Chuck Johnstone

Chuck Johnstone

Chuck Johnstone was like the wilderness he loved and fought for: strong and quiet. 

He died February 25, peacefully in his sleep, at Providence Regional Medical Center in Everett, Wash. He was 93.

With Chuck’s passing a beacon of the old Alaska homesteading ways was lost. His life was made full through resilience, grit, making do, hard work and experiencing the gifts of wild places.

Often dressed in wool, canvas or flannel, Chuck was an uncomplicated fellow whose warm heart and smile will endure in spirit as long as will the wilderness areas he helped to create.

Born June 12, 1923, in Burton, S.C., Charles Hershel Johnston was one of five children, four boys and a girl. The family came to Alaska in 1925. The father, Allan E. Johnstone, was a lighthouse keeper, and the family lived on small lighthouse stations around Southeast Alaska until the mid 1930s when they moved to Juneau. One dark winter morning on the school bus, Chuck, 16, met Alice Sherwood, 15, who was to be his bride and faithful partner for the next 74 years. 

Chuck and Alice were married in June 1942 at the original Chapel by the Lake in Juneau. They had one night in the brand-new Baranof Hotel and then Chuck had to return the next day to Sitka, where he was working on the Sitka Naval Air Station.

Chuck enlisted in the U.S. Navy that same year and was stationed on Japonski Island. He was sent next to Dutch Harbor then to the South Pacific until the war’s end.

When Chuck returned from the war he worked several jobs, including truck driver, dog catcher, chief of police, and deputy U.S. marshal.

He worked at the ALP pulp mill for 15 years. Starting in the 1970’s, Chuck, with his boats the Kittywake and then the Fairweather, worked with Jack Calvin and his family in offering wildlife viewing trips with the purpose of inspiring those from the Lower 48 to support creation of the West Chichigof/Yacobi Island Wilderness Area. 

In 1967 he attended one of his children’s parent teacher nights at Sitka High School and met some like-minded teachers. They started a club that would eventually become the Sitka Conservation Society. Through SCS, Chuck and Alice fought to create the first citizen-nominated federally designated Wilderness Area, the West Chichagof/Yacobi Island Wilderness Area, which was eventually designated in 1980. In 2010 Chuck and Alice traveled to Washington, D.C., to receive, on behalf of Sitka Conservation Society, the Bob Marshall Champions of Wilderness Award from the U.S. Forest Service. 

Chuck and Alice are part owners of Old Harbor Books, which they started 40 years ago with Lee and Linda Schmidt,   Don Muller and Mary Stensvold. 

Until recently, Chuck was often found chopping wood or moving boulders from one end of Fairweather Cove to the other in front of his family’s Shotgun Alley home.  With a cheery spirit, he used a peavey to move things that would wash up on his beach – logs, boats, docks. One felt that with a block and tackle Chuck could move the earth.

He straightened nails to re-use them, saved every pump and engine for parts, had a pvc pipe collection that would put a plumber to shame, and never met an old tool that couldn’t be fixed. He could piece anything together and he often did to fix boat engines, eye glasses, wheelbarrows, sinks, boilers and vehicles.

He developed hundreds of systems that allowed him to do jobs like moving large rocks and big logs, shoveling the boat house roof, building docks and floats and launching a skiff entirely by himself. He was a one-man crew.  

Aside from his family and his wife of many years, Chuck’s biggest passion was wilderness. He explored the rocky beaches and mossy forest of West Chichagof with all the enthusiastic curiosity of a ten-year-old boy. He saw birds and whales and wildlife long before most people did and is remembered for sitting calmly at the helm of his boat sipping a cup of coffee.

With a twinkle in his eye, he warmly and wholeheartedly shared his knowledge of the area with willing listeners. He felt part of the natural world, not just a visitor to it.

Chuck found joy in watching birds nest, feeding the ducks on the beach and keeping track of whale migrations, and herring spawn.

He was a charming flirt who always had a quick quip for passersby who asked, “How’s everything going?” his reply: “I don’t know, I haven’t tried everything yet.” 

He is survived by his wife Alice Johnstone, Sitka; his children Gale (Phil) Brownell of Sebastapol, Calif.; Brian ( Pam) Johnstone of Arlington, Wash.; Greg (Cynthia) Johnstone of Sitka and Cosmopolis, Wash.; and his  grandchildren Peter (Mindy), Erik (Anna), Karl, Emily and Alexander, Allan, Kristina, Joelle, and Anna.

His great-grandchildren Niko, Rona, Matvey, Marcus, Madison, Hailey, Lucas, and Everit, and several great-great-grandchildren also survive.

He was preceded in death by his son Jay; his brothers Allan, Robert and Mikesel; his sister Esther; and his parents, Allan Eastman Johnstone and Esther Mary Foy Johnstone Clithero.

In Chuck’s memory gifts may be made to the Sitka Conservation Society Living Wilderness Fund, the Sitka Public Library or the Sitka Sound Science Center.


A celebration of Chuck’s life will be  held 2 to 4 p.m. Sunday, March 19, in the Del Shirley Room in Allen Hall on the SJ campus.

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