Michael Karl Orth

“After a 16-year battle with cancer that amazed his doctors in Washington as well as in Alaska for his robust constitution, he quietly slipped his mooring on the morning,” his family said. “Sometimes somebody comes along who is bigger than life.  In his own words a few weeks before his death he said ‘I’ve had one hell of a run.’ He is survived by his loving wife Trish and numerous siblings and nieces and nephews, as well as abundant friends and acquaintances. His life enriched the lives of all who knew him.”

A Celebration of Mike’s life is at 2 p.m. May 21, 2016, at a friend’s residence on Kayleen Road in Homer.

The strongest themes in Mike’s life were commercial fishing and the sea. He made his first long voyage in an open canoe as a young man. He and a friend paddled several hundred miles down the Mississippi revisiting the haunts of Huck Finn but torrential rain forced an end to their trip. Another time he navigated a vessel through the Panama Canal and bring it back to Alaska. On yet another occasion, he found a sailboat for some friends to buy down south and helped them sail it to Homer.

Mike’s love affair with the sea started when he got a job working in a cannery in Dutch Harbor in the early seventies. He quickly traded in cannery work for a fish picking job in the Bristol Bay salmon fishery. From there he crewed on a catcher processor, and various crab boats in Shelikof Straights, Kodiak and the Bering Sea. He stepped up to the Captain position and ran boats for others. He ran the Constance for opilio crab in the Bering. (The lengthened Constance is now the Tempo Sea that home ports in Homer). His ability as a mechanic and problem solver served him well and he rose up through the ranks. He became intimate with Alaska’s savage coastline and fierce weather. He was a warehouse of knowledge about the ocean and her many moods.

In 1979 he survived a shipwreck on the crabber Sirius. An inexperienced crew was on wheel-watch at night and ran the vessel hard aground on the well charted Douglas Reef north of Kodiak. When the fishing vessel hit the reef and started to sink in the February gale, they were short one survival suit. Quick thinking created an improvised survival suit with layers of wool, some flotation, rain gear and lots of duct tape for the guy without a suit. They all went overboard into rough seas in the dark as the Sirius got battered on the reef. It eventually slid off the rocks and went to the ocean bottom. Thankfully they were rescued by the Polar Shell, another crab boat that was in the vicinity who had heard their May Day. From there they were air-lifted to Kodiak by Alaska’s finest, the U.S. Coast Guard.

Another near death encounter happened when the skiff he was riding in capsized off the beach in very rough seas. The skiff sunk from beneath him but the bow was kept afloat by a water-tight air chamber. Mike and another fellow clung for dear life to that pointy bow for hours as they got buffeted by freezing wind and waves. Luckily, their distress was spotted by a passing vessel that sent in another skiff to rescue them before their strength gave out.

In the off-season, when Mike was not tendering, he was tapped to run other vessels in the Arctic for Dave Aldrich, who valued Mike’s honesty and knowledge of sea ice and his calmness during crisis. His navigation and common sense skills were exemplary. He also worked for Dave in Cook Inlet.

Twenty-five years ago he and Trish started running the Rolfy that they then purchased in 1996. The Rolfy is a 90-foot power scow built in 1941. She was the first vessel of its kind and dozens were built after her. Many were commissioned for wartime use as transport ships during the Aleutian Campaign in World War II, then they were returned to Bristol Bay after the war to resume cannery tendering. The Rolfy did not go to war. The power scows were valued as good fish packers. They were seaworthy as well as shallow in draft. They could navigate in the shallow waters of Bristol Bay in half the depth of similar sized vessels. Mike once said he wasn’t worried about the vessel sinking because there was so much wood in it.

One year the Rolfy got a contract to haul boat loads of humpies from the hatchery to the Ocean Beauty cannery in Cordova. They lost power in the ship’s channel and the crew (a woman friend) said she should have been worried about it but Mike was so calm that that it rubbed off on her. They had a spare generator topside that was quickly employed and with power restored, they completed their voyage.

Going aboard the Rolfy was always a treat. Trish had the galley and the skipper’s stateroom looking like a studio apartment in San Francisco. The three staterooms could sleep a total of nine. The crew stateroom had two small school desks attached to the wall. The wheel house was old-school mahogany. She creaked in a storm something wicked. Its GPS, radar, radios and radar merged it with the modern world. From the wheel house you had a sweeping view of a planked deck with large fish hold hatches and tendering gear and two giant black booms that swept skyward. A mast rose vertically between the booms to a crow’s nest and antenna farm. If you dared to climb all the way up to that crow’s nest you would get one hell of a view of the world.

The steel covered focsle was forward and housed freezers for food storage and lines, straps and other tools of the trade. On top of the focsle sat the anchor winch and the huge anchor. The head was out the galley door and down a set of steel stairs. There was a small workshop and tool room down there as well as a washer and dryer, and the refrigeration systems. Down another set of stairs there were four motors, two main engines forward and two generators aft.

One time Mike and Trish and a bunch of friends decided to have a Thanksgiving dinner cruise, with all the fixings. The day was stormy but they tossed lines anyway and steamed over to Halibut Cove and found a lee shore. It was a memory maker for everybody as they crowded around the galley table and had a feast.

He became one of Ocean Beauty’s star tender-men on his vessel Rolfy, serving salmon fishermen in Bristol Bay and Kodiak. His wife Trish, who worked alongside him on the Rolfy, was known fleet-wide for her Rolfy bars, a nutritious power bar made of oats, nuts, seeds, honey and other delicious ingredients. Many fishermen in the Bay went out of their way to deliver to Mike and Trish. He was fair, competent and ran a tight, friendly ship. They greeted all the fishermen by name and made them feel welcome and significant. Mike and Trish both put their heart and soul into that ship. It was their precious vessel.

At the end of the 2015 season in Bristol Bay, when the Rolfy was set to sail from the Naknek River to Kodiak, all the cannery workers and personnel at Ocean Beauty were summoned to the dock and lined up as the Rolfy tossed lines. They were there to salute Mike and Trish for their excellent service over the years, knowing, because of his illness, it might be the last time they would get to honor him. It was.

Although Mike and Trish were considered married, they had never actually got married. They tied the knot on Mike’s birthday last fall, Oct. 5, 2015, in a small wedding ceremony aboard the Rolfy in the Homer Boat Harbor, followed by a gala celebration of their union at the Salty Dawg. It was a standing room only crowd and people came out of the woodwork to help Mike and Trish celebrate their special day.

Mike was the oldest boy of 14 siblings. He excelled in football in high school where he played fullback as a varsity letterman for three years. He spent a part of high school abroad in Germany, where he found many mountains to climb, fueling his adventuresome spirit. He was also an avid skier and a skilled wrestler. He received a full scholarship to the University of Washington for his rowing skills and he maintained a 4.0-grade point average there. His rowing team went to the 1972 Olympics in Munich. 

He was loved by all who knew him. His silence spoke more than words. He hardly ever lost his calm stoicism and his keen sense of humor. He was always gentle and present and had a huge helping of patience. He once told his wife Trish that he modeled his life after none other than Jesus Christ. Not in the religious sense, with all the spin, but Jesus the man, Jesus the prophet. The love thy neighbor and thy enemy kind of guy, the Jesus who would give his shirt off his own back to help another. He was generous with his wallet as well as with his spirit. If you crewed for Mike, he always picked up the bill at the bar or restaurant, and paid his crew a living wage.

Mike didn’t go to church. The sea was his church and the Rolfy wheelhouse his altar. He never spoke ill of anybody. He loved his family and friends very much. He had a big spot in his heart for all of his nieces and nephews. He was an awesome and loyal friend. He also loved taking his golden Lab “Bosun” for beach walks.

One of the favorite stories about Mike happened when he was a young teenager. His friend’s brother was going to a concert with his buddies. His Mom told him he had to take his younger brother and Mike along or else. When they arrived at the show, the older brother said “Ha Ha…you don’t have tickets! See ya!” and then he disappeared into the show with his friends, leaving the two younger boys in the parking lot. Feeling left out, the boys followed the fence to the back of the outside stage and then crawled through a hole in the fence. There was a group of hippies around a fire and when they noticed the boys, they told them to come on over and were offered beers. They were having a good old time when the hippies said they had to go to work. They made their way to the stage and told the boys where they could watch from back stage. Mike and his friend had just hung out with Pig Pen, Jerry Garcia, Bob Weir and the rest of the Grateful Dead Band and they had the best seats at the show.

Mike loved music and he loved to read. He saw some of the most famous musicians of his generation live and in concert, like The Who, the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan. He read voraciously across all genres and especially liked the sea-adventure stories like the Patrick O’Brien 21-book series that started with “Master and Commander.” Mike’s grandfather John Orth was a famous painter, commissioned to do portraits of some of our presidents. John F. Kennedy once sent him a nice note thanking him for the portrait and complimented him on his work.

Mike always said his Mom Elizabeth was a saint. His oldest sister Erika said Mike was most like his Mom of all the 14 siblings. His dad Alex was a photographer and teacher and had a very colorful life as well. When asked by his German host if he was related to “Alex Orth,” Mike said that Alex was his father. All of the hiking boots and ski boots the Orth family had purchased over many years were ordered from Germany from this very same man that was hosting Mike. It was pure coincidence that Mike was picked by this family to stay with them.

When Mike passed at 8:30 a.m. at home on Sunday morning, April 17, family and friends were sitting with his body lying in state that same evening. They were discussing arrangements to get Mike to the mortuary in Kenai. The arrangements Mike had made prior to his death involved four friends to carry his body to Mike Kennedy’s flat-bed pick-up truck, where he would be strapped down with no fan fare. This was to happen at high noon the next day. Mike Kennedy would then transport Mike’s body to Kenai. When these arrangements were discussed, all were surprised that Mike would be strapped to a flat bed and transported in that manner. A suggestion was made to put Mike in a boat on a trailer and transport him to Kenai that way.

The idea was quickly embraced by all involved, a rowing dory up on barrels in Mike’s yard was selected as the boat, and all of a sudden a Viking send-off was planned for the next day. It was 11 pm. Texts were sent to a dozen or so close friends and the next morning, folks started showing up at the house. The dory, a 17-foot two man lapstrake planked double ender, was over-turned and decorated with wooden corks, prayer flags, cottonwood branches and other “gifts” that people wanted to share. Planks from the Rolfy were laid in the bottom of the boat and then a mattress. With lots of help Mike was carefully carried out of his house and then he was laid to rest in the bottom of the boat. The boat was lifted onto the trailer and strapped down. Everyone joined hands, a toast was made, and a hauntingly beautiful song was sung acapella by one of Mike’s close female friends. There were tears and farewells. A small procession of vehicles followed the boat out of the driveway and the 75 miles to Kenai. This would be Mike’s last boat ride, Viking-style. Everyone was sure Mike was laughing all the way to heaven.

Mike was preceded in death by both his parents, Alex and Elizabeth. He had a baby sister, Mary, who died when she was 8-months old. His brother-in-law Gary passed two years ago.

Mike is survived by his loving wife, Tricia Caron, and step-daughter, Kristen Bernazzani. He has 12 surviving siblings: Erika Marks, Paul Orth, Kristy Enser, Mark Orth, Stephanie Hurless, Walt Orth, Matt Orth, Kris Orth, Andy Orth, Rob Orth, Julie Chrest and Tom Orth. There are a large number of nieces and nephews and one grand-niece as well as numerous in-laws. Also surviving is his faithful dog Bosun, who misses him very much.

Any donations can be made to Hospice of Homer. There is also a memorial fund (fundrazr.com/CaptainMichaelOrth) in the works to help Trish pay some large medical bills and also to help pay for tiles at Seattle’s Fisherman’s Terminal and the Homer Seafarer’s Memorial. The Rolfy is for sale and it comes with a two year tendering contract. That boat sure made Mike happy. It would surely make someone else happy too.

One hand for yourself one hand for the ship

Captain Mike Orth has let his mooring lines slip

For the stars afar and the land beyond the shimmering seas

where angels spread the sails of his mighty ship

He sets a course where no mortals go

Those left in his wake, who loved him so

We bid farewell, we bid farewell

– Andrew Wills, Homer