Last week, I had the great blessing to speak on St. Ignatius of Antioch (AUDIO) at the Eagle River Institute at St. John Antiochian Orthodox Cathedral in Eagle River, Alaska. Since it was my first time in Alaska, I prefaced my talks with the following notes, delivered on Saturday, August 1st.
Before I begin speaking about one of my favorite subjects, St. Ignatius of Antioch, I wanted to mention how pleased I am to be here in Alaska. For more than fifty years, members of both sides of my family have been coming here for various reasons. My mother and her older sister were both born in Anchorage in the early ’50s, before Alaska was even a state. Tomorrow would have been my mother’s sixty-second birthday, and I am honored to be not far from where she was born on that anniversary.
Two of my first-cousins-once-removed were also born here, and both my grandfather and my great uncle were here in the Air Force. My father’s first visit here was on 9/11 when his plane was ordered to land as part of the general grounding of airlines that occurred that day.
But of all the Alaskans that have come from my family, the one who towers above them all is Malcolm “Pete” Isleib. His mother wanted to name him “Peter,” but his father insisted on “Malcolm.” So the birth certificate got “Malcolm,” but his mother made sure everyone called him “Peter.” And so began an interesting life.
When my great uncle Pete Isleib left Connecticut to move to Alaska, it is said (possibly apocryphally) that he simply left a note on his bedroom door which his parents found after he’d left, reading only “Off for more adventures.”
I remember seeing the note once at my grandmother’s house. I kind of wish he were still alive so that I could have met him. The closest I ever got was when he once, out of the blue, sent a wad of cash (a few hundred dollars) through the mail to my parents, labeled “to help with the kids.”
He became a man of real stature in Alaska, not only participating in the fishing industry but as a real leader in his community. He was also one of the premier ornithologists in Alaska, and his name graces both an Alaskan Audubon Society conservation award as well as a boardwalk in Cordova where one can view migratory birds.
For a long time, he held the record for the most species of birds seen in Alaska, and he would often go off into the wilderness to shoot footage and take pictures of birds and the Alaskan landscape, often on behalf of National Geographic.
He also predicted the Exxon Valdez oil spill some 10 years before it happened, based on his criticisms of shipping routes in the Prince William Sound. And when it finally happened in 1989, he testified before the US Congress [VIDEO]. He died in an accident [see pp. 340-341] just a few years later.
He is mentioned in more than a dozen books (mostly about birds), including one by Ron Strickland entitled Alaskans with an entire chapter on him.
When I asked my father recently about Uncle Pete, this is what he had to say:
When I was much younger and our family spent a summer living at my grandparents’ house in Connecticut, I got to sleep in Uncle Pete’s room up under the rafters in a house that had been converted from a barn. For a 7-year old, it was a pretty magical place. On the wall was the skin of a nearly complete and very large red-tailed hawk that Uncle Pete had found by the road after it had been killed by a car. Just above that was the skin of a seven-foot-long Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake that he’d had to kill when working in the Everglades. Next to that was his Boy Scout sash with all his merit badges and his Eagle Scout medal. In the corner was a bow and quiver full of broad-head hunting arrows. We looked at Uncle Pete with awe and wonder. When he moved to Alaska after leaving the Air Force, it made sense. Back then, Alaska was like the far side of the moon and Uncle Pete was off on another great adventure.
So I am deeply honored to continue my family’s tradition of coming to Alaska for adventures. And I must admit that I couldn’t quite help myself: Before I left my home early on Wednesday morning, I left a note for my wife on our bedroom door: “Off for more adventures.”