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The pros and cons of life in Alaska's 'semi-bush'

  • Author: Brooke Elgie
  • Updated: March 19, 2017
  • Published March 19, 2017

Tenakee’s only street is referred to as “the trail.” (Photo by Brooke Elgie)

TENAKEE SPRINGS — I generally refer to where we live here as the "semi-Bush."  I say "semi" because friends who live Outside persist in giving us much more credit for being "hardy" and "isolated" than we really are — and those dumb television shows only encourage them.

Oh, sure, occasionally a bear or two wanders into town in autumn looking for that unwisely hung deer, but the town dogs nearly always run them off.

We suffer, if you can call it that, from rotten internet connectivity and slow mail service but we've got a good general store, a library, a school and a summer-only cafe. The floatplane from Juneau comes almost every day, weather permitting. If it isn't urgent, or if you'll be coming home with a lot of stuff, the ferry comes on Thursday and Saturday, as regular as the seasons. With only 100 or so of us here, we have much to cherish and little to complain about.

Let the conversation turn to trash, though, and you'd better be ready for an earful of complaints. It boils down to the simple fact that we have no "them" to come and get it and no "there" to take it to. We've got our often-photographed Bus Stop, the little shed in the middle of town where you can leave anything that someone else might be able to use, but otherwise it's either burn it on the beach or lug it to the dump in Juneau. Both choices work pretty well for small stuff but when it comes to old refrigerators, washing machines and such, it's a different story.

Those old fridges have a way of accumulating and never going away — kind of like deadbeat relatives who never take a hint. Maybe worse. If we let the beer run out or stop feeding them, the deadbeat relatives will eventually shuffle off, but we've got old refrigerators around here that have outlasted by decades the people who threw them away.

They kind of bunch up, too. Wherever one turns up, you can bet that there will soon be others. Someone will try to hide an old fridge or washing machine in the weeds down at the harbor and a month later there will be two or three of them there.

Dumping by skiff

I've thought of spying on them to see if they actually reproduce when no one is looking — as I've always suspected wire coat hangers do at the back of the closet — but I've feared that creeping around spying on old refrigerators might set me apart, even out here in Tenakee where a certain amount of strange behavior is expected.

Awhile back, we had a fellow who tried to get rid of an old refrigerator by loading it onto his skiff and dumping it out in the inlet. Now this is not the stuff that gets you an award for environmental sensitivity, but it seemed to him like a practical way of cleaning up his place.

Can't blame him for that. He dragged that old fridge down to the beach, wrestled it into his skiff and took off for the middle of the inlet. It made a great satisfying splash when he tipped it out but the skiff had no sooner quit rocking than there was that dumb refrigerator, floating right beside it. Now he had a new problem because getting it back into the skiff was definitely not an option.

Worse, he knew darned well that any number of the townsfolk were likely watching through their spotting scopes. Even in the semi-Bush, once summer ends and the tourists leave, entertainment is where you find it.

After scratching his head for a while, this guy figured he was pretty much out of options so he left it floating there and went on home.

In Tenakee Inlet, the tide comes in and the tide goes out but it's mostly the same water sloshing back and forth — which is exactly what that old refrigerator did. For a week or more it eddied up and down the inlet, making for no end of speculation, dumb jokes and even a few side bets among the sporting types.

Fire on the water

Eventually, the guy who owned it went back out and dragged it back to the beach. There, he drilled a bunch of holes in the case, squirted a good slug of diesel in each of them and set it on fire, hoping to burn off the insulation, which he figured would fix the flotation problem. You could probably have seen the resulting column of oily black smoke from outer space, and he was now definitely disqualified for any environmental award. When he towed it out a second time, though, it sank like a stone.

The whole episode started me thinking. Every Alaska Bush community has the same problem with dead refrigerators and right here was a solution waiting to be put into action. What if you gathered a few friends and lashed a bunch of those old refrigerators together into a raft? I mean a big raft. Grab you kids away from their video games and shove off. Play your cards right and you might even score a cleanup grant from the government — maybe even an environmental award, too.

Think of the possibilities. Set up a few solar panels for electricity and some big planters for vegetables. Fish the small stuff that would congregate under the raft and harvest the mussels off its bottom. Maybe incorporate as your own town. Heck, if things keep going the way they are, applying to the United Nations for recognition as a whole new country might not be all that wacky.

Lord knows we've got enough dead refrigerators. Sooner or later we'd need a name, and since Unalaska is already taken, how about Upalaska as a name for a country of citizens who said "phooey!" to the whole mess that modern politics has gotten us into?

And when they come to get us, as they surely will, we'll just unhook from one another and float off in all directions until they go away.

Why the more I think about this, the more excited I get. Maybe I'd better take my medicine. I'll get back to you.

Brooke Elgie is a freelance writer based in Tenakee Springs. Reach him at

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