The Inside Passage to Some of Alaska's Hideaways

Times Staff Writer

Imagine a place so remote that even the weekly ferryboat bypasses it. That's the way it is in Gustavus, and that's the way the people who live here like it--most of them anyway.

"We'd stop there if they wanted us to," said an officer aboard the Le Conte, one of the small ferryboats of the Alaska Marine Highway, "but they keep turning us down."

I arrived on a hazy morning by small plane from Juneau and stayed a day longer than I had planned--not an unusual event along the Inside Passage, where fog or rain can close in and make air travel impossible.

It was a bumpy ride in the little Cessna, over a salmon cannery at Excursion Bay, the only visible settlement in sight, ringed by snowy mountain peaks and deep-blue waters. Then directly across the water, up over the mountain, and down to the small airport at Gustavus.

Gustavus is on a peninsula, not on an island, but for all practical purposes it might as well be an island for the sense of isolation it contains. No roads lead in or out of Gustavus, except the gravel road to Glacier Bay where boatloads of summer visitors come to chase retreating glaciers and their blue calves.

Exploration Holidays arranges one-day tours to Glacier Bay National Park in the summertime, complete with plane ride from Juneau, Skagway or Haines, and a half-day cruise aboard the Thunder Bay excursion boat, starting at $225. They also arrange overnight or two-night cruises and tours, staying at Glacier Bay Lodge at Bartlett Cove in the park.

Besides the massive rivers of ice grinding their way to the sea, the park is full of more of nature's abundance: streams filled with spawning salmon, lakes full of trout, salt waterways of halibut, more than 200 species of birds, a lay of land ranging from mountains to fiords, glacial barrens to thick rain forests of hemlock and spruce.

I had come in search of a getaway with all the comforts of home, and I found it here, at the Gustavus Inn.

The inn is an old farmhouse, built in 1928 by a family of homesteaders with nine children. It got a new lease on life in 1965 when Dr. Jack Lesh, his wife, Sally, and their eight children moved to town. They had come to Alaska from New England to get away from it all, and they found their dream place here.

Jack and Sally Lesh still live right down the road, and several of their grown children remain in the community. The inn has, for four years now, been run by their son, David, and his wife, JoAnn, who have four small children. The young family has just moved out of the inn into a new house in back of it.

Early settlers in Gustavus tried growing vegetables and raising cattle. "However, the cows were constantly being devoured by bears," according to a local historian. The next generation put in the airfield during World War II, and later the government built a lodge at Bartlett Cove, the site now of Glacier Bay National Park and the modern, woodsy Glacier Bay Lodge.

Most of the 120 year-round residents are artists, charter-fishing operators, guides and others who can figure out how to make a living on their own.

"The young people want to protect the area, and the older ones want to develop it," JoAnn Lesh said.

What makes the inn special, besides its location so far off the beaten path, is the gourmet meals that are dished up to guests three times a day. The tradition was begun by Sally Lesh, who set the style for the place and developed the menus.

Most of the cooking nowadays is done by David Lesh, while JoAnn tends to the children, and a small staff takes care of the other duties at the inn.

Gourmet Cook

David Lesh has already gained a reputation as a gourmet cook. When he and his mother have offered weekend cooking schools at the inn, which they've done twice, the classes have filled immediately, mainly with former guests who know how good the food is. The three-day cooking sessions are in May and September.

On Saturday nights, except in midsummer when the inn is full of guests, David and JoAnn open the inn to neighbors. The tables in their small dining room and the six-seat bar are filled with guests and neighbors. Sometimes they bring guitars and other instruments, or someone has stories to tell, or there's quilting to work on, and such weekend nights can last well into the wee hours.

The dinner menus tend to feature "carefully prepared fresh seafood," JoAnn said, with such delicacies as Dungeness crab, king salmon, whatever is in season. A big garden is another trademark. They grow their own garnishes and herbs along with all kinds of vegetables. Desserts feature fresh raspberries, wild strawberries, rhubarb. Pastries and bread are baked every morning, filling the place with wonderful aromas.

Breakfast consists of light sourdough hot cakes, wild berry jams, freshly gathered eggs and plenty of good coffee.

Lunch includes homemade soup with vegetables from the garden, salad, a variety of cheeses, sourdough or whole-grain bread.

One dinner menu of note featured baked salmon, spinach souffle, rice, carrots, kelp pickles, a choice of wines. And for dessert: grasshopper pie or blueberry cheesecake.

That grasshopper pie is the inn's most-requested recipe. Mainly, I suspect, because of the chocolate crumb crust and the generous splashes of creme de cacao and creme de menthe in the filling.

Bicycles Outside

For those who worry about gaining weight on such a lavish diet, a fleet of one-speed bicycles is lined up outside the door. For miles around the inn the countryside is flat and the scenery serene, forests of hemlock and spruce marching from hillside to roadside, grassy moors drifting to the waterways.

One can head back to the airport and dream of faraway places while looking for the occasional small plane to descend. Or pass by the little school (with graduating classes that number from one to five) and littler post office.

In another direction are the pier and harbor that face onto Icy Straits. "Harbor," in this case, means several boats pulled ashore and turned over.

Or go for the weight-watcher's special: the 12-mile ride down a gravel road to Glacier Bay Lodge. If you're lucky, you can flag down a passing forest ranger in a small truck who's willing to cart you back to the inn.

Cry of the Gulls

But first, stop the bicycle and listen. Silence will engulf you, and then it will be shattered by the cry of gulls or passing ducks. I didn't encounter any bears, although both black and brown bears are somewhere in those woods, but I saw one fat porcupine and a pair of lazy, uncouth bald eagles.

If you run out of places to go and things to do, or if it begins to rain, go into the inn's library and curl up with a good book. There are blankets and pillows on the couch and the easy chairs are chubby and soft.

Listen again, late at night, for the soft warbling of swallows under the eaves, quiet, as befits a song in the dusk of an Alaska midnight. It's not the blue of a twilight with the gold rays of sun gathering into a Western disappearance. It's an overall azure glow, like looking through an opaque blue glass bowl, neither dark enough to allow stars nor light enough to read by.

The largely Indian community of Angoon, only town on 1,709-square-mile Admiralty Island, is probably even more remote than Gustavus, but it does get ferry service about twice a week.

To get to Angoon from Gustavus, one must fly to Juneau and then either charter a floatplane south to Angoon or hop on the ferry for a beautiful five-hour cruise along Chatham Strait.

A few years ago, when the state allocated several million dollars to upgrade the ferry system, most of the money was spent on huge ferryboats. The new boats were so big that they couldn't dock at the remote ports of call; they needed deep harbors with modern facilities.

Rumor has it that this made the Tlingit Indians of Angoon so angry that they put a curse on the fleet. Specifically on the Columbia, the large ferry that runs the Seattle-Juneau-Skagway route. Whenever the Columbia has engine problems, scrapes bottom, or when things go bump in the night, the alleged curse of Angoon comes to mind.

"The Columbia has had more than its share of problems," was all that a ship's officer would say, and even then he didn't want to be quoted. He felt that the worst of the troubles were in the past. But then, Angoon has ferry service now.

Bed-and-Breakfast Inn

Angoon also has a new bed-and-breakfast inn, the Favorite Bay Inn, that overlooks the boat harbor at the entrance to Favorite Bay. It's a rambling house built in the late '30s and later enlarged to be a general store, now owned by Dick Powers (formerly with the U.S. Forest Service). He also owns the new Whalers Cove Lodge nearby.

The lodge is at Killisnoo Harbor south of Angoon. A stay at this remote place costs $1,500 a week but that includes round-trip floatplane transportation from Juneau or Sitka, all meals, fishing gear and guide.

Admiralty Island, preserved as a national monument, has secluded beaches, natural hot springs, sea caves, not to mention passing whales, bald eagles, salmon, a brown bear population of about one for every square mile, 678 miles of pristine shoreline . . . all this and ferry service too.

According to Tlingit legend, Admiralty Island is where the earth was created.

The Powers' B&B; experience puts one in the center of the village. One guest claimed to have scooped up three gallons of clams in 10 minutes on a low tide, "like picking up apples at the grocery store."

Also at Angoon is a Mexican restaurant, called "Coffee & Doughnuts," as near as a visitor could make out.

Not to be outdone, a third visitor spoke of the bootlegger who buys liquor in Juneau and offers it for sale under the counter. Angoon is a dry community. But any group that can lay claim to bringing the Columbia to its gunwales can find a way to buy booze when it's time for a party.

Gustavus Inn, Box 31, Gustavus, Alaska 99826, phone (907) 697-2254. Daily rate is $80 per person including all meals.

Favorite Bay Inn ($50 a day for a double), and Whalers Cove Lodge, Angoon, Alaska 99820, phone (907) 788-3123.

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