Make a fist with your right hand. Point your index finger, bring the back of your hand to eye level and extend your thumb downwards. This is a makeshift map of Alaska. If you laid the actual Alaska upon the contiguous United States, the southeast (your thumb) would touch northeastern Florida, and the chain of the Aleutian Islands (represented by your index finger) would trickle all the way across New Mexico and Arizona to California, nearly touching the Pacific. Coast to coast. Now follow your inner thumb part way up to its juncture with the hand. Situated on your thumb are the veins of fjords, bays and inlets that sculpt the land in “Southeast,” as the locals call it. Somewhere in there is Gustavus; a town shielded from the outer world in every direction. To get to there, you must travel by boat or by plane—there are no roads that go there.
To the south of Gustavus lies Icy Strait, the northern terminus of the Inland Passage, a body of water that extends starts all the way down in Bellingham in Washington and extends the entirety of coastal British Colombia. To the east lies the great Chilkat Range, cutting Gustavus off from the “city” of Haines (population just over 2,000) like a great natural retention wall. To the north lie the Beartrack Mountains and a patch of wilderness extending for hundreds of miles. Finallay, to the west is the vast expanse of Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve in which are several massive peaks of the Fairweather Range, the highest coastal mountains in North America.
The highest, Mt. Fairweather (15,325 ft.), frames the summer sunsets in the northwest and defines a border with British Columbia. It is said to be one of the hardest major peaks to climb in Alaska due to the ironically not-so-fair-weather that frequents the higher reaches of the range. But on the rare clear day, it rewards the seldom mountaineer with a view of the three mile drop to the Pacific Ocean on its western flank. It lies about 70 miles west of Gustavus. All together the frigid reaches of Glacier Bay and the dense Tongass National Forest comprise the largest contiguous wilderness area left on the planet with the exception of Antarctica.
The seas here are as rugged as the mountains. At these northern latitudes, the incoming “flood” or “bore” are magnified tides, such that in peak times the swing between high and low tide can be as much as twenty-four feet. That’s twenty-four feet in the morning, out in the afternoon, returning in the evening and outwards again, racing thru narrow passages creating whirlpools and standing waves as great masses of water collide. Amidst this vast expanse of verticality and horizontality of mountain and fjord, is an anomaly: a triangular spit of flat land remains, the glacial signature from the mighty icefields that once filled Glacier Bay extending far down to the Icy Straits. It is on this patch of compressed earth (which is still springing back…literally rebounding vertically from thousands of years of pressure from the ice) that the extraordinary community of Gustavus has sprung.
Gustavus is a little city. Some park rangers say there are as many moose as people. The only intersection is Four Corners, the crossing of Main Street and Dock Road. Main Street goes to the Gustavus Airport (serviced by Alaska Airlines and various smaller airlines with Cesnas flown by bush pilots) and Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve. Dock Road goes south to the Gustavus dock and north until it turns dirt, overgrown, then nowhere.
Small houses dot meadows of purple-blue lupine and magenta fireweed. One such dwelling is a little A-frame cabin on Main Road that an old local fisherman named Cecil Funt built for his daughter in the ‘70s. To imagine this cabin take the letter A. That’s it’s shape. Its weathered wood has withstood coastal winters for longer than the Internet, longer than MTV. Put an outhouse in the backyard whose door opens to dense Sitka spruce forest, and that’s it. Home. The whole shebang. The only main stores are Toshco and Sunnyside for groceries, fishing supplies and hardware and a recently built liquor store for good times. The main places to stay are several small-scale bed and breakfasts, the Glacier Bay Lodge and most notably, the James Beard awarded Gustavus Inn.
In Gustavus and elsewhere in Alaska, when one thing vanishes, another thing appears. A rusted pickup truck abandoned on the side of the road will one day be a sanctuary for wildflowers and a draping blanket of moss will call it home. This place is a dynamic laboratory; humans and nature dance a dance, and often times it is difficult to say who is in the lead. It truly is a wild place. The bear remains, standing as a symbol of the mammal who would not be tamed by people. They lumber the land as scavengers and eat the abundant blueberries, strawberries and salmon berries (a sweet salmon colored raspberry looking berry), awaiting with great patience the high fat and protein offered by spawning salmon.
The bear is only one mammal of a plethora on land and sea which include moose, humpback whales wearing coats of barnacles and otters which can be spotted lounging on top of the water on their backs, cracking crabs with their favorite stone. Biodiversity is really made up of a diverse bird population comprised of a multitude of species including warblers, puffins and crowned by the bald eagle. As for fish, the bottom dwelling halibut—which can and often do exceed 200 pounds—and salmon are the staple of a critical fishery. Amidst the ocean and forest, humans are just one part of a great mural.
The first “Gustavan” or “Gustovite” you see will likely be wearing the uniform standard to much of Alaska: brown X-Tratuff knee high rubber boots. This is common dress for most people; a kind of perpetual readiness for whatever comes next expressed in utilitarian clothing. This is part of the privilege of living there. You have to be resourceful. Everyone waves to one another along the roads from car, bicycle or on foot. It is an eclectic mixture of fisherman, draft dodgers and hippies, outdoor enthusiasts, outdoor extremists, foodies, entrepreneurs, Mennonites, etc.
The Parkers and the Whites, two of the founding clans in Gustavus, each go back generations. Les Parker, the eldest of the Parkers, was born in Skagway and sang in the burlesque halls there as a kid in the years following the Gold Rush of 1898. His cabin was across Main Road from where Cecil Funt’s A-frame stands now. Before passing away, when we would arrive in town he would give us a courtesy half hour to get settled in, and then, as Gustavans do, amble by for a visit. Invariably he would greet us with an old Dance hall ditty, an Alaska original direct from the old mining saloons of Skagway, an authentic treat of living history. Les’s son Lee also summered in Gustavus. Resourceful like all locals, over a period of three years he built a home on the Salmon River. By hand, all by himself. He would also take us for rides in his airplane. His son Toshua—who now owns Toshco—looked after me as a kid, teaching me the good fishing holes, how to dirtbike on the mudflats and not get stuck. All of the skills a little boy needs in one of the most vast wildernesses on the planet.
On the Fourth of July, they read the Declaration of Independence aloud. On one occasion, during the administration of a particular son of a president president, Gustavans utilized the words of our forefathers in a griping yet patriotic expression of solidarity. “He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good,” a bearded fisherman would belt. Each individual would emphasize the “He” in each stanza, making it clear that this document applied not only to King George III of which the document was aimed at, but an American oligarch of late.
You may never visit Gustavus, but it exists in a very special way. It is a vibrant town, and it is part of America. Here in the contiguous U.S., bi-partisans will bicker, and the government might shut down, but life in Alaska will go on. The people are parcels of the land. It shows in smiles and big beards. They thrive off their wits and keep them abundant and accessible where as we contiguous Americans like to numb ours down with digital roughage.
The people of Gustavus work hard yet live simply and like to enjoy the fruits of their labor. Some of the best rhubarb pie and fresh halibut casserole with arugula and pansy salad is to be had in Gustavus. You can also catch bluegrass late into the night at the Clove Hitch Cafe. For those who don’t get cold too easily there is a swim from Gustavus to nearby Pleasant Island, a multi-mile white water plunge in the Icy Straits. On the Fourth of July, they have all of the classics that your great-grandparents probably competed in including three legged races, and dunking various members of the community by throwing baseballs. They also have the biggest bonfire around, built of entire Sitka spruce trees and plenty of beer from Juneau. But this is just the lighthearted side of things. For many, the real fun is had in exploring the immense and beautiful wilderness of which Gustavus is surrounded.
It’s getting hard to say how long such beautiful and quirky towns will exist as they do today. If you ever get the chance to go to Alaska and your travel agent tells you a cruise is your only way, it isn’t. Interact with people who call it their home and share and understand the land. Should you feel the itch for adventure leave the floating city behind you. A space will open up for a more habituated human. Stay in a bed and breakfast like the Blue Heron where organic home cooked breakfasts are part of your fee or go whale watching with a local guide. But be mindful. Tread lightly. We have a tendency to think in the immediate and not anticipate the impacts of our decisions.
Gustavus has also recently been attached to the Alaska State Marine Highway with a newly constructed dock, connecting it to the ferry running from the capitol in Juneau to the other Southeast cities of Haines, Skagway and Anchorage. It has also incorporated as a city to fend of the nearby neighbor of Hoonah, which tried to take it over, administratively. This is likely to change it very greatly. Many people will come, not all with reverence of the wild and respect for the locals at the top of their list, though some will have their priorities in order. The mentality of the lower 48 will likely take over at some point and a hotel will be constructed, and then another and another. They will likely replace the Inn and cozy B&B’s. Glacier Bay National Park is already teeming with cruise ships. Can more go there without disrupting the feeding patterns of whales and the nursing of newborn baby seals on icebergs? In order to preserve Gustavus and vast wildernesses like Glacier Bay, it will require significant effort and cooperation. Most of all acknowledgement of how special places like it really are.