Project Jukebox

Digital Branch of the University of Alaska Fairbanks Oral History Program
John and Fran Latham
montage of john and fran latham

John and Fran Latham were interviewed by Bill Schneider on July 12, 1995 in Yakutat, Alaska. Bill asked them to do an interview because they represent a part of the community that has not been recorded; folks from outside the community who are trying to establish a home and business in Yakutat. John runs a sport fishing and hunting business and guides clients. While Bill was in Yakutat, John was out daily with guests sport fishing on the Situk River. John's business is regulated by state and federal laws. Fran runs The Blue Heron Inn, where Bill stayed and enjoyed their hospitality. In this interview, the Lathams talk about operating a guiding and bed and breakfast business, the impact of tourism, and changes in guiding and toursim in Yakutat.

Digital Asset Information

Archive #: Oral History 95-71-27

Project: Wrangell-St.Elias National Park
Date of Interview: Jul 12, 1995
Narrator(s): Fran Latham, John Latham
Interviewer(s): Bill Schneider
Transcriber: Sue Beck
Location of Interview:
Location of Topic:
Funding Partners:
National Park Service
Alternate Transcripts
There is no alternate transcript for this interview.

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Sections

Introduction and what brought John to Yakutat

Guiding

The bed and breakfast business

The fishing around Yakutat

Using areas in Glacier Bay National Park/Preserve

The impact of tourism to Yakutat

A typical yearly cycle for them in the Yakutat area

Changes in the guiding business

The future of tourism, hunting and fishing in Yakutat

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Transcript

BILL SCHNEIDER: Okay. Today is July 12, 1995. I’m Bill Schneider. I’m here with John and Fran Latham in their beautiful bed-and-breakfast in Yakutat, and thank you both for taking time to do this interview. We’re going to talk a little bit about coming to Yakutat and your interests here in the community.

So, John, maybe you could start by telling us what brought you here to Yakutat.

JOHN LATHAM: Well, Bill, my first introduction to Yakutat was in 1972. And I -- (inaudible) -- since the mid-‘60s. (inaudible) -- guide and had become a licensed guide in ‘72. And worked with another guide who had a good friend here and was starting a guiding business here.

So, I came down and worked in the spring and the fall with him in the -- in this Yakutat area.

And from that, this area really appealed to me because of the water and especially the waterfowl in this area in the fall time, not to mention the fishing and the other things. But it was just a beautiful pristine area at that time, more so than now.

And once I was here the first time, I knew I wanted to live here, so in 1975 we purchased property here and we’ve been here ever since.

BILL SCHNEIDER: And what were you guiding for?

JOHN LATHAM: Well, primarily brown bear and black bear from boats in Yakutat Bay. And -- and then on some of the local rivers we did some salmon fishing. On the Italio River, the Situk River.

So those forays led to, you know, a real interest in this area. And then since we’ve been here, we’ve been involved strictly in the guiding business, up to the last three years where Fran has opened a bed-and-breakfast, which correlates very well with -- with our guests.

And we’ve kind of built a business over the years with small parties of people, no more than four, and -- per trip. And tried to provide a high-quality experience and kind of an Alaskan experience for our guests, where as they come on a bear hunt, we go pull crab pots with them. We show them the bay.

And this is kind of the way we’ve been doing our business.

BILL SCHNEIDER: Fran, maybe you could tell us about the bed-and-breakfast and how that got started.

FRAN LATHAM: I’d always had an interest in a bed-and-breakfast. And I like people and I like cooking, and when we --

We’ve lived in two places in Yakutat. We lived in a lodge that we built near the cannery for over ten years, and I had thoughts in my mind of a bed-and-breakfast when we lived there.

And then we built a new house here on the water, and we had kind of had that in our mind when we built it, that we wanted a bed-and-breakfast along with taking clients for hunting and fishing.

And in 1992, we opened the bed-and-breakfast here, and gradually built it up by word of mouth. We don’t advertise except in the phone book.

And we’ve loved it ever since. It’s a nice combination to the hunting and the fishing. It goes well.

BILL SCHNEIDER: And John would you talk about the growth of the fishing in particular?

JOHN LATHAM: Well, I could do that, Bill. Probably the fishing when I first came here, there were certain fish resources or resources that weren’t even being utilized to any degree, and one of them was the fly fishing on the Situk.

Especially it being a river with all five species of western salmon, Pacific salmon. As well as two runs of steelhead and this kind of thing.

And the steelhead fishing was pretty much a local thing and known by some people from -- from the Washington-Oregon areas and that, but in the last ten years the fishing here has probably --

I don’t know if there’s any numbers going back there ten years ago, but now it is a very, very busy, crowded fishery, which is amazing that something could grow that fast.

But I think you have the situation with easy air travel here by jet. I think we're the smallest community in -- possibly in the world with daily jet flights.

And that combined with the lodges expanding and more promotion and more people finding out about it, and then you have dwindling fishery -- fisheries in the Northwest especially, which many of the people who come here come from Oregon, Washington, the West Coast.

And are -- know how to fish the fish they’re fishing and have never seen so many fish.

And I think we’ve got some really good management with Fish and Game that’s promoted and developed these -- these fisheries here.

And, of course, the Situk is highly monitored with a weir and, I mean, they know exactly how many fish -- When the weir stays in, doesn’t get washed out, they know what the returns are and they manage them accordingly.

So it’s kind of a unique river system in that regard. But it is very rich and it’s getting a lot of pressure. And I think that the limiting thing, I think would be even more pressure, but I think that there’s a lack of places to stay at certain times of the year, which probably defers people from coming here.

But it is really a growing thing that should be --should be monitored, and is being addressed very, very slowly by the Forest Service.

And a Situk management plan has been underway for many years here, too many years from my viewpoint. And too many captains at the helm where starting this plan they had somebody working and then they’d keep changing over.

The people that are managing the plan, basically, I think it’s coming out of Sitka, but our local people here, the local forest manager here -- we’ve had probably eight different people involved in this thing and it goes back to the beginning practically every time we get a changeover.

So I think it’s something that should be consummated. They’ve done carrying capacity analysis. How many boats on the river provides a good experience for people. And I think those things are real important, should be implemented, and should be enforced.

But it’s taken way, way, way too long, you know, to do this, in my opinion. And it should be -- something should be done about it.

Along with this, of course, is the amount of guides on the river. How many guides are too many? This kind of thing.

And we’re all very regulated by how many user days you have, where you can go, when you can go. And certainly some of that’s necessary, but some of it’s --

I think the carrying capacity analysis they did is just -- should be completely thrown out and be re-addressed.

But the Situk is a very rich resource and it’s used by commercial fisheries as well as sport fisheries.

And there’s things that -- that should be set up to make it -- everybody be able to utilize it in a nice way.

BILL SCHNEIDER: And you think that’s possible?

JOHN LATHAM: I think it’s going to be a tough, tough deal because I think you have -- when you have the commercial fisheries involved with the sport fisheries there’s always going to be some animosities between peoples and who gets what.

And I think that’s statewide. I don’t think that’s just a special problem with us.

But I think in general, it’s not all that bad here. I think it’s improving.

But with a larger influx of people on a continual basis sport-fishery-wise, certainly the people that live here and fish commercially for a living, you know, they have every reason to get upset with certain things that do happen here.

The sport fishery utilizes a very small percentage of the overall fish product. I think statewide it’s probably something like -- if I’m not mistaken, it was thirteen percent of the fish.

And I think they hope, you know, it helps level out different resources. Like right now we have a tremendous return of kings. They’ve increased the sport fishery. Of course, it brings more people in here, but trying to take some kings out of the river that they’d like to see -- in other words they’ve got more than what they would like to have escapement goal-wise.

So once the fish are in the river, other than subsistence nets, there’s no other way to get ‘em out of there.

So it would be nice if everybody worked together and -- but it’s -- it’s a tough -- I think it’s a tough deal when you have different interests and different thought processes regarding, you know, the resource.

BILL SCHNEIDER: You have some interests up in the Preserve, too, is that correct?

JOHN LATHAM: Well, I do. I have a permit there. I started guiding in what was or what is now Glacier Bay Park, the Park extension, in the mid-70s. 1977, I think.

And then in 1980 under the Carter administration, then the park was extended and the areas that I’d been hunting I could no longer hunt.

So adjustments were made to some degree and we ended up in the Park Preserve, which is actually bordered by the Dome River. And we have a situation there with a cabin that’s within three, four hundred feet of the Park Preserve, but is in a Park wilderness area.

And we’ve had an ongoing thing with the Park Service. We’d like to do something and make it legal or -- I’ve been given -- been told by the Park Service that I will have a building site, and I’ve selected building sites and nobody’s really -- it’s never really been followed up on.

And sitting here wondering for fifteen years what’s gonna happen and when it’s gonna happen.

And I think that’s -- that’s a long time for -- I told them I’d like to know before, you know, before I’m not around anymore.

But we do. That particular area, the Dome -- Dome River, that’s a beautiful, pristine area that definitely has its -- it hasn’t been really infringed by man very much, although people have been using it to some degree for many years. Probably since the ‘30s and ‘40s.

But it’s a beautiful system, along with the East River that has quite a bit of commercial fisheries. It has sport fisheries development there.

BILL SCHNEIDER: Fran, would you talk a little bit about what you see as the future of tourism and influx of people here in Yakutat?

FRAN LATHAM: Well, I -- I see every year there’s more and more people coming to Yakutat, and I think there's an interest in tourism here with some of the people. I’m not saying all of the people.

A lot of people want to see big tour ships coming in here with thousands of people. I don’t think Yakutat can withstand that, or it’s not set up for that. We’re not prepared for a large influx of people.

Right now, there are small tour ships coming into Yakutat, and people are getting off and -- and walking around town to see what they can see.

Yakutat, right now, we have no street signs. We have no maps. We’re not really prepared for tourism per se.

I personally wouldn’t like to see a lot of tour ships and a lot of people come into Yakutat. I think it would change the whole atmosphere of the town.

BILL SCHNEIDER: Okay. John, let me ask you about yearly cycle. What a typical year is like for you?

JOHN LATHAM: Well, we pretty much operate the same every year. And what we do, Bill, we -- as I said -- as I said before, we specialize in small parties of -- of -- of hunters and fishermen.

With the future looking to expand to birdwatching and some non-consumptive uses, which we really enjoy.

And I think as a diversification from the hunting, it’s probably not a bad idea the way things are changing in this state and, you know, in general.

Our year starts out usually in March/April with steelhead fishermen, with them staying here at the bed and breakfast. And a lot of them come and stay, fish on the river, come back here at night. And I guide some of them.

Our mainly -- our -- our main means of livelihood is putting up two to four people a week with week trips, which consist of five days of activities. They’re here six nights.

And during -- during this we -- we do everything. We pick them up at the airport, they stay with us, we house them, feed them, and -- until their trip’s over.

And guide them, of course, every day on the river, provide all the transportation locally and everything. So the spring’s made up with a couple steelhead trips for these parties, and then we go from the steelhead season -- (phone rings)

BILL SCHNEIDER: Okay. So the steelhead season --?

JOHN LATHAM: Yeah, we go from the steelhead season right into a couple brown bear hunts normally. And I take one or two clients into -- into the Park Preserve at Dry Bay.

And those trips are ten days to two weeks, depending on what the people are hunting.

And then by -- by the end of May, usually the last week of May, first week of June, doing some steelhead fishing again with clients.

And people, of course -- we fill -- we try to book our trips first because that’s kind of our meat and potatoes type of thing with -- with the lodge here, and then we fill in with bed-and-breakfast guests.

If we have two clients, we can take several bed-and-breakfast guests, as well.

So some people here are just having breakfast with us, doing their own activities on their own, and the other people we’ll be guiding.

So the fishing kind of goes into the first week of June, and then there’s about a week there with kind of in-between things. The steelhead have mainly exited by that time, the majority of the fish.

And we start the -- the summer salmon season, where we guide five fishermen for the month of June and -- to the first three weeks of July.

And these are all five -- five-day trips. We put two days in between trips to clean up and catch up with things with the house here.

And we do this until the third week of July. And then normally, the 25th, 26th of July, we fly or I fly to Anchorage and we start getting ready for our big game hunts in the interior, near McGrath.

So we spend ten days in town or so, getting food and everything we need together. Food and items that we need for the camps and the vehicles. And we fly to the hunting camps in the interior and then hunt the season until September 25th.

Basically, the season’s August 10 to September 25, which includes the sheep season, caribou season, grizzly, moose, everything. Then we return here -- or I do.

Our lives have changed a little bit in the last two years because we have two daughters, two teenage daughters that are going to school in California rather than here.

And we come back, and -- or I come back, and we had a couple that worked for us last fall that took Fran’s place because she was with her daughters, and I hunt waterfowl here the first part of the season.

We start second week of October, combining steelhead -- or the first part of the season more coho fishing with waterfowling, so that people can do -- they can take their choice if they want to hunt birds one day and fish the next, that type of thing.

And we do this until the mid-December 'til the season ends, December 16th traditionally.

We cater to people collecting birds and that kind of thing. I have a real interest in birds and we -- we have kind of a unique -- all of the hunting is over decoys, and many of them are handmade decoys.

And kind of in the traditional manner of waterfowling.

So people come up to collect different specimens of birds that they can’t get in other places. And I’m the only one to my knowledge and the first one that’s ever hunted on Yakutat Bay with decoys and hunting the different diver ducks and sea and -- sea and bay ducks.

That’s pretty much -- that’s pretty much our year. Then after the holidays we start -- we take care of about a month of paperwork with all of the bureaucracies, with permits.

We operate on five different land entities, which is a real challenge for anybody with a PhD probably. Because I know I -- I have a hell of a time with it.

And everybody’s has different rules and rulings. I mean, even the different federal agencies have different permits and different schedule fees and what you can do and what you can’t do.

But we operate on Cook Inlet Regional Corporation land, State land, BLM land, US Forest Service and Park Service. And we’d like to simplify things a little bit, but due to the guide-law changes in the state several years ago, we’ve really --

We had abided by the law with the exclusive guide areas. It was in effect for -- well, since the ‘70s. And that -- that law, of course, was thrown out as unconstitutional at the State supreme court level.

And we had invested way too much money into our business, thinking we could pass it on to someone and sell our assets. But since this change in the law, I would like to stay here in Yakutat, do more guiding at Dry Bay and this area here.

But what we -- our investments in the interior, which consisted of cabins, privately owned land, and this kind of thing, are probably twenty-five cents on the dollar value today, if that.

So we’re -- we’re trying to -- we just recently had them appraised, or we’re in the process of having them appraised. We took inventory list of all of our things there.

And in the next couple of years, we expect to not be guiding big game in the interior anymore. The seasons have gotten so short, the pressures by population and by -- I would say ATVs, has changed our hunting areas considerably.

So we’re in that -- that transitory stage right now. It’s been going on several years right now, and I hope we can consummate it pretty soon.

BILL SCHNEIDER: So, a lot of transition in the guiding business?

JOHN LATHAM: I feel there -- I feel there is. I’ve been guiding since the ‘60s and I’ve seen just changes.

Some of the major changes are the subsistence issues that I feel -- I’m not very excited about how a lot of these things take place but certainly some of them are in order, but many of them are ridiculous from a management point of view.

Sometimes management is not even included in the -- the decision-making by the federal government on some of the subsistence issues, especially on federal land it seems.

So we will see and time will tell what -- what will happen with that.

But I certainly am a subsistence user, but I feel sometimes the means that were used -- if subsistence was based on the means that were used initially, traditionally, historically, there would be less -- in this community here there’s a tremendous amount of waste subsistence-wise. And I think that’s wrong.

BILL SCHNEIDER: Okay. Any further thoughts on the future of tourism or sport hunting and fishing?

JOHN LATHAM: Well, if you’re talking locally here, tourism-wise this community has a unique position in my opinion.

And you have a lot of privately owned land here by -- by the local people under the land selections.

And some of this -- I would hate to see the big tour boats, and I think that people that would don’t really realize what that brings. They should go live in Sitka or be around that type of a thing.

But I think there’s certainly room for a gradual growth tourism-wise, and if the development here could handle whatever growth comes in tourism-wise, that would be -- certainly you’d have to be set up for tourism to make it a nice thing.

This is a pristine area by a lot of other place standards, and tourism could be controlled here, I think, very easily. And I think right now it is just incidentally by lack of places to stay.

But the -- the low end -- and we talked a little bit about this before is that I really feel strongly that the local people should benefit from the tourism, and sometimes that doesn’t happen.

You can go to any country in the world. You can go to Hawaii and you see where the Hawaiians live. The majority of the people live away from the water where they used to live on the water, because land values have escalated.

They’re doing the menial jobs of the golf courses and the cooking and this, and big corporations and people that come from other places end up having the best of the land and the best of everything.

And I don’t -- I’d hate to see that happen here. This community has always -- it’s always interested me that it’s a seaport community with very, very little land available where you can be on the water, and we feel very, very fortunate that we have a place where we can look at the bay every day.

And I wish everyone here did. I feel strongly about that.

But the tourism could be controlled by the city and by the Kwaan, which has a real interest in it and should have.

But it doesn’t seem to be happening along the lines progression-wise that the tourism seems to be trying to happen. So, I guess we’ll just see on that one.

But because of the remoteness of this place and the -- I think that you have a better handle on it. I mean, what are people going to do here? You bring a tour ship in here, they just walk around on the streets.

I mean there really isn’t any -- at least I don’t know too many things to do. There’s certainly some flights they can take -- and would be very nice, but that -- you look out here today and nobody’s going to be flyin’ anywhere today probably.

So that’s -- when it’s nice, it’s very nice and -- it’s a deal that has been considered in the community, but I think more decision-making is gonna have to be done, and I think they’re really working on that.

But it just -- it is a time-consuming process.

BILL SCHNEIDER: Okay. Thank you both very much.