The more of these Gustavus interviews I do, the more I am amazed at the people who live here. So many of them love to travel, and have been to far-flung parts of the world. Aimee Youmans is no exception, but has done more than her share of seeing and experiencing distant places. It seems to me that there are three kinds of people in this community. One group is content spending their life here. Another group has done their exploring of the planet, and find in Gustavus a quiet place to spend their later years. Many others consider Gustavus a home base, from which they can travel and explore where they will, and when their journeys are completed, they return to the calm, comfort, and familiarity of home. I believe people here are oddly unique, and Aimee fits that description.
Aimee Youmans was born in Seattle on September 6, 1948. The family immediately moved to Sitka, where Aimee lived until she was ten. Her mom, Anne, got a job as a nurse at the Sitka Pioneer’s Home, where she worked for 25 years. For Aimee’s first ten years she lived in Sitka. She says a bit of her heart is still there.
When she was ten, her father already had a job at Glacier Bay Park. He was discovered by the Park Service. He had been prospecting. Though he had done nothing illegal, her dad said they hired him so they could keep track of him. He worked on the Nunatak, the supply boat for the park service, as a deckhand. At the time, there was only a foot path to the park. It was decided to start building a station at Bartlett Cove, and her dad became the foreman. They got the roads in and docks built. When Aimee was five or six she visited her dad, who lived in a wall tent in the summer and a small cabin in the winter.
Then began the annual family exploration of Glacier Bay, for two weeks every summer. Aimee recalls, “My mother would pack the big ham, spam and foodstuffs in the Spindrift, our ‘marine station wagon’ that my dad built from a ‘Kriskraft’ kit. We would set up camp in the Ibach’s old cabin in Reid Inlet, the kitchen and bunks for my brother and me, and a wall tent master bedroom just outside. At this time, Muz Ibach’s trees, rhubarb, and the vestiges of her garden were all the green in the rocky new landscape of the West Arm of Glacier Bay. We rarely saw another boat or plane, and never any animals at all.
One night a berg came into the pothole harbor on the high tide and picked our boat off the hook. What a surprise in the morning! My dad had to row the little punt halfway to Russell Island to retrieve it. Who knows where and when it would have been found had he not spied it far out in the channel!”
Another favorite family jaunt was to take their boat behind Lester Island in the Beardslees to a small island called “Strawberry Island.” Aimee and her family used to go there every year to collect raspberries from prolific bushes at the old fox farm. They also gathered their strawberries from both sides of the road out to the park before there were trees, giving them a plentiful bonanza of berries.
In her tenth year, Aimee and her brother, Ken, came out to live with their dad. Their older brother and sister were just finishing high school in Sitka, so they stayed with their mother until they graduated. The Gustavus School needed eight children to start. Ken and Aimee were number seven and eight, so there were enough to open. The school at the time was held in the former preschool. Over time this building served as a grade school, preschool, and the post office.
Aimee’s mom saved up her days off and flew out from Sitka when she could. She flew the milk run — Angoon; Tenakee; Pelican; finally, to Gustavus. Her plane was a weather plane — a Grumman Goose, which was a World War II plane. To get from Juneau to Sitka she flew on a PBY, another World War II plane, which landed at Merchant’s Wharf in downtown Juneau. In later years, her father would visit Anne via skiff along the Outer Coast. He traveled in a small boat in a big ocean, and the trip took most of the day.
Ken and Aimee were park kids. Then there were homesteaders’ kids (Chase family,) and some children from CAA: (Civil Aeronautics Administration) families who stayed to maintain the emergency airfield. These were pretty mobile families, so the kids “changed” from year to year.
Aimee was in fifth grade when she started school in Gustavus. One teacher instructed all eight students. Aimee says, “The students’ purpose seemed to be to entertain the community. We put on many shows, programs, and music events.” During the winter, Aimee and Ken came to school on the snowplow which their dad drove. He picked up the Chase kids as well, then proceeded to the school.
The teachers were different each year. Aimee’s favorite, Miss Cash, was an apple-cheeked spinster from Kansas. She wore her hair in wrap-around braids. When she left Gustavus, she went to Anuktuvik Pass, and taught there the rest of her life. While she lived in Gustavus, she became Aimee’s ersatz mom when her own wasn’t there.
Aimee and two others, Muriel Newburn and Harlan Buoy, graduated from the eighth grade. Harlan lived at Rink Creek, and walked to school across the flats early in the morning, as he was also the janitor. No road led to Rink Creek in those days, but by cutting across the flats he shortened the trip to four or five miles.
After graduating from eighth grade, the youngsters had no option for high school. Aimee’s mom didn’t think Sitka would work out, because her job was too restrictive. Ken was enrolled in a Catholic boy’s school in Olympia, Washington. As there was no boarding school for Aimee in Olympia, her mom wrote to nuns who lived there and asked if anyone could take her in.. Aimee says, “I ended up with a wonderful family, the Ryans, for four years. I am still in touch with them.” St. Martin’s Boy’s School, where her brother went, is still there. St. Placid, where the nuns lived, is now a priory and a retreat center.
Aimee says, “I found the transition to life in Olympia to be an interesting passage.” In Alaska, she lived in a small place and had a self-contained life. Then she went to the “outside” world. A challenge for her was getting by bus from the SeaTac Airport to Olympia by herself. Her new “mom” was at work when she arrived. Aimee had to call to let her know she was there, but she struggled with the coin-operated phone. The phone in Bartlett Cove was a wind-up party line. Aimee remembers that “Our number was one long ring and two shorts.”
Aimee claims she was a “little geek” when she got to school in Olympia. She had fifth grader glasses and didn’t know how to dress. However, she had a good transition into girl’s school. Two sisters from the family she lived with took her under their wings. They curled her hair and helped her learn city ways. The school was small, though they added classes each year. When Aimee started, there were two classes with about 30 students each, and by the time she graduated there were four classes.
The nuns thought it was a miracle that Aimee could write well, and would get her up in front of the class to read her essays. She had no Catholic education behind her, but she knew what they wanted her to say. She read the religion book and gave it back to them.
This Catholic indoctrination might have been the ruination of the spiritual path she was on because she had a concept of the oneness of all things. Growing up with nature, she felt the life spirit of the natural world, where all is God. It took a while for her to return to that after Catholic school.
After four years of Catholicism, Aimee was ready to see the world. However, that was not an option for her mother. She felt that all the children should go to college, as that was the American Way. Aimee procrastinated about applying for college, so the nuns did it for her. She got applications to many cool schools. Though she wanted some time off to travel, she finally applied to Santa Barbara (University of California in Santa Barbara, or UCSB) because her brother was already going there. UCSB was a surfing school, and had many sorority activities, though Aimee wasn’t into these.
In her junior year, she transferred to the University of California in Berkeley. The environment provided an entirely different kind of education. It was 1968: the time of the Vietnam War and People’s Park. Aimee witnessed street warfare, angry students, and demonstrations. The Black Panthers from Oakland brought bats and umbrellas to close campus during an argument for a Black Studies program. They would beat anyone they felt needed it as they came through the lines. Militarized police with tear gas and stun guns were also a regular presence on campus.
Aimee spent a couple of years in the “war zone,” wondering how it could happen, and how it would ever be resolved. Before she even got her diploma, she obtained immigration status to Australia. Aimee received an Assisted Passage because the country wanted better-educated immigrants. She didn’t see her diploma until seven years later when she came home. Her Assisted Passage cost her $100.00. She traveled on the Orsova, a Pacific Orient liner that went from Vancouver, Canada to Sydney.
For Aimee, this trip was rather like stepping off the end of the world. None of her family had ever been overseas. She threw a streamer down to her dad from the ship when leaving Vancouver, a tradition participated in by everyone, as a celebratory act. The point of the streamer-tossing was to show that one was still connected with the person at the other end.
Aimee committed to a two-year stay. When she went to Australia, she was gone for a total of seven years, four of them in Australia and three of them in
New Zealand. She says the countries were very different, Australia being the real “outback.” Originally settled by prisoners taken from the poorest
citizens of England, the Aussies were still a hardscrabble bunch, working off the rough edges. She found New Zealand to be much more civilized, with more family farms and businesses.
The tea lady job was her first in Australia; she had that job for approximately three months. Her modus operandi became to work for a while, then hitchhike to a new spot and get another job. She met an Englishwoman and they began hitchhiking together. She says she has hitched rides with all sorts, including opal merchants and road train ruffians.
The opal merchants traveled to Coober Pedy with suitcases of money. The town was entirely subterranean to escape the oppressive heat of Australia’s center. The church had one stained glass window in its doorway, all else being rooms and nooks carved out of the ground. If you needed more room, you just dug one!
The two girls, though young and innocent, never got in trouble. They were treated with kindness and respect, and got an opportunity to learn who these people were.
After working and exploring in Darwin for a couple of months, Aimee then hitchhiked across the north of Australia, heading for Cairns. On the way, (about half-way there) she spent two days sitting on the road out of Mt. Isa, waiting for a ride. A young man who lived nearby came out and asked her to come and stay. His mom was crippled. She had been a fancy horse rider until she was thrown and injured. Her son worked in the meat works to support them. They were dirt poor but willing to share what little they had. For example, if they had a package of sausages, they made sure their guest had all she wanted before they would eat. Aimee says, “I was struck by the grace and kindness of their generosity.” With a home base, Aimee could go and wait for a ride, but still have a place to shower and sleep at night. She soon got a ride
with a trucker for the next 500 miles.
Aimee ended up at Rosebud Farm, 160 acres in the rainforest above Cairns. The forest was beautiful. A cacaphony of birdsong heralded the morning light. Orchids grew in the trees. Strange plants and creatures lived there. One unusual plant, the “wait awhile” plant, had long arms with thorns that tended to jump at you when you went by. Aimee says, “It was kinda like a horror movie.” Once she saw a small creature that looked like a miniature Tyrannosaurus Rex. She observed (and tried to avoid) big, dangerous birds called cassawaries. They were quite big with powerful legs which they used as weapons if they got upset. Another strange creature, the Echidna, or Australian spiny anteater, was an egg-laying mammal. The baby, completely hairless, lives inside the mother’s pouch until mature.
The farm was owned by three people who were trust-funders (they came from money in the northeast United States and had a trust fund from their grandparents and were fugitives from Princeton and Yale.) The leader of this
triumvirate was Rich Trapnel, who became a real farmer. The trio bought the land and started collecting people to help run it. Aimee was one such recruit, spending three years there. The farm tried cows, horses, pigs, and goats (these last all got tick fever.) They had large vegetable gardens and orchards. Aimee remembers,”They did many thing wrong but did some things right. The group shared a great camaraderie, with lots of good music, tasty food, and trips for recreation or for work.” One job they fell into was an avocado bonanza. A lorryful of avocados spilled on the road, and they went and collected them. They also collected the marlin from sports fishing in Cairns. One fish, together with its long spike, was so big it had to be placed crosswise in the truck bed to fit it in. They cooked that fish every way they could think of, and what they couldn’t eat they buried in the orchards for fertilizer.
They started with nine employees; later this number increased to 29, and became too many people for Aimee. For the group, it was their back-to-the-land movement, a concept that had traveled across the ocean from the United States. Now it is an exotic palm nursery. Aimee went back about four years ago for a reunion. All the baby plants they planted had grown into orchards and huge specimen trees.
They built Big Mama, a ferro cement 65-foot sailboat. To build this boat, they constructed a metal “cage” the size of the boat, covered it with chicken wire, and laid it over the bones of the boat. Then they stuffed the chicken wire with cement until it was about 6 inches thick. Once it dried they smoothed on a stucco-like finish, and then painted it. They had to take it down a winding road to Cairns to get it in the water. It was very tall, so they had to carve out overhanging limbs along the road with a chain saw to allow passage for the boat.
Aimee lived in a tree house built in a mango tree. She had a gallah (also known as a rose-breasted cockatoo) that lived with her. It was pink and grey, with a broken wing, and a comb on its top-knot. The bird was very smart. Like parrots, they can imitate speech. Its best line was “I can talk; can you fly?” The gallah was king — he strutted around, lording it over the chickens, cats and dogs.
After four years, Aimee left the farm and went to New Zealand, entering as an illegal immigrant, because she had no visa. She had a pretty good Australian accent, so she got on a plane like she was a local. She lived there for three
years. She met a Kiwi man, Will, when working in Queenstown as a tea lady on a paddle wheeler that traveled across the lake. Will worked in Queenstown as a carpenter. After Aimee left that job, she and Will traveled together.
In Abel Tasman on the south island of New Zealand, the two were hiking the
beach trail, watching the sailboats. Will
said, “We should buy one and do that.” By the time they got to the North Island, they found one and
began their sailing adventure.
One day while rowing back to the boat, Aimee met two men and a woman who were looking for a crew to return to the United States. She took the job. They did not use the motor the entire way. They saw men-of-war, flying fish, oceans of porpoises, green clouds, and enjoyed a wonderful beauty along the way. Aimee says, “The captain was one of those guys who could navigate very ably by the stars. We brought the boat back via a very southern route, a 26-day journey to the Austral Islands, south of Tahiti. Offshore of Tubai, we couldn’t land because of the wind. We had to hove to because we could not go onward. This involves abandoning the helm and letting the boat ride the huge swells like an elevator. We had to wait overnight, and in the early morning the wind had calmed enough to allow us to get to shore. We visited the small community of islanders. Not a lot of people lived there, so we were a big item when we arrived. Folks took us on a tour of the area. At the bread shop, we found we would have to get bread fresh from the oven before the cockroaches moved in!”
When they finally reached Tahiti, they came into port with no power. Aimee explained, “The captain climbed the mast and yelled, “Helm’s alee” as we worked as a team to zig-zag through the coral islands; then, when we got to our docking spot, we backed in. Once we tied up, we received a round of applause from other boat crews nearby.”
Aimee’s mother sent word that they were having a family reunion, and that she needed to come home. In 1978, she flew home, after two weeks in the Society Islands. Shortly after arrival, the property where she now lives landed in her lap. It was a matter of timing. She hated to leave her life of adventure, but now she had obligations here.
Aimee took piano lessons from Ruth Matson when she was younger. Her dad bought an organ from some folks who were moving. so Aimee also played the organ. Ruth wanted Aimee to have her piano and house. Aimee’s parents also had a place in Elfin Cove, and told her this property would be hers. However, when she visited there, she walked down the boardwalk and all the curtains parted so people could keep track of her. Aimee decided she
couldn’t live there, but needed more privacy and space. The Postmaster bought that place, and the money from the sale allowed Aimee to buy the Matson place, as they were now on their way to the Sitka Pioneer’s Home. They later left Aimee an inheritance when they died, enabling her to start the Smokehouse.
Though Aimee didn’t know on her return to Gustavus that she was ready to be here, as soon as she arrived she began working on the place, learning many new things. It was a fit, and she found herself on the road to starting a new part of her life.
When Aimee first returned to Gustavus, she started working in maintenance for the park service. Her only option would have been to work in maintenance, as she felt too shy to be a naturalist and would not sit at a desk. Aimee worked in this job for a couple of years. Then she realized she did not want to do so any more, but wanted to go to work for herself. When she got her inheritance from Matsons, she had been smoking fish for trade. She decided to start a smoked fish business.
She had the business for 13 years. Her establishment was called “The Salmon River Smokehouse.” It started as a 12 x 24-foot one-story building, that
many people helped to construct. Bob Howe and others helped pour the concrete. Joe Stehlik, chef at the lodge when Aimee was a teenager, had shown Aimee how to fillet fish. When she started the business, she got a big load of fish. Her brother was visiting, and timed her as she filleted. Brother Ken looked at his watch and said, “I don’t think you can make a living at this.” He felt it was the job of a big brother to watch out for her.
Aimee reflected, “I still thought I could do it all by myself. I thought it would be a good one-woman business.” About the 4th or 5th year, she doubled the
total size and then added on the second story.
The Smokehouse grew and grew. Aimee says, “I swear, I hired a lot of people in this town to work there through the years.” The list of workers went on and on, making the Smokehouse feel like a community effort.
During this time, Aimee had married a man, Hank, from Las Cruces, New Mexico. At first, she spent the winters working in his orchards and taking classes, but soon the new business took more and more time and she was spending less and less time in New Mexico. To Aimee’s regret, the marriage eventually ended. She comments, “You make choices in your life and then you are stuck with them.”
Aimee met Hank on her first trip to Mexico. He was also traveling with friends. They became friends, and he said, “You should come visit me in New Mexico.” So, when she returned from Mexico, she took a bus to New Mexico. She says, “I admired Hank a great deal. He was an electron microscopist. He set up the biology lab for NMSU (New Mexico State University.)”
“He was very athletic. I came away from that relationship fitter and in better health than I ever was in my life. He was a great cook, though we ate in
Mexican restaurants a lot.
He had bought an apple-pear orchard in High Rolls, New Mexico, in the mountains above White Sands. He and I worked on the orchard all winter and got to harvest the fruit when it was ready.”
Aimee got most of her fish from the Hobbit Hole fleet — a group of fishermen who were friends and all fished out of the “Hobbit Hole” in the Inian Islands. She got her resale product from them. She also smoked many homepacks for them.
Her market covered the United States and even extended to Europe, specifically England. She did a lot of custom smoking, so chartered fishermen came to her. Each one passed information about her service on to another charter person, a form of “fish networking.” Some of her product went to Juneau; it also went out as Christmas gifts.
After 13 years Aimee was burned out with the job. She then converted the building. The first business in there was the Smokehouse Gallery. The two rooms where the fish were processed became the gallery, a 24′ x 24′ space.
She started converting the other spaces into two apartments. For five years, this galley, organized as a co-op, displayed and sold art done by local people. Some people started their art career there because it gave them the impetus to do so.
When the gallery closed, it became the last apartment. Now the three apartments are vacation rentals, known as Aimee’s Guest House. The guest house has now been in operation for 20 years.
Again, Aimee thought she could run the whole operation by herself, but now she has a couple of people helping out.
She did not spend all her time working, but found room for extracurricular activities. For the annual 4th of July parade, someone got the idea in 1996 or ’97 that they needed a marching band, and the “Hoochie Koochie Smokehouse Blues Band” was formed. Of course Aimee was a charter
member. After that first year, it became a parade tradition, and continues to the present. This year there were 12 to 15 people in the band. Instruments include drums, lots of percussion, guitars, flutes, and Tanya Lewis’s saxophone.
For fun in the water, Aimee acquired a purple rowing dory, which she named Petunia. This craft is a Bolger design, made of plywood, and built in Excursion Inlet by Wayne Lonn. For the Petunia’s maiden voyage, Aimee rowed to Pleasant Island for the annual May Day beach party. The Petunia is still in use today. Aimee says, “It can keep up with friends in kayaks when going up bay.” However, because of its size it can hold lots of gear, and Aimee would end up rowing a heavy load.
As her summer is work time, most of Aimee’s traveling is done in the winter. She says, “We go seeking sun. There’s lots of beauty in the world, and lots of interesting places to see. But then we always come home.”
Aimee tries to make at least one trip a year. She has been to Costa Rica, France, Italy, Mexico, Belize, England, Portugal, Bequia (in the Grenadine Islands of the West Indies,) Thailand, Guatamala, Honduras, and of course, Australia and New Zealand.
She went to Copan, Honduras, to learn Spanish. Copan is called the “Paris of the Mayan Empire.” Aimee says the carving and artwork were really splendid. It is located in the jungle, “so hot,” Aimee says, “I was totally brain-dead.” She tried to learn Spanish, but she just wanted to lie by the creek. She would like there, conjugating verbs, while sweating copiously.
She was really into music for a long time. She played piano and organ when she was young. Then she played guitar for many years and sang in music groups in school. She wrote a lot of music. She started writing music when she traveled in Australia. She always traveled with a guitar. She says, “The backpack got smaller, but there was still the guitar strapped on!” At Rosebud Farm, music was a big part of life there. Everyone played or participated.
Aimee still uses music as a form of meditation. She will sit down to the piano when life becomes too hectic or overwhelming. She plays whatever comes out her fingers.
For her next trip, she is planning a pilgrimage: El Camino, a 500-mile walk with a 20-pound pack across the top of Spain. The plan is to go in October, when the crowds are gone. The winter there can still be nice. The trip will take five weeks. Those accompanying her will be Joanie Waller, Kirsten Englund, and Heidi Robischaud.
Aimee provides another good example of the spirit of independence and adventure shared by many local residents. She is still leading a busy and interesting life, adding more chapters to her story. Aimee, may you “keep on keeping on” for many years to come!