J.J. Stevenson guides their 500-horsepower airboat over a band of alders laid on a Pete Dahl sandbar. Photo by Dick Shellhorn for The Cordova Times

I’ll never forget our first trip to our cabin site at Pete Dahl. 

Mainly because we didn’t get there.  

Back in 1958, Alaganik Slough was accessed by a small tidal gutter off the road a mile beyond today’s Haystack Trail parking lot. There was no Alaganik Landing and road. 

Andy Swartzbacker and Bill Ekemo already had a cabin at Pete Dahl and gave Dad coded directions that went something like RLRLRLRRL, where R meant take a right turn, and L meant left.  

Not mentioned was the size of the sloughs on which to turn. Back in those days big tides flooded the entire Delta, and all the sloughs looked big. In a small runabout, we ran for over two hours in what should have been a 25-minute cruise, undoubtedly going in circles. One wrong turn and the code was worthless. Finally, low on gas, we ended right back where we started. 

I remember Mom had packed steaks to cook at Andy’s cabin. Dad lit his pipe when we arrived at our original launchpad. Never one to admit defeat he uttered his classic phrase “Ah the hell with it,” and like WWII General Douglas MacArthur, pointed with his pipe in a direction further out the road. 


“We’ll go out to the McKinley Trail cabin, cook dinner there, and call it a day.” 

Overlooked was the fact that we had no utensils or frying pan. Luckily no one was staying at the cabin so we found a stone to scour the rusty stove top, and proceeded to eat very rare steaks grilled directly on its surface in the light of short candles left at the cabin. 

Thanks to the power of airboats and the guile of their operators, (L-R) Chris Hagen, Ardy Hanson, Randy Bruce, Mike Jackman, Jack Stevenson, and J.J. Stevenson enjoyed a visit to Shellhorn’s 65-year-old cabin at Pete Dahl on the Copper River Delta. Photo by Dick Shellhorn for The Cordova Times

Flash forward to August 2023. Mom and Dad are both gone. The cabin we built and improved over the years is their lasting legacy. Due to the nine-foot Delta uplift caused by the 1964 Good Friday earthquake, the brush and tree-covered Delta is barely recognizable. Also, the gradual shift of the main flow of the Copper River to the east has not only washed out the highway at Mile 34, it has left the top of Pete Dahl slough, which is just two miles below the near end of the Mile 27 bridge, often dry.   

Over the years this diminished flow plus the confluence of incoming tidal waters from three directions — Pete Dahl, Alaganik, and Walhalla — has left the last two miles of our route to the cabin a maze of sand, gravel, and mud.   

None of this became more evident than on a misty Aug. 23 afternoon when Ardy Hanson and Jack Stevenson volunteered their airboats to get us to the cabin, and also provide a mechanical tune-up for the upcoming moose season.  

Ardy, who as a tyke shot his first two ducks from a blind near our cabin (“They were a blue wing teal, and a canvasback, and a mink stole them both.”), hadn’t been to the cabin in several years, and Jack had never made it there. 

With at least 500 trips under my belt, I was the designated navigator. Ardy would tap me on the shoulder with his foot from his elevated perch on the driver’s seat, when it was time to decide left or right.  

This worked well until we intersected Pete Dahl slough. I didn’t have to point left or right — there was no water. Ardy stopped. Jack’s son J.J., who was running their big airboat, pulled alongside and cut off his engine.  

We all stood and stretched, taking off ear noise protectors to diminish the roar of the air boat engines.  Ardy’s is powered by a 400-horse automotive engine; Jack’s by a 500 hp monster. 

Jack gazed about and then asked “How far is it from here to the cabins?” 

My response: “Well, before the earthquake and all this brush you could see them from right here.”  

Jack, J.J., and Ardy proceeded to walk across the sand bars for several hundred yards, scouting the narrow pools and strands of water and then came back with an idea. How often have I heard the phrase “I think we can make it.” The solution was in ample supply all around us. 


Ardy just happened to have a pair of long-handled loppers and began cutting lengths of alder from the nearby bank. We dragged them to the nearest narrow channel, and laid them like corduroy across the bar to another skinny gutter. 

Ardy, with the lighter machine, went first, skidding across as we stood and cheered. J.J. to the tune of all 500 horses, roared across. From there we cruised in several inches of water down to the cabin, unloaded supplies, finished numerous chores, and had snacks.  

The trip back to the landing was not anticlimactic. A mist had settled, as had my traditional toast of scotch at the cabin, and somehow my LR directions resulted in Stevenson’s airboat, which had been following us, popping out of a slough in front of us. 

How embarrassing. We were going the wrong way. 

Luckily J.J. had set a track on his iPhone and got us on the right path. 

And despite the roar of the airboats drumming in my ears, I could hear Dad laughing.