Greg Streveler is a modest and unassuming man who does not agree that he is a Gustavus icon; however, I believe the description fits. He has worked for many years, either for pay or simply as a concerned citizen, to move forward projects designed to enhance life here. His contributions to our community, no matter what he says, have been enormous.
Greg was born in Racine, Wisconsin. He lived with his folks across the state line on the southern shore of Lake Michigan. His dad worked in the steel mills as an electrician. When Greg was six, they all moved to Marathon County in Wisconsin, where his parents were born. The family lived in the country about 30 miles south of Wausau. His dad was the “Mark Berry” of their community. (Mark Berry is the local man in Gustavus who wears many hats and fixes what we break.) Greg says his dad could fix anything. Greg was often his “gofer.”
They lived in farm country. Though they didn’t run a farm themselves, they were surrounded by them. Consequently, Greg grew up working for farmers. He says, “To this day I have to get my hands in dirt or I don’t feel right.”
Greg worked for a German farmer, Joseph Baur, who paid him what he earned and taught him to be useful. He adds, “There was a difference between then and now. During my youth, people were poor enough that the work I did for them really mattered. That’s always stuck with me. I wanted to be useful.”
Greg says he had a lovely childhood. He had a very tight family; his parents were good to each other and to the children. The neighbors and his parents were good because they gave Greg things to do that made him feel worthwhile. He was lucky as a kid. Everyone treated the children well in the community too — they all looked after each other. Greg feels grateful to have had that.
At 12 years old, he was put in charge of the garden, 1/4 acre in size. They grew everything in that garden. His dad helped him when he could but he said, “This is up to you.” He learned to use a rototiller and spent a lot of time with a hoe.
A moment from his childhood: Greg loved sports. His dad said they didn’t have money to get him a ball glove. Greg finally earned enough to buy his first baseman’s mitt for $12.95. It had Ted Williams’ name on it. Greg felt it important to work and to see what changes earnings could bring. He had that mitt until he moved to Alaska. While in Anchorage, Greg watched some young people playing catch. One tall black lad had no glove; he was catching with his bare hands. Greg gave the boy his glove, deciding that he needed it more than Greg did.
For his last two years of high school, his folks sent him to Stevens Point, Wisconsin to stay with an aunt and uncle. This was the first time he had lived away from home. He went to a school run by the Christian Brothers, a Catholic teaching order. He found out he could think! In his earlier years, he just got through school; nobody learned about thinking. He was more interested in playing baseball. When he went to that school, he found it pretty cool to think. His grades improved; he took that self-teaching skill to university. He still uses it to this day.
When Greg turned 18, he went to the University of Wisconsin in Madison. His freshman advisor was a short Jewish guy named Robert Auerbach. He had pink hands, which told Greg he never worked with them. He says, “I ‘should’ have disliked him, but he became one of the most important people in my life.” Greg came from a town that was pretty prejudiced: “If they are not like us, ignore them.” The advisor took Greg under his wing and helped him learn about the world. Dr. Auerbach taught him that you could love someone totally different from you.
Later at the University, he learned from Dr. Neess. He could care less about degrees. He always saw to it that students had a place where they could go to think. He brought donuts, but you couldn’t have a donut unless you did some thinking. Dr. Neess would pose deep questions. The upper level grads would discuss these questions. Upon occasion the junior students would offer a timorous comment.
Greg says he grew up in college. He decided he couldn’t be a Catholic any more. He said, “I was a spiritual person without a portfolio.” He developed a worldview. His parents, deeply religious, never hassled Greg over his decision. He says it was a sign of their respect for him.
Before he finished school, Greg started doing trips to Alaska in the summer. He went for the first time between his junior and senior years of college. Though he knew nothing about the job, he knew he could work hard. They wanted someone who could work, so he became a “grunt” for two professors from the University of Wisconsin. This first project took place in the Aleutians.
His Alaskan trip the second summer happened to be in a program connected to his Master’s, so he was a little higher on the totem pole. He had his own project. He went to Three Saints Bay in Kodiak to study four different little tidal fish and how they got along together. How could they all make a living in one small tide pool?
He didn’t come back the next summer, as he had to finish his Master’s. In 1964, he met Barbara Elder at the University. She was a botany student. They married in 1964 and their daughter, Kathy, was born in 1965. They moved to Alaska in 1966. They first went to Petersburg, where he worked for Fish and Game. They spent a year there. As the Fish and Game job was seasonal and had ended, he shopped for a permanent job. He found that job working for the National Park Service.
In 1967, Greg’s son, Tom, was born in Juneau. Tom grew up in Gustavus until his junior year in high school, when he went to Sitka. Both Tom and Kathy went to Sitka for their junior and senior years. While there, they stayed at a friend’s apartment.
Tom went to the University of Alaska in Fairbanks, where he earned a business degree. Kathy attended the University of Hawaii, where she received a degree in chemistry. Greg says, “I let them go early. I knew I didn’t want them to be copies of me, but to find their own path.”
Their two children were very different in what they liked. Kathy wanted to live here, but Tom wanted to be a city guy. Tom now lives in Peoria, Arizona, north of Phoenix. His life revolves around family and work. He is very focused. He has two children; they are a close family. Tom sticks to a few things in life and does them extremely well. Kathy also prizes excellence, but likes to experience dozens of things and keeps life stirred up. She is always on the move.
Bob Howe, then the superintendent at Glacier Bay National Park, hired Greg to work for him. He had to go to Park Service Training School for three months. Then they moved to Gustavus. Greg has been here ever since. He says that Bob Howe was the best boss he ever had. Bob had a great influence when he lived here. Working for the park then was different than today. There were fewer employees, and less scrutiny from “above,” so Bob could run things more or less the way he liked.
“You guys have a job description? Get them out. Okay, Greg, I want you to think of it as torn up because I expect you to do what needs to be done.” As an example the Chief Ranger, Chuck Janda, happened to be an excellent marine mechanic, and when things broke down he’d put on his coveralls and fix them. He even helped shovel snow. Everyone shoveled snow, even the secretary. They had to shovel the dock, and sometimes roofs. Bob told Greg, “You are to be the naturalist. You decide how to run a visitor program.” Now the park system is much more paper-driven and compartmentalized.
Greg lived in the park apartments for a few years. They used to be where the offices are now. He was separated at first from the locals because he lived “high on the hog.” He could get gas and groceries sent over with the mail boat. They had power at the park before it became available in town. Later, they moved into a house in the old FAA complex near the airport and began to feel more like locals.
Greg started building his own place here almost immediately. They had kerosene lights, no freezer, and a wood stove. He built the house using all hand tools. In 1976 they moved in. Then he became more of a local. They still live in the same house, having added an office and a pumphouse.
When Greg arrived here from school, the ink was hardly dry on his Master’s degree. He says, “As a trained scientist, I was struck by how clear the lessons of nature are, here. The natural processes lay themselves open for us to see.” Greg has spent much of his life trying to understand how this landscape functions and how to be a citizen here.
He tries to see the world, not as a snapshot, but as a movie. Here, it was once open country, but now mostly woods. Greg has lived here almost since that long-ago time before the woods came. The land is rising; creeks are deepening and draining the country better; grass is more abundant. There are also more people. In 1994, Greg wrote The Natural History of Gustavus. In his book he states, “The thoughts that follow are an attempt to present Gustavus in the way that I have learned to see it.”
Greg worked for seven years as a park ranger and six years as a park biologist. In his 40s, he tired of working for the government and started working on his own. This period was hardest for him because Barb faded out of his live toward the end of the time he worked at the park and he had to figure out how to be a single dad and make a living. He ended up with his own business as a teacher and consultant. For ecology teacher training he teamed up with a Juneau friend, Richard Carstenson. Greg took students up bay and taught them Southeast Alaskan lore.
He took on another teaching role for the University of Vermont Field Naturalist Program. The program administrators picked three places for students to receive this training, one of the three being in Glacier Bay. This program went on for five or six summers. The students had already been pretty well-trained in natural science, so they were not rank newcomers to the field. For their training, they spent one week kayaking with Greg and looking at the country. This first week allowed the students to get comfortable with the territory. After the first week Greg would paddle home, and the students were left to kayak by themselves and to pick the project they would work on. For the third week, they all became part of a university seminar, where they presented their project to the group. These ranged from monitoring camper impacts to describing use by bears along the Gustavus boundary.
Greg has taught physics, biology and math off and on over the years at Gustavus School, when needed. He has always been involved with the school, usually as a volunteer. It is gratifying to him that some of the people he knew as kids and students are still friends. One of these is Maureen Moore’s daughter, Chelsea Gagnon, whom he has known since she was 13. She is now in her mid-20s and is an x-ray technician in Juneau. Another is Jeff Gibson, to whom he taught physics. Jeff is now an aeronautical engineer.
Greg has the following advice for young people: “Try to learn as much about yourself as you can. Never turn down an opportunity to grow — a lesson I have to work on all the time. I am a work in progress.”
Greg got to know Judy Brakel while they both worked for Hayden and Bonnie Kaden in Gustavus. Hayden and Bonnie operated a kayak guiding business called Alaska Discovery. Born in Petersburg, Judy is a lifelong Southeast Alaskan. After a while Greg and Judy became sweethearts. They married in 1988.
Greg and Judy have a big garden at home. They also have an additional plot in the Gustavus Community Gardens. This site was started by Judy Brakel and Janene Driscoll. Greg and Judy are among the biggest growers in the community, harvesting a good share of what they eat. They also can and freeze part of their food, so they can eat from their freezer and root cellar as well. Judy likes to garden as much as Greg. She is also really into wild herbs, so in the spring they eat lots of wild greens, such as nettles, beach greens, wild parsley and others.
The couple live as close to a subsistence lifestyle as they can. As they grow older, the challenge becomes how to keep everything going, as theirs is a very physical existence. They heat with wood. They have an extensive garden, and try to grow and harvest as much as they can. They do have power and running water, a skiff, a car, and their bicycles. They take the skiff out in summer to catch fish and gather kelp.
Greg’s major occupations have been 1) Teaching, 2) Field studies, 3) Helping to design proposals with ecology in mind. In fulfilling all these roles, he has spread his work experience around. Among others, he has worked for the City of Juneau, US Forest Service, Park Service, Southeast Alaska Conservation Council (SEACC), University of Vermont, University of Alaska, and Gustavus Electric. During his work years, he has fulfilled many contracts. His consultations have varied in size from one month to ten years, depending on what they involved. His last project was with Nat Drumheller. They did a contract with the DOT; then he retired.
Greg’s most important local contract was with the Falls Creek Project. Greg became the chief environmental consultant for this job, which entailed installing a hydro project for electricity. It took ten years to complete. Dick Levitt, who built the Gustavus Dray, our local gas and fuel oil business, put in all the electrical lines to the town. Greg says Dick had wanted to phase out diesel fuel, and they spent a great deal of time researching. As it turned out, the best site for the hydro project was in the National Park wilderness area, off-limits for this purpose. They did get permission, but it took an act of Congress to do so. In 1998, Congress passed a bill which President Clinton signed, called the “Glacier Bay Boundary Adjustment Act,” permitting the Glacier Electric Company to submit a license application to the Federal Energy Regulation Commission. The bill authorized a land exchange between the National Park Service and the State of Alaska.
Greg’s job entailed figuring out how to keep the whole project ecologically sensible. Many environmental and local groups had to be convinced that no harm would come to the area and that all angles were well-thought out. This work became a big part of Greg’s life toward the end of his career. They installed a field research camp up there. Later, Bob Christensen and Greg became the Compliance Officers. They had to make sure they covered all restrictions. Greg says that this project made a great impact on the future of the town.
Falls Creek was Greg’s last major paying project, though he has worked many hours as a citizen on the development and continuation of the Nature Conservancy and the Dude Creek Critical Habitat. Greg pointed out that this community is one of the most protected in the country. It is surrounded by lands that are set aside for specific uses: The Nature Conservancy beach lands; Dude Creek Critical Habitat Area; Pleasant Island wilderness; and Glacier Bay National Park.
Greg’s life since his mid-30s has been punctuated by medical problems. He had arthritis by that time, and has had five surgeries on his hips. These had a big influence on his figuring out how to deal with the pain and still discipline his body to handle outdoor work. The pain teaches a lot of self-discipline because you have to put up with it and still function.
Later in life, some major lessons urged Greg to reduce emphasis on thinking and to develop his perceptive side. In this latest chapter of his turn on earth, he has come to realize that head and heart are in this life together. It is most important that there be a balance between thinking and feeling. Thinking is a kind of exercise; a combination of practice and discipline. Feeling is as well, but of a different sort
It seems that Greg has summed up a large part of his life’s purpose in the final chapter of his book, The Natural History of Gustavus, when he writes.”unlike much of the world, the human presence in Gustavus is not yet out of proportion with the country’s ability to sustain us. The natural tapestry remains largely intact. We are yet capable of conserving the essential character of Gustavus. It is my dream that we will decide to do so.”
(Drawings in this article by Carole Baker; map by Heidi Robichaud.)