The serenity of the soft blue light and bubbling filters was punctured by the shrill ringing of a metal pipe.
The clangs let the roughly 70 inhabitants of the large aquarium in Douglas Island Pink and Chum’s Ladd Macaulay Visitor Center know Rich Mattson was going to make it rain assorted sea critter viscera into the cylindrical tank.
“I call it ringing the dinner bell,” Mattson said on Christmas Eve near the end of the unofficial last day of his DIPAC career. “That lets the fish know I’m not just here to clean.”
Officially, Christmas Day’s paid holiday put the cap on Mattson’s nearly 31-year run with the Juneau salmon hatchery. For the last 25 years of that stretch, Mattson served as aquarium manager and education coordinator.
“It’s been a really good job,” Mattson said.
He said he’s seen at least two generations of students discover an interest in marine biology through the visitor center and outreach efforts, and he’s always enjoyed collecting specimens for the aquarium.
Diane Antaya, second-grade teacher for Harborview Elementary, said that enjoyment has been infectious for her students. Antaya also knows Mattson as a teacher, but also as a volunteer. About 10 years ago, Antaya volunteered to help Mattson out with a salmon lifecycle puppet show.
“Our DIPAC field trips were the best and most looked forward to,” Antaya said. “Rich was so good at what he does. It’s definitely sad to see him go. He’s the face of DIPAC for so many school children.”
Writing thank-you letters to Mattson after a field trip has been a staple of the second-grade curriculum to teach students about writing letters.
“Many kids wrote on there, ‘Someday, I’d like to work at DIPAC like you,” Antaya said. “A lot of that comes from Rich.”
Still loving it
Mattson isn’t leaving his post beat down and weary —he obviously still loves it.
Monday afternoon, he took observable delight in feeding herring, salmon eggs, squid and more to the denizens of the large, central aquarium and smaller surrounding tanks. He especially enjoyed an encounter with a large pacific octopus.
The octopus took a chunk of food right out of Mattson’s gloved fingers. Then, it reached up and grabbed onto his glove.
“That’s the first time that’s happened,” Mattson said.
Mattson said he’s always been partial to octopus, which alongside wolf eels are among the more charismatic aquarium creatures.
There’s a possibility it won’t be the last encounter Mattson has with that red-colored octopus.
While the 70-year-old Mattson is retiring, he plans to continue to be a presence at DIPAC.
“I’ve told the company I’d love to turn around and volunteer for them,” Mattson said. “I really depended on volunteer help for both aspects of maintaining and collecting specimens for the aquarium and education outreach. I’ve had some great volunteer role models to look at.”
Brock Meredith, operations manager for DIPAC, has worked with Mattson for the past 14 years, and said his longtime colleague will be missed.
“I hate walking by his office right now,” Meredith said. “It’s empty. It’s small but there’s an echo.”
Meredith said he has fond memories helping Mattson mentor high school students for an annual science fair and appreciates his expertise with the aquarium.
Once, when Mattson was away, Meredith needed to dispose of research fry that couldn’t be released. He decided to put the fish in the large aquarium in the visitor center, which prompted a feeding frenzy.
The frenzy led to hot light bulbs getting splashed by water and subsequently breaking. Cleaning up was not a short process, Meredith said.
“I’m not sure it was worth it,” Meredith said. “When he’s not here, it seems like something always goes wrong. He’s going to be sorely missed.”
Mattson, who was born in Oregon and grew up in Douglas, was a natural fit for his career.
“I’ve always had a lifelong interest in salmon,” Mattson said. “I always wanted to do something like this with salmon.”
His dad, Chet, was a federal fisheries salmon biologist, and that allowed Mattson to see exactly what that sort of career could be.
After studying at Humboldt State University and Washington University, Mattson worked for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and later for a private, nonprofit in the Prince William Sound in southern Alaska.
Mattson had previously been recruited by DIPAC, but at the time, Mattson wasn’t sure that DIPAC had much of a future. He said seeing DIPAC’s success and growth as evidenced by the hatchery paying off roughly $42.5 million in state debt has been impressive.
When his first wife, Ruth, passed away unexpectedly in the late ’80s, DIPAC founder Ladd Macaulay called to offer Mattson condolences.
Macaulay, who died in a car accident in 2000, also offered Mattson a job, and Mattson accepted the offer and moved with his three children to Juneau.
“At the time, I was in charge of raising the pink and chum salmon for operations,” Mattson said.
In ‘93 after a poor return of pink salmon, there were cutbacks in personnel at DIPAC, which is how Mattson came to be the keeper of the 5,000-gallon aquarium in the center of the much-visited hatchery.
Most of the aquarium’s inhabitants are trout or salmon, but it also includes sea stars, sea cucumbers and other, typically larger fish.
“You learn over time what goes together and what doesn’t,” Mattson said.
There are smaller tanks occupied by other aquatic life, including crabs, anemone and the octopus.
“To get going on it, I had to re-certify diving and with just a couple evenings of training from there previous aquarium operator, I was off on my own,” Mattson said. “I feel like I’ve been an apprentice, now perhaps journeyman, marine biology aquarist ever since.”
Despite his job, Mattson said he’s never kept a fish tank at home.
Crossing the Finnish line
Retirement will mean a lot of volunteerism for Mattson, and not just at DIPAC.
“I’ve probably got five different suggestions for volunteering from friends of mine,” Mattson said. “I’ve got a part-time offer to be a fish guide, so that’ll be fun to. A lot of my friends say they’re busier than ever, and I anticipate it being the same for me. I don’t anticipate it being a boring retirement.”
Mattson enjoys hunting and playing the harmonica for his church in his free time and has a slew of travel plans.
While he conducted his last on-the-clock feeding, Mattson surveyed the visitor center and noticed the large fake Christmas tree that nearly touches the room’s high ceiling.
Mattson said over the years, setting up the tree has been his responsibility, and it’s been the same tree every year since the 1990s.
“It seems like it looses a thousand needles every year, but then it still looks good,” Mattson said. I’ve had a lot of history with that tree. This is the last Rich Mattson Christmas tree.”
• Contact arts and culture reporter Ben Hohenstatt at (907)523-2243 or firstname.lastname@example.org.