By Joseph Robertia
Clam Gulch is a small community, which makes the loss of any neighbor noticeable. But with the passing, on Dec. 7, of such a longtime resident and active community member as Mike Wiley, the loss isn’t just perceptible, it’s palpable.
Wiley, 71, formerly of Vermont, came to Alaska in 1966 with his wife, Bertha. The two settled in Skagway, where Wiley taught fifth grade for two years. Two years later he was offered a teaching position at Tustumena Elementary School, in Kasilof, but before the family could move together tragedy struck and his wife, and their 1- and 2-year-old sons, were killed when their car went off the road and into the freezing Chilkat River.
Wiley came up and settled in the former homestead of Clam Gulch residents Bill and Ruth Reeder, located on a little lake at Mile 116 of the Sterling Highway. Not long after, Wiley married his next-door neighbor, Linda Hatten, and they had three daughters during the marriage, which lasted until 1980.
After three years at Tustumena Elementary, and eventually achieving the position of principal, Wiley began teaching in even smaller communities — Nanwalek, Tyonek, Port Heiden and numerous other places.
Wiley began commercial fishing in 1970, set netting at Tuxedni Bay with Don Thrapp, who was a homesteader on Crooked Creek Road. The next year, Wiley fished near Corea Creek with Everett Bice, who, in 1977, formed a partnership with Brent and Judy Johnson. The Johnsons eventually inherited the site in 1990. Wiley bought a site himself in Clam Gulch in 1975.
“Mike was one of those guys who always fished to the end of the season each year,” Brent Johnson said.
Johnson knew Wiley from more than just picking fish in summer.
Wiley was active in efforts to better the community. He served on the Kenai Peninsula Fishermen’s
Association, Kenai Peninsula School District Board of Education, Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly and the Central Peninsula Gardening Club, annually donating produce he grew to the Kenai Peninsula Food Bank.
Wiley believed others should serve with the same gusto if they had the knowledge and skills, according to Johnson.
“Mike is responsible for me being on the borough assembly,” he said. “He encouraged me to run a number of times. I was happy enough to let Paul Fischer do the job, but Mike nagged me to run until I said OK. Luckily, when I went to file that year I showed up at the Borough Building at 1 p.m. The deadline was noon, so that saved me for two more years. Other people encouraged me to run, but Mike was constant with that encouragement.”
Wiley and Johnson both worked as members of the Kasilof Regional Historical Association, and together they were among the group that installed a guardrail over the past two summers to protect the dunes at the mouth of the Kasilof River. Wiley also was a staple volunteer for cabin restoration work at the historical association’s museum, and he even cut and donated trees from his own property to be used to restore the historic log structures.
“I had the pleasure to work with Mike restoring historic cabins at the Kasilof Regional Historic Museum for over 10 years,” said Gary Titus, cabin historian for the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. “Mike brought enthusiasm and energy to the projects. When the temperature hovered at zero, the wind blew, and the snow was deep, Mike peeled and hewed logs with a smile on his face. I enjoyed Mike’s company and will miss him.”
Wiley also served on the board of directors of Homer Electric Association since 2010, when he was appointed to fill a vacant seat in District 3, where he was valued as an ardent activist of an open, public process.
“He had a fire in his belly. He was a fierce advocate for the downtrodden and championing for civil rights, open meetings and renewable energy,” said HEA Board President Debbie Debnam.
“He was elected by HEA members a year later in 2011, so he was doing something right,” she said.
Wiley overcame many challenges while serving with HEA, not the least of which was learning how to keep up with technology, remembered Debnam.
“When we went paperless and all went to iPads, it was tough for him to learn, but he figured it out and was proud of himself for doing so,” she said.
Wiley was just as persistent with his support of one of his pet projects, the Grant Lake hydroelectric project proposed in the Moose Pass area. The day before Wiley died he heard a small group was making the six-mile hike to the proposed site, and despite his age, he wanted to be counted in for the excursion.
“He heard they were going and said he was, too. It would be a good test for his knees, he joked. That’s the kind of guy he was,” Debnam said.