At the Coray Homestead

At the Coray Homestead

It’s a windy but relatively hot Saturday afternoon, and I am resting in a small lounge area in the dining hall at The Farm Lodge in Port Alsworth, Alaska.  The lodge consists of a main building with dining hall and several cabins of lovely wood construction. I am relaxing after yet another delicious meal. As the ladies in the commercial kitchen prepare for the evening meal, the constant drone of Christian music can be heard coming from the radio (presumably an iPod). While Port Alsworth is a generally religious, small community on the shores of Lake Clark in the preserve unit of Lake Clark National Park & Preserve, this part of the community is particularly religious. After spending a day here following a weeklong backcountry trip in the Twin Lakes area of the park, I have come to get a taste of what a religious commune must feel like. Every meal is prefaced by a prayer. Everyone is really friendly in that mildly something’s-not-right kind of way, and everyone looks related to one another.  The largest building in the community is the church (except for the airplane hangar at one of the community’s two airstrips). Lake Clark Air, owned and operated by the same family that owns the lodge, discourages its customers from using their aircraft to transport alcohol.  And no alcohol is allowed in the dining hall.

I am waiting for the arrival of Steve Kahn, who is on his way via boat from the homestead he shares with his wife, Anne Coray. Steve is the author of “The Hard Way Home: Alaska Stories of Adventure, Friendship and the Hunt.” Anne is a poet, and has published a few collections of her works, including “Bone Strings.” Together, they wrote the text for Alaska Geographic’s “Lake Clark National Park & Preserve.” While a float plane ride with Lake Clark Air would be the faster way to the homestead, they are not flying due to high winds on the lake. As the afternoon progresses, the winds die down quite a bit but Lake Clark Air still refuses to fly.  At one point, I hear a knock and a “Hello?” coming from inside the kitchen.  The ladies have long since finished their kitchen tasks and left the dining hall. I get up, go to the kitchen, and meet Steve face-to-face for the first time. Wearing a leather hat, bushy mustache and gear designed to protect the body from wind and rain, Steve is the kind of person you instantly feel comfortable around, like you have known him for years.  We gather up my gear and head down to his 18-foot Lund to load up and head out onto the lake.

Normally about a half hour ride, the stiff winds and frequent gusts, along with rolling, shifting swells, makes for a nearly hour long boat ride, interrupted frequently by jaw-jarring slamming of the boat’s keel against rising swells. Despite the nature of the ride, it is hard to avoid or miss the stark, raw beauty of the Lake Clark shoreline and surrounding mountains. We eventually make it to the shelter of the bay where Steve and Anne’s homestead is located.

Built in the early 1950s, the homestead sits on the western shore of Lake Clark, a short boat ride from the top of the lake, a frequent rally point for small aircraft traveling from Anchorage into the region. The youngest of four children when she was born, Anne joined this world in a small, one-room log cabin on the property in 1958.  I would have the pleasure of sleeping in that cabin during my three-night visit. That cabin has been joined by three other structures: Ann and Steve’s cabin, another cabin belonging to Anne’s brother Craig and his wife, who spend their summers at the cabin, and a third cabin in progress belonging to Anne’s brother David.

As the Van Halen song says, “I found the simple life ain’t so simple.” During my visit, Anne and Steve note that people who think that living off the grid in a wilderness homestead is something to do in their retirement years simply don’t understand the amount of work necessary to make it happen. After spending a few days with them and getting a taste of the lifestyle, I come to get a sense of how time consuming and physically tasking the lifestyle can be.

In order to build their cabin, Ann and Steve had to have the lumber shipped in from Anchorage.  While it was originally supposed to come by barge, due to a series of events shaped by weather and incompetence, they had to cart the wood from Port Alsworth to their homestead via dozens of trips back and forth in the Lund boat. Their cabin is heated by wood burning stove, which requires an abundant supply of firewood – firewood that must be cut, split, hauled, and stacked. For electricity, they use solar panels to generate power, but use it sparingly, only powering a marine radio (that is rarely used), a computer and the Internet (which are fired up only a couple of times a day), and the occasional bouts of music.  One evening we listened to a variety of Tom Waits selections while drinking their marvelous home-brewed beer. They do not use a washer or dryer (all laundry is done by hand), refrigerator (they use the nearby creek), or freezer for food (everything that is perishable that needs to be stored longterm is canned).  For ice, they have constructed a large wooden box filled with sawdust, harvesting ice from the lake in the winter using a chainsaw to cut large blocks for burial in the sawdust.  Then, to enjoy a G&T in the summer, you just push aside the sawdust, chip off some ice, and toss it in your glass.

In order to get fresh produce, Steve and Anne grow their own in an open garden and a greenhouse.  Strawberries, lettuce, spinach, bok choy, brocolli, bell peppers, and tomatoes are among the crops they grow, protected by fencing, webbing, and electrified wiring in order to keep out snowshoe hares, moose and bears.  For a garden fertilizer, they collect the carcasses of spawned-out salmon on the shores of Lake Clark in October and bury them whole in the rows where seeds will be planted in the following season. They also harvest wild edible plants, like “beach onion” or “wild chive,” which they preserve by soaking in olive oil and canning it, as well as an assortment of roots and berries that grow nearby.

Most of their protein also comes from the land. Lake Clark is fed by one of the richest sockeye salmon runs in the world.  Starting out in Bristol Bay, the sockeye swim up the Kvichak River into Lake Iliamna, then up the Newhalen River into Sixmile Lake, and then a short stream connecting to Lake Clark. By mid-July, their beaches will feature set nets extended out from shore anchors down the beach away from the cabin. Sockeye, already starting to undergo the metamorphasis of shining, silver ocean fish to reddish with green head spawning fish, will be slamming into gill nets, cutting short their thousands of miles of travel to spawn. These salmon will become the primary protein source for Anne and Steve, and dozens of other homestead residents on the lake, for most of the coming year. It is their concerns over adverse impacts to this primary food source that leads their opposition to the development of the proposed Pebble Mine.

But that is not all of the bounty that this wild land has to offer for Anne and Steve.  During my visit, they catch lunch and dinner using rod and reel for Arctic char and a floating hook and line “set” for lake trout.  In the winter, they can fish for those and other fish.  And then, about once every three years or so, they will hunt for moose – an animal large enough to provide them sufficient red meat to last for several years.

Not being familiar with this way of life, one may wonder, “What do you guys do out there?” This is a common question for Anne and Steve, who see their remote, wilderness home as a source of constant inspiration for their writing. But the daily tasks of simply providing for food and fuel can dominate the day and sometimes take away from time for writing. And then there are construction and rennovation projects. Dave’s cabin is slowly being built over the years. Steve and Anne have been working on restoring old, nearby cabins belonging to prior homesteaders. Nearby homesteaders, like their closest neighbor Bella Hammond, sometimes need some assistance.  Bella is, after all, in her 80s and still living mostly by herself at the homestead she built with her husband, former (and beloved) Alaska Governor Jay Hammond.

While the homestead life may not be for everyone, it is hard to not be inspired by their ingenuity, the products of their labor, and their connection with a land that so many have forgotten. After visiting with them for a few days, I vowed to come back for another visit; then not as a photographer documenting a book, but just as a visitor. I also became inspired to make more of my own 1.26 acres on the Anchorage hillside, envisioning how to turn a large patch of alder into a garden someday, expanding what Michelle and I have already begun doing with our greenhouse.

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