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Confused in Kake

August 29, 2012

Aug 22

All I know of Kake is covered by one sentence in the cruising guide: “Kake is a Tlinget Indian village of 700 residents and boasts the world’s tallest totem pole.” I find no other references to the place in my books aboard except that the town has fuel for sale, which we need.

On the five hour hop from Red Bluff across Chatham Strait to Kupreanof Island I try to imagine what a modern Indian village looks like. Before I can stop myself I have envisioned wigwams and people wearing cloths made of bear skin. It’s an embarrassing revelation of my ignorance, and I move on to other topics.

A vista of high, snowcapped mountains surrounding a gentle sea is not beauty enough to free one from the boredom of a motoring boat. So to pass the time I next imagine how the Kake Chamber of Commerce has jingled the village name to good effect. My inventions are either hackneyed (Kake–it’s not just for breakfast anymore) are obtuse (Kake–where the icing only melts in summer) until I hit upon a gem (Kake–where the people are sweet as pie). I make a promise to share this with the Chamber.

I am still congratulating myself when I pull into the fuel dock, where, at the head of the ramp is a small building with a large sign on the outfacing wall reading, “Welcome to the Village of Kake Alaska, the town that never sleeps.”

The flatness of this slogan rankles me–it’s a missed opportunity–and what’s more it’s obviously false. In the parking lot next to the building is one car and in it a man who is napping.

Murre’s approach to the dock somehow wakes him and as I secure ship he wanders down the ramp. He is a heavy-set, Indian in his late thirties. He wears a flannel shirt and shorts. He carries a clipboard.

“Need fuel?” he asks.

I contemplated something clever but answer, “Yes.”



He unrolls the appropriate hose and hands me the nozzle, which I insert into Murre’s tank. I press the lever. Nothing happens. I looked at the man.

“I need to turn on the switch,” he says, wandering into the shed on the dock.

“Still nothing,” I say when he pokes out his head.

“I need to open the valve. It’s up by the store.”

“Not many customers?”

“Not many.”

“I’m in no hurry,” I say.

I see my encouragement has been unnecessary: hurry is not in the cards. The man ambles slowly up the ramp as if waiting for the flooding tide to make it level before he proceeds. He is gone for some time. I putter at small tasks in the cockpit, and when I look up, the man is back on the fuel dock, sitting in a chair by the pump and staring at his clip board.

“Ready to pump?” I ask.

“All done?” he asks.

“No, I haven’t started. Did you turn on the valve?”

“Oh, yes. You’re all set.”

In Kake the fuel dock is known as “The Tribal Fuel Dock.” And once in the store to settle my bill, I see a piece of paper next to the register stating, “The Tribal Fuel Price for Diesel is $5.57 per gallon.” My 18 gallons comes to $120 with tax, and I’m suspicious that the stated Tribal Price is, by some strange twist, the white-guy price and that everyone knows this but me.

I motor back to the village front and anchor. The day is overcast and the ramshackle buildings lining the bay appear drab. Many are unpainted. It’s around noon, and even from the water there is a noticeable lack of activity for a town that never sleeps. From this vantage it appears sleeping is all it does.

I row ashore and make a left on the main street intent on touring the town and stretching my legs all in one go. But within five minutes the road trails off along a coast heavy with forest; I’ve run out of town to tour.

The village is without a center. It’s mostly small houses along the water, some neat but most run-down and one recently burnt to the ground. The exceptions are an anonymous blue building that turns out to be the Community Liquor Store, closed, and a trinket shop, which is also closed. A sign on the smartly painted Presbyterian Church announces the “Piece of Cake Cafe”, and my hopes take a leap–surely this is where the people are–until my eyes reach the bottom … “Open Fridays”. It’s Wednesday.

Most of the paint has worn off the world’s tallest totem pole, I find when I climb the hill, and there are no plaques around to explain its origin. It stretches into the sky and is braced by large steel cables, but the logs on the top don’t appear to be carved at all. Across the street is a beefy new cell tower that is higher than the totem pole by a third. Again, bad planning on the part of the Chamber, I think, to allow their tourist attraction to be so one-upped.

On the hill next to the totem pole is a newly-built hospital. Above this a newly-built high school. A neighborhood stretches away from these whose houses are small, newer than the ones on the bay, and have suburban gloss. Their sidings are pastel blues and beige and each roof carries a satellite dish. Surprising are the number of yards that fly an American flag. A banner above one house says, “We support our troops.” The only evidence that this is a Tlingit village is a bumper sticker on a totalled car parked at the side of the road that reads “Proud to be Tlingit.”

As I pass one house a small man is suddenly in front of me. He has few teeth; his face is pockmarked; his clothes are soiled. “He’s been barkin all night I heard him,” he says.

I look to where he points, and there in the dirt yard before one house is a dog tied to a stake. A salmon lure dangles from its lower lip, the hook buried deep in the soft flesh. On the steps a woman sits looking on. “Belongs to the man here,” she says nodding toward the house, “but he’s out fishing three more days.” A stocky, adolescent boy stands over the dog. He is putting on thick leather gloves. “What will you do?” the woman asks the boy. “Momma…” says the boy and then breaks off. His concentration is with the dog. He is steeling up his face.

At the bottom of the hill is the Eye Opener Cafe, and the sign says OPEN. The cafe is a small vending trailer with a covered porch in front and a few tables. I see no other customers as I approach, and it’s only when I’m on the porch that I see the vending window is closed. Next to the window the hours are handwritten on construction paper: “Open 6:00 to 8:00, 10:00 to 12:00, 3:00 to 5:00, 6:00 to 8:00,” and below this is noted “Hours may change as needed.” Below this is another construction-paper sign that reads, “Please don’t hang out on my porch when I’m closed. Thank you, Carrie.” I’m just turning to avoid a trespass when a voice from the trailer says, “I’m here.” The window flies up. “I’m open. I know I’m not supposed to be open, but I was just in back.” I look in and there is only the one room of the trailer. There is no back.

The woman is short with dark hair and dark skin. She wears a baggy sweatshirt and baggy black jeans that are a foot too long and pile up over her sneakers. A dog barks. “Shut up Stevey,” says the woman. “He’s not suppose to be here either.” Stevie continues to growl. She smiles, but if anything this makes her face look tired and drawn.

“Do you have fresh brewed coffee?” I ask.

“Oh yes,” she says, touching a thermos next to the window.

She pumps into a paper cup as she talks, filling it right to the rim. “Brewed it early. This thermos is really something amazing. It keeps the coffee hot all day, and sometimes if there’s leftovers I can just pop the coffee in the microwave next morning and then put it back in the thermos.”

I look at a tablet next to the register on which Carrie has tallied the day’s sales. Only five other customers have come to the cafe today; it’s now late afternoon.

“Cream?” I nod and she slides over a jar of white powdered. I look at the jar and my over-full cup for a moment, pondering my next move. “You just spoon it in, honey” she says by way of encouragement. I spoon in the powder and stir and as coffee spills on the counter she mops it up with a paper towel with a routine that suggests this is how things are done in Kake. The liquid is gray and only just warm. She smiles. “78 cents,” she says.

“And food?” I ask. The menu is small and uninspiring–burgers and nachos; bagels with cream cheese–but I’ve not eaten since the morning.

“Today I have bagels.”

“What kind?”

“There’s a plain and blueberry and an everything bagel.”

“What’s everything?” I ask.

“Well,” she pauses. “It’s got seeds on top.”

“I’ll take that.” And then by way of caution, “Does it come with anything?”

“Sure,” she says brightly, “Cream cheese.”


“Sure. I make the bagel nice and hot in the microwave.”

I move my cup of tepid coffee to a table and wait.

A pickup pulls into the driveway and a logger gets out. I know he is a logger because he is a burly white guy who wears mud covered leather boots, a seersucker shirt, and jeans that are held up by suspenders emblazoned with the words “Logger”.

“Hey Bill. Long time no see.” says Carrie.

“Hey Carrie. Glad you’re still open. Anything but bagels today?” he asks.

“Not today.”

He orders a blueberry bagel with cream cheese and a mocha and sits down. Stevey growls softly. Carrie turns on a small boom box that plays pop music.

“I can’t remember when you took this place over from Liz,” says Bill.

“It’s only been eight months,” says Carrie. “I was going to move it back to my lot in town, but then my house burned down.”

“Burned?” says Bill.

“Didn’t you know?”

“No, I’ve been working for SEA Alaska up north this summer. Just got back.”

“Ya, forth of July. All three boys were in the house. It was raining and so they were lighting fireworks in the living room and throwing them out the window. You know, one of my boys is a pyro. When we take the garbage to the dump, he’s always lighting stuff on fire. Like old refrigerators or tires. Can’t figure him out. Anyway, one of the smoke bombs or bottle rockets or whatever bounced off the window and rolled under the couch. Shit but that couch burst into flames just like that! We barely had time to get outside, and then the whole house kinda went whoof before the fire department could even get there.”

“That’s terrible,” says Bill. “I had no idea.”

“Ya, I mean who knew couches were so dangerous. They can kill you.”

“No body got hurt though?”

“Now I tell everybody to watch out for their couches. They’re a fire hazard. It’s important.”

“But the boys are OK?”

“Oh sure,” says Carrie, “My oldest was so close to the fire his thick gold necklace got hot and burned his neck. He still has a scar. Now we’re living in a trailer on the property. Not sure what to do with the house.” Carrie laughs. Her cell phone beeps.

“Well, that’s good,” says Bill.

“And now they text asking when am I coming home to cook dinner. Boys will be boys,” says Carrie.

Stevey barks.

I pay my bill and leave.

Kake is beginning to get to me. It feels like a place adrift. What is the purpose of this Tlingit Indian village? What *is* a Tlingit Indian village if it has no obvious ethnic roots or even a physical center? How is this place any different from any other generic American town?

I am walking back to the boat. I turn a corner and in front of me stands a little white boy. He is blond and wears bright yellow waders. He addresses me but his language is unfamiliar.

“Pardon?” I say.

He begins again in what I presumed to be Tlingit, but then finishes with “You have a beard, so you must be Bob.”

Confused still I say, “I’m sorry but I just don’t understand what you are saying.”

“I only know one man with a beard,” he says in English, “His name is Bob. So, you must be Bob. Hello Bob.”

Though his logic is unassailable, I respond with, “But my name is Randall.”

“Aha! — Randall Randallasoras!” he replies, brightening.

I wait. He stands there digging a boot into the mud.

“And what is your name?” I ask.

He ponders awhile, and then concluding this is the dullest question he has heard all day, he runs off toward the beach.

I row out to the boat thinking I don’t know much more about Kake now than when I arrived.


One Comment
  1. Unintended permalink
    August 30, 2012 10:33 pm

    Somewhere along the way this blog crossed a boundary into art. This is literature. Well done old man. One of my favorite posts so far.

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