Greg Howe seems to think the outboard is fine. I’m certainly not inclined to argue. He’s been here four decades, I’ve been here four days. If he thinks the engine is reliable enough to get us across South Inian Pass I’m going to believe him. But I’ve had an outboard die on me. Twice it’s put me on the rocks, once in British Columbia, another time north of Juneau. They make for great stories, but with an east wind of 25-knots and the open ocean an arm’s length away, I’m not ready to revisit the stomach dropping sensation of a coughing Yamaha.
Greg and Jane Button’s boat the Via has a covered helm with a bench seat for two people and another one directly behind that faces backward.
“Wear your rain pants. You’ll get wet.”
Brittney and I huddle on the seat and watch the Hobbit Hole disappear behind us. With no hesitation Greg takes us into Inian Pass, and for who knows what time, makes the 20-minute trip to Elfin Cove. In its heyday Elfin Cove was a commercial fishing hub. From there the treasures of the northern panhandle was at your feet. Salmon all summer, Kings in the winter, halibut right off the dock. Greg waxes about days with forty fishing boats in the Hobbit Hole’s inner cove. For not the first time I wonder if I was born too late. Trolling Inian Pass and Soapstone Point circa 1955 sounds like Nirvana. It’s a tale of tragedy told and retold up and down the coast. Even in Alaska, the last frontier, the land of opportunity, the land of inexhaustible natural wealth, locals can feel the spoon hitting the bottom of the bowl.
Elfin Cove is a shadow of its former self. The tale of west Icy Strait is not all that different from Northern British Columbia where we spent the last three winters. A place defined by fishing that has been strangled by dismal returns and a changing climate. Homesteads and outposts used to dot these places. Now they are only relics of an age come and gone. Another victim of the good old days. The Hobbit Hole and Elfin Cove stand as guardians of another time. And Elfin remains mostly as a seasonal town populated by sport fishing lodges.
The run across Inian Pass is eye opening. Steep cliffs are barren of vegetation thirty feet above sea level, marking the height merciless winter waves can hit. We hug the shoreline of Chichagof Island. I point across the pass to the mainland and the boundary of Glacier Bay National Park. The Brady Glacier glows in the gray light of winter. The open ocean, the swell visible as a steppe ten feet high awaits any foolish enough to run the outer coast. Hands down it is the wildest scene I’ve ever laid eyes on. How have I lived ignorantly at the step of this country for years and never ventured this far? This place is in my blood already.
We slip into Elfin Cove, a long narrow cut in the Chichagof Island shoreline where the wind funnels down the steep hillsides and adds frothy whitecaps to one-foot waves. Most of the buildings are up on pilings and hover over the water on high tide. A few are built into the mountainside, but it is a place of boardwalks. There are no cars here, there never will be. But beyond the charm of the place is the eerie vacancy. Clues of a previous grandeur are everywhere. A school, a post office, houses pockmarked up and down the inner cove. But there are no people.
That’s not entirely true. There are five people here in winter. The shop is open three hours a week. 1-2, Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. As we walk along the boardwalks I hop between feelings of awe and the eerie silence of another small community gone to seed. We pass fishing lodge after fishing lodge boarded up with No Trespassing signs hammered to the fence. Like their clients, the owners are South for the winter. They’ll arrive in the spring, fish the dickens out of Cross Sound, and then take their fish and money back South with them. It doesn’t feel right, the consumption of so much taken by so few. Greg’s an old commercial fisherman, a champion of Alaska’s fisheries, a commodity he calls, “the people’s resource.”
“Very few can afford to come up here and fish for a week.” he explains. “And those that do take more than they can eat. It gets thrown out in the spring, they come back, and do it all over again. More people can go to Costco and buy a fillet of Alaskan Halibut once a week. Which one is the better use?”
There’s a look of nostalgia on his face. Memories of people in Port Althorp and Gull Cove and Mud Bay. Of fishing boats working The Laundry and Soapstone and stopping at the Hobbit Hole for dinner. Like much of the old west, the big east has chewed it up and swallowed it. Three times he tells stories of the fishing life, the culture of “Icy Straits.” It’s a tradition I would love to see honored. Commercial fishing shaped southeast Alaska, for better or worse. It’s an occupation that brought many to Gustavus, Hoonah, Elfin Cove, and Pelican. It was our lifeblood, a means that opened the door to many of the current residents of this place.
Back at the Hole I poke through the detritus of the homestead. Countless fishing buoys, crab pots, line, and hooks fill a storage shed. There’s such a contrast between what this place was and what it will become. A place that feeds the bellies of humanity to one that feeds the mind. But indirectly, I believe the goal remains the same. To make people fall in love with this place. To keep them alive, and to convince the world that we cannot survive without them.