July 22, 2012
Nine days and about half the distance into our circumnavigation of Baranof Island, and having seen spectacular scenery and wildlife at every anchorage, it was difficult to imagine that this good fortune could be sustained all the way back to Sitka. So on an overcast day, as I watched a large brown bear patrolling the low-tide shoreline, we left Red Bluff Bay resigned to spending a few nights staying in places that would by comparison seem rather dull and anti-climactic. How wrong we could be.
Our passage south in Chatham Strait was entirely uneventful and with almost 40 nm to cover we did not even slow down for any mooching. As the Strait widens and the mountains diminish on Kuiu Island to the east and southern Baranof Island to the west, the scenery became less snow-clad and dramatic. The Baranof Island shoreline is punctuated by very long, thin bays but with narrow mouths they are not particularly impressive in passing. Only as we neared our destination, in sight of Cape Ommaney at the southern tip of the Island, did we see a few distant humpback whales.
Our target for the night was the small community of Port Alexander but we were not particularly convinced that this was a must-see harbor and that we would not be better just anchoring in one of the sheltered, uninhabited bays. Our cruising guides either said nothing in particular about the community or, as in the Elsie Hulsizer book, seemed a bit ambivalent about the place. Hulsizer’s description was mostly a personal account of she and her husband meeting a woman in Sitka who was about to fly south but who suggested that they call on her husband, Steve, when they were in Port Alexander. Elsie’s physical description and photos of the community were accurate but her experience with the few people she met, although hospitable seemed rather mundane. Mundane was certainly not what we experienced.
Our subsequent discussion of Hulsizer’s account with the inhabitants of PA (the local name for Port Alexander), suggested that Elsie had simply not met enough of the residents during her overnight visit. It was evident, however, that everyone we met knew exactly who “Steve-the-husband” was. Not so very different from Hulsizer’s, our rationale for visiting PA was largely based on Geoff’s recommendation to look-up his long-time friend, Kevin, who runs a small lodge there along with seaplane-fishing and flightseeing tours. Geoff and Debbie often use Kevin’s seaplane services for their charter-boat clients.
As we rounded the rocks and kelp beds to make our approach to the narrow entrance to Port Alexander from the south, a humpback whale crossed our path causing us to have to wait until it had passed. We finally arrived in the small outer harbor to find a choice of spaces on the floating dock among the mostly local fishing and charter boats. Rather than being at the foot of the busy entry ramp, we selected the space at the far end of the dock, next to the seaplane ramp. As we pulled-up, a young woman, Dena, got off her commercial fishing boat and helped tie-up our dock-lines. After thanks and quick introductions, she invited me to join her later in the evening on a walk with a group of her friends. Feeling much in need of exercise and curious as to where they would go, I accepted and was assured that Dena would find me when they were ready to set-off.
Being late in the afternoon and suspecting that we might only stay one night, Randall and I decided to get out and explore PA as quickly as possible. From the dock, well-spaced houses are visible on both sides of the narrow bay, most of them with a small skiff (motorboat) on the shore or on a mooring nearby. A few families (50-80 people) live in the community year-round but the population is boosted to a couple of hundred by summer residents from elsewhere in Alaska (e.g., Juneau or Anchorage) or from the Lower 48.
On walking ashore from the dock, we passed the cheerful “Kids don’t float” lifejacket-loaner-station, the tiny “Problem Corner Café” (offering coffee, burgers, pizza, etc.) and then found the small public telephone box that houses not a typical pay-phone but a princess-type household telephone). This communication hub was on the corner between the walkway to the dock and “Main Street” which in PA is a sturdy (but surprisingly handrail-free) boardwalk. Instead of building roads in small, isolated Alaskan communities, State funds pay for boardwalks that may be allowed to support golf-carts but nothing else motorized. Based on boating taxes, the State also pays for new floating docks (as we saw in the PA inner harbor) but to qualify for such construction, the community must to show that they can afford to maintain the docks once built.
The State has also provided PA (at least the east side) with a water supply system with collection tanks and pipes leading down from a nearby hill but the water is not treated. There is no communal electricity generation, gas, or garbage pick-up, so homeowners use solar panels, their own gasoline generators (usually in separate sheds), propane tanks, and recycle, burn, or ship-out their garbage. We did not ask about sewage but know that appropriate waste-disposal is an important issue for many small, isolated rural communities.
Walking along the “Main Street” boardwalk we passed houses on both sides and saw the significant communal buildings of PA. A tiny Post Office with its flag-pole was nestled by the shoreline in the trees. A modest building on the inland side of the boardwalk housed the community center, the unlocked library (with internet access), and City Hall (open on Mondays). Next door was the small school which accommodates all grades (often together) of the few children who are resident year-round.
Arriving in PA late on a Saturday, neither of the tiny stores was open but we gathered that one sold clothing and gifts (open 1 – 3 pm on weekdays) and the other had a modest supply of food items, of which sodas and snacks were most popular with the crews of the fishing boats.
Residents order their groceries (usually online) from the supermarkets in Sitka and they are delivered on Sundays and Wednesdays by the mail-boat, Eyak. The boat charges a fee per pound of goods delivered so nothing gets to PA cheaply. There is no ferry service to PA so unless carried on a chartered or private boat, people cannot get there cheaply either. There is a scheduled seaplane service twice a week to Sitka which is subsidized by the US Dept. of Transportation as part of the Essential Air Service Program. Even so, we were told that a one-way ticket was $135 so that a trip to Sitka (which cannot be reached overland) is not undertaken on whimsy, especially as there are only 3 seats available per flight.
At the end of the main boardwalk was the brand-new inner harbor dock. Although there were some good-sized boats on this dock, the narrow entrance to the un-dredged inner harbor is shallow and rock-strewn so entering this area is not recommended without local knowledge. Walking down the dock we noticed a sports-fishing boat that was unloading an impressive catch of fish. Curious to see the 200 lb (90 kg) halibut that the six fishers were talking about so excitedly, we were invited aboard to take photos. We then saw that they had had an extremely productive day having snagged 41 sockeye (red) salmon, caught 6 large yellow-eye rockfish, and landed at least 8 halibut; no wonder they were excited.
We assumed it was a charter-fishing boat and at first could not quite work out who ran the charter, although we met soon Eric who introduced himself as the crew. In fact, it was a private boat owned by Walt, an oilman from Texas, who had taken his partner and two other couples out for a day of sport-fishing. Walt is having a large compound of buildings constructed along the shoreline near the dock and although we had initially assumed that this was a new fishing lodge, it is intended only for when his family and friends visit.
We subsequently gathered from the comments of other residents that Walt’s ambitious project was regarded with some mixed feelings in the community (for example, several people currently had to walk through his muddy construction-site to get to their houses). However, to complete strangers who just happened to be walking past his boat, Walt was incredibly hospitable and generous. As soon as he saw how impressed we were with their catch, he asked us if we would like wait around to receive some fileted fish. Of course, we said yes and we soon found ourselves chatting merrily to one of Walt’s friends who was visiting from Maui.
We also asked if Walt or Eric knew of Geoff’s friend, Kevin. Walt not only pointed across the bay to the lodge but told us that we should go over and visit him this evening because Kevin was flying to Wrangell the next day. In fact, there was Kevin working on the shore-side building and why didn’t we borrow Walt’s skiff “Tubby” to motor over and introduce ourselves? So after taking a few moments to work out how to fire-up the electric-start, four-stroke outboard, we puttered over to the far shore where we beached Tubby and wandered up to a curious Kevin. As soon as we had introduced ourselves as members of Geoff’s extended-family, Kevin was happy to chat with us and explained that, indeed, he was going to Wrangell the next day so he was glad we had come over. We are not sure quite now but subsequently it turned out that everyone we spoke to in PA knew about Kevin’s flight-plan…it is that kind of place.
Concerned not to distract Kevin from the work that his wife, Karen, was continuing and worried that Tubby might be stranded by the ebbing tide, we did not stay to look around their lodge. However, we caught-up with Kevin and Karen later when we joined them for dinner at the Problem Corner Café. Then we learned how Kevin and some of his siblings had moved to Port Alexander in his late-teens in the early 1970s, when the area was homesteaded. This meant that if you claimed a plot of land and lived on it for three of the subsequent five years it was yours to keep for free. Those first winters must have been pretty harsh with only the other homesteaders around and no infrastructure at all but on that property Kevin and Karen have developed their lodge and seaplane charter-business.
After returning Tubby and watching Eric and Walt deftly slice up their rockfish and some of the halibut, Walt gave us very generous portions of these two fish. We then left their team, which now included some college-age off-spring, efficiently vacuum-packing the huge amount of fish that they were going to freeze and take home with them to Anchorage, Texas, and Hawai‘i. I would have baked some brownies for Walt and his guests but without a functioning oven this was not a practical option.
In addition to Kevin’s place, there are at least two other lodges in PA and dinners can be arranged at one of them, the “Laughing Raven Lodge”. But given the late hour, our disheveled state, and my disinterest in immediately cooking some of our wonderful fresh fish, we opted for the casual, outside ambiance of the Problem Corner Café. Particularly popular with the younger residents, this boardwalk café has been run for the last couple of years by Amber who is also in charge of “City Hall”, taking several college courses, and looks after a teenage boy who visits for the summer.
From the café we could see the tiny PA Museum but nobody could tell us when it might be open although they all knew who was supposed to be running it. While we ate and chatted with the grizzled local “character”, George, a few small flying insects were irritating Karen but on the whole Randall and I continued to be amazed by the absence of biting pests. We were amazed because so many guidebooks have warned us about the mosquito and midge problems in Alaska in the summer. Conversely, given the cold, wet summer so far, perhaps the suppressed insect populations should not be too surprising.
Once Amber had finished serving all her customers, Dena appeared with her dog, Rory, and started gathering the young women who were going to join us for our walk. We found Lori and her son setting up a Frisbee-golf course in the small woods just south of the boardwalk where they were hanging floats from the trees as “holes”. Gathering a total of seven of us, we strode at a strenuous pace through the woods, along “Main Street” and the full length of the inner harbor dock. Despite the animated conversations, this was no casual evening stroll but a serious exercise effort and after two laps (almost 1 mile each) I left the others to make one more round. It was already 10 pm and I was finding myself slightly overdressed for the warm evening. Most of these women had been raised in PA and they either lived here year-round like their parents or visited for the summer. Despite the fact that everyone seemed to know what everyone else was doing (e.g., Kevin’s flight to Wrangell) these friends still seemed to have plenty to talk about as they stayed in shape. Impressive!
During the evening, Karen and some others had mentioned that the next day there was to be an organized hike to Scott’s Ridge. When I expressed interest, they all suggested that I go along even though none of them were actually planning to participate. Randall was still coughing a little so he decided to enjoy a peaceful day alone on Tregoning while I met with the hikers at the head of the inner harbor dock at 11 am.
I first met summer-resident Jane and her visitor, Sandra, and although they were not in charge, they felt sure that I could join-in. We then walked to the “Laughing Raven Lodge” where we collected Jane’s husband, Mike, and one of the lodge owners, Susan. Finally, we returned to the dock to meet Anita, the 75-year-old lady who was leading the hike. She very kindly allowed me to join the group and we set off across the exposed beach towards the northeast.
Anita explained that there was no formal trail where we going but she would be showing us the best route that she had discovered over a life-time of exploring in the area. This particular hike had become an annual event, organized by Anita’s granddaughter, Trista, and I was incredibly lucky to have shown-up in PA on the right day. We were also miraculously fortunate that it was one of the most gloriously sunny days of the year. Randall reported that it was the first day of our Alaskan visit that was above 70°F and in which the cabin warmed to 76°F…without any heater (21 and 24°C respectively).
Despite the absence of mapped paths, we would not simply be bush-wacking but would be following deer and bear trails. Although this made the walking easier it also illustrated the realities of hiking in brown bear country. In past years, Trista told me, they had made this hike without seeing any bears and only taking the precaution of carrying bear-bells to avoid surprise encounters. This year, however, more bears had been seen around PA than usual, including one that had been poking around Anita’s house for a few days. Consequently, in addition to Trista’s bells we had five dogs with us, and Jack with a shotgun. Dogs are sometimes considered dubious companions in bear country as they may be chased by an aggravated bear right back to their owners but our pack was so energetic and noisy that there were probably no bears hanging around in a wide circumference around us. During our five-hour sortie, we saw a couple of deer and plenty of bear scat but thankfully no bears.
The route was fairly wet and steep at the beginning but this hardly slowed Anita down at all. She was a robust, life-long hiker and being led by her and her adventurous 11 year-old great-granddaughter, Jillian (Trista’s oldest child), the rest of us had no excuses for not keeping up. The path became much easier once we had climbed up to the plateau and the views were absolutely amazing. From open woodland, we gradually rose to an area of scrub with many small tannin-stained ponds. The flora was typical of acidic uplands with various mosses, club-mosses, and carnivorous plants such as sundews and butterworts.
Conversation soon revealed that our party was dominated by teachers. Trista currently teaches first and second grades in Juneau. Jillian had been in Trista’s class and her younger brother, Duncan, was about to enter it. Sandra, Jane, and Mike were all retired teachers; Sandra teaching kindergarten and first grade in California and Jane and Mike had taught mostly in Alaska. In fact, they had a summer home in PA because they had been school teachers there in the past. It was fascinating to hear about teaching multiple grades together and how teachers are assigned to small, remote schools in Alaska.
Once we had all reached the summit (a green knoll with a commanding view over Chatham Strait), we walked to a point further west that allowed us to look over Port Alexander. While we ate our lunch, we watched Kevin and Karen take-off in their seaplane. Predictably, everyone in this group seemed to know that they were flying to Wrangell.
From our vantage point, relatively few of the houses around PA were visible (Walt’s compound being the notable exception) and it was difficult to believe that starting in 1913, Port Alexander had been a major fishing port. In the 1920s it was the “salmon fishing capital of the world” and by the time the town was incorporated in 1938 it had a population of 2,500 people. Anita’s father was a fisherman and her parents moved to PA from Norway in the 1930s. Anita was born there and remembers that it was a colorful town in the 1940s even though the local fishing industry and population started to decline during WW II. She remembered when houses and trails crowded both sides of the bay spreading inland far beyond the current properties on the inner harbor. It was truly a privilege to have been allowed to join this fabulous hike and with such a charming and knowledgeable leader.
By the time we had retraced our steps, the tide had come in so there was no beach to stride across and we had to find the old, wet trail around the head of the inner harbor. After profusely thanking Anita and Trista for their hospitality in letting me tag along, Jane and Mike kindly gave me a ride back to Tregoning in their skiff. They went to get a drink at the Problem Corner Café which seemed to be particularly busy. One of the people there was chap from Michigan who was visiting his daughter who was the cook on the Eyak, the mail-boat which had arrived that afternoon. In addition to delivering the mail, groceries, and other things that the residents had ordered from Sitka, the Eyak receives fish from fishing boats. The fish are taken to the processors in Sitka and this saves the fishing boats from having to go back and forth to Sitka with their fresh fish. Thus, the mail-boat is a critical part of the local economy and is an important life-line for these isolated communities in all but the worse winter storms.
After their lemonades, Jane, Mike, and Sandra joined us on Tregoning for a brief chat and look around before they returned home to their hot-tub. After the hike this sounded like a good idea but given the warm weather, this was one of the few evenings when a hot-tub did not seem quite as appealing. Just after they left, Walt’s sport-fishing boat returned to the bay and briefly stopped at the seaplane dock. While Eric went to see if there was anything for them from the Eyak, Walt stopped by Tregoning and generously gave us a whole, cleaned sockeye salmon. Again, I regretted not having any baked-goods to give him but he did not seem to be concerned.
As it was, cooking all the fish meals with only a single burner presented a bit of a culinary challenge but we managed to enjoy it all, especially the marinaded salmon, panko-breaded halibut, and blackened rockfish. While this let Randall off-the-hook, so to speak, for catching anything for several days, having seen what Walt’s group caught and having had extensive discussions about it with Eric, Randall was still anxious to catch his own salmon and/or small halibut (we could never get a 200 lb fish aboard Tregoning).
During my excursions on the boardwalk, I had heard and then seen a large red squirrel (our first sighting in Alaska) and saw a massive, 4 inch-long slug (10 cm). We had also noticed some foxgloves with odd, huge apical flowers. We assumed that this was an unusual genetic variant of this non-native species (since there were no other symptoms suggesting the effects of a non-lethal-herbicide or plant-growth-regulator). Somehow, these larger-than-usual examples of nature seemed to fit into our slightly larger-than-life image of Port Alexander. Everyone had been so extraordinarily friendly and generous during our brief visit that by the time we left on Monday morning (July 23rd) we felt exceptionally honored and fond of the community. This experience of Alaskan hospitality could not have been any warmer.