Barb and Merle Hanson plus dog Jake enjoy a happy moment at their duck cabin down Eyak River. Hanson family photo

On May 21 Merle Hanson passed away. He was a teaching colleague at Cordova High School for 20 years, and a dear friend for over 50 years. Merle was a proud Norwegian, and taught me the many meanings of “Uff Da.”

Merle hailed from Choteau, Montana. If you want insight into the rich history of this area, I recommend A.B. Guthrie Jr.’s “The Way West,” which just happened to win a Pulitzer Prize.

Guess who was Merle’s high school English teacher? None other than “A.B.” himself, as Merle referred to him.

While in high school, Merle spent time pumping gas at a local station, and loved to tell the story of A.B. pulling up in his beat-up vehicle, and noticing the back seat littered with empty bottles — perhaps reminiscent of firewater that passed through Choteau in the pioneering day, and likely to provide liquid inspiration for teaching English to a bunch of rowdy Montana renegades.

Following high school, Merle joined the Navy. That included a tour of duty on tiny destroyer escorts in a picket line on the Bering Sea (“they didn’t handle winter weather very well”).  He went back to graduate from the University of Montana at Missoula and from there, instead of choosing ‘The Way West’ he chose ‘The Way North’ — to Cordova, Alaska.

Merle loved to talk about his first experiences upon arrival. Housing was tight, and the only place Superintendent C.L. “Barney” Anderson could find him was an apartment over the Alaskan Bar. 


Quickly befriending him was none other than owner Bob Korn, who soon took him on many trips down Eyak River to the famous “Kornhole” duck shack. They became life-long friends.

Back then Main Street was crowded with bars, and the fishing season was ending in rowdy fashion when Merle arrived. Many a night was interrupted by patrons spilling out on the street right below his window to settle disputes. Merle may have thought he had taken a wrong turn and was back in the Wild West, especially when customers from the nearby Cordova House bar decided to join the fray.

Merle was always quick to volunteer, and when legendary CHS Coach Chuck Taylor arrived on the scene looking for as assistant coach, Merle said he would do it. Merle joked: “I had to be the only coach in Alaska whose only P. E. background was Latin dance.” 

Captain Hanson at the helm of their river boat running the Eyak River. Hanson family photo

Chuck led the Wolverines to two Class B titles in three years with Merle by his side.

Recently, I learned from his wife Barb that the school board held a special meeting to authorize paying for his plane ticket to travel with the team to Homer for the Class B championships. That was his only reimbursement for three seasons as assistant coach.

I also asked Barb about Merle’s dancing prowess. Forget the samba: “He was really good at the jitter-bug,” said Barb.

Merle was a devoted member of the Cordova Elks, becoming Exalted Ruler as well as Elk of the Year in 1985-86. Merle and I served on the Elks Youth Activities Committee, and our proudest achievement was starting The Cordova Elks Tipoff Basketball Tournament in 1982. It continued as The Cordova Tipoff after the Elks Lodge closed. The Tipoff is now in its 40th year, and has attracted teams from 57 different schools across the state.

Merle loved duck hunting. For many years he came down to our cabin at Pete Dahl before buying a cabin at the mouth of Eyak in 1982. His son Ardy shot his first duck out of my Walhalla blind. It was a rare blue wing teal and I remember he was so short he had to stand on the blind bench to see over the brush to shoot. 

I had forgotten Ardy bagged two ducks that day. He recently reminded me: “don’t you remember the second bird? It was a canvasback,” which is even more rare on the Delta.

Merle had a knack for making sure outings became adventures, which likely is the source of the phrase “Uff Da.” 

One time Karl Steen flew us down to Kanak for an early season razor clam dig. We planned to overnight and dig on a big minus tide early in the morning. Merle assured me he had a tent. 

The wind came up on the long open beach. Luckily, we found a small creosote piling to get a fire going. When the blackberry brandy ran out, I suggested it might be time to set up our shelter.  Merle reached into his pack sack and pulled out a small nylon bag – which contained his young son Ardy’s pup tent.  When we crawled in it barely covered me to my waist and Merle to his chest.  

We surely didn’t need an alarm clock to wake up for the morning tide. Partly because we didn’t get a wink of sleep. Merle stretched, groaned, and of course said “Uff Da.”

We discovered that due to the cold wind blasting down the beach not a single clam was showing. Karl picked us up bleary-eyed, reeking of creosote and nary a clam in our buckets.

Naturally, our comrades in the teacher’s lounge on Monday morning came in sniffing the air and complaining of a strange odor, while asking if we had struck oil at Kanak.

Every life is a story to be told, and if A.B. Guthrie was still around I suspect he could pen another prize winner based on the adventures of one of his former Montana high school students who found his way north.

Farewell, good friend.

Thanks for the Uff Da’s.