From the Ground Up
The Farm Lodge of Port Alsworth
If it’s your first time visiting the air-access only town of Port Alsworth (population 200, more or less) you might not notice the lack of traffic noise; the only roads in town are two landing strips. With the Tanalian Mountain reflecting in the turquoise waters of Lake Clark behind you, a cacophony of float planes, boats, and ATVs buzzing, there’s certainly a lot to take in. But it’s impossible to miss the huge field just next to the airstrip, in all of its glittering, green glory: sunflowers with open, eager faces craned around to look at yours; three huge, shining high-tunnels with their sides rolled up to offer a provocative peek at tomatoes, cucumbers, and peppers hanging heavy on trellised vines; meticulously weeded and satisfyingly straight rows of cabbages, carrots, and potatoes create inviting pathways throughout; a large stone-fronted dugout root cellar and an ancient-looking log chicken coop with a groundcover roof (built by the esteemed outdoorsman and author Richard Proenneke himself) suggest that this is no small-potatoes gardening operation going on here in Port Alsworth.
The first question you may ask yourself: who is lucky enough to live here? The second: just how long has this garden been around? And the third: will anyone notice if I snag a raspberry?
Roots and New Growth
Homestead gardening in Alaska has always been a short and intense affair, pleasing eyes and palates in the brief summer months. While not uniquely Alaskan, it is certainly essential for Alaskans; filling jars, cans, and root cellars for the inevitably long winter to come. But what the eponymous Alsworths of Port Alsworth have done with their over 70-year old family garden goes above and beyond mere sustenance. This year, for the third summer in a row, it will crank out enough high quality produce to help feed not only the Alsworth family (which, at 35+ members, is no small undertaking), but also the staff at their air taxi and lodge businesses, lodge guests, and local families and businesses, reducing the amount of produce they would otherwise fly in from Anchorage. In addition, clients in over 11 neighboring small villages will order and have hand-delivered to them fresh, seasonal, local produce boxes from this garden, all summer long.
The Alsworths’ own family history makes up a substantial portion of the history of the town of Port Alsworth, which is the gateway to Lake Clark National Park and Preserve. Their three-going-on-four-generation legacy as Alaska bush pilots began when Leon “Babe” Alsworth Sr. first settled in the Lake Clark area in the 1940s. It was Babe’s wife, Mary, the town’s first postmaster, who mostly managed the family garden that sat where the current garden is today. In those days, without electricity or running water, there was simply a small shed heated by a woodstove to serve as a greenhouse for peppers and tomatoes, in addition to the main garden. Barrels were filled with water and set in the sun to warm before buckets were dipped into them to painstakingly water the plants, row by row.
By 1977, Babe and Mary’s youngest son Glen, and his wife Patty, officially turned Babe’s air taxi service into Lake Clark Air. Care of the grounds and garden passed to Patty’s father, Laddy Elliot—known as “Wops” to those close to him—when he moved to Port Alsworth with his wife Glenda. Though he is too modest to say so, Laddy is somewhat of a local legend as a handyman, mechanic, woodworker, and gardener. Under his care, the garden continued to grow and thrive and, at 85, you can still find him out there nearly every day during growing season. “We’ve always catered to the conditions and the season,” he says. “Cold weather crops—lots of potatoes and cabbages!”
By 1998, on the same plot of land settled by Babe and Mary on Hardenburg Bay, Glen’s eldest son Glen Jr. and his wife Lelya expanded what was once informal lodging for stranded visitors, or those who didn’t want to rough it in tents, into The Farm Lodge: a year-round adventure/wilderness lodge offering all-inclusive activity packages (photography, sightseeing, flightseeing, and catch-and-release fishing) in and around Port Alsworth and southwest Alaska.
As it developed into a bustling summer tourism business, so did the need for a larger garden that could help sustain the guest and staff meals. In 2014, with help from a USDA homesteading incentive program, construction began on the first of three 72 ft. x 30 ft. irrigated high tunnels. Just a year later, the Alsworths found themselves with a surplus of quality fresh produce, a longer growing season than they’d ever had before, and less reliance on Anchorage grocers for their day-to-day veggies.
Soon after winning a local competitive small business grant in 2015, Lake Clark Air begin shipping produce boxes to the surrounding villages on their flight routes. “We were going there anyway,” said Glen Sr. “and we thought, why not? There was no need to charge for shipping.” Now they take boxes to more than 11 locations, including Iliamna, Pilot Point, Chignik Lake, and even back to Anchorage. Customers call in their orders and can choose a weekly or bi-weekly box, or they can place a one-time order. Produce is usually picked and packed the day the boxes are shipped, so that everything arrives as fresh as possible.
A Team Effort
Although Laddy managed the large garden on his own for years, the addition of the high tunnels presented new challenges that one person alone could not meet. In the spring of 2014, Teressa Sobie moved to the area and was able to bring her expertise in conservation and agriculture to the table. She worked closely with Laddy on the planning, oversight, and nitty-gritty hard work of the garden expansion project. After years of traveling and learning different agricultural methods she says, “This was a dream job. When it comes to horticulture and agriculture on a small scale, everyone has their own way of doing things. But I think the collaboration [here] and openness to trying new ideas is rare and has only ever helped the farm work better.” As the high tunnels were being built, she researched extensively and, along with Laddy, conducted soil tests, ordered seeds, and designed the irrigation system, with Laddy installing much of it himself.
Most of the planning and general management of the garden now falls to Amny Rose, a one-time seasonal helper in the garden who now lives in Port Alsworth full time. Like Teressa, Amny has a degree in horticulture. She says of Laddy in particular: “Working for Wops is great; he has such a wealth of knowledge and is very kind. He's excited about the garden, about growing things… he's been growing vegetables in Alaska for decades and he still appreciates how cool it is, what we're doing here.”
The camaraderie, shared enthusiasm, and collective effort that spans generations among the garden and lodge staff at Lake Clark Air and The Farm Lodge is undeniable. There’s a clear sense that people who are drawn to Port Alsworth naturally tend to work well together, perhaps because of the things that brought them here in the first place: a sense of adventure, the thrill of a challenge, a strong work ethic, and a shared respect and enthusiasm for the nature and unique conditions they live and work within.
Farm to Table
The lodge, which sees its busiest season between the months of July and September and can average 65 guests per week, always has first dibs on the garden goods. Much to the delight of visitors who come in from a full day of guided fishing or photography tours in and around Lake Clark, meals are packed with fresh, seasonal, garden-ripe veggies. Lelya Alsworth, who plans the lodge menus, draws upon her experiences growing up in Russia, spending time in her grandmother’s garden in Ukraine, and on her travels elsewhere. I asked her what she thought of the homestead garden when she first came to Port Alsworth: “At first, I didn’t like the weeds,” she laughs. “It was a lot of work.” But, she says, the reward for all of this hard work quickly became very clear. “10 years ago we were flying potatoes in from Anchorage and we relied a lot on frozen veggies; 7 years ago we were still flying greens in during the summer months. Now, nearly 90% of our vegetable produce comes straight from our own garden.”
In a remote town without grocery stores, menu planning can be tricky. Before each week begins, Lelya and Karen Wright, the head cook, toss around new ideas and discuss ways to accommodate the variety of tastes and diet needs of the diverse clientele they’re expecting. “Cooking at a lodge like this is not for everyone.” Lelya tells me. Karen agrees. “Having to plan grocery trips far in advance, but also work with last-minute changes… you have to stay pretty flexible and be okay with making do with what you have. It’s an environment where you can’t just ‘run out’ for things when you’re in a pinch.” They often plan a meal around whatever main dish is being served–maybe steak, fish, or poultry—but also with what is abundant in the garden. Karen explains, “We like to make things like crustless kale quiche, steak with roasted beets and other root veggies, marinated veggie skewers. We make and freeze a good deal of homemade pesto, and we’re always chopping up fresh salsas, and making herb butter with fresh parsley for our homemade popovers.” Like any good gardening operation, they also preserve as much as possible: tomatoes, tomato sauces, and plenty of jars of pickles.
Karen and the kitchen staff stay quite busy during the on-season days; fixing and serving a hot breakfast, then preparing personalized bagged lunches for guests to grab on their way out for the day. Not long after, it’s time to prepare the staff lunch, and then dinner. While tearing kale and chopping herbs for that day’s lunch, Karen, who flies in for the season from Portland, Oregon, tells me that she has been affiliated with the lodge for 10 years; first as part of the general staff, then eventually taking the helm in 2015. “My mom always gardened when I was growing up,” she says. “I knew how to use veggies and jumped at the chance when the garden really took off here.”
Even with all of its recent growth, the garden and the lodge still manage to keep the air and charm of a humble family affair (there are rumors of the youngest Alsworths still being charged with the unsavory duty of cleaning the chicken coop). The family tries to eat in the lodge with guests and staff when they can, and they make a point to always have one family member present to host and give grace before every meal.
Looking ahead, the Alsworths and the garden staff hope to extend their growing season even further and continue to experiment with new crops, tools, resources, and methods to get the most out of their high tunnels. This is partly with the aim of providing greater variety for their clientele, but also because I suspect that, like all passionate home gardeners—and especially Alaskan home gardeners—they’re having a pretty good time with this.