Rural Alaska

Hyder, Alaska: Life and love on the international border

HYDER — It was love that brought Carly Staehlin to Hyder. Love at first sight, to be more precise. A Texan, Carly was visiting the small town of Pemberton, British Columbia, near Whistler, when she wandered into a restaurant, the Pony Espresso. The chef there had a distinctive jawline, salt and pepper hair, a quick laugh and a mischievous smile. And he was smiling at her.

Carly had just quit her high-tech job in the video game industry, sold or given away everything that couldn't fit in her car and headed west. "I was searching for my own Walden, if you know what I mean," she said. A friend, an ER doctor in Seattle, had a vacation home in Pemberton and told her to go and get away from things for a while. So she went, met Shawn and fell in love. And that's when their troubles began.

As an American, Carly couldn't stay in Canada more than 180 days a year. She couldn't be with the man she loved for half of every year. And Shawn, a Canadian, couldn't work in the U.S.

To avoid running up against the 180-day rule, Carly had to keep a journal of her trips to see Shawn. Seven days in Canada with Shawn. Seven days back in the U.S. Repeat. And every time she crossed the border, she had to go through customs.

"I have some anxiety around authority, so every time I would cross it would ring all their biometric warning bells and I'd end up getting my car searched and it would be a three-hour ordeal," she said. "I told Shawn that I couldn't keep doing that, so we started looking for a closer, quieter place on the border to move."

They considered Point Roberts, an exclave in Washington near Vancouver, but it was too crowded and too expensive. Then they found Hyder, Alaska.

A century of cooperation

The mountains surrounding Hyder rise to over 6,000 feet, dark gray granite covered with giant evergreen trees. There are two bars, a restaurant serving fish and chips out of an old bus, a general store that stocks not much of anything and a few gift shops, most of which look like they haven't been open in quite a few years. Hyder's population was 84 last winter, according to postmaster Jackie Korpela. In the summer it swells to about 94. There are so many bears around that locals have taken to naming them.

The town was settled in 1903 by gold prospectors Daniel and Andrew Lindeborg. By 1910 the boom was in full swing, and the town, built on pilings at the end of 71-mile-long Portland Canal, was known locally as Portland City. When residents applied for a U.S. post office in 1914, the name Portland City was rejected. So residents renamed it Hyder, after Canadian mining engineer Frederick Hyder.

Two miles from Hyder is the town of Stewart, British Columbia. Settled in 1905, Stewart is named for an American family, mining brothers who prospected the area a few years earlier. Stewart is a former boomtown that's seen better days. A few blocks down from the cafes and bars of Main Street is evidence of the bust: row after row of boarded-up homes and shuttered businesses. At the height of local mining, in the 1960s, big copper and gold mines like the Premier and Granduc sought out married workers who would be willing to move their families to Stewart. Today, what mining remains is done by employees flown in from as far away as Newfoundland, who come in to work three weeks and then leave.

The cycle of boom and bust, which has tied these two towns together since the early 1900s, continues today. Most of the big gold, silver and copper mines in the area are northwest of Stewart, in Canada, but access to them requires driving through Hyder.

These days, with many of the mines closed, tourism has replaced mining as one of the primary economic drivers in the area. One of the biggest attractions is bear viewing along Fish Creek in Hyder.

Visitors also come to Hyder just to say that they've been to Alaska. They pop in for a few hours, mail a postcard and head back to Stewart for the night. But for the residents of the two towns, the ties run much deeper.

Close ties

Shawn proposed to Carly on Valentine's Day 2010. By April he had quit his job at the restaurant and they were on their way to Hyder. Carly bought a four-unit apartment building there, lived in one and rented the other three. Shawn bought a house in Stewart. With the leftover money they bought a food truck and started their business, Dash Bistro.

"With this money we would have barely been able to buy an apartment in Vancouver," she said. "Here we have two homes and a business. You can't beat it!"

There is no American border patrol in Hyder. On the Canadian side, the border guard is staffed by Stewart locals, and after a few trips across they get to know you. Carly's border-crossing anxiety faded away.

Carly and Shawn wed on July 4, 2013, in Hyder during an annual festival in which the two towns come together to celebrate the two countries' independence. The four-day celebration, called "International Days," starts with Canada Day on July 1 and ends with American Independence Day on July 4. Carly figured that since the whole town of Stewart was going to be in Hyder it was the perfect day for a wedding. After the ceremony they rode down Main Street in the back of a car, she in her wedding gown and he in a tuxedo and top hat, serving as honorary grand marshals during the Independence Day parade.

Carly became a permanent resident of Canada in 2014 and is working toward becoming a dual U.S.-Canadian citizen. When that happens the couple will start working on getting dual citizenship for Shawn, and then they'll be truly free. "We'll be able to go wherever we want, and we can go together."

A black bear crosses the road during the Independence Day Walk, Run, Bike for Fun at the Border 5-k in Hyder on July 4, 2015. Bears are a daily presence in Hyder.

'Canadian whisky and American beer. You can't beat it.'

Not everyone in Hyder ended up there because of love. Bill McCloskey, 90 years old, skinny and sharp-witted, was on his way to Anchorage when he stopped in Hyder to rest. That was in 1985, and he's been here ever since.

Flint Ward ended up in Hyder by accident. He and his wife were driving through Banff National Park, didn't like the crowds and saw on the map that they could drive to Alaska. That was 20 years ago.

One warm afternoon in July, Bill and Flint were at the Hyder marina, a small dock jutting out into Portland Canal nearly to the international border. They were there to meet Hippie, who was on his way from Ketchikan with a boat full of beer — 325 cases of beer, give or take a few, paid for by his friends in Hyder and delivered to them by Hippie out of the kindness of his heart.

Dave "Hippie" Hanson works at the shipyard in Ketchikan for 10 months each year and spends the rest of his time in Hyder. He would live in Hyder full-time but for a lack of work. "Hyder is home. It's where all my friends are and all my enemies," he says and laughs, a full-bodied laugh that seems every bit a part of him as his wild, wind-blown hair and Xtratufs.

Hippie and his friend Barfly lived in Washington in the early 1970s. They wanted to get into the Army, but due to some youthful infractions they weren't accepted. That's how they ended up in Hyder, or so the story goes. The details seem lost to history, replaced by Hippie's live-in-the-moment love of life.

Trapped in Alaska

This spring the Canadian Border Services Agency gave notice that it was going to close the Stewart-Hyder border at night. There would be no way to get in or out between midnight and 8 a.m. The move prompted outrage on both sides of the border.

Stewart residents complained that tourists wouldn't want to take the long detour to the coast if they couldn't see the bears in Fish Creek early in the morning. Hyder residents made the same complaint, adding that there are no emergency services available in Hyder, and the only high ground — critical safe harbor during a tsunami — is on the Stewart side.

Hyder residents staged peaceful protests at the border. Stewart's local member of Parliament, Nathan Cullen, got involved, as did Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska. In late June, the Canadian border authority changed its stance, allowing people to phone in if entering Canada at night and keeping the gate open going into Alaska.

During the border closure a reality film crew came to town to shoot a pilot for a show they were going to call "Trapped in Alaska." They wanted to pitch the story as a wild, gun-toting Alaska town pissed off because the Canadians trapped them in their own country. To drum up the drama, they had Hyder Community Association president Wes Loe, a bear of a man with a big white beard, walk around town with his shotgun looking mad, scowling at things off camera. "They had me doing things I would never normally do," he said. "I don't sit on my porch cleaning my shotgun."

But when it became clear that the border was going to open again, the drama fizzled and the reality TV people gave up and went back to Los Angeles. And life in Hyder returned to normal.

Nowadays, Loe spends most of his time at his general store, selling the occasional Hyder bumper sticker to a tourist or can of soda to a local kid, shooting the breeze with whoever comes in. He loves to tell jokes, and one of his favorites is this: "Watch out for the Hyder cats, they've been known to kill bears. How's that, you ask? Well, they get stuck in the bear's throat …"

For the rest of the town, back to normal means back to the slow pace of life in a town surrounded by towering mountains and defined by bears and the border. That's what drew Caroline Stewart back to Hyder four years after she left as a discontented 18-year-old in pursuit of a career as a music teacher in Oregon. One summer vacation, visiting her parents in Hyder, she realized that she was going to stay. "I called my boss and said, 'Good news: You can forget about that raise I asked for. Bad news: I'm not coming back.' " Next year will mark her 40th year as a Hyderite.

"I love the freedom you have up here. I love the feeling of meeting a challenge head on and succeeding," she said. "When my water pump broke last year, I knew I couldn't legally pay a Canadian plumber to come across the border and fix it. I thought, I bet I can do this myself. So I tried, it didn't go so well, and I ended up plugging a hole with one hand and calling my friend Carol to come help with the other hand. And together we got it done. That's not something you can pay for. That's life here, and I wouldn't trade it for anything."

Loren Holmes

Loren Holmes is a staff photojournalist at the Anchorage Daily News. Contact him at loren@adn.com.

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