Fish, weather - staples of life on Alaska panhandle

The days are growing longer here in southeast Alaska. The long winter, which brings rain, fog, snow, and little sunlight, has receded and blended into spring. The sun stays up until after 10 p.m.

Herring season came and went quickly this year, lasting only a few days. Halibut season approaches. King salmon fetch up to $3.50 a pound.

Life here revolves around fishing. Local fishermen are upset these days, saying the federal government overregulates their industry, and they've begun to lobby state legislators in Juneau. Across the jagged mountains, by bush plane, is a fish hatchery. The biologists there, quiet people who enjoy the solitude, are replenishing the salmon stocks in southeast Alaska.

Sitka's 8,500 residents nestle on an island in the southeastern portion of Alaska that juts down toward the lower 48 states. The region is called the panhandle, and consists mainly of a series of islands that roughly runs parallel to the western border of British Columbia.

Katlian Street, narrow and windy, lies at the heart of the fishing community here. Katlian Street's hub is the Pioneer Bar - a favorite stop lined with old pictures of Alaska fishing boats. It's the place to learn about fishing legends, some more truthful than others, and to find out where to get work in the fishing fleet.

Times are uncertain here. Oil revenues, which have made Alaska a billionaire several times over, are expected to decline by 1988, possibly sooner. Suddenly cuts, both in municipal government and the school district, are being discussed. Even the Alaska Permanent Fund, which sent a $1,000 check to every Alaskan last year, will trim its dividends this year.

Causing further worry is the possibility that one of the town's largest employers, the pulp mill, could close within a year. The elimination of 200 jobs would send shock waves through the local economy.

Still, the town is full of entrepreneurs, people building their dream houses in subdivisions carved out of forests once traveled by the Tlingit (pronounced Klingkit) Indians.

On the cultural front, poet William Stafford spent five days here recently, teaching, reading, and talking. Novelist Ishmael Reed taught a creative writing class here last summer, found the place to his liking, and hopes to return this summer. Alaska Native writers came to Sitka earlier this spring, mainly to exchange ideas and find new outlets for their writing - Indian and Eskimo legends, for instance.

Sitka's public radio station, KCAW, competes against cable television and the town's AM station. Two of KCAW's most popular shows are ''Country Morning,'' featuring country music, and ''Sentimental Journey,'' devoted to swing.

The town's most popular radio program, however, is ''The Problem Corner,'' which is broadcast daily on the AM station. The call-in program allows residents to speak their minds on almost anything, from selling a car to criticizing the city council's latest ordinance, to finding a baby sitter.

Small-town life is small-town life, whether in this corner of Alaska, the deep South, or New England. People stop and talk here. The pace is slower. There is gossip, but no more, perhaps, than in a Manhattan apartment building.

The isolation takes its toll. Sitka is on an island, accessible only by boat or plane, surrounded on two sides by mountains. Sometimes the rain and mist roll in from the Pacific, shrouding the mountains for several days, and you feel as though you're at the end of the earth.

But when the sun shines on the mountaintops until late in the evening and when the fishermen head out to sea, this quiet, remote corner of the continent seems quite adequate.

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