Editor’s note: This excerpt from Heather Lende’s Of Bears and Ballots: An Alaskan Adventure in Small-Town Politics is used with permission from Algonquin Books.
When I wrote an obituary for an old gold miner, I learned he was credited with laying the first sewer line in Haines. He was tired of the stinky outhouse in the back of his favorite bar on Main Street, so one day he dug a trench and laid the pipe down to the harbor. It evolved into a proper wastewater treatment facility funded by taxpayers.
When the longtime municipal sewer plant operator retired this spring, his wife told the story of how she knew she would marry him when, after their first dinner date, he gave her a tour of his workplace. He was proud of it. She loved him for that, and still does. I think about that a lot, ever since the assembly approved over a million dollars in upgrades to sewer and water systems.
There are lots of other people who change a town for the better and who, unlike Ray Menaker, Tom, Tresham, and myself, never seek or serve in elected positions. The reason we have a swimming pool in Haines is because back in the 1970s a teacher was shocked that in a waterfront, fishing community, so many people did not know how to swim. He convinced the state and local governments to supply the funds to build one. Since that time, it has literally saved the lives of boaters and commercial fishermen who were taught to swim there as children. Members of the Haines Woman’s Club founded our library over eighty years ago in an abandoned shack on Main Street. Now the Haines Borough Public Library is the nicest building in town.
What we care about determines how we make our government work. We joke that Haines, because it is so small, is like a large dysfunctional family. We can disagree horribly at public hearings and write nasty letters to the editor about one another, but when someone dies, we share a pew at the funeral. At church on a recent Sunday the priest spoke of the need for congregations and by extension communities—and I would add states and countries—to reject the current “either/or” doctrine and remember we are a “both/and” kind of place. Big Don and I are still in Haines, and so are our friends, families, and foes, so that’s a victory of sorts. Maybe it’s not “marvelous,” but it could be otherwise. I have been accused by both critics and friends as seeing this town, and my world, through rose-colored glasses. I still do, even after everything that has happened in the last few years. Because I don’t know how anyone who has ever attended a birthday potluck for an old friend, the fair, or a sunny summer wedding on the beach, with the Fishpickers—a band of fishermen playing swing tunes—and grills full of fresh salmon, and tables loaded with garden salads and home-baked breads and local beer poured from kegs, with children and dogs running all around, the best seats reserved for old people, when the Chilkat Inlet sparkles, and the mountains are impossibly huge and so close, could not believe that Haines is a preview of heaven and not be grateful that this is our life, with these people, in this place. Yes, there may be a few cracks in my lenses now, and some tape on the frame, but I choose to hold on to that vision. The view is still better from here than any other place I’ve been.