Editor’s note: This is the first in a three-part series about the ongoing and future challenges facing Tenakee Springs and similar tiny remote communities in Southeast Alaska. Read Part 2 here and Part 3 here
TENAKEE SPRINGS — J.T. Collins was hailed with a “we’re not worthy” bow by a resident on the dock as he stepped off a seaplane Sunday night, having cut his month-long trip to the East Coast short by two weeks due to a trifecta of circumstances that left the local post office without any employees and thus closed for all but one day of the past week or so.
“I was worried about the calls,” he said, explaining his decision to return early from a family reunion to the town of 112 residents (according to the 2020 Census, which shows a long-term slow decline) where both real and communal family awaited.
Arriving was a stroke of luck in more ways than one, since the scheduled twice-weekly flights from Juneau to Tenakee Springs had been canceled for several days prior due to bad weather, adding to the isolation woes. Indeed, flights to the nearby towns of Gustavus and Angoon were canceled a couple of hours before the flight carrying Collins and a half-dozen other passengers took off.
Collins, who’s been the relief postmaster in Tenakee Springs for the past seven years, heard various forms of “we’re so glad you’re back” greetings as he walked to his house to drop his bags off. He then headed back to the post office near the dock to start dealing with the backlogged stacks of mail that piled up in his and the other two employees’ absence.
“It was just all thrown in in bags,” he said.
Stacks of mail and other troubles pile up
Among the items was a red tote bag labeled “RUSH — ELECTION MATERIAL,” sent nearly two weeks earlier so city officials (of which there is only one full-time) could prepare for early voting at 10 a.m. Monday. Others had labels from Walgreens and similar addresses suggesting essential purposes, but there appeared to be no rotting food or other obvious postal disasters.
Taking the mail out of the bags meant semi-stacking them using most of the floor space in the behind-the-counter area of the diminutive building, where they awaited Collins and relief-worker-in-training Flint Allred (who had just returned on the ferry from Juneau after his wife delivered a baby there) when they arrived shortly before the scheduled 8:30 a.m. opening Monday.
One might think there’d be a line of customers at the door waiting to pick up their medicines and other badly needed or wanted items. One would be wrong — nobody was there at opening or during the minutes after.
“They probably know there’s a lot of mail and they don’t want to get caught in a line, and they’re giving me a little time to work it out,” Collins said.
That sort of patience and understanding typifies what many Tenakee Springs residents say lured them to the community and keeps them in a place lacking plenty of everyday things nearly all people take for granted such as cell phone service and clear tap water. It also means dealing with hardships far beyond the post office shutdown, such as the time the only store in town closed for several months after it was sold and when ferry service was suspended for a lengthy period of time.
Not to mention both Collins and Allred were wearing face masks due to a recent local COVID-19 surge, with those currently infected including one of Collins’ brothers, who normally works at the general store. Although Tenakee Springs doesn’t have a mask mandate, nearly all employees in public places like the library and general store are wearing them, in large part to the community only having a part-time nurse staffing the occasionally open health clinic.
During such times, along with major incidents like a storm in December of 2020 that caused massive flooding and damage, it’s usually up to Tenakee Springs residents to make do on their collective own. Which in part is why so few current residents (as in seemingly near none) don’t just have one steady full-time job. Four or five is not an unusual number.
Allred said he does odd jobs such as construction, following in his father’s footsteps, in addition to learning the postal trade. Collins, who said he hopes to become the new full-time postmaster after the previous one recently accepted a job in Juneau, is among the exceptions.
Some see opportunity, but many moving on
So is another of his brothers, Jerusalem Chase, 22, manager at the local Alaska Seaplanes terminal a couple doors down from the post office, who stopped by with seven more bags of mail off a Monday morning flight. He said he’s been living in Tenakee Springs since the age of 13, and worked for fishermen until five years ago when he became a part-time and then full-time employee for the regional airline.
“It seemed like a good opportunity,” he said, although he’s among the shrinking number of young people in the community with such an opinion. Along with a population that’s in decline, it’s aging and increasingly seasonal as many snowbirds move south during the winter.
One distinct aspect of the job is it’s among the very few that involve of any kind of driving, since conventional road vehicles are banned aside from a pickup truck that delivers fuel and a fire truck. Instead, Chase uses an ATV with an attached trailer to deliver passengers’ luggage and other items to and from planes. While the ATVs were once rare in essentially a one-dirt-street town that stretches a few miles along the coastline, they’re increasingly common as locals haul their garden greens and do-it-yourself building project materials from source to destination.
As for his future, Chase says he plans to stay at least two more years.
Less certain of staying even that long is the first customer to walk into the post office nearly an hour after it opened, by which time all the parcels on the floor were properly filed or stacked. Judy Walters, who said she moved to Tenakee Springs in the late 1980s with her late husband, who used to run the power plant, is finding the unavailability of conveniences due to remoteness an increasing hardship instead of lure.
The post office shutdown, a rarity even over decades of varying hardships, meant immediate health worries beyond the current COVID-19 surge.
“It was a real big problem,” Walters said, “I couldn’t get my meds. I was out of them for a week.”
The lack of outgoing mail, including bills she tried to pay, made things worse.
“They shut off my phone,” Walters said. “I guess the paperwork didn’t go through.”
Not having a landline phone meant missing expected calls involving assistance from the Social Security Administration, leading her to voice a complaint shared by a seeming few in the community.
“What would it take to put in cellphone service — a couple of hours?” she asked.
Walters said she’s among the many doing “odd jobs” in Tenakee over the years, including working in the communal bath house fed by a natural hot springs that’s the town’s namesake attraction. It’s still where many locals do their bathing, even though plenty of homes now have showers, and she along with others still need to fetch well or other drinkable water instead of drinking the brownish creek water that comes out of their taps.
“I’m going to be 71 years old this year,” Walters said, talking about possibly moving in the near future. “I can’t haul water anymore.”
A community used to shortfalls – and coping with them
Also stopping by during the initial reopening hours of the post office was Ken Merrill, owner of Tenakee Springs Market (aka the store formally known as Snyder Mercantile that originally opened in 1899), described as the town’s only grocery, hardware and liquor store. While open from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. daily, Merrill thought nothing of leaving the store’s doors open and contents unguarded while venturing a few doors down the street for a few minutes.
Having seaplanes not show up for several days kept fresh dairy and produce items from arriving, but Merrill said he relies on trips to Juneau on the Alaska Marine Highway System ferry that comes every other week for the bulk of his merchandise. He said even with the ongoing universal supply issues elsewhere the store has generally kept a steady stock of essentials items.
“The people here are not hoarding, so I have that going on,” he said.
But only being able to make the ferry trip every two weeks — which is better than when there was none, but worse than the weekly service that once existed — means the customers’ restraint is needed, Merrill said.
“During summers, with seiners I could use more than two tons every week,” he said.
Merrill said he bought the store in 2013, after moving to Alaska in 2001 and working in various communities, including wildlife biology work in Sitka since that was his field of study. He moved to Tenakee Springs a couple of years before buying the store.
“I was a school teacher at the school and when that closed this fell into my lap,” he said.
The school remains closed with fewer than 10 school-age kids currently living in Tenakee Springs (who are home-schooled), and plenty of other locations have shut their doors since Merrill bought the store including a bakery and cafe (although the latter’s doors remain open 24/7 with donated snacks for self-service customers hopefully willing to put donations in the jar by the door).
That means the store is the only place for people to obtain groceries and goods, aside from people selling things like duck eggs on community bulletin boards, and what’s in the communal and personal gardens that are nearly universal to every yard in town. And why Merrill said he’s stuck with the store for nearly a decade despite the ongoing hassles of keeping it stocked and low profit margins.
“This is more of a community service than a moneymaking experience,” he said.