Ask any adult who moved to Alaska to start a new life and you may hear their story about arriving with 37 cents in their pocket and no job prospects. Or how they squeezed all their belongings into their old car and drove up the Alcan Highway. None of those stories will probably ever top that of Peter McKay, who used a rowboat to get here.
McKay worked as a planner for the State of Alaska Community and Regional Affairs Department for 25 years, before it became Commerce, Community and Economic Development. Friends and colleagues like Nicole Grewe say his long career and sense of social responsibility were sparked and shaped by a stint in the Peace Corps, serving in the Amazon jungle in Columbia.
“That’s where I believe that he discovered his passion to do rural development and community organizing work, and his love for the Spanish language,” Grewe said.
Later, McKay worked with Cesar Chavez and Chicano farm workers by helping them set up strawberry co-ops and a bi-lingual radio station. He also volunteered to help villagers in Gambia, West Africa build a clinic and a dam.
In Alaska’s Kuskokwim River village of Aniak, he wasn’t afraid to work in the dirt during an experimental farming project.
“The dream they had in those days was (that) everyone was using an outhouse and honeybucket,” said Scott Hurlbert, who was just out of high school when he met McKay.
There was really no running water in Aniak as far as toilets and sewers went.”
McKay helped the city of Aniak build its own reliable drinking water and wastewater system, and get grants for the equipment and local training.
“And that was how he thought about it,” Hurlbert recalls. “It was like: ‘Can we make an improvement now? Can we make the place better today? We’ll figure out the next bit later.'”
Grewe said McKay’s work for the state included helping with ANCSA land conveyances in the 1980s, community planning and municipal government assistance, and guiding new cities in their incorporation, management, and planning and zoning. He also helped small communities develop safe drinking water and wastewater infrastructure.
“Some real nuts and bolts work that didn’t have an easy solution,” Grewe said.
It’s difficult to finance, operate, and maintain this infrastructure in a village with high unemployment. Peter just kept at it. He knew how critical it was that if you don’t have safe drinking water and a way to dispose of wastewater safely, (then) you really cannot tend to other community viability issues.”
According to Grewe, McKay’s legacy to new employees was the need to get out of the office cubicle and into the village whenever possible, talking with people, and developing relationships.
“You network profusely, you shake hands and get to know people, you listen to their stories even though it can be very time consuming and certain cultural sensitivities need to be applied,” Grewe said.
He was one of the very few people that truly bridged the difference between urban and rural Alaskans, in my opinion.”
McKay has been remembered as generous, well-read, a mentor, a strong and silent listener with a good heart and a great grin, and a bit of a trickster.
His adventurous spirit is probably most widely known. In 1979, McKay and friend Dick Luxon decided to row into Glacier Bay to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of John Muir’s canoe voyage. They started in Seattle in an 18 foot wooden open dory loaded up with 400 pounds of gear for the trip that was estimated at well over a thousand miles. Why do it? McKay joked to a San Jose Mercury News reporter that they “just got tired of rowing to Monterey.”
It took three months, but they made it.
It was the perhaps the start of countless adventures – either alone or with friends – that McKay made under his own power or with just a little help from nature.
He felt that what you’re testing is yourself and your ability to endure,” Hurlbert said.
Those adventures included countless hikes, rowing back-and-forth from McKay’s Juneau home to his Gustavus cabin, cycling from Seattle to Portland, cycling and kayaking Erie Canal, sailing the Atlantic from the U.S. East Coast to Ireland, cycling through France and Spain, and various rowing expeditions along the inside and – very treacherous – outside waters of Southeast Alaska.
Author Andy Hall went on one of those trips with McKay and another friend, former Aniak teacher Lamont Albertson.
“(We) got into some really hairy seas,” Hall said. “At one point, Peter yelled that there was this whirlpool. The way his boat is set up, the rower has his back to the bow. Guy in the back is navigating with a tiller. So, Peter could see what we heading toward.”
Lamont and I kind of craned our necks to see what was going on and he said ‘You don’t want to see it! Just keep rowing!’ We rowed through like five hours straight to get out of this stuff.”
Bud Carpeneti, now a retired judge, embarked on a few of the Washington state cycling trips with McKay.
He was just the kind of person that just got you to do things that you’d never even thought about doing, much less believe that you could do.”
Carpeneti’s daughter joined McKay on that trans-Atlantic sailing voyage.
“He’s really an adventurer. He’s the kind of person that just saw great things to be done out there and he wanted to do them,” Carpeneti said.
Hall said McKay was never trying to compile an expedition resumé, or embark on the various adventures for any fame or notoriety.
I think he did it because he enjoyed it. When you do things like that with somebody, it kind of puts you in different place with them. The conversations are little more deeper, more real.”
Peter McKay passed away June 28th during a hike on Juneau’s Flume Trail. He was 63 years old.
A memorial for Peter McKay starts at 4 p.m. Sunday, July 20th at the Juneau Yacht Club.