Most people in Petersburg don’t give much thought to the handful of houses which sit on the other shore of the Wrangell Narrows.
But to the people who live there it’s a place they are proud to call home. It’s name is Kupreanof and with just 24 residents it’s southeast’s smallest, and Alaska’s second smallest, city. And this week it turns 40. Joe Sykes found a community still proud of their little piece of Alaskan independence and unified against their older brother across the water.
When Sharon Sprague and her husband Dick moved to Sasby Island, in the middle of the Wrangell Narrows in 1975, they had to build a life from scratch.
“We started with nothing . There was no electricity, there was no water here. Nothing,” Sprague said.
Since then they’ve created what some might call a homestead. They have their own hydroelectric power system, chickens run around in the garden,and plump fruit hangs off trees ripe for picking.
They came here to get away and live out on their own. And together with a group of other isolation inclined individuals they helped found the city of Kupreanof, the smallest city in Southeast Alaska.
It sits on the shore of Kupreanof island just next to the Sprague’s house and on the opposite side of the narrows from Petersburg.
It began when residents who lived on the island decided they were sick of Petersburg and so organized themselves into an independent city. And the Spragues went with them.
And Sharon Sprague says Petersburg and Kupreanof are separate for a good reason.
“The two communities are so opposite,” she told me.
That opposition still simmers and boiled over in 2013 when Kupreanof fought the establishment of the Borough of Petersburg. They lost that battle meaning they had to pay more money into Petersburg’s coffers, but retained their status as a city.
At a recent council meeting jokes at Petersburg’s expense flew over breakfast of watermelon slices, sausages and eggs.
“Has the assembly over there every provided you with breakfast?” Kupreanof Mayor Tom Reinarts quipped as he offered me my share of their Saturday morning spread. In a city so small the mayor is not just the mayor.
“I’m also the police chief and the fire chief,” he said.
Everyone has to play a hand in Kupreanof.
Butch Anderson’s been living here for about 8 years. He turned up to the council meeting one day just to see what was going on.
“There was an extra seat open. So they voted. I got one vote,” he said. “I got in by a landslide, one vote was all it took.”
He likes it here because he can kind of do what he wants.
“I’m a hermit. I live alone and enjoy life. I don’t like heat. In my house it will get down to 25 inside. Then I’ll go light the fire,” he said.
They’re idiosyncratic. They keep to themselves and because of that sometimes it’s hard to remember just how many people actually live here.
“Our official population is 24, I think,” Tom Reinarts said.
“I thought it was 25. I read 25,” Butch Anderson jumped in.
“Maybe 25, I concede,” Reinarts replied.
24 or 25, their six member council makes up about a quarter of their population. And while they say they’ve not always seen eye to eye, they do have a common bête noire: The Borough of Petersburg.
“We’re like Petersburg’s red headed step-child. They’re like ‘we want you guys to follow our rules. So we can tell you how to live your life over here,'” Anderson said.
So now it’s their 40th anniversary and they’re determined to show Petersburg they’re here, they’ve been here for a long time and they are here to stay.
“I think we need to make a big splash for our friends across the bay in Petersburg East,” Reinarts announced at the meeting.
He says he calls them Petersburg East because people in Petersburg often refer to Kupreanof by its original name, Petersburg West.
They’re proud to be Kupreanof and they know with so few people it will always be a struggle to survive. But Sharon Sprague, standing on her dock looking out over both communites has the answer.
“If you’ve got a group of people and they have one goal and they all feel the same and they’re a unit, they have strength” she said.
I ask her what she thinks that goal should be:
“To keep it as it is,” she says. “This is a jewel.”
And it’s a jewel that will always be a bugbear to Petersburg.
“They hate us, they hate us. We’re a thorn in their side. They just wish we’d go away. But we’re not going to,” Sprague tells me with a glimmer in her eye.
They’re not going anywhere and if it was up to Sharon Sprague they’d be a thorn in Petersburg’s side for another 40 years to come.