Editor’s note: This is the second 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 3 here.
The New Moon Cafe is open 24 hours every day and a tourist glancing at a brochure in a rental cabin next door might be led to believe the cafe serves “delicious burgers and fries, fried chicken or chow mien[sic].” Upon arrival the tourist learns 1) it’s now a “self-service” eatery and 2) while none of the chow in the brochure is on the menu, what food is in the pantry is free.
Such are the blessings and curses in a community where the mayor has seen the number of schoolchildren shrink from 30 to nearly none during his more than 30 years here. Most of the rest of other businesses in the brochure would need to be modified or removed, including the bakery that’s been shut for a few years and thus left Tenakee Springs with no restaurants.
Known as Rosie’s Blue Moon Cafe in its heyday, the New Moon Cafe is a ghost town’s version of a diner with snack-size bags of chips and cookies, candy pieces and self-COVID-19 kits next to a well-fed donation jar in the window. At the counter offering stool seating is a coffee maker, microwave and variety of tea bags and drink mixes.
The commercial-grade kitchen behind the counter still has food stocked in the twin refrigerators, but that may be short-lived since the few volunteers who “manage” the cafe decided this week to disallow “customers” to cook food because there’s also dirty dishes in the three sinks.
Among the few people stopping by early during the week was Kevin Allred, 68, a resident for the past 14 years who reheated a cup of coffee in the microwave. He also helped a woman who came in seeking a local cookbook published many years ago, looking through display racks of publications and postcards that, like the food, is available at whatever price people are willing to donate.
Multitudes of multitasking residents
Allred, among the locals whose occupation is “odd jobs” (“a year ago I was juggling 16”), said he tries to think about the positive aspects of Tenakee’s shrinking population and increasing isolation.
“If you don’t have mail, and you don’t have ferry service how does it affect your community in a good way?” he said. “A good way is perhaps it keeps the community small.”
These days Allred’s odd jobs include repairing the Toyo heating systems commonly used by residents, digging ditches and on this day wearing long rubber boots after just returning from putting out a halibut line. The multitude of professions also proves handy in the nonworking aspects of life, such as when he crafted a mechanical hand from spare parts for his son, Flint, when he broke his hand last year.
“It was just a claw — an alligator claw,” said the son, who like his dad works several jobs including a relatively stable part-time gig at the post office.
The tendency to use and reuse virtually everything in Tenakee is a common trait for residents, since besides the lack of stores and struggles to get outside supplies there’s no waste facility for trash.
”If there’s an 8-track player that’s being thrown away I’ll take it apart and pull the rails out of it,” the elder Allred said.
Redrawing the map
The errant brochures were written a decade ago by Terry Kennedy, who with her husband Dan, who’s the mayor, owns the guest cabin next to the cafe. She said there hasn’t been any comments from surprised guests, even though at this point updating the brochures will be an extensive process.
“You’d have to redo the map with all the places…a bunch of the businesses need to be changed,” she said.
The guest cabin is in some ways remarkably lavish for $85 a night during the peak of tourism season (and the rest of the year), including a full kitchen stocked with food. But there’s no phone, TV or internet. The brownish tap water is from the creek, so several gallons of well water for drinking are under the sink, and there’s no hot water or shower since the communal bath fed by the local hot springs is two doors away.
But one of the reasons the cabin is cheap compared to lots of lodging in Southeast Alaska is even during peak season there’s plenty of days when the cabin is vacant. Kennedy said that beyond the pandemic of the past couple of years that decimated tourism everywhere, visitors staying for a few nights are increasingly rare because the ferry now comes only every other week instead of weekly.
“It was never that easy before, but it was doable,” she said.
So she’s finding other ways to get by and trying to help her fellow residents in the process. She applied for a $5,000 federal food insecurity payment, for instance, then spent it on a variety of fruit trees and bushes, structure barriers and a vacuum packer.
“After the blueberry plants are established I want to get the kids involved,” she said, referring to what are currently seven students in Tenakee who will all be home-schooled this year since there are not enough to officially open the town’s school. She also hopes to share her plants with the large outdoor community garden at the edge of town and the greenhouse attached to the New Moon Cafe.
Seasonally sensible or selfish?
Tenakee’s problem with short-term visitors isn’t simply an absence of tourists — it’s also an abundance of seasonal residents who stay for a few days, weeks or months during the year and then leave their homes empty the rest of the time. That creates a paradox where people interested in moving to the community to take one or more of the many available jobs are unable to do so because they can’t find housing.
“There’s a lot from Juneau who aren’t willing to rent them out so 90% of the houses are empty during the winter,” said Linnea Lospenosochatel, a Tenakee resident for the past decade who works as the school secretary and for the regional seaplane company serving the community.
She was helping a couple of others make extensive repairs to a currently unoccupied home, but because a brown bear broke in through a rear window a couple of weeks ago and caused extensive damage while the occupant was away. The bear also caused lesser damage to a few other homes before locals were forced to kill the animal.
So as is often the case, the locals are chipping in on the repairs instead of relying on more conventional outside help.
“She’s elderly so we’re all helping her,” Lospenosochatel said.
Among the reasons for all the seldom occupied homes is there’s no local property tax, Kevin Allred said.
“When people die off there’s no incentive for their families to sell their home,” he said. “There’s quite a few wealthy people here who own second or third homes” and a willingness to rent them out means “there’s always the chance it gets trashed.”
As this summer nears its end even the few existing businesses are getting ready to scale back since roughly half of the 112 registered residents are likely to stay through the winter. The lone grocery/hardware/liquor store, for instance, will be open only two hours a day five times a week instead of every day for four hours starting next week.
But beyond finding optimism and opportunity in the town’s proverbial rightsizing, some locals are expressing hope the long-term decline will reverse itself in time.
“I think something’s going to break for this town,” Lospenosochatel said.
Mayor Dan Kennedy isn’t so sure. A self-described reluctant politician talking about a snowbird existence himself this winter as COVID-19 restrictions continue to ease, he said the considerable loss of younger residents and families during his time here may be for reasons that can’t be overcome.
“I can see this turning into a real seasonal town,” he said, “I think what a lot of seasonal residents don’t know is you need younger people to keep the infrastructure going.”
While Tenakee still has its famous hot springs, abundant fishing and scenery, and other elements that historically were lures for residents and visitors, that doesn’t guarantee the community will somehow overcome yet again and produce a happy ending, the mayor said.
“Towns do dry up and go away, and I think that’s a possibility,” he said.