Editor’s note: This is the third in a three-part series about the ongoing and future challenges facing Tenakee Springs and similar tiny remote communities in Southeast Alaska. Read Part 1 here and part 2 here
TENAKEE SPRINGS — Nicole Pegues didn’t get the election materials that were sent to her two weeks earlier until the first day of early voting because the post office was closed nearly the entire time because all three employees were absent. She short-circuited what should have been days of preparation and somehow was ready to accept ballots 30 minutes after the scheduled 10 a.m. starting time Monday, only to have nobody show up that day.
In fact, only two of the perhaps 100 voting-age residents of Tenakee Springs showed up during the first week of early voting, which ended at 1 p.m. Wednesday since City Hall is only open from 10 a.m.-1 p.m. three days a week. The short hours are largely due to Pegues being the only full-time municipal government employee, meaning she has a multitude of jobs beyond her official title of city clerk, which keeps her busy enough one of the two arriving early voters took pity and departed.
“Somebody stopped by yesterday, but I was in the middle of a FEMA meeting so they just said they’d come back,” she said near closing time on Wednesday.
Pegues was acting in her role as Tenakee’s finance officer for the latest of innumerable meetings with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other disaster relief entities in the wake of massive flood damage from a storm a month after she started her job(s) in November of 2020.
She’s patient enough to understand rapid relief for everything isn’t happening given that the federal agency is still dealing with disasters from a decade ago such as Hurricane Sandy, but it still adds plenty of challenge to being the chief administrator in a town already experiencing a plethora of troubling issues.
“We just got one of our projects funded and that’s just to remove debris from the fish ladder,” she said, adding she expects approval of actual repairs to infrastructure to possibly take another couple of years.
The ongoing challenges of getting funds from FEMA, the state or somebody are evident from minutes of the May 26 meeting of the Tenakee City Council, where one of the agenda items was a “possible decision on compensating those who participated in debris removal for the December 2020 storm.”
“Pegues advises that we do have timesheets, and that individuals were not paid at the time due to being in the middle of a disaster,” the minutes note. Local officials were “initially assuming” the state rather than FEMA would cover costs regardless, but obviously that didn’t work out as hoped.
That was hardly the only hot issue discussed at the council meeting. Among the others was cleaning the bathhouse fed by the natural hot springs that is Tenakee’s namesake.
“In the past the Tenakee Springs Volunteer Fire Department and other volunteers used to pump out the pool and scrub it down, however that hasn’t happened for quite some time,” was the observation of Mayor Dan Kennedy, according to the minutes.
After further discussion by members, “Kennedy requests that Pegues put these items on the agenda for the next meeting – a Bathhouse Custodian job description and an evaluation of the Bathhouse finances.”
Also discussed was the ongoing issue of defining “resident” and “residency,” due to the steadily declining number of people living year-round in Tenakee. The most recent census states the population shrinking at a rate of 1.75% annually during the past decade or so, but Kennedy and other longtime locals say the shrinkage is more pronounced because many people — especially younger ones — are now seasonal residents who move away during the winter months.
Kennedy, in interviews during the past week, said one of his primary concerns is seasonal residents are able to seek or retain public office due to Tenakee’s easy residency requirements.
“I don’t have a problem with them voting in local elections, but I don’t think you should hold public office if you’re not living here full time,” he said.
The minutes of that May council meeting, along with other local government public records, generally aren’t available online because Tenakee doesn’t have an official city website due to lack of funds, Pegues said. And if such funds were offered, local officials would prefer spending them on higher priorities.
“If we had funding we’d be asking for a new fire station because it’s falling apart,” she said. “We’d probably be asking for a new heliport.”
Oddly, the council and other public meetings are available via Zoom since, like many municipalities, Tenakee started streaming them live online during the COVID-19 pandemic when the public was not allowed to attend in person.
“We used to record the meetings literally on cassette tapes” instead of digitally, Pegues said. But the online streaming of meetings is now continuing even after allowing the public to attend in person again.
“People really like that, and it’s convenient for city council members when they leave,” she said.
Kennedy, who admits he may become one of the seasonal snowbirds as early as this year after living in Tenakee for more than three decades, is in the meantime still heavily involved in the literally down-and-dirty duties his multitude of skills permit. He helped collect parts of a footbridge that washed away during the flood and rebuild it, cuts trees posing threats to structures and dives to free boats entangled in nets and other debris.
A day after participating with Pegues in the phone meeting with FEMA he drove his ATV out to a shelter built nearly a century ago near the bridge, which he helped restore with logs he cut from nearby trees, to see what condition it was in after recent visits by camping and cookout visitors.
“I wanted to come out here and see if there’s pile of trash,” he said. “Somebody left a can and an old frying pan, which isn’t bad.”
Kennedy picked up the can, but left the pan thinking others might find it handy when using the fire pit at the shelter.
It was also a chance to see if there were salmon in the creek flowing beneath the restored bridge (there were none) and thus possibly bears, one of which went on a troubling tussle through some homes a couple of weeks ago before local officials were forced to kill the animal.
“This is the last place I’d want to camp,” he observed, although some of the relatively rare number of visitors to the Southeast Alaska community have been inclined to do so.
Kennedy also is among the emergency response officials in town, a more pressing problem these days because the fire chief recently resigned — although he still lives in the community and was among those who quickly responded during a rescue situation that arose a couple of weeks ago.
In addition to the bureaucratic struggle of finding applicants for a new chief – and other vacant city positions that aren’t necessarily permanent or full-time – there’s also years-old worries such as getting a new heliport since the existing one has been unusable the past few years, Kennedy said. Getting more frequent ferry service than every other week is also a priority, both to obtain supplies and make the community more enticing for visitors.
But locals in Tenakee are also making deliberate choices not to pursue all options to improve their transportation and economic prospects. A proposed road linking the community to Hoonah, for instance, has been overwhelmingly rejected by Tenakee residents despite state transporation officials suggesting it would provide benefits such as more frequent ferry access.
“They like being isolated and the sort of the quality of life that comes with that,” said Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins, who represents 22 rural Southeast Alaska communities including Tenakee. Cars and trucks are banned in Tenakee, so “if you build a road you change that character.”
Hoonah also is among the small Southeast Alaska communities with a large Alaska Native presence who have significantly boosted their tourism industry, Kreiss-Tomkins said. Several Tenakee residents interviewed said an infusion of tourists from the neighboring village is among their primary reasons for rejecting a road, despite what income might be generated.
Kreiss-Tomkins said the fundamental struggles Tenakee is experiencing in terms of a struggling economy and shortage of services and infrastructure are “not atypical” of other small isolated communities in the region.
“Basic services are sort of touch and go,” he said.
Where Tenakee is unique, Kreiss-Tomkins said, is the community “doesn’t have much of a primary industry or economy to speak of.”
“In Tenakee it seems very much like there’s lot of retirees from Juneau and there’s nothing wrong with that,” he said. “It’s just what Tenakee wants for itself.”
Kennedy agrees with the assessment of Tenakee’s unique economic/industrial situation noting, for instance, the similarly small and isolated community of Pelican has commercial fishing and cold storage operations to keep it viable. While logging and fishing still exist in Tenakee, they’re far from what they were in their heyday.
And while Tenakee has long attracted retirees, the demographic has changed from the longtime fishers and miners who used to settle there, the Kennedy said.
“Now they’re bureaucrats and lawyers, so it’s a whole new demographic,” he said.
Juneau Empire reporter Mark Sabbatini can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org