A Plane, A Bay, A Hatchery
Amanda greets me on the dock; cheeks red, smile radiant, eyes gleaming. A quick but warm handshake later, she’s off with a sturdy gait down a gravel path winding into the woods.
The sky is characteristically cloudy overhead—the summer forecast in southeast Alaska almost always spells rain. The path winds along the Bay, and in the distance I see a lone sailboat with its mast down drifting next to an island covered in evergreens. I’m suddenly aware of how intrusive my existence is: my breathing and steps impinge on an otherwise perfect silence.
It’s clear we’re already in Amanda’s home. She gestures to either side of the path as we walk, pointing out bear dens and scratch marks on trees with honed familiarity. She doesn’t seem perturbed. Gravel and twigs crunch under her tough, worn boots and she looks comfy bundled in an oversized sweatshirt, hair loosely pulled back, face make-up free.
‘There’s Two Heart,’ she says, stopping abruptly. She puts an arm out to keep me from mindlessly walking straight into the full-grown black bear sitting path-side eight feet ahead. Two Heart gazes at us calmly. Amanda recognized him instantly from the two patches of white on his chest that earned him his name. She knows all the 15 black bears that frequent Neet’s Bay.
A former teacher, Amanda moved to this remote part of Alaska with her husband several years ago, and so far she loves it.
‘I could see myself living here for another five years,’ she says, ‘I love the Bay and my cubs!’ She’s referring to the bears, here. She and her husband haven’t yet started a family.
Amanda’s husband works for a salmon hatchery program run by the Southern Southeast Regional Aquaculture Association Inc. The hatchery deals directly with three types of salmon—King, Chum, and Coho—and Sockeye and Pink salmon appear in the Bay naturally. This year, Amanda’s husband is in charge of incubating last year’s salmon that have returned to the hatchery.
First, he shocks the fish for a duration of two minutes, 80 at a time. After they die, he splits open the females, removes their eggs, squeezes the male’s milt (sperm) onto the eggs and then places the fertilized eggs in an incubator where they later hatch.
We walk past one of six long, open tanks of young salmon. A caretaker sprinkles food on the water; a riveting ‘swish’ as tiny dots of food fly out of the scoop and into the tank. We almost instantly hear the fluttering splashes of 300,000 baby salmon clamoring for a bite.
It’s a tight-knit community in the bay with only a handful of year-round residents and no regular access to other areas of civilization. The area is only accessible by float plane (boats are possible but rarely used), and although they receive tourists during summer months to help fund the hatchery, chartering a plane themselves is only financially possible once every few months. Amanda feels that when she has children she’ll need to live someplace less remote.
But, for now, she has everything she needs.
‘My fridge is full of seafood,’ she says. By now, she’s cooked all parts and types of salmon in dozens of different ways. ’We also have a small plane that delivers groceries every week, so we place orders with a place in Ketchikan. They know us pretty well by now. Oh, and Amazon delivers here for free!’ She sounds amazed that this is possible.
With such few residents, the honor system is also an uncomplicated and effective way to get things done. Residents have access to a single gas pump next to the dock, where they record how much gas they each take and pay later.
Amanda’s and other residents’ lifestyles reflect the abundance of natural resources available to them. There are no bars or clubs or restaurants; just a handful of houses, bear dens and the hatchery. So in their free time they’ll fish, swim, host potlucks, and there is never a shortage of hiking in the area.
It’s a community based on nature, and nature seems to be thriving in large part thanks to the community.