When longtime bartender, chef, fisherman and bookworm Chuck Voss’ skiff overturned in the Ugashik River on Sunday, killing the 36-year-old man and leaving another missing in the Bristol Bay region, the loss rippled through communities from Florida to Soldotna.
It was the Oregon native’s first year fishing commercially again — a longtime love — after a few-year hiatus he took while recovering from carpal tunnel surgery, friends said.
Voss was fishing with three others when their skiff capsized in three-foot waves and winds of 25 mph near the village of Pilot Point, sometime before 9 a.m., said U.S. Coast Guard Petty Officer 2nd Class Grant Devuyst. Both Voss and the other missing man, a 17-year-old, attempted to swim to shore and while a nearby fishing vessel found Voss — they could not revive him according to an Alaska State Troopers report.
The other two men, Earnest Pierce, 47, of Nine Mile Falls, WA And Brandon Park, 24, of West Richland, WA were able to climb on top of the overturned skiff until a nearby fishing boat rescued them, according to the troopers report. None of the men were wearing flotation devices, DeVuyst said.
The night before he died, Voss called friends in Soldotna to tell them that he missed them, loved them and couldn’t wait to come home.
“I’m just so thankful … that I got to talk to him the night before he passed,” Cara Steadman wrote in an email. “He called every night with a count down of how many days he had left.”
Voss was part of a tight-knit group of bartenders who had worked at three Soldotna bars, the Maverick Saloon, Alaska Roadhouse Bar and Grill and Good Time Charlies. Several regulars at the three bars described him as a gentle giant. They remembered him as kind, and as a good cook.
Andrea Norris, a friend from Cocoa Beach, Florida spends her summers in Alaska and said she has several fond memories of Voss as a bartender at the Maverick.
“He always looked out for me, being a girl in a bar, always was nice and polite and protective,” she said. “We actually made our own marriage certificate on a dollar bill, signed our names and hung it up in there.”
Norris’ kids, knew Voss as “uncle.”
“He was ‘Uncle Chuck to a lot of kids,” she said. “He was a big kid himself.”
Steadman, whose sons Trenton Steadman and Ryker Wilson were some of the many who called Voss “Uncle,” said the loss would be felt deeply by her family.
“Trenton has been taking it really hard,” Cara Steadman wrote in an email. “(Voss took) Trenton on his first grouse hunt when he was 7 and was given the name ‘Ice Road Chuckers.’”
As friends spoke about his life, several common themes emerged — the first that Voss’s deep belly laugh was infectious. “A lot of people called him ‘Chuckles,’” Norris said. “It did not matter how bad your day was going, he would cheer you up doing something silly.”
The second, that Voss was an avid fisherman and while he moved from Kasilof, to Sterling, to Soldotna — a river was always nearby.
“He took me fishing last summer, it was great day,” said Danielle Shedd, of Soldotna. “We didn’t catch anything, but we still had a blast. It was a lot of fun to feel like that.”
Norris recalled a fishing trip to Skilak Lake and a solitude that made the trip exponentially better.
“He was such a boisterous guy, there was a softer side of Chuck that maybe not everybody always got to see,” she said. “It was nice to have some of those quieter moments.”
Third, that Voss had a softer, intellectual side that didn’t always show through.
“He was kind of a bookworm. He’d probably hate that I tell people that but he was really smart. He was always reading some kind of book,” Shedd said. “People that didn’t know him closely, I don’t think realized that the rough exterior that he had —that kind of roughneck kind of thing — was just a shell.”
Several said he would listen to their troubles and do his best to help. Shedd said she had a family trauma not long after she met Voss — she a housekeeper and he a chef at the Alaska Legends Lodge at Funny River.
“Chuck was there and he knew something was wrong and … you know I felt comfortable enough with him to let him in and tell him what was happening. He was there for me even when we barely knew each other and I knew, from that time on, that we’d be friends forever.”
Alaska Roadhouse owner Brent Elkington said a celebration of life would be held at the roadhouse, but a date decided upon.
Elkington said he hired Voss as a bartender and caterer.
“He was a great cook. We’d just call him kind of the pig roaster here,” Elkington said. “He was very good with appetizers.”
Voss was responsible for roasting a whole pig during an annual event at the roadhouse — a responsibility he took seriously.
“Chuck was always there to help out and do most of it,” Elkington said. “It was usually his way. Once he started something he liked to have it done his way.”
Elkington said Voss was a perfectionist about food; he was the chef at Shedd’s wedding.
Norris said she wasn’t surprised that so many in the community felt the loss of Voss’ abrupt death.
“Working in a bar in a small town, he knew a lot of people and whether or not they had an interaction with him on a personal level outside of the bar or not, everybody knew who he was and just loved and adored him,” she said. “He was always quick to help people. I don’t think he knew how to say no.”
Voss was, by all accounts, a warm man.
“We made jokes about him being our heater.” Shedd said. “Sometimes if we were all standing outside smoking a cigarette, we would all stand outside and hug him and he would keep us warm… I’m going to miss him.”
Reach Rashah McChesney at firstname.lastname@example.org and Dan Balmer at email@example.com