Monthly Archives: September 2015

Wild Pets

Bald Eagle

The Munsey kids usually had domestic cats, but they also had many wild pets over the years.  Today, Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G) laws prohibit feeding and taming wild animals, but in the 1960s and 1970s, ADF&G not only allowed people to rescue wild animals, but ADF&G employees, themselves, often rescued animals and brought many of these animals to the Munseys to care for, nurse back to health, and re-release into the wild.

A few of these animals were good pets, but most were not.  Mike remembers a baby bald eagle, rescued after falling out of its nest, being a particularly bad pet.  Whenever anyone left the house, the eagle would chase them, demanding food.  According to family legend, young Bob wore a red coat that the eagle found particularly attractive, so whenever anyone wanted to leave the house, they’d coax Bob to put on his coat and run the opposite direction.  The eagle would chase Bob, and the other family members could escape the house unmolested.

Baby seals abandoned by their mothers were cute but often did not survive, and it is likely there was something wrong with the babies to begin with, and that’s why their mothers abandoned them.  A few of the seals did make it, though, and I’ve seen 8mm footage of Pat in the water in hip boots, coaxing a baby seal to swim.  Pat remembers the mess the seals made when the kids would sneak them up to their rooms.

Two of the favorite pets were birds.  Tom Emerson with Fish and Game gave the Munseys a one-legged magpie that he had taught to say, “Maggie,” her name.  Herbie was a seagull chick the Munseys raised, and he became very attached to the children.  One time, just as Herbie was learning to fly, the Munseys were returning home by boat.  Herbie was so excited he took off and flew toward them, but he hadn’t quite perfected the art of landing, and he crashed into the water beside the skiff.  The kids scooped him into the boat and dried his feathers.

Red foxes are easy to partially tame with food, and at times, the Munseys had as many as eight foxes in the yard at mealtime.  A man in Kodiak gave Park six raccoons, and Park released them at the Amook Pass home.  The raccoons would join the foxes for meals, and sometimes the raccoons and foxes would enter the house, where the Munseys’ Siamese cats curiously watched them.  As hard as it is to believe, these wild and domestic animals peacefully co-existed as long as there was plenty of food.

The Munseys soon realized that releasing the raccoons had not been a good idea.  The raccoons began to breed, and since they are not native to Kodiak Island, ADF&G biologists became alarmed that these invasive predators would climb trees and eat the eggs of endemic birds.  ADF&G hired a young woman to stay with the Munseys and shoot every raccoon she saw.  Unfortunately, the raccoons were most active at night, when it was too dark to hunt, and how could she shoot these animals the kids considered pets?  Eventually, to the relief of wildlife biologists, the raccoons died off and did not become a threat to the resident birds.  I should point out that tempting as it may be, biologists now feel it is a bad idea to feed wild animals.  The animals need to learn how to procure their own food, and human intervention, no matter how well-meaning, interferes with their survival instincts.

Mike, Bob, and their fellow crewmen rescued the eagle pictured at the top of this post when Mike was a college student, and he and Bob spent their summers working as commercial gill-net fishermen at Greenbanks, a fish site near the mouth of Uyak Bay.  They found the eagle floating in the water nearly dead and picked him up and took him to shore.  They threw a tarp over him, and the next morning, he was sitting on the tarp.  He was tired, weak and looked terrible, but he accepted food and slowly gained back his strength.  He devoured the fish the guys tossed to him, but he would back away when they tried to approach too closely.  Finally, after two weeks, he flew away without a backward glance.  Mike took the photo at the top of this post the day before the eagle departed, and a few years later, the photo graced the cover of Alaska magazine.

It was a magical childhood to grow up in the middle of the Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge, surrounded by wild animals and even having a few of them for pets.  I marvel that after all these years living in the wilderness, Mike still smiles when he sees a deer in the yard or a fox on the beach.  He has never lost that childhood thrill of seeing a wild animal in its natural habitat.


Growing up in the Kodiak Wilderness

Copy of File0006

When I hear my husband and his siblings talk about their experiences growing up in the Kodiak wilderness, I envision a 1970’s Disney Movie, complete with wild pets and adventures in the air, on the sea, and in the woods.  All six Munsey children grew up to be tough, self-reliant, and creative.  They love nature, and I know they would all agree that they are more comfortable in the woods than they are in a city.  Growing up in the wilderness is not an easy life, though.  Your only close friends are your siblings, and your parents need and expect you to help with the endless chores that are required to carve out a living in the wilds.  When you do move away to go to college or get a job, you may be ill-prepared to deal with the drastic lifestyle change, and none of your new friends understand what your childhood was like.

Bob, the fifth child in the Munsey clan, was born on a blustery March day in the middle of a storm, when the weather was too nasty for Park to fly Pat to Kodiak to the hospital.  Pat somehow had a premonition the baby would come early, and she might not make it to town for the delivery.  Since she was a nurse who had helped deliver many babies, she prepared an emergency kit and told Park what to do if he needed to deliver the baby.  That day, Eddie Paakinen, the caretaker of a nearby cannery, stopped by to visit.  When Pat went into labor, Eddie nervously waited in another room while Park delivered the baby.   The delivery proceeded without a hitch, and the baby boy was christened, “Robert Amook” after Amook Pass where Munsey’s Bear Camp is located.

The Munsey children had numerous adventures, and every time the family gets together, I hear new tales.  This summer during the family reunion, they were laughing about the time some young fisheries researchers were staying with them and built the kids a zip line.  Apparently it was great fun, but there was no braking mechanism on the rope, so the ride ended abruptly by plowing into a tree trunk.

Mike and Bob helped their Dad around the lodge, and both followed him into the field on hunting expeditions as soon as they were old enough to carry rifles.  Toni, Patti, Jeri, and Peggy helped their mom in the kitchen and around the house, but all the kids were proficient with outboards and knew how to handle guns.

Mike remembers miserable, stormy nights when he and Bob had to help their Dad keep the floatplane tied down and water pumped out of the floats.  One late fall, the Munseys had put all their boats up on a ramp and were closing down the lodge, preparing to move to town for the winter.  That night the wind howled, and when Park checked on his airplane in the middle of the night, he found the dock had been ripped apart by the storm, and there was no way to get to the airplane, which was tied at the end of the dock.  He quickly woke Mike, who was twelve at the time, and they pushed a boat in the water and put an outboard on it.  They quickly raced to the end of the dock, and Park got in his plane and told Mike to head back to shore.  As soon as Mike started for the beach, the engine choked and died, and the wind began to blow him away from shore.  He repeatedly tried to start the outboard, but it wouldn’t turn over.  Park began yelling for him, and Mike was terrified as he continued to pull the cord.  Finally the outboard roared to life, and Mike made it to shore.

In the winters, the Munseys usually moved to Kodiak for a few months, and the kids had to transition from being home-schooled to attending public school.  Even more difficult, they had to learn how to interact with other children and fit in with “town” life.

Life in the wilderness is often not a Disney movie for a child, but as I sat at the table at the recent Munsey reunion and listened to their stories and laughter, I knew not a single one of them would have traded his or her childhood for a more conventional one.


The List

Grocery Delivery
Grocery Delivery

“The List”is another guest post by Marcia Messier.  In case you missed her earlier posts, Marcia cooked at Munsey’s Bear Camp from 2003 to 2011 and has written some wonderful stories about her experiences.  Marcia, Pat Munsey, and I are working on a cookbook, and Marcia’s stories will be included in that.

One of the toughest things to learn as a cook at a wilderness lodge is to plan ahead on groceries and to be flexible.   During our summer trips, I e-mail the grocery order to the store, they fill it for us, and we receive the groceries on the plane with our next group of guests.  Even when we do a perfect job of remembering everything we need, the grocery store may be out of something, or they may misunderstand what we want and replace it with what they think we want.  For example, this summer we received our groceries, but there were no eggs.  We checked the note from the store, and in neat hand writing beside my order of eggs, was the message that eggs were out of stock.  I assure you, it is not easy to substitute for eggs, so Mary, our current cook, went into “creativity mode,” and I am certain none of our guests were any the wiser.  Another example of adventures in e-mail grocery ordering was when Marcia cooked for us, and she asked me to order malted-milk balls, because she had a cookie recipe that called for them.  When the order arrived, we were surprised to see that they sent us moth balls instead of malted-milk balls.

I think Marcia does a beautiful job summing up the never-ending adventure of ordering groceries in the Alaskan wilderness.

The List

by Marcia Messier

A major grocery store has never been more than 10 minutes from my home.  If the egg or bread supply is low, no problem, jump in the car and go to the store.

Robin taught me about planning ahead and “The List”.  It was simple, notice when an item was low and write it down. Plan the weekly meals and make sure you can cover them. Groceries came from Kodiak on a float plane along with the guests, once a week, as long as the weather was flyable.  If the grocery store in Kodiak didn’t have what was on the List, we didn’t get it, or we got some strange, useless replacement item.  If produce was wilted and old, we got wilted and old, or none at all.  I remember a young man who filled our orders at the grocery store in Kodiak one summer.  I vowed when I got back to town, I would track him down, and I would speak to him about how his inattention to our List……made me a better cook!

There were instances, however, due to my own inattention, that I forgot to write items on the list and we had to do without that item until the next plane….for instance, eggs and bread!  To my surprise, guests seemed to like sausage gravy and biscuits, piles of pancakes, apple crisp, potatoes, beans and breakfast meats.  No one seemed to notice (or were too polite to mention) the absence of eggs on the table.  At lunch, Focaccia bread sandwiches were wildly popular as a substitute for sliced store bread, when I failed to notice every last loaf in the freezer was gone.  Maybe that had something to do with fish taking over my corner of the freezer…maybe not.

Now, once in a while there was something beyond my control that upset the menu.  Something got into the soup?  Open a few cans of canned soup and throw in a few odd spices…exotic!  Veggies all torn up from a rough ride in the plane?  Open a few cans of green beans and make a casserole…yum!  Salad boring?  Cold canned carrots and sliced onions in a vinegar dressing….surprisingly tasty!

Our guests were always happy and had a big appetites after being out on the water all day fishing and bear viewing with Robin and Mike.  At the end of the day this made me happy too, and the List was forgotten, until tomorrow.


Living in the Kodiak Wilderness


Living in the Kodiak wilderness is not a lifestyle most people would choose. Over the years, many of my high-school and college friends have visited me here, and some say to me, “You are so lucky! I’d love to live here!” Others, though, give me a bewildered look and ask, “How can you stand to live out here all by yourselves?”  A few of my friends even seem to pity me, which amuses me, since I think I am lucky to live and work in the wilderness. People either tend to romanticize a peaceful life away from civilization, or they picture it as a type of prison. From my perspective, the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

Living in the wilderness is much easier today than it was even fifteen years ago. We no longer have to depend on spotty radio signals to communicate with Kodiak, as we did when I first moved here. We have a satellite phone, satellite internet, even satellite television. We are fortunate to receive essential air service once a week in the winter that brings us our mail, freight and groceries. When I need to order something from the grocery store, I simply e-mail my order to the store, they fill it, deliver it to the airlines, and we receive it on our next mail flight.

Munsey's Bear Camp
Munsey’s Bear Camp

The scenery on the Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge is spectacular during every season, and we often have deer, eagles, and foxes in our yard, and whales, seals, sea otters, and sometimes sea lions in the cove in front of our house. The quiet is complete, especially in the winter, and I don’t miss the hustle and bustle of the holidays. We work hard from April through November, so those peaceful, winter days are a nice change of pace, and should the mood strike me, I can always spend a day shopping on the internet.


Living in the wilderness does have its drawbacks, though, and this life isn’t always easy. I miss having close friends, and most of the friends I do have, can’t relate to my lifestyle. I miss attending concerts, plays, movies, and other cultural events, and I definitely miss going out to dinner. My husband, Mike, grew up in the wilderness, and he said the hardest part as a kid was the lack of friends and the social awkwardness he and his siblings felt when they did go to town and were around other children.

From a practical standpoint, you must be a jack of all trades if you live in the wilderness. From fixing our outboard to our computer, if we can’t figure out how to do it, we’re out of luck, at least until we can get the broken item to a repairman in town. If it breaks, we either have to fix it or buy a new one. If our internet goes out, we’ve lost our main source of communication, including the internet provider who could help us fix the problem. Calling help lines on a satellite phone is expensive and frustrating, since the call is often dropped before we can talk to a live human.

Frozen Stream
Frozen Stream

We are also on our own if we have a fire or need immediate help from law enforcement. The troopers will arrive eventually, but they are a long distance away and can’t provide immediate support. We can call the Coast Guard if we have a serious injury or a medical emergency, but again, it takes time for them to deploy and get to us, so we make sure we have the knowledge, training, and equipment to deal with most medical emergencies. You can’t depend on others when you choose to live so far away from civilization.

It is often frustrating to me that the rest of the world doesn’t understand where or how I live. Try ordering something without a street address! We receive a mail plane once a week, and the post office has issued us a postal code that even they do not recognize. I am constantly trying to convince online stores that I will receive their merchandise if they mail it to the address I have provided. Some tell me I’m wrong, my address does not exist, and they will not ship to it. We even run into problems with businesses and doctors in Kodiak. I once spent $1000 on a trip to town for a blood test that could have easily been ordered during my doctor’s visit the previous week. It is also frustrating to make an appointment months in advance only to have to cancel it at the last minute, because the weather is too bad to fly to town.

There are pros and cons to living in the wilderness, just as there are pros and cons to living anywhere. Our lifestyle is different, but for the most part, I enjoy it. I love welcoming people during our summer trips and showing them around our world. Many are anxious when they first arrive, unsure of what to expect, and it’s fun to watch them relax as they leave the problems of the outside world behind them and become in tune with the rhythms of our world. I know living in the remote wilderness of Kodiak Island is not a lifestyle most people would embrace, but that’s one of the reasons it’s so special to me.