Tenakee Springs, Alaska, population 60, is a remote village only accessible by boat or seaplane. It used to be that the people here made their living in a cannery. That closed, leaving only a few fishermen left to support the town. The residents all live on a single dirt road directly on the water, so they all have a panoramic view from their homes, which are an eclectic mix ranging from trailer park specials to very nice chalets. The latter, I’d imagine, belong to the part-time residents who only summer in Alaska before flying back to the lower 48. We intend to visit Tenakee Springs to experience an authentic Alaskan village and to enjoy a nature walk with our guide, Jason.
We arrived last night and moored just offshore from the town so we’re ready to head in right after breakfast. The crew advises us to eat light because the town’s only cafe’ has great cinnamon rolls, and buying one is the price you must pay for Internet service. which I haven’t had since we left Juneau.
We take the pontoon boat into town and the first impression is that it’s uninhabited.
The only activity is a single fishing boat leaving the pier when we arrive. But The Shamrock Bakery, a cute little building only a few houses down the only street, is open, and the owner’s mother, a Floridian from Sarasota, greets us with a smile while her son is baking in the kitchen. Soon every table in the place is full of the ship’s crew and passengers busily trying to get a connection. I order up a cinnamon roll and some coffee and get to work myself.
Later, I walk down the street just to get the lay of the land. There’s a lot of character(s) packed into a small space. I meet Bearunoff, a Great Pyrenees the size of a pony, whose main task is to chase away any unwanted critters from town (thus his name is a clever pun derived from the great Russian explorer Baranoff). I see the single-bay fire department, the walk-in clinic (opened one day a week for two hours), the town library, which is the size and condition of a garden shed, and get a chuckle out of some of the signs: “Beware of….just beware”-“(picture of a snail) Xing”…”Hunters, fishermen, and liars welcome”…”PETA_People Eating Tasty Animals”, and so on, but my favorite is on this picture:
I stop by the Post office and meet the only employee, who also works for ATT and is the baker at the cafe’ I just left as well. He and his wife and children live here year round. I jokingly ask if he’s also on the fire department, and he says quite seriously that if there’s a fire everyone shows up to help.
We take a short nature hike later with our naturalist and he stops to show us various flora in the rain forest along the way. The path is lined with giant spruce and hemlocks, and there’s a thick carpet of moss along our muddy trail, which eventually takes us to a marshy flat with a panoramic view of the ocean and cloud-capped mountains beyond. We continue on, and I’m very surprised to see a cable suspension bridge across a salmon-filled creek, before we double back, meeting a lone woman walking her dog. She’s armed with a rifle, a reminder that he bear tracks we saw in the mud earlier are quite real.
I love places like this because they remind me of the pioneering spirit that built our country. These people living out here on the edge of the wilderness are a hearty sort. The city draws its power from a water turbine, so they’re on a tiny electric grid, but all of the homes also have some combination of solar, diesel, or wood fuel as a supplement. There are no cars, the kids are home-schooled, and the mail is delivered twice a week by seaplane. They are used to doing for themselves and know they need a sense of humor as much as anything to survive the cruel winters and get along with the other characters in the village.
Later I’m told that the town is dying. I hope it isn’t true. It’s small towns like this all over the country that built the America we used to know. When they die, a little piece of the land I love goes with them.
We head back to the ship for a long rough passage south down the west side of huge Admiralty Island. We intend to moor tonight in a small cove. The evening’s movie, voted on by the passengers, is John Wayne in North To Alaska. I’ve never seen it, but to see the Duke conquering the Great White North seems like a perfect counterpoint to the demise of Tenakee Springs. I hope he kicks ass.
Postscript- I later learn that on the same day we took our nature hike, two of the crew leaders from another cruise ship were mauled by a brown bear only 15 miles from Tenakee Springs, and at about the same time of day. I had considered taking that ship as an alternative to the Island Spirit. I’m lucky I didn’t. And oh, BTW-John Wayne did kick ass.