Juneau man’s icebreaker Storis documentary was an 8-year ‘labor of love’

Coast Guard Cutter Storis
The Coast Guard Cutter Storis in Juneau in October 2006. It was decommissioned in 2007. (Creative Commons photo by Gillfoto)

A Juneau man has made a film about the Storis, a dainty icebreaker by polar standards, that rescued mariners and enforced the law along Alaska’s coast for almost 60 years.

It took Damon Stuebner eight years to make this documentary. He and his wife, Rebecca Smith, worked on it between their state jobs, as their time and money allowed. Now, they recoup $20 at a time with the sale of each DVD.

“It was a labor of love,” Stuebner said.

Sometimes, love shows up when you least expect it. This one came on a snowy night in Juneau, when Stuebner and Smith were in the throes of moving.

“We were moving into a house and someone walked by and said they were working with a group to save this old military ship from a scrapyard and thought I’d be a good person to work on it,” he said. “And my reaction at the time was, ‘Sorry, I’m moving into a house. I don’t have the time.’ But he kept insisting and finally I relented.”

Stuebner is a former TV news videographer who now works for the state division that includes archives. He and Smith traveled to the National Archives and elsewhere in the Lower 48 to find records, videos and photographs, and to conduct interviews. The result is a 1 hour and 40 minute documentary. It traces Storis’ journey, from its work in World War II, to its long history in Alaska dating to 1948 when it came to Juneau. Stuebner said the story of the ship tells Alaska’s story.

“Storis was there for the Exxon Valdez oil spill. It was there for the trans-Alaska pipeline construction. It was there for the 1964 Earthquake … It was the very first ship to have law enforcement seizures in the Bering Sea.”

Storis was the first, the last or the oldest in a lot of categories. It was the first American ship, for instance, to travel the Northwest Passage, from the Bering Sea through the Arctic to the Eastern Seaboard.

It’s a gripping part of the movie, as Storis and its two companion ships battled thickening ice. Mariners describe being stuck and lifted by the ice, relentless elements, and extreme listing.

As Stuebner’s film tells it, the Storis wasn’t so much stuck in ice as getting pushed out of it, as the sea froze under the hull. The film includes footage of crewmembers walking on the jumbled ice, trying everything — even dynamite — to release the cutters.

Perhaps most suspenseful is the story of Storis’ attempt to rescue the fishermen of the Alaskan Monarch in the Bering Sea in 1990. It’s a saga told with interviews and video from multiple cameras that were on scene.

“They had to use the basket as kind of a dredge to get the basket down into the ice and get those people out of the ice and up into the helicopter.”

In 1991, Storis became the oldest Coast Guard ship, the so-called queen of the fleet. She held the crown for 16 years. The documentary shows her decommissioning and her exile, stripped of all ornament and instrument, anchored in purgatory in a California bay.

When Stuebner began his film, a group was working to save the Storis as a museum. Juneau attorney Joe Geldhof was part of the museum group.

“The Storis was a vessel worth preserving. It just didn’t happen,” Geldhof said.

In 2013, the U.S. government sold Storis for $70,000 and she was taken away for scrap. The Alaska congressional delegation tried to pass a bill to spare her for a museum. Geldhof said it’s not that anyone really opposed the idea. But, he said, Storis was lost in the congressional scuffle.

“Do I feel bad that we didn’t save the ship? Sure, but I’m really pleased to see we brought together a lot of people and we’re commemorating the people who sailed the ship,” he said.

The documentary, Geldhof said, now serves as the ship’s memorial. It’s called “STORIS: The Galloping Ghost of the Alaskan Coast.”

As for Stuebner, he’s already working on his next Coast Guard documentary.

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