Small Town America
Thorne Bay, Alaska
By Jon Stram
Issue #84 • November/December, 2003
This is part of a series on “Small Town America.” If you’d like to write about your small town, send your article to Backwoods Home Magazine, PO Box 712, Gold Beach, OR 97444.
Three weeks in Thorne Bay, Alaska, working on our cabin, relaxing with our friends, and just generally living life the way it was meant to be lived, were over for another six months. My wife, Juanita, my youngest daughter, Jamie, and I had been working on planing and grooving a load of red cedar boards in preparation for paneling the inside of our cozy 16 x 20 cabin. We wired for electricity, added on a carport/covered work area, and kept ourselves so busy that we only took one day out for salmon fishing. Still, catching a nice 12-pound silver salmon on your first cast of the day is not a bad way to remember your fishing time.
The sight of Jack, our young chocolate Labrador, chasing pink salmon through the shallows of Gravelly Creek and proudly presenting me with one live salmon after another is a picture I’ll never forget. Of course, as soon as he’d head back out for another salmon, I’d toss the almost spawned-out salmon back into the creek to complete its journey. Pinks in the final stages of spawning aren’t exactly gourmet fare.
The beauty and bounty of Alaska, after all these years, still overwhelms me. Hills are covered in hemlock, red and yellow cedar, and spruce trees. Blueberries, huckleberries, salmonberries, and currants compete for every square inch of space. Streams so full of spawning salmon—pinks, silvers, chum, and sockeye—that at times you can’t retrieve a lure through them without snagging one or more with every cast. Dungeness crab and clam for the taking, so numerous that you can fill a bucket in 10 to 15 minutes. Sitka blacktail deer seemingly around the corner of every bend in the road, and the numerous black bear, appearing and disappearing as they gorge on salmon and berries, preparing for the possibility of a long, cold winter.
The bittersweet thoughts of heading back home to the Lower 48 filled my mind as I lay on my sleeping bag and pad on the hard, plastic cots that the Alaska Ferry System so thoughtfully provides for us low-budget travelers. I was already missing my good friends, Ernie and Margie, Earl and Chris, Bill, Wally, Bud, and so many others. It’s always so hard to leave, and this time was no different. The prospect of once again entering Civilization (a misnomer to put it gently) was none too inviting. It was the morning of September 11, 2001. Little did I know at the time how truly uninviting it would soon turn out to be.
Wonderful as the environment is, the best part about Thorne Bay are the people and the sense of community you get living here. You can’t live here long before you recognize everyone by the vehicles they drive, and everyone you pass on the road gives you a wave. You can’t walk down the road with a gas can in hand before the first person passing by will ask if you need a ride or some help. With only one grocery store, two gas stations, two sporting goods and general hardware stores it doesn’t take long before you know every merchant in town personally, and yet you’ll find that you rarely need to leave town to get a necessary service or supply. If you really want to get to know some of Thorne Bay’s residents quickly, just stop by the Thorne Bay Community Church any Sunday morning about 10:30, and you’ll be surrounded by a group of some of the friendliest people you’ll ever meet, and you’ll probably have an invitation for lunch, even if it isn’t Potluck Sunday. If for some reason you don’t get a lunch invite, just stop by Dale’s Pizza or Someplace to Go for a homemade burger and fries. No McDonald’s here.
Thorne Bay, Alaska, is located on the east side of Prince of Wales Island, in Southeast Alaska, near the town of Ketchikan. You can get to Ketchikan via Alaska Airlines, a one and a half hour flight from Seattle. From Ketchikan you can then hop aboard a float plane for the half hour flight to Prince of Wales Island, or you can take a two and a half hour ferry ride to Hollis, on Prince of Wales Island. You can also drive and ferry from Down South, either getting on the ferry at Bellingham, Washington, or Prince Rupert, British Columbia.
Prince of Wales Island is the third largest island in the United States, over 90 miles long, 40 miles wide, and with a 1,500+ mile road system. It is sparsely populated with under 5,000 people. Craig, Klawock, Hollis, Hydaburg, Kasaan, Coffman Cove, Whale Pass, Point Baker, Naukati, and Thorne Bay are the main towns on the island, with anywhere from 40 to 1,500 per town. In the recent past, most of the employment has been timber based, and with the current downturn in lumber prices and slowdown in logging activity, the overall island economy is quite depressed. Don’t let that depress you, though. There’s still plenty of opportunity for the innovative backwoods home person with a few skills and an active imagination.
Let me just give you an idea of some of the advantages of life on Prince of Wales Island, especially in Thorne Bay. First off, Alaska has no state income tax, no state property tax, and no state sales tax. That’s right. None. Vehicle registration fees will be under $100 per year for the average vehicle. To make the situation even better, Alaska has a unique thing called the Permanent Fund Dividend, where the state actually pays each individual in each family who lives there, just to live there. In 2001 the dividend was $1850.28, which meant a family of four received $7405.12. In 2002 the dividend was $1540.76 and a family of four received $6103.04 in about October or November of 2002. If you are careful and creative, you can stretch that out quite a ways.
Every Alaskan resident is also allowed up to 10,000 board feet of personal use wood that can be harvested off of National Forest lands with a free permit from the Forest Service. Eighty-five percent of Prince of Wales Island is National Forest, and there are numerous small mills around the island that will help you cut, haul, and mill your wood into lumber, and then deliver it to your building site. It doesn’t take much to get all the lumber you’d need to build a house or cabin and all the outbuildings you could want. You’ll have to see the quality of the raw lumber you’ll get: red and yellow cedar, spruce, and hemlock. You’ll never want to buy Down South lumber again.
If you haven’t been to Southeast Alaska, you probably think about Alaska as the land of snow and ice. That’s a common misconception. There’s a good reason for the fact that most of the residents of Prince of Wales come from Oregon, Washington, and Montana. The weather is not that much different from what they’re used to. Prince of Wales is technically a rain forest, and being an island on the Inside Passage, it has a coastal climate. It has an average wintertime low of only 32° F, summertime highs into the 70s and low 80s, and average yearly rainfall in the 150 to 200 inch range. If you can’t stand clouds and rain, don’t come to Prince of Wales. Winters will range from mild, with very little snow and freezing weather, to mildly severe, with snow accumulations from November to March and freezing temperatures.
One difference you’ll notice on Prince of Wales Island is the absence of small cars and sedans. Ninety-five percent of the vehicles on the island are pickups, Suburbans, and SUVs. While a decent two-wheel drive vehicle will get you around on any of the gravel roads on the island nine months out of the year, the roads do tend to be rough and a little hard on your suspension and spinal column. Be sure to stay on the roads, though, because if you get off into the muskeg, you’ll need to be winched out. A good four-wheel drive vehicle and chains will get you around fine in all but the very worst winter weather. The state is currently paving the main roads from Hollis to Hydaburg to Craig, Thorne Bay, and Coffman Cove. Within a couple years or so, you’ll be able to travel to most of the major destinations on the island without getting off of pavement, unless you take one of the numerous side rides to hunt, fish, explore, or cut firewood.
The topsoil on Prince of Wales is very shallow, as the island is basically a big rock with a huge network of caves underneath its surface. We have a growing season that usually starts in mid-April, running through September or October. You’ll need to build up your soil, and a lot of residents either have tire gardens, raised beds, or greenhouses for their produce.
There is no pasture on the island, which explains why you’ll see no horses or cattle on the island. You could probably raise poultry or goats, but you’ll need to think about protection from both the elements and the local black bear and wolf population. Prince of Wales Island has no brown or grizzly bears and no moose or caribou population.
Hunting and fishing
However, if you’re a hunter or fisherman, Prince of Wales Island is a paradise. Residents are allowed to harvest two black bear per year, with the black bear hunting season open 10 months out of the year, September through June.
Four deer are allowed per person per year, with deer hunting season running five months, August through September. There is no cost for either deer or black bear tags for residents.
Waterfowl season runs from September until the end of the year, and sometimes extends into January.
Fur trapping in the winter is also an option. For most of the big game hunting, there are very few weapons restrictions, and you can use archery gear, crossbow, shotgun, rifle, handgun, or muzzle loader. Separate seasons for bow hunters, rifle hunters, handgun hunters, or muzzle loader hunters just aren’t a fact of life on Prince of Wales.
July is the only month of the year without a big game hunting season going on, and since most residents carry rifles, shotguns, or handguns in their vehicles most of the time, our Second Amendment right to “Keep and Bear Arms” is pretty much taken for granted. I’ve never been questioned for carrying any combination of firearms, bows, or fishing tackle.
Fishing is almost endless: winter steelhead for the hardy fisherman, with trout fishing starting up in the early spring. Chinook fishing starts up in May, quickly followed by sockeye, pink, chum, and silver salmon. Halibut, bottom fish, crab, and clam are available year-round, weather conditions permitting.
You’ll definitely want a boat and motor if you live on Prince of Wales, but it doesn’t have to be a big one to start out with. Thorne Bay is on the inside of the Inside Passage, and if the weather and wind isn’t kicking up, the bay and ocean will often be as flat and calm as a farm pond.
For the most part, if you live in any of the rural areas, you can use about any form of alternative energy you’d like, as alternative energy is a way of life in most of Alaska. Solar power isn’t real popular on Prince of Wales though, since sometimes we don’t see the sun for weeks on end.
In most of the towns on Prince of Wales, water, sewer, and electricity will be available if you live within town.
Outside of town is a different story, though. Electric lines are slowly spreading to some of the rural areas on the island, with South Side Thorne Bay only getting electricity within the past few years. In the populated rural areas on the island, the steady drone of generators is a common sound. Thorne Bay is gradually getting quieter as more and more people get on the electric power grid. The average electric bill for our cabin is only about $20 per month, but we still keep the generator for backup power, as do most of the local residents.
Outhouses are much in evidence, as sewer lines are only available in town, and you will need to get a permit to put a septic system or drain field on your rural property. They do have regulations on that.
No one drills wells on the island, but freshwater springs are common on most pieces of property and most rural dwellings also use a rain catchment system, water storage tank, and filter system to take care of their water needs. With 150 to 200 inches of rain per year on the average, most people keep their storage tanks pretty full. You just need to match the size storage tank to your family size and expected water usage. You can still drain gray water directly into the soil, but you’ll need to make other plans for your toilet facilities and black water, unless you live in town on an existing sewer line. Don’t expect to ever be provided with a public sewer system if you live in a rural area on the island. Ain’t gonna happen.
Most areas have phone service, either via land line, radio phones, or cell phones. Phone service is getting better year by year. Internet service is still pretty spotty, but I’m sure that will get better over time, as computers and the Internet are still the wave of the future, even in rural Alaska. And you can always get satellite internet service. However, there are still a lot of residents who don’t have phones, often by choice, and Citizen Band Radio systems are still quite common in both residences and vehicles. Getting hold of some of the local residents can be quite interesting and involved at times.
There are several common ways to obtain buildable property on Prince of Wales Island. You can check with one of the local realtors, such Gateway City Realty at (907) 826-3640, or Prince of Wales Island Realty at (907) 826-2927, or on the Internet at www. ktn.net/powr and email at email@example.com. At times, you can still purchase land by sealed bid auction through either the University of Alaska, www.ualand.com or the Alaska Mental Health Trust Fund, www. dnr.state.ak.us/mhtlo. There are usually several houses and pieces of property available for sale by owner, and to find these you either need to know someone who lives there and is knowledgeable about property for sale, or you need to just start driving around looking for the “for sale” signs. There are bulletin boards at most of the grocery stores, gas stations, and other gathering places on the island, and that’s where most of the local residents advertise and find out what is available and from whom. You can also look in the Classifieds in the Island News, the local newspaper. The address for the Island News is P. O. Box 19430, Thorne Bay, Alaska 99919; their phone number is (907) 828-3420; their email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
You can reach the Prince of Wales Chamber of Commerce for a multitude of information. Their phone number is
(907) 826-3870; fax number is (907) 826-5467; email is email@example.com; web site is www.princeofwalescoc.org; and their address is: P. O. Box 497, Craig, AK 99921. They should have Forest Service Road Maps available, too.
Currently, most of the island doesn’t require building permits or inspections for private homes and cabins, and there is no building code to follow. If you want to live in a trailer initially and add on a wannigan, no problem. The drawback is, if you want to buy an existing home, you’ll need to check it out carefully, and you’ll probably have a more difficult time arranging any bank financing. Most likely, though, you’ll probably just have to work out a deal with the owner on a private contract. Just be careful.
We’ve built our cabin with lumber milled locally, mostly red cedar, and most of the material was either given to us, bought used, or bartered for. We have less than $2,000 cash into the entire 16 by 20-foot cabin—2 bedrooms, loft area, bathroom, kitchen, living room, utility and storage room, front porch, and a carport/covered outside work area. We have all the comforts of home that we want: wood stove, washer, dryer, propane stove, refrigerator, freezer, smoker, etc. A green metal roof, red cedar board and bat exterior siding, and planed red cedar interior paneling pretty much finish off the cabin the way we like it. The 4.2 acres were paid for by trading some used vehicles, paying some cash over time, and assuming a small bank loan, for about $20,000 total. That’s another story, for another time.
Contact: Jon Stram, ScopeShield LLC, 5701 Kallander Ave, Anchorage, Alaska 99516 email:firstname.lastname@example.org