Gustavus – Outside the Park

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6/17/19 On Board the Le Conte, on the Alaska Maritime Highway

We aren’t normally Bed and Breakfast fans.  Although there are lots of people who love to stay in other people’s homes, Joan and I are most comfortable in our trailer or, when that isn’t possible, like this trip, in a hotel or lodge.  When on Isle Royale, of course, we stayed in the park lodge because, well, you can’t take a trailer over on the ferry and, aside from wilderness camping – which we just aren’t able to do – there weren’t any other options.  

Glacier Bay Lodge was an option for us here in Glacier Bay Park, but  Joan decided to try something different.  The town of Gustavus, with barely 400 people, is just outside the park boundaries on the south end of the west arm of the bay.  The town was built on the glacial till left by the Great Pacific Glacier after its last full advance in the Little Ice Age of the 1750s.  Before that it was traditional grounds for what is now known as the Hoona Tribe of the Tlingit people.  (I’ll talk some more about this fascinating culture in future posts.)

Nothing western really happened here until World War II when Alaska became an important fueling and re-supply area for the War in the Pacific.  The military built the airport at Gustavus and Americans began their invasion.

After the war, scientists became increasingly aware of the rich resources in this park and especially its importance as a natural laboratory for the study of glacier behavior.  As early as the 1970s, scientists became interested in protecting the park’s resources, not as a visitor attraction, but as a scientific resource.  So early on in the park’s history, there was a strong bias towards leaving things as natural as possible.

As a result, the park has very strict rules.  For example only two cruise ships are allowed to enter Glacier Bay each day and they are required to keep a minimum distance from any glacier.  Now, the dock at Gustavus isn’t big enough to handle a cruise ship and so their numbers don’t matter a whole lot to Gustavians.  On the other hand, private fishing boats are allowed in the bay, but a permit is required and they only issue 25 of them per day.  All boaters must follow strict rules about not getting too close to animals, nor can they pursue any of them, under strict penalty – chasing a whale, for example, could get you jail time!  The rules have been so strict that it is only recently that they have extended to the Hoona the same Native American hunting, fishing, and foraging rights that other tribes enjoy in US Park lands.

This posture has created tension with the small community of Gustavus.  Especially the restrictions on fishing in the bay have had a devastating effect on the Gustavian economy. We lived in Gustavus for four days and nights and spent some time talking to residents of the village.  It is a vibrant community full of volunteers all supporting lots of activities to benefit the community.  But the community is dependent on, basically, two major activities – fishing and tourism.   With the strict park rules, the economy has shifted to largely fishing tourism.   So there are several inns and lodges that charge a pretty fair price to arrange fishing excursions into various parts of the bay and the surrounding islands and channels.  Transportation into and out of Gustavus is limited and one of the major channels in is by private charter plane (in fact, that is how we got there.). But such methods aren’t for normal folk, unless, like us, it is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.  

The isolation of Gustavus presents special problems for local businesses.  Buying food, if you are running a restaurant, for example, is a major event.  There is a small market in town for odds and ends, but most people make special trips to Juneau to buy quantities of food, which, of course, must be stored for as long as possible.  Consider, though, that, if you are going to bring back large quantities of food, you have to do that with a vehicle and it costs $250 per vehicle, one way, to ferry a car from Gustavus to Juneau, the nearest large town.  So your food shopping already starts out at $500 before you’ve bought anything.  

Say, like Deb, you run a B&B.  What if a guest accidentally plugs up the toilet?  There are no plumbers in Gustavus and an emergency plumber with a snake to clean out the pipe will run hundreds of dollars and take days before the plumber can get there.  In the meantime, she doesn’t have many options but to shut down!

Inside the Lodge at Bear Track Inn

Although we could walk from the  B&B into four corners (with the only gas station in town), we couldn’t walk all the way out to the park visitor center.  Instead we had to hire a taxi.  There are apparently a couple of services, but we used Strawberry (that’s her name) and she drove us back and forth.  She was a wonderful person, with lots of interesting stories.  Still the ride one way came to $30, for a distance of something like 8 miles.  Like food, gasoline has to be trucked in, and, Strawberry needs to support herself as well.  Oh, and there are no mechanics in town either, so a broken part can ground a vehicle for weeks.

The result of these economic facts, is that things are expensive in Gustavus and that means that it tends to attract a pretty well-off set of visitors.  We ate our last dinner Sunday at the Bear Track Inn, a huge log-style lodge at the end of a washboard dirt road six miles out from the center of town.  (We are told that this is the place Harrison Ford proposed to his most recent wife.  He flew her in there on his private plane.)

Front Yard of the Bear Track Inn

I think my point is that prices are high here, not because the town’s people are gouging you – they are really very nice people – but because their own costs are high – the idea that small town living is economical is true in some places, but not in Gustavus.  And when the park imposes rules which make it even more difficult to make a living (like restricting boat access), it isn’t surprising that this generates friction with an already-struggling town.  They are dependent on the park and yet hate the fact that the park makes their lives more difficult.  

Although I empathize with the problems the town faces, if I have to choose sides,  I think I have to support the park.  If the park allowed unlimited access, Glacier Bay would soon degenerate into a cesspool of pollution and overpopulation.  The wildlife it supports could easily be decimated and the so-interesting geology, overrun with inconsiderate campers and kayakers.  If we don’t maintain our pockets of protection, we really risk losing them altogether.  Then it isn’t just the scientists that lose, but all of humanity, as our biodiversity is squeezed until it is gone.

It may simply be one of those ongoing balances of power – the essence of how politics works.  Each side demands a position extremely favorable to their own self interests, but then settles for something a bit more compromising.  The park has already allowed the native tribes back into the park, maybe there is room for increased commercial fishing – I don’t know.  In the end, though, the disagreements will have to be settled with scientific evaluation of pros and cons, not political bickering.