A beloved Scottish outdoorsman with a uniquely Alaskan way of life died in his cabin near Juneau last week. Robert McLeod, 78, the lone full-time resident of St. James Bay, was found deceased of natural causes at the small settlement about 22 miles northwest of Juneau last Saturday, according to his family.
McLeod was known as the unofficial caretaker of the small St. James Bay community, a group of six cabins split up from what was once a 200-plus acre homestead. A champion boxer, military veteran, carpenter, gamekeeper, scholar of Scottish history and Alaska Pipeline worker — Robert lived a storied life, friends and family said.
It was a life shared mainly with nature, family and close friends. Since the early 1980s, McLeod lived alone and off-the-grid, coming to Juneau only when supplies ran low. He spent his time exploring nature, reading, hunting and standing watch over that handful of cabins.
“I used to call him the Lord of St. James Bay, the king, whatever you want to call it,” Kevin McLeod, 54, said. “He was the watchman out there, definitely.”
Son Sean McLeod, 52, said he “couldn’t believe” how his father was able to keep living remotely at 78-years-old. “He was a tough old guy … it was nothing to him.” Knowing his father was getting older, Sean said he tried to get his aging father to move back to Juneau. But Robert’s bond to the outdoors was unshakeable.
“He was definitely dreading the fact of moving back to town. I was trying to get him to move back to town for a few years and he wasn’t going to have it. He died where he wanted to die,” Sean said.
As the only full-time resident of St. James Bay, located on the western side of Lynn Canal, Robert was the de facto caretaker of the remote getaway. His neighbors, like high school teacher Gary Lehnhart, struck up friendships with the bagpipe playing outdoorsman. The community helped each other out, Lehnhart said.
“There aren’t very many people out there, so you come to rely on each other,” Lehnhart said. “He was someone we counted on and I think we were someone he counted on.”
A father of four, Lehnhart said Robert had become “part of the family, in a way” through years. Early on in their friendship, when the Lehnhart and his wife Nancy Lehnhart were building their cabin, they heard bagpipes through the trees. Gary said it’s him and Nancy’s “No. 1 Rob moment.”
“It was a beautiful, sunshiny day and we’re sitting there and started to hear bagpipes,” Gary said. “We kind of laid down on the roof and listened to him play his bagpipes come over the trees.”
St. James Bay cabin owner Scott Muir said Robert had also become part of his family. Muir’s father had died when he was young, and Robert was a bit of a father figure for him, and later, his kids.
“My kids would walk around in the woods with him and he’s pointing out stuff, looking at stuff, eating stuff,” Muir said. “Showing them bears, moose, river otters, the little kestrel hawks over there. My kids were just amazed. Every time he’d come to town, he’d bring a coconut cream pie and a little stuffed animal for my daughter. He was just an amazing man.”
Born in Dunblane, Scotland, in 1940, Robert was self-sufficient at an early age. The son of a lifelong member of the British Armed Forces, Robert joined the Queen Victoria School, a school for children of service members, at age 12, and worked as a gamekeeper in the Scottish highlands at age 14.
Kevin said his father was never happier than he was as a gamekeeper. He was always happiest in the outdoors.
“He just loved it. He had a group of dogs that was with him and they’d patrol the hills and look at the property,” Kevin said.
After leaving Queen Victoria School, Robert joined the Marines for two years and spent nine years in the Navy, where he earned accolades as a champion boxer, his sons say. He married Mary Holmes and had four boys, who were born in Scotland and raised primarily in California.
Robert and Mary Holmes divorced before Robert made his way to Alaska to work on the Alaska Pipeline. After working on the pipeline, he settled in Juneau in 1975 and worked as a carpenter before moving to St. James Bay in the early ’80s. His sons would visit for a few months every summer.
“I think he knew he wanted to be out there from that moment on,” Kevin said.
Kevin and Sean say their father enjoyed the solitude of remote living. Robert would read a lot, especially Scottish history, they say. Robert ventured outdoors constantly, Muir said, developing his own maps and tracking local wildlife.
Satellite phones don’t work well at St. James Bay and there’s no cellular service, so family and friends would only have contact when Robert would come to Juneau every few weeks or few months, depending on the weather.
“He had a very sound mind. He’s not the kind of guy to get cabin fever or anything like that. He’s always been a lone wolf, a lot of us are like that, too,” Kevin said.
A guest at a neighboring cabin found Robert deceased last Saturday during a visit. Cabin owner Scott Muir said he had given a friend permission to stay the night at his cabin during a bear hunt but had asked him to check in with Robert.
“Make sure you walk over and tell Rob that you’re there,” Muir said he told his guest. “And Saturday morning, he walked over to talk to Rob to let him know he was staying at my place, and that’s when he found Rob.”
As far as the McLeod sons knew, Robert was in good health, save for a detached retina in his eye that was giving him double vision. He died “just the way he would have wanted it,” according to his sons: at his cabin.
“He used to always say, ‘I was born 200 years too late.’ He would have loved to have been a pioneer with Lewis and Clark. … He liked things rugged,” Sean said.
• Contact reporter Kevin Gullufsen at 523-2228 and firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @KevinGullufsen.