It’s easy to pick out a visitor on the streets of Seldovia, says Laurel Hilts, prevention program coordinator for Seldovia Village Tribe (SVT). “They’re the ones who don’t wave when they see you.”
Giving a brief walking tour of the city, she raises a hand to greet friends and neighbors too many times to count. On a blazingly gorgeous summer day — the kind that gives the city its motto, “Another Day in Paradise” — people are out and about, running errands, fishing or joining kids in the children’s Ch’anik’na Program for a hike on McDonald Spit, where a local science expert will teach them about marine life. It’s this kind of access to what SVT assistant director and CIRI shareholder Trinket Gallien calls “the playground outside our back door” that keeps people living in or coming back to such a tucked-away place.
Located on the south shore of Kachemak Bay and home to about 370 people, Seldovia is accessible only by a 15-minute flight or a 45-minute ferry ride from Homer. Inaccessibility has fostered economic opportunity: In 2009, SVT built the Kachemak Voyager, a ferry that runs twice a day specifically to allow locals to get out of town and bring back groceries in a cost-effective manner.
“When I was growing up, most all of us worked in the cannery at one time or another. It was a great experience because you needed to learn that you don’t want to be on the slime line for the rest of your life.”
— Trinket Gallien
“It’s expensive to live here,” says CIRI shareholder Crystal Collier, president and CEO of SVT, the area’s largest job provider, with about 80 employees. “Gas is high, food is high. Everybody knows you go to Costco to stock up.”
Limited resources and opportunities mean that Seldovia usually sees its young people leave for college and work. But a surprising number of them return home after a few years. “It seems like there are people in their late 20s or early 30s who are having kids and deciding to come back because they recognize the value of what a wonderful place this is to grow up,” Collier says.
People have long recognized the benefits of living in Seldovia. In the early- through mid-1900s, the city’s economy thrived, with mining, logging and particularly fishing providing jobs for many Seldovians. Canneries, especially, fueled a significant economic boom for the city.
“When I was growing up, most all of us worked in the cannery at one time or another,” recalls Gallien. “It was the largest employer at the time besides the school, and it was a great experience because you needed to learn that you don’t want to be on the slime line for the rest of your life; you need to go out, become educated and get a job.”
The 1964 Good Friday earthquake put an end to Seldovia’s cannery industry and led to the eventual destruction of the town’s once-popular boardwalk, which made it possible to walk from one end of Seldovia to the other no matter where the tide was at.
Tourism ebbs and flows, and the school population is smaller than it used to be. Winter can be challenging in such an isolated place. But the people of Seldovia are engaged and active. “Our elders are well taken care of,” says Collier. There are senior meals and “Healthy Chatter” classes, and just this year Hilts headed up a walking challenge that had locals from age 12 to 83 participating. SVT emphasizes health above most things, with programs and services focused on whole body wellness, housing, drug and alcohol prevention and environmental stewardship. With a jurisdictional area that encompasses Anchor Point and Homer, SVT actively reaches out to other communities and people with cultural classes, events and health services. And everyone — Alaska Native people, non-tribal members, Japanese and Norwegian people — is welcome to participate.
“That’s just who Seldovia is. It’s always embraced lots of different cultures,” says Collier.
Hilts chauffeurs her visitors “out the road,” as locals say, away from Seldovia the town to Seldovia village, where most people live. She wants to show off the community garden, another SVT effort. Her passengers put on their seatbelts, and Hilts grins as she rolls through town at barely 25 miles per hour.
“That’s the other way you spot a visitor,” she says. “Locals never buckle up.”
Joseph Carlough Sr.
“I’ve been all over Alaska, but this is my home,” says 82-year-old CIRI shareholder Joseph Carlough Sr. of Seldovia. As a commercial fisherman, he fished the Bering Sea out of Adak. He fished Cordova and Chignik. He fished in Kodiak and lived through the tsunami swells that hit the island after the 1964 Good Friday earthquake. “That was something,” he remembers. “There was three big swells that came in. The first one, when it went out, it just drained the bay dry.”
Then, when he quit commercial fishing, he got a job with CIRI Alaska Tourism Corporation, running boats for Kenai Fjords Tours for 11 years. Until just last year, he captained the fast ferry that runs between Homer and Seldovia.
A lot changes in 82 years, even in a tiny seaside village like Seldovia. Carlough saw the cannery industry grow to become the town’s greatest economic asset—and he witnessed its demise. “There were five canneries here, all along the waterfront,” he recalls. “We had a crab cannery and then for a while we had a shrimp cannery. It was quite a place, when all the fishermen would come in the summer, a couple thousand fishermen were here in the summertime.”
Working as a commercial fisherman took him all over the waters of southern Alaska and gave him a legacy to pass on: Both of his sons are now commercial fishermen. Carlough’s grandchildren and great grandchildren, meanwhile, have mostly settled in Anchorage. He doesn’t blame the young folks for moving away.
“There’s not much going on in Seldovia,” he admits. “There’s not a lot of jobs around here. In September, it folds up. You might as well shut off the lights here. There’s nothing here for young people, that I can see, unless they’ve got a job down at the Tribe. The young people will stay here if there’s a job for them.”
Still, he notes, a new hotel has opened up, with year-round accommodations; maybe that will help kick-start Seldovia’s tourism. And maybe more tourists will mean more jobs—and more opportunities for younger folks to stick around. “There used to be quite a few more people here when I was growing up, then it just faded away,” Carlough remarks wistfully.
His own wife works for the Tribe, which is what Carlough says keeps him in the village. “I wouldn’t mind moving, but my wife likes her job. If my wife retires, we’ll probably move.”
Now that he’s retired himself, he looks forward to the days he and his wife take the ferry he once captained across the water to Homer; they drive north up the highway to visit their family, then come back to Seldovia, where things move at a more leisurely pace.
What else does he like to do? He shakes his head. “All I’ve done all my life is just work and fish.” What about church? someone asks him and gestures to the old Russian Orthodox church.
“All I’ve done all my life is just work and fish.”
— Joseph Carlough Sr.
That church only gets used a couple times a year,” he says. “The priest comes down from Kenai. And then sometimes they have a funeral there. But it’s not open very much; it’s pretty nice inside. I never really was a church guy. They’ve got another church down on the end here where everyone goes on Sunday. I stay away from there.” He gives a low chuckle. “The ocean is my church.”