'Above and beyond'

How a homesteader helped Fish and Game eradicate pike in an Alaska lake

The eagles waited for the man every morning. From the high dark trees around the lake, they swooped in gracefully when they saw him walk to the end of the dock and huddled around him, beaks clacking.

 

He stooped for a moment to work. When he finished, he stood and turned back toward the house on the shore. Eagerly the eagles set in on the fish he left behind for them.

“I had pet eagles,” Clyde Mullican remembered. “They’d sit up in the trees along the lake, and I’d leave them fish every morning. They’d come right down to the dock.”

Mullican’s daughter, Diana Chase, affirmed the memory with a nod.

“They practically called him Grandpa,” she said.

The eagles are there on the banks of Sevena Lake still, waiting around the homestead for Mullican to come out with more fish. But he’s not there much anymore — at 91, he’s settled in with his son John Mullican outside Soldotna, surrounded by a host of dogs ranging from a sleepy English bulldog to a lithe pit bull. His own enormous Australian shepherds stay with Chase.

The Mullicans were the first homesteaders on Sevena Lake, setting up their brick house on its northern shore in 1963. Originally from a farming town near Portland, Oregon, Clyde joined the Navy during World War II and traveled the Pacific Ocean from Oregon to the Philippines. He served until his job — driving an ambulance from Portland to Seattle — was taken by an officer’s son, and he obtained a discharge.

All throughout his time in the Navy, Clyde wanted to come to Alaska. When he got out, he came up to the state to work. His wife, Roseanna, was not pleased, he said.

“The wife wouldn’t even help me pack my clothes — she said she’d be damned if she was gonna live in an igloo,’” Clyde said. “I came up here to work for the Gilman’s Bakery (in Anchorage). I bought a trailer, set it up so we’d have a place to move into, and then sent her the next check. She was on the next plane.”

The family of six only lived in town briefly. Clyde comes from a legacy of homesteaders — his grandfather homesteaded in Oklahoma City, he said. Roseanna brought up the question of homesteading and they put it to a family vote. Clyde was the only one opposed. He never wanted to live that far outside town, he said, but he lost the vote.

“So we went out there,” Clyde said.

Sevena Lake was remote in 1963 — with no roads except a dirt track, the children walked miles to reach a school bus to get an education. Eventually, Clyde bought a plow to make the road clearer so they could get small vehicles to and from the homestead, but it was never easy to get to.

Bears and moose wandered through freely. Enormous bull moose were common, and Clyde remembers one morning having eight bears in his yard between him and the house. He said he only ever shot two bears in the time he lived out there, though.

The fishing was a sight to be seen. John Mullican remembers catching enormous rainbow trout in Sevena Lake, seeing the surface of the water pulsate with the enormous fish in the summers and pulling up strings of fish through the ice in the winter.

That was until the pike came.

THE HOMESTEADER AND THE BIOLOGISTS

The rainbows disappeared, replaced by wide-mouthed, bony northern pike.

“You used to catch them every day — you’d get sick of catching rainbows,” John said. “Then in about four or five years, you couldn’t hardly catch anything other than a pike.”

Northern pike were illegally introduced into the Soldotna Creek system in the 1970s, decimating the native populations of rainbow trout, coho salmon and other juvenile salmonids in that system. Pike are notoriously voracious, consuming numerous fish almost the same size as them. In some water bodies, the pike are almost the only fish left.

The Mullicans noticed the takeover drastically in Sevena Lake as their rainbows became smaller and smaller, replaced by enormous pike. It wasn’t hard to connect the dots, and soon enough, there were no rainbows left to catch.

The first time biologists from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game called to ask if they could cross his land to research the pike in the lake, Clyde said, “good luck.” Tim McKinley, a fisheries biologist with Fish and Game in Soldotna, was the first to ask Clyde if the biologists could use his land and boat launch to net for pike about 15 years ago.

The Mullicans were the only ones with access to the lake. At the time, they owned both sides of it, having bought another piece of property on the far side of the lake. To access the water, Fish and Game needed to cross Clyde’s property. At first, he left the gate open for them, provided they let him know when they came by, McKinley said. Then he gave them a key. Then he started coming down to the dock when they came in to see what they caught. Eventually, he started getting in the boat and hauling in the nets with them.

McKinley said he remembers how surprisingly strong Clyde was, taking care of himself with little help.

“One fall, he was getting his diesel ... and he needed to get them across the lake,” McKinley said. “I said, ‘Clyde, I’ll be out there, let me give you a hand loading the 55-gallon drums of diesel fuel into the boat.’ I don’t know however it worked, but when I got out there, that old man had gotten those drums of fuel across the lake and offloaded them all by himself.”

When fisheries biologist Rob Massengill took over the pike project from McKinley in 2006, he got to know Clyde fairly well too.

“He seemed impervious to the cold,” Massengill said. “He’d come out with a light jacket or no jacket, standing in the water with no waders on.”

Fish and Game netted and trapped pike on the lake, culling the population. Sportfishermen could fish for as many pike in the lake they want to help control the population as well, and Clyde would let them cross his property to fish the lake, Massengill said. Clyde would call the biologists to let them know when their nets were getting heavy with fish, Massengill said. In recent years, the biologists mostly net for pike under the ice to reduce risk to birds, he added.

Roseanna died in 2009, and Clyde stayed alone out on the homestead. But whenever the Fish and Game biologists would check on the pike, they would also check in on Clyde. He looked forward to seeing them too, Chase said. They would stop in for a cup of coffee or sometimes bring him baked goods.

It was Fish and Game biologists that ferried Clyde across the lake when he became ill last November. Chase was waiting on the far side of the lake to take him to the hospital as the biologists worked their way across the lake in the deepening cold. Their own boat had frozen up to the trailer, and they had to borrow Clyde’s boat, Massengill said.

“They went so far above and beyond,” Chase said. “They were always checking on him, taking care of him.”

Living in town, Clyde’s health has improved. Recently, several of the biologists went to see Clyde and present him with a Stewardship Award to thank him for his help controlling the pike in Sevena Lake. Both McKinley and Massengill said that beyond the stories about the homestead, they learned about the history of the fish in the lake by listening to Clyde’s tales, which provided them a lot of information about the history of the stream system and the land around it.

“He was fun to be around,” McKinley said. “You never knew what old stories he was going to tell you about. He had kind of a typical old-timer, homesteader mentality of always knowing what’s going on on his lake.”

RETURN OF THE RAINBOWS

This June, Fish and Game will begin treating Sevena Lake with rotenone, a chemical intended to finish off the remaining pike in the Soldotna Creek system.

If the biologists succeed, it will be a chance for native fish like the enormous rainbow trout the Mullicans remember to repopulate the Soldotna Creek system. Fish and Game biologists plan to collect native fish from Soldotna Creek and treat the mainstem with rotenone to kill the pike, then restock the fish into the creek once the rotenone has dissipated. Because Sevena Lake is attached to the Soldotna Creek system, it has to be treated too.

The treatment is set to take about two years. Once the Soldotna Creek drainage is clear, the only other known pike infestation on the Kenai Peninsula is in the small lakes on Tote Road. Clearing out the Soldotna Creek drainage will be a huge win for Fish and Game, Massengill said.

Working with the landowners has been a process throughout the treatment of the Soldotna Creek drainage water bodies — Massengill said he knocks on a lot of doors to try to connect with people before asking if the biologists can cross their land to access the creeks and lakes.

“Getting that permission and cooperation is just huge for us,” Massengill said. “If we didn’t have that, we would probably not be able to do as good a job treating (Soldotna) Creek itself. There might be places that we wouldn’t be able to walk through with a backpack sprayer. We’d have to rely on just putting it in upstream and hoping it goes through.”

Once the pike are eradicated, there may be a bloom of activity for the zooplankton and other invertebrates from the fertilizing effect of all the fish killed by the rotenone. However, it will still take years for the fish population to return to what it was before the pike invasion, Massengill said.

Watching the pike change Sevena Lake was hard for the Mullicans. John said it will be a relief to see the lake he remembers from his childhood go back to what it was long ago.

“I’m really excited to see the end of it,” John sad. “The biggest pike I caught out of there was 18 pounds; my friend caught a 22 pound. But they’re just a nasty fish. He used to have flocks of mallards out there with babies, and the babies would just disappear. They’re just a destructive fish, and I’m really glad to see the end of it.”

Clyde said he still misses the homestead, which now has two houses — the original brick house and a new dwelling, complete with running water and power. The family goes out onto the lake in the summer and makes trips to the house to collect items left behind.

Although they no longer live there, John and Chase agreed that everyone should have the experiences of living a homestead lifestyle. It teaches children to respect the resources they can collect from fishing and hunting, and not to waste anything, John said.

Little of the family’s current lifestyle is the same. None of them fish on the Kenai River anymore, even though Clyde said he used to drift the Kenai River and “catch all the salmon we want and go home.” John, an ardent fisherman, only fishes in salt water because the Kenai and Kasilof rivers are too crowded, he said. Chase said she only fishes on occasion but won’t fish in the Kenai River anymore.

But when they do go fishing, it is a family affair. Clyde said he has 18 great-grandchildren, and many of them come along when the family fishes. Mounted on the wall of John’s house in Soldotna is a 72-pound Deep Creek king salmon that Clyde caught when he was 72 years old.

As he leaned back in his chair, a grandson and great-grandson came into the house and greeted him, as if they knew he’d always be there.

 

Reach Elizabeth Earl at elizabeth.earl@peninsulaclarion.com.

 

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