KAKE, Alaska – The water in Keku Straits is a black pearl, the kayak a diamond blade under which that perfect jewel created by the Alaskan dusk is cut. The rippling wake silently stretches out for hundreds of feet until it meets the real wave-makers. More than a dozen humpback and orca whales breach all around, their lacquered skin reflecting the sun setting over the highest peaks of Baranof and Kuiu islands. Only a hundred miles away from the tourist traps of Juneau or Sitka, the whales inhabit the limitless Alaskan boondocks.
For all the adventurous travelers pushing the boundaries of guidebooks and maps in search of the forgotten, the unspoiled, the last authentic destination, where over the next mountain, past the next peninsula, something else will be there: two parts unrelenting beauty and one part vain accomplishment.
That two-thirds becomes whole in Kake, a tiny village that would easily be one of the world’s premier sea kayaking destinations but no one has ever heard about it – or at least, that is the sense given off by the empty streets. Ninety-eight miles southwest of Juneau, Kake (pronounced “cake”) is literally a village on the edge. Resting on the northwest coast of Kupreanof Island, Kake floats in the Pacific like a message in a bottle among the more than 1,000 islands that make up the Alexander Archipelago, delineating Alaska’s famed Inside Passage. And that message is an SOS.
In a state that is every day increasingly inundated with tourists, the tiny community is one of the last places resting within the often over-used cliche’ of the Last Frontier. A Tlingit settlement of some 600 inhabitants, Kake is a community in flux, hit hard by the fallout of commercial logging and the restrictions placed on fishing over the last decade. With younger residents leaving to find work, the summer migration of whales is beginning to outnumber the residents.
There are no hikers in the surrounding wilderness, no camera-clad couples combing the vacant streets. Strolling through the hushed village center past dilapidated houses, or kayaking up to the eroding tombs on Grave Island that soon will be taken by the sea, it becomes obvious that nothing here moves fast. Nothing, that is, except for the whales.
Getting to the whales should be a breeze, what with them feeding less than a mile off shore, but beginning this year that has become a challenge for the tourist without gear. Harry Brouillette, owner and operator of Island Excursions outfitting company, passed away this summer, leaving an absence of outfitters. He used to scoop customers up in his pickup-come-monster truck and have them alongside the whales in minutes, watching in awe their bubble feeding rituals and full-body acrobatics; now, its not so simple.
Brouillette was a great example of the stoking prod a smoldering settlement like Kake needed to resurrect itself. After a few hours on the water, Brouillette was known to invite paddlers back to his house and share his visions of Kake’s future. Gone are the large-scale logging and the catastrophic effects of a one-horse economy. Brouillette wanted to diversify that load, and saw tourism as a great salve for the environmental injustices of the past.
But change, as it often happens, is slow to come. Instead of paddling from Kake’s docks to the whales in minutes, novice paddlers now have to look to the multitude of outfitters in nearby Petersburg for guides and gear.
Al Brouillette, Harry’s half-brother, inherited Island Excursions, but couldn’t keep it afloat from his home in Haines. While the lack of tourists makes running an outfitter in the small town hard for anyone, it too is precisely the charm of Kake, as it allows for private sessions with the whales. It isn’t hard to imagine a day where the straits could be filled with tourists, pushing the whales and their adventurous followers out into the vast vagaries of the Pacific, but that is surely far from the reality now.
“I’m not sure what will happen,” Al Brouillette said in the hearty Alaskan accent that his Tlingit tribe shares with the Native Alaskans. “It’s a rustic little village. Off the beaten path, the whales are a normal occurrence, not tourists.”
There is no doubt the chance is there; and the town’s council of tribal and village elders is trying, albeit with little help from the outside – help that will be necessary for real improvement. On the other hand, maybe the wildlife can take back the corner of the island chiseled out by humans. Along with whales, other wildlife beckon visitors to these remote islands and undoubtedly would be happy to take them back; one could argue that has already happened, and the black bears walking down Main Street could support that case.
In spawning season, the halibut and salmon run the streams like puppies to open arms. Deer, moose and black bear stand stalwart in rare, healthy numbers against hunters and poachers. The hardy eco-tourist can plan an unending itinerary. That is not to say, however, there isn’t some definite limit to the resources; the abundant clear-cuts across the northern end of the island make this point clear as forested hiking trails open to meadows strewn with stumps.
The dichotomy that holds Kake in its feuding arms – environment versus industry – is not specific to the dying town. Alaska is drenched with stories about the straining resource industries, leaving a huge question mark regarding the sustainability of small villages all over the state. The possibility of deluging these miniscule metropolises with tourism prospects creates the forever-present battle between saving people or saving the environment. It is a rare place where they can both live, not only surviving, but thriving. Alaska still has that chance, but the window closes fast, like the sun setting behind the flanking mountains along Keku Straits. Somewhere out there, out of sight, Harry Brouillette is paddling with the whales.