In a state where distancing comes easy, Alaskans flee virus to remote camps and cabins

The Kanga Bay Cabin in the Tongass National Forrest, about 12 miles away from Sitka (Zachariah Hughes, Alaska Public Media)

Deantha Crockett is the first to admit that her place on Big Lake hardly counts as roughing it.

“We have a washer and dryer and internet, so probably can’t call it a cabin,” she said of the 1,200 square foot house with her fiancee and two teenage step-daughters.

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Normally, Crockett lives in Anchorage, where she works for the Alaska Miners Association. But when Mayor Ethan Berkowitz announced that residents should hunker down, limit movement, and socially distance, Crockett and her family decided there was a better place to do that than in the city.

“There’s nothing that you can do in Anchorage right now anyway in terms of your appointments, going into work, all of that has been removed from life,” she said. “So there’s no reason to be in Anchorage now.”

Instead of riding out the coronavirus in towns or cities, some Alaskans are opting out: Relocating to cabins, second homes, or remote camps. In the Lower 48 there’s been some backlash to urbanites fleeing to rural areas amid the pandemic. A recent essay in BuzzFeed titled “This Pandemic Is Not Your Vacation” collected instances of small towns and rural communities barring interlopers from population centers fleeing there to ride out the coronavirus. Local governments have even restricted short-term property rentals to cut down on the influx of non-residents.

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In a more extreme example, a Politico article detailed a Canadian couple traveling across the country, all the way north to the small Arctic community of Old Crow, where they were greeted, put into isolation, then flown back out. However, many parts of Alaska are set up for individuals and families to hunker down in relative solitude.

For Crockett, a large motivation to relocate was wanting to be in a comfortable, self-contained place if she fell ill, so she could limit exposure to anyone outside her family. Though their home on Big Lake is a bit small for four people, she said it’s easy to get outside for activities.

And they are far from the only ones who have decamped to a second home in the area.

“I probably know about a dozen of them out here,” Crockett said of other families now hunkering in lakeside homes. “We’ll go for walks on the lake, like 20 feet apart.”

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Crockett said she hadn’t heard of any local ire from year-round residents in the town of Big Lake proper.

A lot of people in Anchorage have secondary dwellings scattered across more remote areas within a few hours’ drive. Under the state’s Health Mandate 12 limiting intrastate travel, residing at such a cabin during technically allowed, although inessential travel is highly discouraged, and people asked be considerate of potential health impacts on other Alaskans.

As of March 28, when that mandate went into effect, intrastate travel between communities is now prohibited, with the exceptions of critical personal or infrastructure needs. Local and tribal governments have varying degrees of jurisdictional power to limit visits by outsiders. But when it comes to hunkering at a secondary residence, especially along the road system, enforcement protocols are less clear.

If social media is any indication, plenty of residents across the state are opting to stay outside population centers to get through this phase of the pandemic: camps by the Kuzitrin River outside Nome, family homesteads on the Kenai Peninsula, extra long stays at cabins up the Unalakleet River.

“You basically can live out there not being worried about being cross infected by someone,” said James O’Malley, a retired Anchorage surgeon, of his dry cabin in the tiny Turnagain Arm town of Hope.

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O’Malley and his wife are both seniors, which puts them at a higher risk of dying from COVID-19. They decided it was safer for them to be in Hope than Anchorage.

According to O’Malley, it’s an age-old tactic to get away from the cities when an illness sweeps through. He compared the contemporary flight to The Decameron, Giovanni Boccaccio’s 14th Century work premised on a group of Florentine refugees trading stories as they wait out the Black Plague in a country villa.

“We were doing a Decameron,” O’Malley said of he and his wife packing their car and driving the 90 miles down to Hope. “We were leaving town because whatever was coming up we didn’t want to be here and have a lot of different restrictions put on us.”

But unless you’re set up for total self-sufficiency, holing up is hard. The O’Malleys can spend about two weeks at their place before they need to come into Anchorage to re-supply and do laundry. When the guidance came down in late March that people should eliminate all non-essential travel, they decided it was better to stay in Anchorage than bank on long grocery runs every few weeks. 

But according to O’Malley, the value of cabin-living amid a pandemic isn’t just about the physical distance, but also the welcome distraction of having simple chores that need doing everyday.

“It’s really a very bucolic, non-pressured lifestyle. Which would work in your favor if you were anxious at all about getting the coronavirus and dying,” he said.

For others, Anchorage might be a home-base, but that’s not the same as a home.

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Liz Medicine Crow works in the city as president of the First Alaskans Institute, but once things started shutting down in mid-March, she quickly got herself to her hometown on an island in southeast.

“Where’s the first place you would go if you needed to be safe?” Medicine Crow asked.

It was a rhetorical question. The easy answer is “home.”

For Medicine Crow, that’s her family house in Kake. After flying in, disinfecting all her luggage, and opening up the winterized residence, she put herself into a 14-day quarantine, relying on family to drop off supplies.

She said she’s been inspired by the quick thinking of tribal leaders across the state being proactive to limit the spread of the virus.

“Our communities know the implications of these things because of a couple hundred years of colonization,” she said.

Waves of pandemics decimated Alaska’s indigenous populations. Given that experience, coupled with long traditions of self-reliance, Medicine Crow said rural communities are in some ways better prepared than most to protect themselves in a situation like what’s now unfolding.

“We don’t have the same resources in our villages that our cities might,” she said. “It doesn’t take long to do the quick math to know what could happen if something bad comes through the doors.”

Medicine Crow’s quarantine ended last weekend. She was looking forward to harvesting subsistence foods. Hudson Bay tea is ready to be picked, and Herring are spawning in coves across southeast coasts.