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A Visit to Tenakee Hot Springs, Alaska

By "Godfather" Erik

You really have to experience a place like Tenakee to believe it. It is apparently settled and inhabited by expatriates from many walks of life with one major overriding thing in common: THEY DON’T WANT A LOT TO DO WITH THE REST OF THE WORLD! They are mostly friendly however and will tolerate occasional summer visitors. We made an overnight visit there by boat.

Many of Tenakee’s citizens of both sexes wear suspenders, and rubber boots are the ‘de rigeur’ for footwear, with “Xtra Tuffs” being the preferred brand. Everyone seems to have at least one dog, some tiny, some huge. Those who work are primarily fisherfolk and there seem to be quite a few artisans and craftspersons. Many appear to have no gainful employment. Perhaps they live off the land in some way.

Tenakee itself is a collection of small frame houses on a narrow strip of land along the waterside of a steep shore. Many of the houses are on pilings over tidewater, and some are on the uphill side, but usually also on pilings - no foundations. There are no pretentious houses although a very few are somewhat more upscale. My impression is that summer residents from “outside” own the more upscale ones. Many of the houses are totally unpainted and might be more accurately called “shacks” anywhere else and some serve as weekend cottages for folks from Juneau and other places.

The “Lodge” is the biggest building in the village and has room for eight or ten guests. There is one store, Snyder’s Mercantile, which was established in the 1880’s and which serves the functions of grocery, post office, dry goods, sundries, drugstore, float plane ticket agent and fuel dock. Prices are petty high since transportation costs are a real issue.

The villagers are guardedly friendly and reserved with strangers. Seems to me the locals all exchange knowing, significant glances with each other when talking with outsiders, as though there is some large and important secret known only to themselves. Perhaps there is.

Those who can afford it buy their supplies once or twice a year by mail order and have it shipped in bulk by friend’s boat, occasional ferry or contract shipper - though it usually must be landed at the town dock which is also located at and used by Snyder’s Mercantile. I suspect that could occasion some friction at times but perhaps not.

There are no cars in Tenakee. None, zilch, nada, unless you want to count the ancient hulk of a 3/4 ton ex-military vehicle abandoned years ago on the rocky beach. As a matter of fact, cars are prohibited by town ordinance as they are also in several other villages in Alaska. Since there are no roads, it does have it’s own peculiar logic.

In a kind of ‘Catch-22’ circularity, since there are no cars, there is no need for roads in the village. There is a fairly level, hardpan trail about six feet wide which runs the half-mile stretch thru the village to the harbor, and separates the waterside dwellings from the uphill ones, all of which nestle up quite close to this trail. All wheeled transport is by bicycles, two-wheeled carts and motorized three and four-wheelers. Only about 25% seem to have the motorized versions of transport, with most people apparently preferring to use muscle power. Most houses have multiple bicycles parked outside. Some have sledges or dog sleds.

Once you reach the end of this cart trail, all travel is by footpath through the woods, or by walking along the beach at anything but high tide. Although called a “beach” in the Alaska way, it is simply the rocky, boulder-strewn verge between the vegetation and salt water. It is reasonably passable by foot in most places except where cliffs dive into the water, and there one must take a detour through the woods. And, if one takes to the woods here he must remember this island is heavily infested with great big, brown “grizzly” bears. ‘Nuff said.

Electrical power is by a village operated diesel generator for those villagers who can afford it and want it, and many do not. There is telephone service by satellite for those who want it, and again, many do not.

Tenakee is known for and settled around its hot springs. In fact, most Southeast Alaskans know the village as “Tenakee Hot Springs” and only the government and the post office call it Tenakee. The hot springs are located in a village-owned building smack dab in the center of the village. The Springs are community property and free to everyone. One uses the hot springs in the nude and there are standard hours for males; 5 to 6 PM; and females; 6 to 7 PM, and for both together, after midnight only, and then it’s “BYOB” or “bring your own Babe (or ‘Boy’ as the case may be)”. I gather it’s not politic to go there alone to pick up chicks or guys. Maybe there’s a special time for that the locals didn’t share with me.

The small harbor is located about 1/4 mile east of the village at the end of the hardpan path. Beyond here you take to the woods or beach. I am told the woods trail continues for another seventeen miles. There were about two dozen boats in the harbor, of all descriptions, including one fancy sailboat which looked out of place, and whose owner is building a new, upscale (and therefore out of place) house in the village. Some ”boats” are liveaboard claptrap arrangements of various recycled craft with clumsy add-ons of lumber and sheet metal to turn them into Dickinsenian caricatures of human habitations. Indeed, more than one have families with children living aboard, being heated with wood stoves fueled from the surrounding forests.

There are a few businesslike commercial fishing craft and several more normal boats one might find in any marina, and several home-builts of odd design. There are at least as many boat hulks dragged up and abandoned on the beach as there are floating in the harbor, providing a never ending supply of fresh add-on material.

We met a man at the harbor dock accompanied by his beautiful dog, a Rottweiller/Black Lab cross, with the size and all the sweetness of the lab, and the wonderful facial coloring of the Rottweiller. Their home was one of the Rube Goldberg tin sided affairs built on the recycled hulls of some sort of catamaran in a previous life - maybe about 28 to 30 feet long overall.

The additional weight of all the add-ons had so burdened the catamaran that the owner had added Styrofoam buns underneath between the hulls, and outside alongside the hulls to gain enough flotation and the catamaran was now, in fact, a mono-hull. One interesting feature was his fresh water arrangement which consisted of a plastic barrel sitting on the dock to which was piped the flow from a gutter stretched along one edge of his craft’s tin roof. We took on a supply of this water - the only readily available to us, and it had the definite, though not unpleasant taste of wood smoke. Smoked water? It must have been OK as we did not get sick from using it.

Our new friend was a slight and wiry, thin man of about fifty, who chain-smoked incessantly and would never be considered handsome, though he had his own charm and certainly was friendly enough. He had beautiful shoulder-length curly golden brown hair and a long full beard to his chest. He appeared clean, neat and reasonably well groomed. Apparently his smoked water supply was used to advantage. He had on fancy cowboy boots and a large belt buckle embedded with two gold-plated silver dollars and wore a heavy copper chain bracelet on each wrist. He made quite an impression, but was nothing compared to the ‘harbormaster’. However, that’s another story for later!

We overnighted tied to the dock in Tenakee Harbor and left early next morning. Our visit to Tenakee was an experience will not soon be forgotten.


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