Time Travel: Welcome To Meyers Chuck
Boats are the only transportation in this small Alaskan village
By Sally Bee Brown
Pete Wingert of Sitka, Alaska, remembers when he first saw Meyers Chuck 30 years ago. "I burst out laughing because it reminded me of Dogpatch in Li'l Abner—crooked chimneys and strange little houses." But as time changes, so do opinions, and today he knows the small community as an artsy, friendly place. "People are individualistic in a positive way," he says.
Bringing a boat alongside the government dock at Meyers Chuck, Alaska, is a step back to a peaceful time when life was far less complicated. An outsider might wonder if it's worth the stop, but what is there brings huge satisfaction to the 15 year-round residents who make up nine households…and tourists find its charm contagious. Population expands to as many as 35 when counting part-timers, most of whom take up residence in 12 additional cabins scattered around the town. Don't expect to find any hair salons, drug stores, or restaurants with stacked, pricey meals. There are no cars because there are no roads. Even electricity is by generator only.
Census figures don't count the "other" population—travelers who can be seen milling around the docks during boating season. Many come back time and again, drawn to the ambiance of genuine community.
Meyers Chuck lies on a hillside 40 miles northwest of Ketchikan, about four hours by boat, depending on speed. It includes a small island grouping on Cleveland Peninsula's west side. To get to Ketchikan from there, one must navigate Clarence Strait, the area's interstate highway, where frequent ocean winds and storms funnel through to create difficult seas. The harbor has long been a protective haven for boats caught by weather.
Pete rates the harbor as difficult, though. "It's hard to get an anchor to stick—pretty greasy," he says. But the town looks after its visitors. Once when he was dragging anchor, residents came out and told him he needed to be against the dock. There wasn't an empty slip, so they moved boats around, some ending up on his outside.
Tides are impressive in Meyers Chuck and can vary 18 or 20 feet. "What's the water today?" is the big question. For the residents, it doesn't matter if it's day or night—if something needs doing and waters are there, it gets done then. Weather is similar to a rain forest area, with temperatures likened to Seattle minus 10 degrees. One can figure measurable precipitation on about 60 percent of the days. "With good gear and a little internal optimism, rain can be looked upon as a wonderful condition," says year-round resident Vince Langley.
This isn't the Alaska of travel brochures or cruise ships, but as far as Vince is concerned, it represents the best of the state. It's an old settlement, reaching back to the late 1800s. In many ways, little has changed through the years. Homes still are built without blueprints and are "arty," not fancy. No incorporation means no codes. Residents collect materials and then build according to what they've accumulated.
Some of the homes are close together, some spread out and out of sight around the front chuck, which consists of several small islands and a short stretch of mainland. The back chuck refers to the other side of the same islands and another piece of mainland.
(What is a "chuck" anyway? By dictionary definition, it's a saltwater body that fills at high tide. Locals say it is a saltwater bay with two entrances, one that goes dry at low tide.)
It doesn't take long to get the feel of the area. The 1,000 feet of government dock has an emergency heliport pad and room for the float plane that brings mail and supplies weekly. (Townspeople order groceries by phone or fax ahead of time.)
"Main Street" is a path leading from the dock and branching to the majority of the homes. There's a short public trail with its own string art for visual flavor.
With no need for the old school as such, it has been converted to a home and community center. (The resident median age is significantly above state average.) There's the post office and gallery, and that about completes the town—except for the local wildlife. Wolves, porcupines, whales, bears, eagles, and ravens hang about.
It's a community of solidarity and creativity. Residents all work together and there's at least one artist in each family to help keep the eclectic gallery stocked and running. Cherri, Vince's wife, often is called to open up this town business at off-hours, with her husband sometimes joining her. It's a chance to visit with others, which just might turn into a joint fishing trip or an extended chat at the Langley house. "Because we see these same boats many years in a row, we become friends and look forward to visits," says Vince.
What if a tourist runs out of toothpaste or coffee? "Knock on a door and somebody will have it," says Cherri. "It won't be for sale, but you'll get it."
Although all the locals have boats—trawlers, fishing boats, workboats, or some sort of yacht—any new vessels with gleaming brightwork or carefully oiled decks are likely traveling through. Residents value their leisure time afloat, but mainly their boats are functional—the pickup truck of the West. "They are used everyday to transport people, fish, explore, haul freight, transfer fuel, pull logs, or act as home," says Vince.
A trip to the post office means jumping in a skiff to an adjacent island. Small boats are for travel around town and for occasional trips to Thorne Bay or sometimes to Ketchikan. Larger boats often are used cooperatively, with several residents going for supplies in one boat, usually to Ketchikan or Wrangell. Summers mean community potlucks, so supply runs bring sacks of flour, beans, rice, nuts, dried fruit, and cases of beverages.
If someone happens to be in Seattle, they expect to come home with a full boat, as the Langleys proved on a recent trip. They loaded up all the necessary equipment for a complete glass studio—two kilns, 800 pounds of colored glass rods, and accompanying torches and tools. On previous trips they have hauled furniture, water heaters, lumber, and various building materials.
History And People
Vince and Cherri moved to Meyers Chuck on Thanksgiving Day, 2001. As soon as the float plane pulled up to the dock, they had a holiday dinner invitation. "When our furniture and supplies arrived a few days later, everyone came over and helped us carry everything up the ramp and into the house," Vince says.
Steve and Cassie Peavey have lived in Meyers Chuck longer than anyone, since the early '60s, and have raised two boys there. Vince considers them the poster adults for this type of community. Cassie is postmaster and contributes her artistic talents to the gallery. Steve is an ex-logger who now does trolling. The Peaveys see the docks from their house, so Steve is labeled the unofficial dockmaster. He may help with lines, move boats to make more room, or even suggest visitors tie up alongside his own boat. "This is how you know you're OK," says Vince. Patsy is his pride and joy. She's also the oldest boat there, dating back to the '30s.
Meyers Chuck might not exist today if it weren't for Greg Rice. He created a gravity fed water system, using a chain saw winch to pull nearly a mile of 4-inch plastic pipe to a lake above the town. Locals prepare in advance for winter freeze. They store water in trash cans and use salt water for toilets. Greg is a commercial fisherman and cucumber diver aboard his aluminum gill-netter, Sea Smoke. He and wife, Rebecca Welti, also make museum-quality yellow cedar bowls and carved trays. And they've remodeled a rental cabin for passers-by.
The array of part-timers, many who have a long history in the community, bring their own skills and boats to Meyers Chuck. "It seems folks rarely move away completely after a little time in the village," says Vince.
Everyone there knows how to do something to help with whatever needs doing. Even cruisers bring their toolboxes and join in—probably with much better tools than the locals'. The town doesn't even have a tractor.
I asked Vince if the residents were escaping something when they moved to Meyers Chuck. "Nobody's going away from anything," he says. "They're going towards something." Perhaps it's a lifestyle few of us can truly understand without experiencing it.
Consider stopping by on your way north or south, and maybe join in with a hammer, a game, or a homemade salad.
55º 44' 31"N, 132º 15' 48"W
Normal temp range: Summer: 49–65ºF
Average annual precipitation: 82 inches, including 50 inches of snow
About The Author
Sally Bee Brown is a former businesswoman who turned magazine/newspaper/novel writer 14 years ago. Her first PMM article was published in the Spring 1998 issue, and she has been a PMM Contributing Editor since January 1999. Sally is always open to fresh story suggestions, especially when the spotlight is on the people involved.
She and her husband, Charlie Brown, live in Bend, Oregon, and boat mainly in the Gulf Islands of British Columbia and the San Juan Islands of Washington State. They welcome boating destination ideas for their 40th anniversary in June. "Time to go someplace new." firstname.lastname@example.org.