ALCOHOL WAS A FACTOR: Weekly Newspapering in Rural Alaska
Tom Morphet Leads Two Lives in The Woods
A few weeks ago, on a cold snow-blown night in Haines, I was walking down Main Street with my friend Joe Parnell, an artist and showman who likes to dress up as a bear.
He refers to himself as a bear in a man’s costume.
We ran into Tom Morphet, owner of the weekly Chilkat Valley News and my boss during the six weeks that I am working as a reporter here in this Southeastern Alaska town, which is closer to the North Pole than it is to Seattle.
It had been a long week, another 80-hour marathon, and I needed a drink.
I needed a few drinks.
I asked Morphet if I could buy him one or two at the local microbrewery, where the alcohol content in some hardy recopies reaches nearly 10 percent — a good way to take the edge off, and fast.
He took a pass. He had important business to attend to. You could hear it in his voice.
He needed to get off the grid.
At age 55, Morphet is a wiry man with a bemused sense of humor he wields against the insanity he sees in Haines — and the rest of the world.
He leads two distinct lives here: One is as a hard-driving journalist who brooks no bullshit in a small town where enemies are easy to make. The other is as a bit of a loner who every now and then needs to check out and get away from it all.
For that purpose, Morphet has Camp Weasel.
That’s his homestead located almost 10 miles outside town, tucked into the woods, not far from frigid Lynn Canal, the deepest fjord in North America.
Before he worked as a journalist, Morphet ran a tree-planting service outside Haines. One of his workers was infatuated with Wayne’s World movies and could recite entire scenes from memory. Back then, they called their makeshift homestead Camp Weasel.
The name stuck.
Up at Camp Weasel, Morphet uses a wood stove and a battery bank to make due. There’s no running water, so he keeps two large containers inside, water that must be muscled up there by hand.
There’s an outhouse that sits down a path from the cabin; a cold walk when the winter weather hits.
Over a string of super-cold nights, Morphet had to report back to Camp Weasel regularly to fire up the stove so the water inside the cabin didn’t freeze. He also had foodstuffs there he didn’t want to go frozen.
The summer is easy enough: Morphet can drive his beater pickup truck with the cracked windshield right up to within 200 yards of his front door up in the woods.
But in the winter, getting to Weasel was no simple task. That’s when he needs to leave the truck down below and walk up the road on snow shoes.
For Morphet, the trip is exhilarating and takes him away from the stress of borough government to a way of life that drew him to Alaska in the first place.
A columnist for the Alaska Daily News recently wrote about Tom when he decided to run for a seat on the local borough assembly, which is a B.S. Haines phrase for town council which perhaps makes its members feel more important.
To avoid any suspicion of conflict of interest, Morphet stepped away from the day to day newsgathering and concentrated on politics.
And he brought me up here to help pick up the slack.
Morphet is from Philadelphia and attended Marquette University, where his friends called him Morph. He hadn’t planned to major in journalism.
Like a lot of things in Tom’s life, that just sort of happened.
He wanted to be a historian. But when he arrived at Marquette as a freshman, his counselor told him that he’d probably end up selling pants at Sears.
As he told the Alaska Daily News, Morphet thought of his Aunt Stella, who had sold him a new pair of double-knit slacks every year of his childhood.
“He didn’t know it, but he hit me right in my Achilles. I thought, ‘Oh my God, I’m going to end up like Aunt Stella,’” he told the paper.
The counselor told him to pursue journalism. That way, he’d at least be able to make a living.
“It was probably the worst advice I ever took,” he said.
He was somehow drawn to hard work and little pay.
While in college, Morphet spent summers working in the engine room of oil tankers. He hit the road after graduation and while in Seattle saw an ad that changed his life.
“Seeking adventure?” the ad read. “Seafood processor needed.”
He now says he was sucker-punched by his hunger for adventure.
The job got him to Anchorage, Alaska, but it was hardly the romance he sought.
The minimum wage job was a spot on a floating slime line, where he sorted rotting fish and went two weeks straight without taking a bath because there was no water.
He later worked as a reporter for the Anchorage Times until, with his Alaska adventure apparently having run its course, he pointed his Datsun toward home.
A two-day delay waiting for a ferry in Haines struck home in a way he’d never been struck before.
The sun was out.
It was summer.
“I couldn’t understand why there weren’t more people here,” he told the Alaska Daily News. “It was the prettiest place I’d ever seen.”
Morphet stayed in Haines. And it wasn’t long before he began writing for the local weekly. He toiled at the place for 25 years before buying the paper five years ago.
Journalism in a small town like Haines is a brutal slog that never relents. Write a damning piece about a local fisherman and the next day you’re standing in line next to him at the local coffee shop.
Once, the woman who did the books at the paper and helped keep the newsroom tidy quit after Morphet wrote a story about a fellow named Darcy, a borough consultant who charged the borough his pricey hourly rate to fly up from vacation in Mexico for a meeting. The employee was Darcy’s friend and quit in a show of solidarity.
It’s tough to keep good help in Haines, especially if you’re pissing everybody off.
Morphet takes all such turns in stride and with his patented sense of humor. He once told his head reporter at the weekly, “We can step on every toe in town, just not every toe in the same week.”
And a joke in the newsroom went that the paper was going to add a slogan to its masthead. If the New York Times was “All the News That’s Fit to Print,” the Chilkat Valley News was going to be, “A Tiny Molehill of Truth Surrounded by Majestic Mountains of Bullshit.”
The paper stayed aggressive.
In the last three years alone, it has won 20 Alaska Press Club Awards.
Occasionally, Morphet took breaks from the trade, and from Haines.
But he always came back. The paper was like its child; he could not abandon it.
Fifteen years ago, he met Jane Pasco, a sunny Australian of British descent, while he was at a dance bar in Juneau. Jane works with bears as a park ranger each summer and has the energy of ten men. In the winter, she helps run Morphet’s paper.
Back in Haines, Morphet walks a thin line to keep his sanity. One moment, he’s asking hard questions and demanding his reporters to be aggressive and not take no for an answer. He doesn’t like people who abuse their power. It gets under his skin. As a journalist, it puts him on the attack. And his institutional knowledge about Haines and its battles goes back more than three decades.
But there’s another side:
A few years ago, Morphet taught himself to play trumpet. He went up to Camp Weasel, set up his music stand in the cabin and hit the woodshed until he could play in public without embarrassment.
Today, the music stand is there, looking slightly out of place in the utilitarian space. It’s a nice thought, making music out here in the woods.
Morphet gets excited about things.
In his truck he keeps a Hawaiian garland round the rearview mirror. The bumper sports two stickers: “Hooked on Halibut” and “Friends Don’t Let Friends Eat Farmed Fish.”
One day, he raced into the newsroom and said there was a Hawaiian native playing his ukulele at the Salvation Army bucket outside the IGA. He ran out to get the picture for the following week’s paper. On some days, when the sun goes down, he gets out his trumpet to play Taps as a way to say goodbye to another day.
He’ll walk into the newsroom and drop candy canes on people’s desk and buy a few six-packs of beer for us to drink on deadline.
One night, standing at the bar at the microbrewery, Morphet pulled out a book of poems about Alaska and began to read them out loud.
People listened, because Morphet knows a good poem.
One day at the office, an old woman named Mary dropped by for an old copy of the paper. Morphet introduced Mary to me as Haines’ oldest hippie, who rolled in here in 1953 and never left.
There was something special going on. Morphet dumped a bunch of papers off a chair and offered Mary a seat like a doting grandson.
When she went to pay for the paper, his voice was gentle.
“No Mary, please,” he said. “It’s on the house.”
It’s seems there’s little in-between. You either hate Tom Morphet or you love him.
And Tom knows you don’t make many friends running a scrappy local newspaper that sees itself as more than a water-carrier for local businesses.
He tells the story of a popular man in Haines who decided to get a vasectomy. When the fateful day came, many of his friends and others had formed a picket line outside the clinic.
“Don’t cut ’em off Mike!” they yelled. “You gotta have kids!”
A short time later, Morphet went in for his own vasectomy.
That day, nobody protested.
He laughs when he says this in his bemused wiseacre way, this sometimes difficult but soulful man who has come to terms with his rural small-town Alaska world.
Those who like Morphet are incredibly loyal.
Joe Parnell calls him one of the bravest men in Haines. For three decades, he’s has taken on the community’s sacred cows, often for little remuneration.
When he makes a new enemy, Morphet tells them to get in line.
But he has been spending some lonely nights out at Camp Weasel.
That’s ever since Pascoe had her run-in with the moose.
One night, with Morphet working late at work, she walked up the road in snow shoes, listening to a radio program on her ear buds.
She and the moose saw each other at the same time, in close quarters, and the animal charged twice, both times swinging its heavy hooves at Jane, barely missing.
People here say that a moose in the most dangerous animal in the north woods, even more so than a grizzly, which will signal its anger in predictable ways.
But a moose will not. When protecting their young, moose have been known to stamp people to death in defense.
Pascoe hid in the trees and then resumed her walk toward the camp. Suddenly, the moose was standing in the middle of the road, staring her down.
She called out and it charged again.
She survived, but that night was a turning point.
Morphet says she should have learned her lesson, wearing ear buds in the woods.
Pascoe had some news of her own.
Tom, she said, you can have Camp Weasel. I’m buying a house in town.
And she did, one with power and running water — niceties that aren’t found at the cabin in the woods.
With Tom, inside the wiseacre tough-guy is the boy who still shows wonder at the world.
Morphet dreams of selling the paper and moving to an island off Australia with nothing but the books he believes every man must read to truly understand society and mankind.
It’s a collection he bought at some bookstore; that starts with Socrates and Plato and works its way forward.
But for now, he stays.
A few weeks ago, Morphet began his annual chore of rounding up amateur musicians to play in the marching band for the Christmas parade.
He eventually convinced six gullible souls to walk alongside him on a frigid night, playing their practiced repertoire of five songs. The night was so cold the valves on the brass instruments froze and the musicians had to place them in front of the exhaust pipe of the truck moving directly ahead of them, the one carrying Santa Claus, to warm them up and un-stick them.
As soon as the parade was over, Morphet set his sights on planning his annual Polar Bear swim in frigid Lynn Canal on New Year’s Day.
But the preparation for the parade was vintage Morphet.
One Saturday night, he invited his musicians into the cramped second-floor newsroom, where they sat around on desks and played their songs.
They sounded good and Morphet was happy, sitting at the desk where he made his tough editorial decisions, now trumpet in hand, rather than the axe of judgment.
His newspaper was making music, which is just how he likes it.