Chilkat Valley News - Serving Haines and Klukwan, Alaska since 1966


Fisherman remembered for insights, adventures


July 1, 2010

Several hundred friends and family members celebrated the life of fisherman John Michael "Mike" Saunders with a salmon barbecue on the beach Friday evening.

The Fishpickers band played and Gene Kennedy read a poem Saunders wrote about a grizzly bear on a fishing boat. The 57-year-old gillnetter and writer died at home June 22. Autopsy results are pending.


Fisherman Norm Hughes called Saunders the best storyteller in town. "You got the feeling they got better over time." Some stories were born of mishaps aboard Saunders’ first gillnetter, the Lady Helen, a 38-foot cement boat that earned him the nickname "Captain Concrete."

Saunders worked as a deckhand until he bought the boat in 1988 on a handshake at a bar. It sank when Saunders hit an uncharted rock.


Saunders and his deckhand were wearing only skivvies when Hughes retrieved them from a Coast Guard boat. "A lot of guys would have quit, but he went out and bought another boat" and was back to fishing the next opening.

Saunders’ hunting stories included one about an uncle who learned to shoot ducks with one arm after blowing off the other one with a shotgun. In another, Saunders fell 30 feet from a tree and landed so hard that his eyes bled when he blew his nose.

Although he joked about his failures, Saunders was an accomplished hunter, bagging a 40-inch sheep two years ago after hiking a difficult peak to reach it.

"Mike had a good sense humor. He saw the irony in a lot of things," said friend Norm Blank, adding that he would miss Saunders’ newspaper columns about commercial fishing and his letters-to-the-editor. "The things he wrote in the paper made good sense."


Saunders published a folktale, "Legend of the Albino Mosquito," and his fishing poetry appeared in Fishermen’s Journal. He attended the annual Fisher Poet Gathering in Astoria, Ore. and was a contributor to Oregon’s Lane County Journal.

Saunders was born in Monterey, Calif. to Lural and Jack Saunders, a career Navy man, on April 24, 1953. His father retired when he was 11 and moved the family back to Eugene, Ore ., where his ancestors were among the founding residents, family members said. His ashes will be buried alongside them in a pioneer cemetery there.

Saunders majored in English at the University of Oregon. He was one class shy of graduation in 1974 when he came to Alaska instead of earning a degree.


He hoped to work on the pipeline, but ended up as a roofer, hot-mopping tar on Anchorage businesses in sub-zero temperatures. He left for Hawaii and worked as a door-to-door sewing machine salesman for a character named Fast Eddie. "Of course, he had stories about being chased by angry Hawaiians through dark streets," wife Kate Saunders said.

Saunders operated his own Anchorage summer painting business and headed to warmer climes or Oregon in the winter, passing through Haines on trips south. In 1985 he stayed and found work as a deckhand.


Norm Smith recalled Saunders, slim-framed and bespectacled, first sighting schoolteacher Kate Hoag at a party. "There were all these rafter guys, and then there’s Mike. The rafter guys are all hitting on this good-looking blonde. Mike sees her and says to me, ‘Oh God, I’m in love, I’m going to marry her.’ I look at Mike, and the rafter guys, and her, and I say, ‘Oh yeah, right. Get in line.’"  

Mike and Kate had their first date years later after she caught him shooting ducks in front of her Mud Bay home. He invited her to a duck dinner in his cabin. "He only owned one spoon and one fork. He gave me the fork," she said. Neighbor Gene Kennedy married them Oct.12, 1996. Their daughter Elena was born in 2001.

Saunders was a stay-at-home dad during the school year. Teacher Barbara Pardee said, "From the get-go, he organized play dates, volunteered in the classroom, and made sure Elena got to piano and ballet." He joined her at an after-school program where they learned to play the ukulele.

"I’d see them holding hands, walking to the class together. There’s not a lot of dad’s that do that," Pardee said.

Saunders studied Spanish in college, and then practiced it by reading the same novels in English and in Spanish. He liked to travel to Mexico and was a fluent speaker. He built his house from a plan on a napkin and added to it as his family grew.

In addition to Kate and Elena, survivors include brothers Pat of Seattle, Jim of La Pine, Ore ., Bob of Bend and sister Dawn of Middlebury, Vt. His parents preceded him in death. Memorial donations may be made to the Mike Saunders Youth Activity Fund at the Chilkat Valley Community Foundation, P.O. Box 1117 in Haines.