By Melinda Munson
My mother was born and raised in Alaska. I was not so lucky. A product of the East Coast, I traveled 4,000 miles each summer to live with my grandparents on the miniscule island of Killisnoo, a quick skiff ride to Angoon. I savored the hiking and fishing, tolerated outhouses and learned everything I could about Tlingit/Haida culture.
After studying journalism and English at the University of Washington, my husband (Paul) and I had two children. Through foster care and adoption, we added four more Munsons, all with varying special needs including blindness and intellectual impairment. We ended up in Las Vegas where Paul, a chef, fed the homeless.
We fled Las Vegas in 2016 after a record breaking heat wave and a neighborhood shooting. We sold our home, along with most of our belongings, and headed to the Final Frontier. We made a homestead in Chugiak, nestled among birch trees in the shadow of Bear Mountain. I wrote for local papers then transitioned to teaching high school. We adopted another child who we nicknamed “The LAST One.”
We were comfortable. We were happy.
Then I saw the Anchorage Daily News. Publisher Larry Persily was giving away a newspaper in rural Alaska. The kind of rural where you can’t get unlimited internet from the local phone company and the best produce should be bought the same day the barge arrives. I couldn’t have dreamed up a better opportunity.
Getting to Skagway was painful–both emotionally and physically. Our 18-year-old dislocated her shoulder in two places and underwent surgery. She stayed behind when we realized we couldn’t depend on the floundering ferry system to get her to doctor appointments. A week before our departure, the upstairs tub leaked through the ceiling. Paul and the moving van were stymied in Whitehorse for days as avalanche crews worked to reopen The Klondike.
When we all finally arrived, we were met with smiles, meals and a crew of volunteers to unload the truck. Our rental home didn’t come with keys because the owner had “thrown them away 20 years ago.” I’m already accustomed to the sharp north winds and the thud of my footsteps on the boardwalk as I walk to work.
After buying my first $6.30 gallon of milk, I’m beginning to better understand the hardship of living in small-town Alaska. It is not convenient. It is not cheap. But I think it will be beautiful.
By Gretchen Wehmhoff
What a whirlwind time to become a newspaper owner.
When Melinda shared the article about Larry Persily giving away The Skagway News, I laughed and moved on, until she cornered me to compose an introduction letter to Larry.
We met with Larry several times in person (remember those pre-pandemic days?) and over the phone. He was inundated with interest from around the world so our selection seemed out of reach. However, just after the New Year, Larry called to offer us the paper. We agreed on $20 as the sale price.
Larry’s decision was not made lightly. His concern for Skagway and the paper was sincere. He wanted this paper to survive and serve the community. He wanted someone who would live in Skagway and he wanted someone deeply familiar with the state. He wanted to know the paper was in good hands, which is why we were horrified when our check to Larry — our very first check — the one for $20, bounced.
Larry saw the humor and the bank fixed their mistake. (Yes, it really was a bank error.)
But that mistake seemed minor compared to the missing apostrophe on the front page story and other miscellaneous layout errors we made in our first issue. We will do better.
A bit about me. My family arrived in Anchorage, Alaska in 1965 where I was raised. I attended the University of Denver (bachelor’s in communication) and Creighton University School of Law (master’s in negotiation and dispute resolution.)
In the 80’s I started teaching high school in Kenai then Anchorage. For 21 years I advised the Chugiak High School’s monthly student newspaper with a circulation starting at 500 and growing to 3,000 around the community.
Politics took my attention for a few years after I retired. I ran for state and local offices. While I didn’t win the elections, the experience, friends and acquaintances made a lasting impact. In December 2018, I was appointed to serve in the Anchorage Assembly for four months after an assembly member left to work for the governor’s office.
I’ve worked in other careers outside of education; 20 years in the restaurant business, as the public relations director for the Susitna (Alaska) Girl Scouts, graveyard shift paste-up with the Anchorage Daily News and a short stint as the development manager for an oil services company. Yet my world keeps returning to writing and teaching. I now teach part-time for the Anchorage School District and for UAA. I mediate and write when I can.
I live in Chugiak with my husband, Joe, and our dog, Athena. I will be spending half of my year in Skagway and also work on the paper, website and advertising remotely.
Through careers and volunteer work, I’ve visited different areas of Alaska such as Nome, Kotzebue, Utqiagvik, Dillingham, the Kenai Peninsula, the Interior, Valdez, Cordova and Southeast communities like Petersbuerg and Juneau. Now, I’ve found this beautiful hamlet near the Alaska-Canada border surrounded by mountains and snowy passes.
It has been a wonderful journey getting here. We have been overwhelmed by the kindness and closeness of this community. Thank you, Skagway.