Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Wild life — Kasilof duo laughs through volcanoes, Exxon during 30 years in the Bush

By Jenny Neyman
Redoubt Reporter

Mary and Bob Haeg’s version of paradise would be some people’s version of hell, or at least purgatory.

Thirty years with no running water, no electricity, no regular mail, no phone, no TV, no computer or Internet, no neighbors, no way in or out except by boat or plane.

“No stores, no roads, no people,” Bob said.

“It sure was nice,” Mary said.

“Yeah, there was no baloney. I’d still be there if I wasn’t so damn old,” Bob said.

Now in their 80s, the inevitable march of time has taken its toll on the Haegs and the subsistence life they carved out for themselves in remote Chinitna Bay across Cook Inlet and a little north of Anchor Point. Age kicked them out of their own, self-made Garden of Eden about two and a half years ago and landed them in their version of purgatory — civilization. Or as much civilization as they could stomach, anyway. They packed up what they could from their wilderness home, shipped it all across the inlet and moved into a house near the beach in Kasilof.

“Only a couple cars a day go by. It’s already too busy. But we can stand it,” Bob said.

They made the move for an easier life. One where they can stay warm without chopping wood and eat dinner without having to find it, kill it, dress it and cook it.

“We had to do with what we had, you know,” Mary said. “Now over here you can get fettuccini sauce. We never had any of that before. It’s different being able to go to the store and cook with all that stuff.”

Different surroundings have forced a different lifestyle on the Haegs, but at heart they haven’t changed much. Their activities are still governed by daylight, rather than the irrelevant numbers on a clock, and they’ll make appointments for “when it’s light out” and head home “before it gets dark.” After a few days holed up with a cold, they need to confer with each other to determine what day it is, and only then if there’s a good reason to bother knowing. Bob still makes his famous pickled salmon; he just does it with fish from a subsistence set net site on the beach near their house. The Haegs bring the “young people” lunch, and the fishermen share their catch.

Though they say they’d just as soon not have so many gal darn people around, the Haegs can’t seem to help being friendly to anyone they meet, a throwback to their years hosting tourists in Chinitna Bay after fishing went south and they opened Haeg’s Wilderness Lodge instead. At the same time, three decades spent without having to impress or get along with anyone but themselves have left the Haegs without concern about what people think of them.

They’re equally as colorful in their stories as in real life — driving a shiny black Hummer with yellow flames custom painted on the sides and wearing bright Hummer jackets to match. The custom plates say “THXXON” — a sarcastic salute to the monetary settlement they got after the Exxon Valdez oil spill ruined fishing in Chinitna Bay.

The Haegs laugh over the plates as much as they do everything in life. It’s hard to say which came first with them — their “Oh, what the hell,” attitude or their spirit of adventure. Either way, the combination has made for an interesting life.

Life on the bay
The Haegs’ decision to move to Chinitna Bay came as spur-of-the-moment as many things in their lives have. They were living on the central Kenai Peninsula at the time, in the 1970s, after Bob convinced Mary to move to Alaska. She had been living in Minnesota with her five kids when she lost her husband, who was Bob’s first cousin and best friend. She was working at a liquor store when Bob came back to visit and showed her a picture of Alaska.

“He said, ‘You know, Mary, if you ever came to Alaska you’d never go back. You’d love it,’” Mary said. “I went to lock the liquor store door one night and thought, ‘I’m going to go to Alaska.’”

She bought a Winnebago, packed up the kids and headed north. She got into Kenai late at night.

“Where did I find Bob?”

In a bar. But neither that nor anything that’s happened since has made her regret her decision to come to Alaska.

“It never entered my mind,” she said.

Bob blames Mary for the Chinitna Bay scheme, but in fairness it was only half her doing. Mary said she loves to fish, and told Bob about a set net site she’d seen on the east side of the inlet. He’s the one who went looking across the water.

“She comes home after seeing a fishing site and said, ‘We want to buy a fishing site.’ I said, ‘Sh-- we don’t need another job.’ I was paving. I never seen a fishing site, didn’t know what it was, but I’m game for anything, gal darn. I didn’t need another job and I didn’t know anything about fishing, so I said, ‘We’ve got to buy a fishing site where you can’t do anything else.’”

It wasn’t hard to find someone who knew of a site for sale matching that bill.
“Anytime you sit down and get to bullsh---ing, you’re going to start talking about fishing. If you don’t like talking about fishing, don’t live in Alaska,” Bob said. “The guy said he knew of a site, but you can’t live there. I said, ‘Oh, hell, that’s going to be interesting.’”

Bob’s cousin, George French, flew them to Chinitna Bay, a 10-mile-long inlet east of Iliamna Lake, in French’s Super Cub to check out the site. It was blowing about 70 knots out of the west, so they couldn’t see much. A beach and some trees were all Bob had to go on.

It was enough.

“We couldn’t even land the airplane it was blowing too damn hard. We flew back and said, ‘It’s just what I always wanted,’” Bob said.

In the spring of 1976, Bob and Mary packed up the few belongings and supplies they could gather and headed across the inlet by boat. The skipper dropped them on the shore and told them they had two days to haul everything up off the beach before a big tide came in.

When they first arrived there was just an 8-by-16-foot trailer house. When they packed up 30 years later, they left 10 buildings behind.

The 2.5-acre site was more than just the buildings, though. It was all as much of their home as the 34-by-34 log cabin the Haegs built and lived in. Their walls were the mountains behind them and the cliffs that cut off the beach in either direction, making it so they couldn’t walk more than two miles either direction, and so visitors had to come in by boat or plane. The laundry room was series of racks and clotheslines strung high enough to catch the breeze. Their refrigerator was the garden they planted in an old wooden dory, the berry patches they picked in the fall, the smokehouse they used for their salmon, the traplines Bob and their son, David, tended during the winter, and the rich clamming beds and fishing grounds in the bay. Their television, playing nature and wildlife shows 24-7, was everywhere they looked.

Boom, bust at sea
Fishing was mythical when the Haegs first got to the site. They set netted for salmon — kings, reds, silvers and chums. Their summers were filled with the hard work that comes from having a hot spot — mending nets, tending buoys and dealing with the flopping, flashing bounty that came in when they pulled their gear.

There was ample sportfishing, too. Halibut were easy to find. And they’d occasionally hook a king crab so big they’d swear it was a halibut until it got up to the boat.

In the winter there were tanner crab in the bay.

“When the tide would go out they’d forget to go back so you could go pick them up,” Mary said.

They had a clam beach nearly to themselves, except when a visiting pilot would mistakenly think it’d be a good spot to land and ding a prop or wreck landing gear on the rocks.

“How many planes did we pull out that tried to land in our clamming spot?” Bob asked Mary.

The Exxon Valdez spill in 1989 put a stop to that way of life. Oil balls floated up the southern reaches of Cook Inlet and invaded Chinitna Bay. Halibut, the Cook Inlet herring fishery, even the salmon runs were destroyed. They used to get 3,800 chums a day, but after the spill, a good day was 363 fish, Mary said.

“It changed quite a bit. The fishing really never did come back,” Mary said.

“Yeah, it was a mess. It still is, really. It hurt us and all we got out of them was a Hummer,” Bob said.

“Our land wasn’t worth anything because there wasn’t fishing anymore. We started taking in tourists, otherwise we couldn’t have stayed there,” Mary said.

Life off the grid
Even before the tourists, the Haegs were isolated, but they weren’t completely alone. The National Park Service created Lake Clark National Park and Preserve in 1979, extending park boundaries around the few private inholdings on the bay, including the Haegs’. The Park Service people were good neighbors, the Haegs said. They’d help out if the Haegs got in a bind, and the park made it so unauthorized fish camps couldn’t spring up on the beach and in the woods, which used to be a serious headache, Bob said.

The squatters would build plastic shacks, litter, harass wildlife, catch too many halibut, bury them until their boat showed back up and shoot the bears that were drawn in to the fish.

“Then we’d have wounded bears around. The Parks Service helped clean that dump out. We put it out on the beach, I gave them a gallon of diesel and we burned it. That was the end of that crap,” Bob said.

A citizens band radio served as a link to the outside world, on the Kenai Peninsula and much farther beyond. It was entertainment to a point, but also proved incredibly helpful on occasion, like when the Haegs’ refrigerator went on the fritz and someone from Outside talked Bob through fixing it. Or when their pet goat ate insulation and a guy on the CB talked to a vet and relayed treatment information — “We had to pour Wesson oil down his throat,” Mary said.

Marine radio kept them in periodic touch with civilization across the inlet, especially if they needed a fishing tender to haul supplies over for them or needed a flight somewhere. Bob learned to fly when he was 62, and they had their PA-12, a little bigger than a Super Cub, painted with pink flames during a trip to Soldotna.

“Oh, it didn’t fit our lifestyle, with pink flames all down the side of it, but it was a pretty airplane,” Mary said.

Their son, David, the only one of the kids to grow up in Chinitna Bay instead of leaving to attend school in town, also became a pilot.

David Haeg regularly flew supplies and equipment in and out for his parents, in all kinds of conditions. During one trip, on Jan. 24, 1990, David had guided a larger plane delivering two snowmachines out to his parents’ site, then was dropping a passenger off in Port Alsworth, which took him near Mount Redoubt just as it was erupting. Being a photography buff, he got a gorgeous shot of the mountain before getting out of there to avoid ash damage to the plane.

That luck held with all the volcanoes in the area. In the 30 years the Haegs lived at Chinitna Bay, both Redoubt and Spurr erupted and Augustine erupted twice, but not one dumped any ash on them.

Mount Augustine is a mere 30 miles south of Chinitna Bay, and the Haegs could see the steam and ash rising when it erupted in 2005.

“We could see where it blew. It went up in the air and went east and went across and dumped on you guys. Boy, that was funny. We thought we were going to get it,” Bob said.

Never a dull moment
“We had something happen all the time. There were no dull moments,” Mary said.

Animals accounted for many of those not-dull moments, and General Custer the goat was at the center of many of them. A friend from Homer told Mary she had a young goat she couldn’t take care of and wondered if Mary and Bob could keep him. Custer made himself right at home. He was housebroken, so he got to come inside. His favorite spot when he was younger was curled up on Bob’s lap in the rocking chair. When he got bigger, he liked to stand right next to the barrel stove.

“In the winter you had to watch him ’cause he’d stand next to the stove and you could smell him,’” Bob said.

Being a goat, it was a constant battle to keep him from eating things he shouldn’t, like the insulation and the entire instructions to a brand-new three-wheeler kit Bob had had delivered. Tales of General Custer traveled far and wide over the CB, prompting one woman from down south to make and send a blanket for the goat with five stars on it.

“He got promoted to a five-star general,” Mary said.

They had a series of dogs, including Howler, who would lie under the stove and howl in the middle of the night if it went out. Then there was Tasha the horse, who learned how to open the cabin door. One day Bob and Mary heard knocking on the door, and it opened to reveal Tasha with a face full of porcupine quills.

“She knew they had to come out, and she sat there and let me do it,” Bob said.

Moses the raven was an ancillary pet, adopting the Haegs rather than the other way around. Moses liked to perch on Tasha and go for rides, and the raven was deadly with clothespins when Mary hung out the laundry, and with anything shiny.

“You couldn’t put down a socket or wrench or anything shiny,” Bob said. “We never did find all those.”

Wild animals were all around, including the brown bears that became a huge draw for wildlife viewers when the Haegs and other park inholders starting hosting tourists in the 1990s.

“We lived with 20 brown bears. I never petted a live bear. I petted a lot of dead ones and I’m still alive. If you’re dumb enough to pet a live bear, they make a movie of you. If you’re smart enough to stay alive with them for 30 years, there’s nothing to that,” Bob said, referring to “The Grizzly Maze,” a documentary about amateur naturalist Timothy Treadwell, who was killed by a grizzly in Katmai National Park in 2005.

Actually, a filmmaker did think there was something to the Haegs’ life in Chinitna Bay. Nature filmmakers Bob Swerer Sr. and Bob Swerer Jr. got a hold of Mary over Marine radio about eight years ago and told her they wanted to come film a documentary about them.

“I went out and told Bob and David. They said, ‘Oh Mom, you’re just kidding us.’ But I said, ‘Yeah,’ and they came out and did it,” Mary said.

The film, “Alaska Off the Beaten Path,” is available for purchase at www.dickproenneke.com and by calling 800-737-0239. It has aired on PBS, and the Haegs sometimes get stopped in the grocery store by people asking if they’re the ones on TV. It’s a kick to see themselves on TV, Mary said, and to look back at the life they created on their own, in their own little corner of the wild.

“Oh, we had so much fun, and we’re still having fun,” Mary said. “We’ve been laughing ever since.”

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