A misjudgment of just a few dozen yards in the placement of a small house on a remote part of Kodiak Island over 30 years ago will likely result in a family of eight’s hopes, dreams and history literally going up in smoke. This is the story of Tom and Grace Malmberg and their homestead on Dry Spruce Bay.
In 1973, after Tom and Grace Malmberg were married in Ouzinkie, they moved to nearby Dry Spruce Bay, a small, protected cove on the north end of Kodiak Island. For 10 years, while Tom fished and worked for the Port Bailey Cannery, the couple started a family in a small frame shack not far away. After buying 10 spruce-covered acres a mile-and-a-half across the bay, their small home was loaded atop a makeshift raft and towed to its current location.
There, the small house became a sizable home as it was added onto piece-by-piece over the years. The family grew as well, to eventually include six children, three of them delivered right there.
“All my kids, my wife taught them school out there through the 9th grade. They got their studies from Juneau – they would be sent in on the mail plane. Yeah, I am very proud of my kids,” Tom said. “They definitely excelled in the real world. Or what I would say is civilized world.”
All the kids went on to college and successful careers in teaching, forestry, engineering, medicine and the law.
Thirty-nine-year-old Mieke is the oldest of the Malmberg children. She remembers well when she was nine and her dad floated their house to the shore opposite Port Bailey. Today, she’s a patent attorney with a firm in Los Angeles.
“I live in LA. It’s a bizarre environment. Nobody understands where I come from,” Mieke said. “You know you can get used to certain things like having electricity, obviously and dishwashers, which I absolutely love and not having to pack your water in the winter and stuff like that. But one thing that you can never sort of recover from, at all, is if you grow up without TV – I’m pop culturally completely illiterate.”
The growing family was content to live off the grid in their growing home, blissfully unaware of changes that would someday threaten their homestead lifestyle.
First, the salmon runs took a downturn, and the Port Bailey Cannery closed in the late 1990s. Tom took advantage of retraining opportunities and in 2003 got a job with a military contractor out of Seattle. He still lives there, with one of his daughters and returns to Dry Spruce Bay when work allows. He still harbors a dream to retire there.
With her husband in Seattle and the couple’s children growing up and moving away, Grace moved into Kodiak with their youngest, and only son, so he could finish high school. When Cort, now a third-year student at Georgetown Law School, left for college, Grace remained. She spends summers back at the homestead.
But that is going to change.
It’s unlikely that after this winter the homestead will even be there for any of the Malmbergs to visit, even if they get permission from the owners to set foot on the land.
That’s because their home of 30 years, the storage sheds, freezer van, banya, even the outhouse, were mistakenly placed about 70 yards outside their property line on less than a fifth of an acre of land owned by the Afognak Native Corporation.
But this is not a story about a land dispute. There is no dispute that the Malmbergs misjudged the property line when they built their home, and legally, the matter was settled in February.
An out of court agreement came after Afognak sued the Malmbergs in 2012, threatening to stick them with the clean-up bill for removing all traces that they had ever lived on the shores of Dry Spruce Bay.
The specter of those clean-up costs, according to Mieke, is what ultimately prompted the Malmbergs to accept a $10,000 buy-out, with Afognak shouldering the removal and clean-up costs.
“Essentially the parties ended up settling and there’s now there’s a judgment on the record which allows my parents access to the house until I think it’s February of this coming year, 2014,” she said. “And at that point in time, we’re no longer allowed to access the house, and from what I can understand, based on just historically what’s happened, it’s most likely that the house will be burned down.”
Naturally, the Malmbergs wanted to save their home, so before and during the law suit they made several offers to Afognak to settle the matter out of court.
“So we proceeded to try and negotiate with the Afognak Native Corporation. You know we tried to exchange – we own 10 acres of land that abuts where the house is – and so we tried to exchange five acres of the timbered property that we have with the small amount that the house sits on,” Meike said. “The Afognak Native Corporation refused. We offered to purchase the land outright, they also refused.”
“Well I guess I don’t really quite understand how they turned down such a piece of property that absolutely has no trees on it for a five-acre parcel with hundreds of spruce trees that have never been cut,” Tom said.
Afognak Native Corporation did not respond to requests for comment for this story, but in court documents, they point out that their corporation land is critical to preserving the Alutiiq culture of the Northern Kodiak Archipelago, and that it’s their policy is to keep its Native lands for subsistence and recreational use by its shareholders.
So, facing a 366-day deadline from the time of the agreement, Tom took as much leave time this summer as he could, and went back to Dry Spruce Bay to determine what could be salvaged from their home of so many years. It turned out that moving a lifetime of memories for a family of eight was a more daunting task than he imagined.
“If I would’ve had more time, I could’ve moved everything off and managed to get it on my property. But it’s definitely a job,” he said. “We checked with a salvage company, and to hire somebody to do it was going to be 70-80-thousand.”
“It’s just so hard to think of everything just getting burned down,” Meike said. “And just talking to my dad and to hear him – I mean my dad’s not a very emotional guy, and to hear him choke up.… He told me when I talked to him when he was in Alaska, he said, ‘my dream is gone,’ and that was really hard to hear.”
Though he and Grace accepted the Afognak buy-out offer, Tom holds out some hope that his family’s home and belongings might still be saved.
“I guess I would hope to keep the house,” he said. “But if that’s not possible, then I would like an extension until 2016 to get everything moved off.”
In the event that doesn’t happen, and the homestead is lost, the Malmbergs still own 10 upland acres literally right next door. But Mieke says there’s little chance her parents will have enough money or time left to build a new home on that property.
And if their homestead is burned down, Mieke doesn’t think she, her four sisters or one brother would want to live so close to a charred pile of rubble that once was the home they grew up in.