About once a week, Parker — owner of Icy Strait Wholesale — rises before dawn to catch the early tide with one or two crew workers on his 96-foot, converted military landing craft, slowly heading 50 miles through the rough waters of the Icy Strait to Juneau.
Parker has the lone boat in town that can make the trip because it doesn’t require a dock.
Once there, Parker pulls out his town’s shopping list — including special requests from residents — and picks up everything from eggs to prescriptions at the smallest Costco store in the world. Then he’ll stop by other stores in Juneau for items his neighbors need, including hunting ammunition, lumber and tools.
After his haul is loaded onto the boat, Parker stays overnight with the merchandise, then returns home on the high tide the next morning to restock the shelves in his store, nicknamed ToshCo, with up to $20,000 worth of products. He charges a small markup on the items he buys, he said.
Gustavus is accessible only by private plane or a boat specially equipped for rough, icy terrain. And the town grocer’s regular trips to Juneau have never been more important, as locals don’t have another means to get groceries unless they hire an expensive charter service.
“He’s definitely simplified life for all of us,” said Leah Okin, 51, a native of England who moved to Alaska 27 years ago and now manages the Gustavus Visitors Association. “We all look out for one another and Toshua is no exception.”
In normal times, visitors start arriving in the warmer weather months for sightseeing, though this year the economy will take a hard hit.
About the same time that the coronavirus outbreak started in the United States, the only boat dock in Gustavus was shut down for four months of repairs, said the town’s volunteer mayor, Calvin Casipit, 59.
Combined with a drop in ferry service to the isolated region due to state budget cuts, “a storm of disruption came to our fairly quiet and uncomplicated lives,” he said.
Kelly McLaughlin, 38, who runs the Fireweed Gallery Coffee and Tea House — the town’s only coffee shop/art gallery/drive-through — relies on Parker to keep her supplied with milk, cream and coffee beans for her roaster.
“Tosh starts his days at my shop over a cup of coffee most mornings,” she said. “We're all super lucky to have him and his freight service. Anything I need, he's happy to get it for me."
Parker, who grew up in Gustavus (his great-grandfather was the first homesteader in 1917), used to fly back and forth to Juneau in a small plane with his dad, Lee Parker, to buy groceries for the store his family started a decade ago, he said. But then as his store and clientele grew, he could no longer fit his cargo on a two-seater plane.
He used the ferry for a while, but soon thought it was risky to rely on the state-run ferry system, which has a budget dependent on the price of oil.
About two years ago, Parker decided to buy his landing craft to haul goods between Juneau and Gustavus.
“It was a big gamble, but I’m glad now that I was looking ahead and did it,” he said. “I’m acutely aware, though, with all that’s happened — the dock closing, the ferry not coming, the pandemic — that there’s a lot riding on that boat. Whatever would we do without it? We’d be cut off, I’m afraid, because it would be really expensive to charter something.”
Gustavus residents are relieved for his foresight, but Parker said keeping the shelves and refrigerators full at the town's only market is a group effort.
“I have a lot of help,” he said. “My wife works in the store and stays up late to order things (online) for everyone, and I have 15 employees who all pitch in.”
Historically, tourists start arriving after Memorial Day to stay in lodges in the region over the summer, but not this year. Alaska has around 400 confirmed cases of coronavirus, with 30 of those in the Juneau area. The first phase of the state’s stay-at-home order was lifted in April.
“It’s going to be a rough season — tourism and oil is pretty much all we have for an economy,” Parker said. “A lot of people are going to be hurting, so I’m glad that we can at least keep everyone in town supplied with food and whatever else they need.”
Last fall, Parker purchased a second landing craft, about 20 feet shorter than the first one. It might come in handy, he said, if he gets a request like the one he had when he first opened Icy Strait Wholesale.
Parker was broke, he said, and needed some drywall. He found a guy who would do his drywall work in exchange for Parker picking up a pig in Juneau for the man’s farm.
Parker has vivid memories of the night he slept on the boat with a 300-pound porker.
“We had to use a crane to lift him in a crate onto the boat,” he said. “You can imagine how that went over. I can now tell you with certainty: Pigs don’t like to fly."
Thankfully, Parker said, nobody has recently made that kind of request.
“Most people want milk, canned goods and toilet paper,” he said with a laugh. “I can handle that.”
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