Growing up in the Kodiak Wilderness

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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.


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