The sea cowboy
Chris Howard, based in Pelican, is a devoted fisherman and a 'bush electrician' as he calls himself; Chris is what we might imagine a 'true Alaskan' to be.
A very bright person with a 'quick-silver mind', Chris talks about living life to the fullest. What is respect, what is real pleasure and what is true freedom? Chris has his answers and they're worth knowing.
- How long have you lived in Alaska and why are you still here?
- I was actually born in Everett, Washington, but I first moved to Alaska in 1981 as a teenager to the town of Pelican and started commercial fishing. And I finally moved here in 1984 when I graduated from high school. So now I live in Pelican, Alaska, which is on the outside coast from Juneau in the Gulf of Alaska. I am what is called the 'bush technician' so I travel all over Southeast Alaska from Yakutat down to the Prince of Wales island. I also have some time for fishing and my base is in Pelican which is on the outside coast where all the beautiful things are. It is on the ocean – and the ocean brings it to you. And the ocean to me has always been a song: 'Mother, mother ocean'. So the oceans has always been my mother. I always come back to it: it is where the food is from. It is where I am comfortable. So in school I was spending my summers up and down the coast of Alaska fishing. You go fishing on the holidays for 12 days and then you bring your catch back to town and sell it. Most kids have social life with friends in the summer but my summer life was fishing in the Gulf of Alaska. And it changed me: that environment made me who I was. I had to be more reliant on myself. I had to help other people. It makes you very, very independent person: you have to solve problems, you can't rely on anybody else. Maybe… but don't count on it.
Why I am still here? You couldn't go, it would like going backwards. If you are an adventurist and somebody says: jump on your sailing ship, go across the ocean! Or stay where you're at and do what everybody else is doing. I get on the ship and I go. I've been here in Alaska, done that. I want to be more adventurist. The thing about the Southeast Alaska is that you can live your whole life in this one area and never see or do everything in this one area. It is so vast and so big: the water, the mountains, the rivers… And those people that could've lived in one area in Alaska they haven't even done half of the things I've done because they don't get out of their chair or don't have a boat. The thing about living here is like a doorstep to the rest of the world and to the adventure. Everyday you open your door, you have a cup of coffee in the morning, you walk outside and… there is an adventure for you. All you have to do is just to step out and do it! And I had never finished my adventure so why would I leave?
- Alaska is…
- A simple answer: it is my home. But Alaska is a mountain you climb and can never get to the top.

- What is the spirit of Alaska in terms of values people live?
- Alaskan values, to me, and it is very, very prevalent in Southeast Alaska, is that the Alaskans have always open hands. If you have a question – it is answered. If you're hungry – your belly is full. If you're thirsty – you have a drink. You can rely on Alaskan people. There are people who live in Alaska but they're not Alaskans and you can't rely on them which is unfortunate. But for the most part, and especially in the Southeast, any community you travel to and, be honest, it reminds me of the people of Moscow: how nice those people were to me when I was there visiting. They say that the Russians are closed people but maybe they are closed to other Russians. But to somebody from outside, to a new person, they are not. In Alaska almost all are treated as a new person, even the neighbors.
Alaska is a mountain you climb and can never get to the top.
- Since time immemorial the Native peoples of Alaska have lived here. Then the Russians came. Then Alaska became a part of the United States. In the end, who has the most claim?
- You have to define 'claim' because today it is under the control of the United States. Let's replace the word 'claim' with 'respect'. And, obviously, the Tlinkit have the most respect for the land. All of Southeast Alaska because it is their heritage, it's their mother. So everybody else is adopted which doesn't make an adopted person a lesser person or less love.
- The First Peoples of Alaska, including Inupiaq, Tlingit, Athabaskans, Yupik, Alutiiq and others, how large is their role in modern Alaska today?
- What you're asking me how much does a base of the building hold the building up. There it is.

- Alaska and the 'Lower 48': do people do things differently there?
- Oh, absolutely! I don't know what they're doing in the 'Lower 48'. So I am influenced by what I see here because I don't live there. My brother lives there and he shakes his head every day. I couldn't drive 10 miles for 2 hours: it's not me. I could never get how people act in the 'Lower 48' comparing how Alaskan people act. That's like Mars and Earth, two different places. You might find people there that act the same. But, in general, if you take a big punch bowl of people from the 'Lower 48' and you take a big punch bowl of people from Alaska, you would drink from the Alaska punch bowl because that is what tastes good for your soul.
- Do reality TV shows genuinely portray Alaska or they distort it?
- I've actually been on some reality shows production sites. It's TV so not everything is real. If you want to keep audience, you have to keep them interested. However, you do it, is that with gold, is that with… stupid things they get a paycheck. Is it true or not? That is a tough question. Because 'The Deadliest Catch', that shit happens, you know. The prospecting for gold, 'The Gold Rush'… all that shit happens. Even on 'The Bush People': that, you know, happens. The only way to answer this question is to experience it.
- Where, in your opinion, is the most beautiful place in Alaska? Why did you pick that place and why is it so special to you?
- Oh, the White Sulphur hot springs! Because it is nice hot water and it is so hard to get there. You look at the Pacific ocean. You could be there in 70-knot gale, storm. And you can be sitting in a hot tub, 113 degree F water. Looking out at the ocean and Mother Nature… Just pounding, pounding the Earth! And you're sitting in this little tub, having your wine or whatever and on the next day you see the sun comes up and there is a break between the clouds and the waves… And the sound, all night long, when the tide's high you hear the ocean just crash, crash, crash! You can wake up in the middle of the night and tell the tide is up cause the water flushing. You could hear it coming in and out. So, by that sound of the ocean, you know what the tide is doing. And then on a clear night it can be 9 degrees F outside and you have this view of all the sky: you could see the Milky Way, you could see all the planets, you are in the Cosmos sitting in this 113 degrees F water!
The most beautiful place in Alaska, to me, is the White Sulphur hot springs! Because it is nice hot water and it is so hard to get there. You look at the Pacific ocean. You could be there in 70-knot gale, storm. And you can be sitting in a hot tub, 113 degree F water. Looking out at the ocean and Mother Nature… Just pounding, pounding the Earth!
- What are you favorite Alaskan foods? Do you have a special recipe?
- I would have say, king salmon is number one. And blueberry pancake mix!
- What do you know about the Russian America or Russian heritage in Alaska?
- There is a lot of Russian heritage. It came when the Russians were exploring and now you see the Tlinkit elders with double eagle blankets they use for dress at the different events. They make it. So, I think, the base of the foundation, like I said before, has accepted the cement.
- This year is the 150th anniversary of Alaska purchase by the United States: are you aware of this event?
- I am aware of the event but it is celebrated mostly at Sitka. I don't so much celebrate it because I usually have to work on that day, it is not a state holiday. If it was a state holiday I would recognize it more.
- How do you feel towards Russia as a country?
- I met my first Russian people at Pelican, they were working at the cold storage we had a good time together. We went hiking, we went at the gold mines, we did all the stuff together. We got along great! They are like normal people, they are really like Americans. So when I traveled to Russia… before that there were things I didn't understand, like why you think this way, why you do that, why this is good… But when I went to Moscow and Saint Petersburg, then I understood. It was very easy to understand, like maybe why Russian won't be open and share just with anybody. In Russia you won't share information like we do it here. But, look at the World War II. Look back at things that happened when Stalin was. You couldn't share because you could have been betrayed. You had to be careful. I never understood that until I went there but it came very clear and very fast. And that doesn't make a person bad. That makes a person careful.
- America and Russia: are we enemies? Or are we not?
- I don't think we are. It is like in the Congress, the Republicans and the Democrats. They're fighting each other but they're still the same country! The Russian people are great. I had a great time, they treated me with respect. I have many Russian friends. I think the problem is that Americans don't realize how good the Russian people are. That is my observation.
- If you had an opportunity to meet and talk to an ordinary Russian, what would you say?
- Privet! Kak dela? (laughing).
- What is your version of the American dream?
- For me, an American dream would be to grow up in a cabin with a wood stove. Candle. To live off the land. Hunt deer, buffalo, moose, maybe to trap your own skins. Catch fish. Dry fish. Can fish. My American dream is not to be rich but it is to be able to provide food and be in a place where you can provide yourself and your family and not have to depend on anybody.
My American dream is not to be rich but it is to be able to provide food and be in a place where you can provide yourself and your family and not have to depend on anybody.
- What a great single Alaskan person of past or present would you like to talk to?
- It is going to be Uncle Ted. It is Ted Stevens, he was a senator from Alaska for a long time. He is Uncle Ted to everybody in Alaska because he took care of everybody. If you had a problem you went to Uncle Ted. Even if he is not your uncle, he was that good. You know, in politics not everybody loves you, you can try though. But if you look at the Lend-Lease memorial at Fairbanks, he stood there during the memorial, he helped get it together. And, you know, he died in a plane crash going fishing, like a true Alaskan! And the other guy, former Administrator of NASA, he survived. He was on board with him, too. So don't look at a single person asking an uncle. Look at the community asking an uncle, a city asking an uncle. The whole city was his kid. He was that good.
- What will Alaska be like in 2034, 17 years from now?
- I would imagine the population should maybe double. But it is such a tough environment, people really can't just jump into it. That's a tough question… I think some of the natural resources would be used. I couldn't imagine the fishing would be as good as it is. The fish is a resource of food is taxed more and more. At the same time, that fish goes out and can be intercepted by any country in the world and never come back to the river. So it can be deprived by somebody with a starving population out of control that could have an impact on us. So the whole world will have an effect on Alaska. The rest of civilization will have an effect on Alaska. Why? Because there is land here and there is food. As long as we are a clean area, clean water, we are OK. And, hopefully, if there's glaciers we've got water. It might be the last place you'll survive.
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