I am disappointed and puzzled by the Empire’s recent series about Tenakee Springs. The tone seems negative, and indicates little understanding of life in rural Alaska. Is the Empire really only interested in the problems faced by small communities? I’d like to add some balance to the picture.
I feel qualified to comment, due to my sheer age and obstinence. I fell in love with Tenakee Inlet 46 years ago. This place has been my full-time home ever since, through thick and thin. There’s no question that some of those years have been pretty darn skinny. I was here for the catastrophic fire in 1993, and the even more catastrophic Thanksgiving Day storm in 1984.
Now I can play the old-timer card, and share my well-grounded observation that the core community of Tenakee is just as resilient today as it was in those difficult times. In fact, many aspects of life here have never been better.
Right now I see a splendid cohort of highly capable young adults filling many of the essential positions in Tenakee, as well as long-established residents still contributing to the community through both regular employment and an astonishing level of volunteer work.
The Chatham School District’s Independent Learning Center in Tenakee has resolved the longstanding school enrollment issue with an innovative and highly successful program. By acknowledging that many rural families choose home school education, Tenakee has found a way to give students the best of both worlds.
There is a higher level of consistent health care available in Tenakee than we’ve had in decades.
Tenakee’s community greenhouse is a beacon for other Southeast communities seeking local food security, as is the vibrant community garden .
If the Empire’s reporter understood the dynamics of fishing communities he would have not missed this basic fact: commercial fishermen are absent during the fishing season. There are an amazing number of commercial permits based in Tenakee, and those permit holders are out fishing. In the winter they are here, and contribute their knowledge and experience to the community.
As an example, in December 2020 the entire town waterfront was threatened by an immense deposit of logs that landed on the beach after a nearby landslide. Huge broken trees and rootwads were poised to knock down piling foundations as the storm tide rose, but immediate skilled response by local volunteers prevented a repeat of the 1984 disaster.
Along with the commercial fishing economy, we are infinitely grateful to still have unparalleled opportunities to provide for ourselves directly through hunting, fishing, and gathering. This is a direct result of decades of volunteer activism dedicated to keeping Tenakee Inlet’s salmon-rich watersheds intact.
Of course there are problems, gaps and glitches, and some burdens fall disproportionately on people in essentially volunteer positions. This happens in every community, no matter what size, but is probably more obvious in small communities and particularly hard on elected officials.
It’s also true that increased property values reflect the desirability of vacation homes here, and lift real estate prices out of reach of many residents. That’s a reality of any desirable location, and it’s not unique to Tenakee. What is unique is the degree that many of Tenakee’s “summer people” are truly part of the community and contribute to its well-being year round.
Isolated island life is not for everyone, and it’s a particularly poor choice for anyone seeking to get rich. But how do you put a price on knowing that if I get on the radio and holler “Help!” my neighbors will not only recognize my voice but come on the run? Or on decades-long friendships that endure despite diametrically opposed political beliefs ? How often is that true in today’s world?
The past years of a global pandemic have put additional strain and stress on everyone, everywhere. In this time of recovery we need to be as kind to one another as we can, and recognize that every community faces challenges of one sort or another. I hope that if the Empire chooses to spotlight other small communities it will apply a more balanced and thorough standard of journalism.
• Molly Kemp is a 46-year resident of Tenakee Springs.