Growing up in Bush Alaska
by Joli Remund
Sitka woman recalls idyllic childhood
Courtesy of Joli Remund
Joli Remund and her brother, Jesse, grew up in Port Alexander, which can only be reached by boat or floatplane.
Where did you live while growing up?
I spent the first 13 years of my life in Port Alexander with my mom, dad and older brother, Jesse.
Where is Port Alexander?
PA is on the tip of a small island that is part of the Tongass National Forest, and can only be reached by floatplane or boat.
What is it like in Port Alexander?
It’s built around a bay, with boardwalks instead of streets. The population is about 50 in winter and 100 in summer. There’s no electricity, cars, roads, stores or hospitals. We’d use propane tanks to heat water for showers, wood stoves to warm the house and generators for power.
What was it like living without amenities others take for granted?
We never had a fridge or freezer because of the constant power they require. Our pantry took up a huge room, to store a year or more’s worth of food since we didn’t have regular access to grocery stores. Large grocery orders were brought in by boat a few times a year.
How many children attended your school?
Port Alexander school has about 10 students, K-12, with one teacher. PA is a fishing-hippie community that lives the subsistence lifestyle.
What was it like, living a subsistence lifestyle?
We were raised on organic food—home-grown or gathered in the wild. By the age of 6, I could identify edible and poisonous plants in our region.
Mushroom hunting in the fall was like a treasure hunt—searching the woods for edible mushrooms we would dry and use throughout the year. We gathered beach asparagus above the tide line, and bull kelp for soups and salsa. We canned food in a pressure cooker to preserve it for longer periods. Our protein diet consisted of deer we hunted, fish we caught and dried beans. Grains were stored in large buckets in our pantry. My mom made everything from scratch; it was as wholesome as food can get.
What are some of the things you remember about your childhood?
Jesse and I grew up outdoors—making forts, fishing, hiking, picking berries, making small campfires, playing in tide pools, making rafts to float on during high tide in front of our house.
We were never bored—summers were the best! We would be outside from 9 a.m. until 11 p.m.
Where did your parents work?
Commercial fishing is how my parents made a living, longlining for black cod and halibut or trolling for coho and king salmon.
What was that like?
My brother and I stayed with friends while my parents went on four-day fishing trips. As we got older, we spent more time on my dad’s boat, the Dorothy Ann. We read or did art projects, keeping out of the way.
We used humpies to practice cleaning fish, and saved the air sacks from the guts so we could color them and tie them on our boat mast like balloons.
What do you most value about growing up in Port Alexander?
PA forms a very tight, family-oriented community. There are always potlucks, bingo night, or plays put on by the school. Families are close and siblings are the best of friends. It is perfect, in my eyes. After moving away at age 13 to a town of 9,000 people, I realized PA is unlike anywhere else. Families in other places don’t seem to be as tight, kids grow up in front of the TV, and most people eat processed or fast food.
Looking back, I realize how lucky I am to have had that experience.