many times thereafter, but no operations ever flourished in the coming decades.

Beautiful Portage Creek

Nushagak River Adventures is on an island, three miles upriver of the small community of Portage Creek, AK, a two-hour boat ride from nearby Dillingham. Portage Creek was originally only visited by Yup’ik Eskimos during the summertime. In the 1900s, travelers often avoided the open waters of Bristol Bay and spent evenings at beautiful Portage Creek. A handful of families fell in love with the landscape and officially settled in 1961. A school was built, and local air carriers visited with supplies. Today, Portage Creek is a storage location where many commercial (tent) fishing camps store their gear between seasons. Its runway and weather station remain operational and are vital to the region.

Thriving Dillingham, AK

Dillingham, AK, is one of the largest cities in the region with 2,360 people during the majority of the year, but nearly doubles due to the fish cannery business during the summer months. While the canning industry in Nushagak failed, Pacific American Fisheries, now known as Peter Pan Seafoods, thrived in downtown Dillingham. Over the next several decades, the city slowly grew from 85 to nearly 2,500. (It is estimated that Dillingham surges to 5,000 during the fishing season each summer). The state built a courthouse, post office, hospital, orphanage, fire department, and school. Newspapers, radio stations, and eventually sport fishing tourism helped the town grow to unforeseen levels. Learn more about the region in the January 2019 edition of Fish Alaska magazine featuring our five-star lodge in The Bush: Nushagak River Adventures. Read the extensive article here, or give us a call today at 1-877-876-NUSH (6874).