A world adventurer, Peter McKay, first came to Alaska rowing a Grand Banks dory more than a thousand miles from Seattle to Glacier Bay in 1979. Last week, a small group of friends scattered his ashes at the edge of remote wilderness in Icy Strait in the company of dozens of humpback whales.
McKay died June 28. His heart failed while walking the Flume Trail in Juneau. He was 63 years old. He was a resident of both Gustavus and Juneau.
Despite more than a decade of health complications, he kept up an astonishing roster of marathon wilderness trips in Alaska. When he was diagnosed with congestive heart failure two summers ago, he jumped on his bicycle and rode solo across the United States.
"Peter just took charge of life. No matter what the barriers, he didn't wait," said longtime friend Dick Farnell. Through his expeditions and his love of Alaska, McKay cemented many wonderful friendships over the years.
Bud Carpeneti, former Chief Justice of the Alaska Supreme Court, often hiked, biked, and traveled with McKay--as did the whole Carpeneti family. "What was so special about Peter was that he made the people around him better. He got us doing things we never thought we'd ever do. He brought out our A game."
Described in a book written about characters of Alaska as "a hale fellow, well-met", McKay had friends all over the globe. He was born in northern New York. He loved jazz. He learned to play the bass in high school. A favorite old-time tune he often hummed to tease his pals was "The Muskrat Ramble", according to one early girlfriend.
He dropped out of college in Boston to join the Peace Corps in 1971 and ended up in the Amazon, near Leticia, Columbia.
"When I got to South America, everything was stripped from my act," Peter once said. "I came from a materialistic culture. These people didn't have much. They enjoyed simple things. They were working on difficult problems, trying to colonize the jungle and raise basic foodstuffs. You see suffering. But you see people getting by. The whole spirit of the Peace Corps is to lend a hand."
A Peace Corps friend, John Lehfeldt, a rancher in Montana, said, "Peter always had a sense of social responsibility. That was strengthened in Columbia. He was always trying to lighten people's burdens. He had great manners. He was really conscious of people. And he was pretty much tied to the dirt. And yet, he loved Alaska-the water, the wildness. He was very nautical. It was a great combination." McKay would often go help his friend on the ranch at lambing and round-up seasons in spring and fall.
McKay eventually graduated from State University of New York in Rochester in 1976 with degrees in rural development and theater production. His Peace Corps experience launched him on a lifelong career of working with rural peoples from Africa to Alaska. For several years he worked with activist Cesar Chavez and Chicano farm workers in central California. As a VISTA volunteer, he set up agricultural co-ops for the production of strawberries. Fluent in Spanish, he started a bi-lingual radio station. He traveled to Gambia as a leader for Crossroads Africa, where his group helped villagers build a dam and medical clinic.
In 1979, in celebration of the 100th anniversary of the great naturalist John Muir's canoe voyage into Glacier Bay, Peter McKay set out to row to Alaska. It took him three months. He then spent three years directing an experimental agricultural project in Aniak, a small village on the Kuskokwim River-training traditional hunter/gatherers to be farmers. "People and people's needs were at the heart of everything Peter did as a community planner and organizer in Aniak. Culturally he was extremely sensitive," said Lamont Albertson, former mayor of Aniak.
In 1985, McKay moved to Juneau. For the next 25 years, as a planner for the State, McKay traveled to villages and towns all over Alaska training and helping communities with projects and funding for all aspects of rural development.
More than anything, Peter McKay loved rowing. It got him to the most remote edges of the wilderness-under his own power, on his own terms. He happily invited his friends to join him. Many did. He loved dynamic places, barely sheltered from the storms of the North Pacific Ocean, where in recent years he would set up spring camps for weeks in snow, surrounded by wolves, bears coming out of hibernation, and directly under the North Pacific Flyway. He became more and more enchanted by birds and their songs.
Annie Mackovjak in Gustavus said, "One of Peter's most endearing qualities was there was always a hug, a tap on the shoulder. He made sure in a gathering he acknowledged everyone. He made everyone feel important." The words McKay's friends kept using to describe him were: "generous, adventurous, well-read, larger-than-life, strong, powerful, good heart, great grin, impressive handshake, a mentor, a father figure, someone who invested in you, and a trickster."
"I got involved with Peter because of doing boats," said Bill Spear, Juneau entrepreneur. "It's hard to characterize him. He was the strong, silent type. I always considered him one of my best friends. And now I wonder, if everyone else thought that too. He was a really good listener. And a little bit of a trickster. Some of his jokes could be pretty serious. You'd wake up on a camping trip with Peter, for instance, and see his sail hoisted two miles out on the water. He'd have snuck out of camp and left you out there alone in the wilderness.
"And that handshake! What the hell was that about? It was a rower's grip. It could make you cry," he added laughing.
Adventures-miserable, ill-fated, thrilling, and exciting-that's what kept Peter going. "Small adventures," Peter would grin. "I don't need to go for the gold, like scaling K2." Even as a child, Peter always admired tugboat captains. "You're not going for glory," he'd say. "You're just out on the water, working hard."
A celebration of life for Peter McKay will be held on Sunday, July 20th, at 4 pm at the Juneau Yacht Club. It's a potluck. Come share stories.
Published in The Juneau Empire on July 17, 2014