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The Inside Passage to Some of Alaska's Hideaways

July 14, 1985|SHARON DIRLAM | Times Staff Writer

GUSTAVUS, Alaska — Imagine a place so remote that even the weekly ferryboat bypasses it. That's the way it is in Gustavus, and that's the way the people who live here like it--most of them anyway.

"We'd stop there if they wanted us to," said an officer aboard the Le Conte, one of the small ferryboats of the Alaska Marine Highway, "but they keep turning us down."

I arrived on a hazy morning by small plane from Juneau and stayed a day longer than I had planned--not an unusual event along the Inside Passage, where fog or rain can close in and make air travel impossible.

It was a bumpy ride in the little Cessna, over a salmon cannery at Excursion Bay, the only visible settlement in sight, ringed by snowy mountain peaks and deep-blue waters. Then directly across the water, up over the mountain, and down to the small airport at Gustavus.

Gustavus is on a peninsula, not on an island, but for all practical purposes it might as well be an island for the sense of isolation it contains. No roads lead in or out of Gustavus, except the gravel road to Glacier Bay where boatloads of summer visitors come to chase retreating glaciers and their blue calves.

Exploration Holidays arranges one-day tours to Glacier Bay National Park in the summertime, complete with plane ride from Juneau, Skagway or Haines, and a half-day cruise aboard the Thunder Bay excursion boat, starting at $225. They also arrange overnight or two-night cruises and tours, staying at Glacier Bay Lodge at Bartlett Cove in the park.

Besides the massive rivers of ice grinding their way to the sea, the park is full of more of nature's abundance: streams filled with spawning salmon, lakes full of trout, salt waterways of halibut, more than 200 species of birds, a lay of land ranging from mountains to fiords, glacial barrens to thick rain forests of hemlock and spruce.

I had come in search of a getaway with all the comforts of home, and I found it here, at the Gustavus Inn.

The inn is an old farmhouse, built in 1928 by a family of homesteaders with nine children. It got a new lease on life in 1965 when Dr. Jack Lesh, his wife, Sally, and their eight children moved to town. They had come to Alaska from New England to get away from it all, and they found their dream place here.

Jack and Sally Lesh still live right down the road, and several of their grown children remain in the community. The inn has, for four years now, been run by their son, David, and his wife, JoAnn, who have four small children. The young family has just moved out of the inn into a new house in back of it.

Early settlers in Gustavus tried growing vegetables and raising cattle. "However, the cows were constantly being devoured by bears," according to a local historian. The next generation put in the airfield during World War II, and later the government built a lodge at Bartlett Cove, the site now of Glacier Bay National Park and the modern, woodsy Glacier Bay Lodge.

Most of the 120 year-round residents are artists, charter-fishing operators, guides and others who can figure out how to make a living on their own.

"The young people want to protect the area, and the older ones want to develop it," JoAnn Lesh said.

What makes the inn special, besides its location so far off the beaten path, is the gourmet meals that are dished up to guests three times a day. The tradition was begun by Sally Lesh, who set the style for the place and developed the menus.

Most of the cooking nowadays is done by David Lesh, while JoAnn tends to the children, and a small staff takes care of the other duties at the inn.

Gourmet Cook

David Lesh has already gained a reputation as a gourmet cook. When he and his mother have offered weekend cooking schools at the inn, which they've done twice, the classes have filled immediately, mainly with former guests who know how good the food is. The three-day cooking sessions are in May and September.

On Saturday nights, except in midsummer when the inn is full of guests, David and JoAnn open the inn to neighbors. The tables in their small dining room and the six-seat bar are filled with guests and neighbors. Sometimes they bring guitars and other instruments, or someone has stories to tell, or there's quilting to work on, and such weekend nights can last well into the wee hours.

The dinner menus tend to feature "carefully prepared fresh seafood," JoAnn said, with such delicacies as Dungeness crab, king salmon, whatever is in season. A big garden is another trademark. They grow their own garnishes and herbs along with all kinds of vegetables. Desserts feature fresh raspberries, wild strawberries, rhubarb. Pastries and bread are baked every morning, filling the place with wonderful aromas.

Breakfast consists of light sourdough hot cakes, wild berry jams, freshly gathered eggs and plenty of good coffee.

Lunch includes homemade soup with vegetables from the garden, salad, a variety of cheeses, sourdough or whole-grain bread.

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