Don Bryant was born in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, to Margerie and Vaughn Bryant. His father was a news correspondent for the Associated Press. Don has one full brother, Vaughn, older than he, who is now a professor of anthropology at Texas A & M, and one half-brother, Jim, who presently flies for UPS. When Don was still an infant, the family moved from Rio to Santiago, Chile. Because his nanny in Chile spoke only Spanish, it became his first language as a toddler. Then they moved to New Orleans when he was about three years old. He lived in New Orleans for about five years. Their completely different accent influenced his English speech. Then, as the family followed his father when work took him to a new location, they moved to Texas. Here, his dad worked in public relations.
His parents divorced in 1956. In Austin, his mother, Marge, met and married Jim Woodworth, an Alaskan, who was a professional hunter/guide in Kodiak. Don went to Alaska with them. Marge and Jim homesteaded on the Kenai River, near Sterling, Alaska. Jim wrote a book titled “The Kodiak Bear.” In his book, he used “Monarch of Dead Man’s Bay” as one chapter title. Later, another author used the same title for his book about a Kodiak bear. Jim also wrote articles for the pre-Alaskan magazine called “The Alaska Sportsman.”
In 1959, Don went back to Texas. After about a year, he went to live with his brother, Vaughn, who was in college. In 1961, Vaughn and Don went to Europe by ship, where they were supposed to go to school. His brother studied in Germany and Don went to school in France. The school was for foreigners, to teach them French. Don says he lasted about a week. He knew no French when he started his classes, and the teachers spoke only French. So, Don started hanging out at the beach with the Swedes, who all spoke English.
Don loved Alaska and was determined to live there. Then, when he went to Europe, he found he really liked it there, too. In his last two years in high school, he took French and German. He’d already studied Latin and Spanish. He finished high school in Austin. He had almost no money. He sold everything, ending up with about $1,000, went back to Europe and stayed a year.
To get to Europe, Don worked his way over on a Belgian ship. He lived and worked in Sweden for six months as a carpenter’s helper. Pay in Sweden in an apprentice program was very low. Don spent the second half of his time in Europe in Greece, because it was affordable and warm. He worked his way back to the U.S. on an American ship, then enrolled in college. He ended up at the University of Texas in Austin, taking four years of college and graduating in anthropology.
After college, Don became a Vista volunteer and went to Shishmaref. Vista had never been to Shishmaref, so they wrote a letter to the city council and asked them if they would like a Vista volunteer. Every white person who had ever worked there was someone with a special field who had an organization behind them, such as teachers, doctors, and pilots. “Then there was me,” Don said. “I didn’t know how to do anything, so they got a close-up view of an ordinary white person. I went native, and helped out where needed. They helped me more than I helped them.” He says they got a high amusement value out of him. It was interesting to them to have an untrained, “regular” citizen in the community. Don says, “That year was one of, if not the most significant year in my life. I was so impressed by their cultural values; the way they raised their children and interacted; their aversion to conflict.” Don decided he could happily spend the rest of his life there. He really liked their approach to things.
Unfortunately for him, the Vista position was for one year only. After that year with Vista, he joined the Peace Corps and went to Paraguay. He found the Peace Corps to be too political; he couldn’t handle it. He returned to the U.S., planning to go back to Europe.
Before traveling to Europe, he participated in a peaceful protest against the Viet Nam war. This march was in New York City. It had just become public knowledge that for the first time, U.S. troops had been sent across the border into Cambodia. Don says, “Riot police marched in formation into our group, and then started beating people over the head. There were no arrests, just cops acting like a bunch of thugs.” Don was hit over the head with a long Billy club. Within a few days of this incident, he caught a plane to Europe.
During this same week, troops had opened fire on students who were protesting the war at Kent State University. Four were killed and several wounded.
In Belgium, on his first night in Europe, he took a room in a youth hostel, but that night he returned to the hostel too late, and the door was locked. So, he walked to a nearby park and sat on a bench with a couple of others who were in the same boat. A police car came driving up. Two plainclothes policemen got out of the car and approached. Don thought, after the New York incident, “Here we go again.”
The first thing the officers did was to introduce themselves. Next, they took out their IDs to verify that they were telling the truth. Then they asked the three people why they were there, and requested IDs identifying who they were. After the three explained, one of the officers said, “Have a good night,” and they left. Don found the contrast between these policemen and the ones in New York City quite amazing.
From Europe, Don headed east. While hitchhiking through Croatia, which at that time was part of the nation of Yugoslavia, he was given a ride by a bus-full of Russians. They put Don in the middle of the bus and surrounded him with people who spoke English. They spent most of the day asking him questions, mostly about the U.S. They were factory workers on a government-paid vacation. It surprised Don how much they knew about the U.S.: literature, history, (they were very accurate) and music. On some subjects they knew more than Don did. All his life he had been told that the Russians did not know the truth about the U.S. However, the incident pointed out how little Americans knew about the Russians. He says that bus-ride was one of the most eye-opening experiences of his life. He remarks, “That chance meeting on a Russian bus gave me one more example of the misconceptions we have been fed about other places.”
He says he couldn’t tell Yugoslavians, with a Communist system, from Italians, with a wholly different political structure. There appeared to be as much private enterprise in both places. The people on the bus were super-friendly. They wanted to know, yet had a very accurate picture of the rest of the world; in other words, the opposite of what he had been told all his life.
Don left Istanbul with $80.00. He traveled through Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan to get to India. He had hoped to get to Singapore to find a ship, but ran out of money. When he crossed into India, he was down to $10.00, so he sold his watch for another $15.00. By the time he got to Calcutta he was nearly broke. To make a long story short, he eventually got a ship out of Madras. The American Consulate in Calcutta was in touch with shipping companies. Only one American ship arrived there each month. The consulate put out the word to other consulates that they had a seaman looking for work. They found a ship with a 40-man crew that was seven crew-members short. It was an odd situation for a ship to be that short-handed. This ship was the “Robert E. Lee” out of Mobile, Alabama. Don says it was “the ship from hell.” Half of the crew were Alabama rednecks, who carried knives they called “Mobile boxing gloves.” The other half were Cubans smuggling morphine, which could be bought over the counter in India, into the U.S. They were also users, so were high most of the time. What really made things bad for Don was that he didn’t fit into either group. He was not a typical seaman. One of the Cubans was sure that Don was a drug enforcement agent. The first night aboard ship, this man took Don to his cabin and confessed, because he believed that by telling Don his story he might get off the hook by cooperating. Now Don knew what they were doing, and it put his life in jeopardy.
It took 31 days to get from Madras to Mobile, giving the Cubans ample opportunity to remove the informer. One morning just after dawn, two of the Cubans tried to throw him overboard. However, they were seen by Don and an officer, who were standing watch on the bridge, and had to let the man go, because there were witnesses. Don says, “From that day until we docked, I kept my door locked.”
Don recalls that the good thing about that voyage was that he got to see the “green flash.” When conditions are right, just after sunset a bright green spot is visible above the sinking orb of the sun. This green color usually lasts for no more than a second or two. These flashes occur because the atmosphere can cause the light from the sun to separate into different colors. These flashes are usually seen where the horizon is unobstructed, as it is on the ocean.
Back in the U.S., Don had some pay from his ship adventure. He returned to Austin. His mother called him from Florida. During Don’s absence, Marge met Hank Johnson. They had married and lived on a sailboat in the Florida Keys. Marge called to tell Don they were planning to move to Gustavus. Hank had homesteaded here in Rink Creek in 1933. They asked Don if he would help them move. So, he did.
He, Hank, and Marge got to Gustavus in the summer of ’72. Hank’s homestead was near the Buoys; his best friend was Fred Mattson (these being other early Gustavus settlers.) Don spent his early days in the community with these people and with the Chase family. He says there were maybe 50 people here in winter.
For Don’s second summer in Gustavus, he worked for Ken Youmans, who was the head of maintenance at Glacier Bay Park. Maintenance employees numbered three in winter and five in summer at that time. The following year, he worked at a construction job at the park, and then went fishing with Don Chase. Don says they spent most of their time keeping their old boat running and floating.
He wanted to get back to Shishmaref. However, Gustavus offered opportunities he couldn’t pass up. He built a cabin and fished, so he ended up staying.
Then, he got a job on the pipeline, roughly 150 miles south of Prudhoe Bay, working at the Trans-Alaska Pipeline Pump Station 3. It was lucrative work, so again he postponed his trip to Shishmaref. After the pipeline job finished, he returned to the village. Sadly for him, he found things there had changed. Before 1968, the villagers enjoyed a 90% subsistence lifestyle, hunting for food; making their own clothes; not really interacting with the rest of the country. Then in 1968, the Molly Hooch decision and the Land Claims Act caused many changes. From 1968 to 1977, the village went from a traditional subsistence economy to a mostly cash economy and lifestyle. An influx of goods changed the way they lived. Don then had to decide whether to stay or to return to Southeast Alaska. He really liked traditional living, but as it was changing, in 1977 he decided to return to Gustavus.
He got a boat and worked as a hand-troller for a while. He had a plane and tried flying, but it didn’t work, as he was not a good pilot. He sold the plane. He liked boat life and fishing, though he never made much. He could make enough to pay the bills, but couldn’t get ahead. In 1981, he went back to the North Slope to work, staying in Prudhoe Bay for five years. He made a lot of money, which gave him the capital to buy the Hank Johnson homestead from his mother. Don says, “I haven’t done a lot of paid work since.” He built a road to the homestead, which connected him to the rest of the community. He still uses the cabin he built in 1972. Hank’s cabin is also there.
During his early years in Gustavus, there was an ongoing battle for incorporation. Gustavus did not become a city until the third try. The first battle was led by Randy Kearns in the late 1970s. Randy was for incorporation. He had figured out the process and was proceeding to petition. It turned out that the majority of the citizens were opposed. They did not realize it at the time.
One step of the process involved getting the approval of the Boundary Commission. They came over from Juneau for a meeting. Everyone in town attended that event. Just before they arrived, the unorganized dissenters realized they were a majority and did not want incorporation, much to the surprise of the commission.
It was a couple of decades before the issue came up again. That time it was placed on the ballot, and it lost. The vote was close to a 50-50 split. Absentee votes can be submitted until the day the votes are cast; they must be postmarked no later than that day. As a very few ballots still waited to come in, they did not have a final count. Usually the count doesn’t change much after this last handful of votes. Don called the election official and asked what the procedure was for a recount. He was met with a very long silence. Then he was asked to wait. The supervisor came on the phone and asked who requested a recount, and why. Don said, “I just asked for the procedure.” If they wanted to have a recount, they could not do one until after the final count was in.
When the vote was final, the incorporation had not passed. That delayed the process until a third try, a year or so later. If a voter had registered in Gustavus, he did not have to live here to vote. No one really knows how it might have gone if the vote were limited to the people who actually lived here. Once incorporation had been granted, it couldn’t be undone.
In the early days in the community, when someone threw a pot luck everyone attended. Everyone knew everybody else. Now the little town has gotten too big for that. The smallness of the community gave it a cohesion, as everyone was in touch with all the others. At events, everyone came together, giving a more complete sense of the whole community. Don says, “It is still nice, but different. I preferred it when it was smaller.”
The changes that have allowed the place to grow are the conveniences, such as electricity, roads, etc. Don remarks, “I would trade all those conveniences for a smaller place. Conveniences do change things; now I have reached an age where I am working on accepting the things I cannot change.”
In 2013, Don went to China for a couple of months. He wanted to go before it became more expensive and before he became too old, so this was the time. He spent most of his time in a city called Xiamen, which is on the coast between Shanghai and Hong Cong. He picked that town because it was a tea-growing area.
His itinerary was as follows: Hong Cong to Xiaman, where he spent about half his time. Don says he enjoyed the tea gardens there. Then he traveled to Taiyuan and on to Beijing. After Beijing, he spent five days in Hong Cong before flying home. He met many people, and in fact is still in touch with one man, who is now living in New York and making a good living there. The man was 19 when they met.
Because of his interest in boats, he left Xiamen and traveled to the next town up the coast, Quanghou, which was approximately 50 miles away. There, he went to a maritime museum. He learned that a Chinese fleet left in the early 1400s and went all the way to Africa. They brought back animals to show the emperor. The biggest ship in their fleet was almost 400 feet long. Don found it interesting that they had excavated the very spot where the fleet had been built. He was disappointed to discover that by the time he visited, there were no small boats remaining, just big modern steel boats.
At this point in time, nothing was done on an individual scale, because communism had made everything “communal.” The airports were more modern; everything was well-developed. Don says that in some ways they made the U.S. look like a third-world country by comparison.
Though he traveled a great deal, Don really had trouble with the language in China. He found it hard to communicate. He couldn’t get any clues from the written language. It was hard to comprehend. They might have one word that had several different meanings. As it was a tonal language, it was hard to hear the difference. He remarks that people with a musical ear find it easier because they can distinguish more readily between the different sounds.
Don had an acquaintance who taught English in Taiyuan. He stayed there for a little over a week. Then he went to Beijing for about the same amount of time; then on to Hong Cong for five days. He flew home from there.
On his arrival in China, Don had landed in Hong Cong. At the end of his trip, he visited a second time. He says, “Things are done there in a more communal way. They do not live in individual houses. Instead, they buy apartments. These small apartments are very expensive, costing half a million dollars. The poor people, on the other hand, live in small places called ‘coffins,’ which give them a place to sleep.” People move to the city because they can make more money there. Many rich people live there from all over the world because it is a tax haven. Don went to a restaurant there, located on the fourth floor of a building. When the elevator door opened, hundreds of people were sitting at tables, having a meal. Don says the size of the crowd was too intimidating, so he got back on the elevator and left.
During the early 80s, a constitutional principle was established, called “one country, two systems.” Don explained: Though there was only one China, there were distinct Chinese regions, such as Hong Kong and Macau. These retained their own economic and administrative systems, while the rest of China used socialism with Chinese characteristics. Under this principle, each of the two regions could continue to have its own governmental system, legal, economic, and financial affairs.
Hong Cong was the most expensive place he visited in China. To save money at mealtime, Don often bought fresh foods from vendors on the street. He says the produce was fantastic; like eating the best one you ever ate. In the interior, (Taiyuan) things were much cheaper. He took eight people to dinner there one night and it cost less than $30.00.
He was impressed with how much residents worked: every day, all day. They were an industrious people. Don says, “I’ve never seen anything like it. One hears about how the people there are so repressed, but that is not at all true. For example, he saw drivers honking at police cars to get them to move out of the way. Such behavior would not be sanctioned here.”
In 2016, Don bought a sailboat in Olympia, WA, as far south on Puget Sound as one can go. He sailed from there to Gustavus by himself. Don had sailed a little as a kid and again later, on bigger boats. The principles remain the same no matter the size. He spent a month in Puget Sound, “for a shakedown for the boat and me. The boat was 40 years old and I was 70 years old.” Sea trials were in order before starting to Alaska. In the first week of May, he crossed into Canadian waters. He got to Gustavus in mid-June. He says, “Youngsters have excuses for doing stupid stuff, but when you get older you are supposed to be wiser. I got away with it, so here I am.” It took all his concentration to make that trip. When he got started, he had no idea whether he would be successful or not.
His sailboat measures 37 feet, the biggest boat he could handle by himself. He explains, “The price was good so that was what I got.” It is still unnamed. The probable name is the “Guillemot.” He still has the boat. Though he tried keeping it at Pleasant Island for a while, that did not work out, so he keeps it in Hoonah. He plans to spend quite a bit of time on it this coming summer.
Looking back on Gustavus life, Don says, “I found value in knowing the earlier settlers. Now I am just happy to sit, drink tea, and talk.”