Tenakee Springs residents celebrate the debut of a new seaplane serving the community and other parts of Southeast Alaska during a cookout on June 9, 2021. The town’s post office, left, was forced to close temporarily in recent days because there was no staff, although a visiting employee is now helping one or two days a week. It’s one of a number of short- and long-term problems the tiny island town is facing as it tries to cope with an aging and shrinking permanent population, as well as more general problems such(. Michael S. Lockett / Juneau Empire File)

Tenakee Springs residents celebrate the debut of a new seaplane serving the community and other parts of Southeast Alaska during a cookout on June 9, 2021. The town’s post office, left, was forced to close temporarily in recent days because there was no staff, although a visiting employee is now helping one or two days a week. It’s one of a number of short- and long-term problems the tiny island town is facing as it tries to cope with an aging and shrinking permanent population, as well as more general problems such(. Michael S. Lockett / Juneau Empire File)

Troubling times in Tenakee Springs

Post office closure, absence of fire and other emergency staff, among short- and long-term hardships

Mail is overflowing at the small mostly shut-down post office. The fire chief just quit and there’s no certified emergency medical officials to respond to a crisis. Job openings are remaining vacant for years due to problems such as no available housing, even though there’s many empty homes during winter months due to significant drop in long-term residents.

“It’s kind of a convoluted situation,” Tenakee Springs Mayor Dan Kennedy said Tuesday.

The community of purportedly about 100 people is suffering a series of hardships due to quirks of its isolation on Chichagof Island that are magnified by broad-scope issues such as labor and supply shortages. Some difficulties such as the post office closure are hopefully days from being resolved, while for others it may be years — if ever — before solutions are found.

The post office, for example, was forced to close recently because the postmaster got a new job in Juneau, his relief worker was on a month-long vacation and a relief worker in training was in Juneau so his wife could deliver their baby, Kennedy said. That meant people suddenly were cut off from the medicine and other critical supplies they were obtaining by mail.

“It puts a lot of people at risk,” he said.

Tenakee Springs, a Chichagof Island community of purportedly about 100 people, is seeing its year-round population get smaller and older as it struggles to fill job vacancies due to problems such as a lack of year-round housing. The community, popular among visitors who know about features such as its natural hot springs, is also struggling with infrastructure long in need of repair as well as broader-region issues such as supply shortages due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Courtesy Photo / Tenakee Springs Business Association)

Tenakee Springs, a Chichagof Island community of purportedly about 100 people, is seeing its year-round population get smaller and older as it struggles to fill job vacancies due to problems such as a lack of year-round housing. The community, popular among visitors who know about features such as its natural hot springs, is also struggling with infrastructure long in need of repair as well as broader-region issues such as supply shortages due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Courtesy Photo / Tenakee Springs Business Association)

Help is now arriving from a postal worker in Gustavus who is coming to Tenakee for a day or two a week, which was arranged by U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s office, but even then services remain limited, Kennedy said.

“(The employee) is not even allowed to sell us a stamp or do any kind of cash transaction,” he said, noting it’s because she lacks a “cash box” authorizing her for such work.

That aside, the part-time presence of the visiting employee isn’t enough to keep arriving mail from overflowing the post office’s small space, Kennedy said.

“It’s kind of a marginal situation,” he said. “It’s better than having the post office closed.”

Still, of all the issues the community is facing, that might be the one with the shortest deliverance since the trainee may return by the end of the week and the regular relief worker during the first week of August, Kennedy said.

Emergency services, on the other hand, are a more uncertain and lingering problem because the fire chief just quit, Kennedy said. Furthermore, the community no longer has any certified emergency medical service workers because the certifications of those in the community have expired and there’s been nobody to provide the necessary training.

But being a tiny close-knit community, that doesn’t mean nobody will respond if there’s an emergency.

“There are a handful of people who are ex-EMS workers or good Samaritans,” Kennedy said.

The ability of those still in Tenakee to respond – along with emergency officials in nearby communities — was demonstrated last Thursday when a 75-year-old man suffering severe hip pain was medically rescued from a sailing vessel anchored in Corner Bay. Tenakee Springs Fire Rescue crew members transported the patient to a nearby dock where the Coast Guard Air Station Sitka aircrew loaded him onto a Jayhawk helicopter and transported him to the Mt. Edgecombe Medical Center, according to a statement by the Coast Guard.

But one of the long-term dilemmas facing Tenakee Springs is there’s fewer such people to help with such incidents as the years pass since the number of permanent residents is both shrinking and aging.

“Come winter there’s about 60 people here and most of them are over 60, so they’re not eager about charging out and saving people” from incidents at sea or similar, Kennedy said.

As if those impediments aren’t enough, the community’s helipad has long been in disrepair and attempts to get funding to fix it from the Alaska Legislature have been unsuccessful, adding another complication to rescue and transport situations, he said.

“It can land on the beach at low tide,” he said, referring to helicopter access.

Tenakee Springs has seen some big new projects in recent years ranging from a new ferry dock that allowed normal service to resume after disruptions to a greenhouse started by a couple that’s supplying fresh produce to locals. But numerous others, including a hydro-electric project that’s been discussed for decades are on hold due to lack of funding and/or other reasons.

Part of the problem is that while Tenakee is still enticing for visitors and short-term seasonal workers, getting them to stay in the face of high costs, housing shortages and other long-term issues the community faces is a challenge without clear answers.

“I’ve had jobs posted for four years and I can’t get anybody to help,” Kennedy said.

Contact reporter Mark Sabbatini at mark.sabbatini@juneauempire.com.

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