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Bush Folk Ask Boatload of Tourists to Cruise On By

Privacy: After an onslaught by a ship of looky-loos, the 80 residents of Tenakee Springs, Alaska, decided to take a stand.

March 07, 1999|TODD LEWAN | ASSOCIATED PRESS

TENAKEE SPRINGS, Alaska — TAT-A-TAT-A-TAT-A-TAT.

The clatter, like hail on a metal roof, roused Shelly Wilson from her sleep.

POOSSHH. A heavy splash.

Was that an anchor falling in the channel? The harbor master fumbled with her clock: 6:55 a.m. It couldn't be, she thought. The only boat to stop regularly at this clump of cabins in the wilderness was the weekly ferry from Juneau, and it wasn't due until tomorrow.

Wilson snuggled into her bunny slippers, went to the window, pulled back the curtains and groaned.

A cruise ship loomed over the inlet. Its steel hull stretched as long as a football field. Its smokestack puffed a ribbon of blue exhaust high above the spruce tops.

And it had tourists. Dozens of them in scarlet bomber jackets and Gore-Tex parkas, carrying telephoto lenses, video cameras and binoculars in hand.

The World Discoverer had discovered Tenakee Springs.

Tenakee is best described by what's not here: no hotels, no cars, no ATMs, no asphalt, not even, heaven forbid, a single flush toilet.

Its residents are largely "end-of-the-roaders"--people chased westward across the Lower 48 and on up to Alaska by what others call progress: mall-to-mall traffic, chemically treated lawns, billboard adscapes. At last they'd found a spot as far from civilization as they could be and still remain in the United States.

Then the World Discoverer's anchor splashed in their inlet that morning last August.

Tenakee Springs, population 80, suddenly had 120 drop-ins. Germans, French, Brits and Americans--240 eyes studying them as if they were king crabs in a tank.

Was there no escape anymore?

Tourism's Point of Diminishing Returns

"Journey beyond the encroachments of civilization . . . Venture into remote areas, seldom visited by other Alaska cruise lines."

Wilderness with luxury. Exploration with predictability. That's the promise of Society Expeditions, a Seattle-based cruise company.

Aboard its World Discoverer, passengers rough it in style. While drifting past glaciers, they can lounge by the pool. After rafting with sea otters, they can have their hair coiffed in the beauty salon. While dining on sauteed salmon and shrimp prepared by European chefs, they can watch walruses out the windows of the Marco Polo Dining Room. A 15-day soft adventure for two: $13,000.

Tourism has never been more important in Alaska. Fishing, timber and mining are hurting. Even "king" oil, Alaska's biggest moneymaker, is staggering from a worldwide glut. But tourism is up 61% this decade.

The biggest growth area: cruise ship travel. Since 1994, passenger volume has leaped 52%, to 568,000 last summer, according to Alaska's tourism bureau.

"For the first time, tourism is becoming an important component in the livelihoods of smaller communities," says John Boucher, an economist at Alaska's labor department.

Smaller, more mobile cruisers now reach places once considered inaccessible. The World Discoverer, for one, can slip its 3,724-ton, 285-foot bulk in and out of channels where an 850-foot Pacific Princess would get stuck.

But as the tide of tourists rises, so do worries that it will swamp bush Alaskans.

"A lot of folks are finding that their streams can hardly support the numbers of people fishing them," says Jay Hammond, the former governor and outdoorsman. "With tourism there's a point of diminishing returns."

Cruise operators, aware of this apprehension, are trying to make their expeditions less obtrusive, less intrusive.

"We don't want to make ripples anywhere we go," says Durnam of Society Expeditions. "But tourism is getting bigger, and people have to make a decision--embrace it or distance themselves from it."

Expensive Groceries, Priceless Solitude

Around Tenakee Inlet, folks savor the little things: the sharp scent of autumn red alder, the thrash of spawning salmon in Indian River, the sight of fireweed blossoms swirling on a breeze like white butterflies.

They respect the majesty of a humpback flinging itself into the air, the grace of the bald eagle that swoops to a wiggling sockeye. When the last copper light has crept up Red Wing Mountain, the stars show themselves with the clarity of chipped diamonds.

Tenakee Springs is a stone unturned, a refuge tucked in the nation's largest protected wilderness, the Tongass National Forest.

Once, only the Tlingit Indians visited, spending winters near the steaming mineral fissures. After prospectors arrived in the 1880s, the hamlet became a cannery, a hideaway for gamblers, "sporting girls" and bootleggers, a workingman's resort.

Anyone who knew Tenakee then would recognize it now: the one-room cabins, the kerosene lamps, the angular outhouses.

Tenakee's only thoroughfare, once a boardwalk, is a ribbon of mud and gravel draped on a lumpy shoreline. A traffic sign has sprung up: "Speed Limit: 10 mph--Please drive BELOW the limit." And the strip now has a name: Tenakee Avenue, "for UPS purposes," folks say.

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