Editors' note: We asked 14 of Alaska's best writers spread across the state — from Tenakee Springs to Dutch Harbor to Utqiagvik — to grapple with a question we all face in our lives: Why do I live where I live? This piece is part of that collection.
TENAKEE SPRINGS — Our official story is that Tenakee Springs is a compromise. In my opinion, our town of fewer than 100 people is too small. My fiancé Justin, on the other hand, thinks all of Southeast is too crowded.
In my opinion, work opportunities are limited. I worry that social and education options will be scarce if we ever decide to have children. In Justin's view, after five years spent in the empty expanses of Interior Alaska, he finds the 25-minute flight from Juneau way too short. As he looks down from a seaplane, swaths of Tongass National Forest have been clear-cut: acres of stumps decapitated, unusable timber left in lifeless heaps. Roads and power lines lead to mountains of mine rubble, or loop-de-loop from one razed zone to another. Boats dot the ocean. Southeast has been touched in a way Justin finds overwhelming.
Our secret story is that both of us are quite happy here. I was born and raised in Juneau, and have spent enough of my adult life away from Southeast that I'm thrilled to have come home. I've found community and work I enjoy. I like my job at Tenakee's Independent Learning Center, a pilot program that is in lieu of a school, and I like the job's part-time nature, which allows me time to write. I love the active, creative life that living off the grid offers — the Easter egg hunt of harvesting potatoes, the physicality of chopping wood, the daily hike down the beach to drain or bail out our leaky boat. There are no cars, and my commute is a 1.5-mile hike through the rainforest.
Subsistence circumnavigates the calendar in Southeast. Hunt deer from late summer to early winter. Trap in the early spring. Collect seaweed in March. Nettles and garden greens are already peeking out by April. Berries begin by late June. The first salmon run up the river in July. Crab, shrimp and bottomfish find our bait year round.
We live in an old homestead a mile west, as the crow flies, from the tight-knit jumble of houses that make up Tenakee proper. More houses string like loose beads along the beach to our east. While there are no cars here, four-wheelers are allowed in town. Past the harbor, only the walking path follows the beach to the scattered houses that run 8 miles along the coast. Ours is the first one, the only cabin in Sunny Cove. Our nearest neighbor is another 2 miles east. We have a wood stove for heat, a generator for light. We haul water from the stream behind our house. When I need to bathe, I spend my lunch break at the bathhouse in town, a building that encloses the natural hot springs for which Tenakee Springs is named. I love the simplicity, the natural exercise and meditative quality of the many chores. The shared, simple pleasure of going over to friends' houses to play music and eat veggies from the garden or wild meat and fish.
Tenakee is in no way perfect. My friends are no longer in my age bracket, my life and stresses feel very tied to the elements and it is easy to feel isolated — or become exhausted by mold, rot and rain. Most Tenakee properties are second homes, which spend 90 percent of the year dark and vacant. Often, as I reach town, my nostrils pick up the charred pungency of burning garbage.
During deer-hunting season, camo-clad, rifle-laden men flood off the ferry on four-wheelers like an invasion. Locals bicker and fight and gossip, and years-long silent treatments are not uncommon. And yet, in August, among the abandoned boats and trash of the harbor, the community garden overflows with greens and purples and reds in perfectly cultivated rows. The sign on the bulletin board reads, "August Special! Kill 10 slugs, pick yourself a salad!" That is why we live here.
Megan Bush lives in Tenakee Springs with her partner and two dogs. She is finishing her first book, a memoir about her family's experience with schizophrenia.