Members of Wrangell’s Mariners’ Memorial board before the ribbon-cutting, September 26.
(Sage Smiley / KSTK)

After more than a decade of planning and work, the first memorial plaques have been placed at Wrangell’s Mariners’ Memorial. The community held a ribbon-cutting September 26.

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As the evening light fades across the water, a crowd has gathered below the curved, shiplike walls and red-and-white lighthouse gazebo of Wrangell’s Mariners’ Memorial. 

Community members examine the memorial.
(Sage Smiley / KSTK)

“Memorials are a very important part of a healthy community,” says Memorial Board President Jenn Miller-Yancey. She stands behind an iridescent red ribbon stretched across the memorial’s walkway. 

“They help link the past to the present, and serve as a source of important community history,” Miller-Yancey continues. “Memorial spaces offer a place to grieve, heal, and celebrate. That’s what we’re here to do today. We are honored to present our Wrangell Mariners’ Memorial as a place of remembrance and retelling of our stories for generations to come.”

The road to the ribbon-cutting ceremony has been long: It’s stretched over decades, tens of thousands of dollars in community fundraising, and several high school senior projects. Miller-Yancey says it’s a true community endeavor. Locals donated time, money and expertise. The local government funded the design and provided a nominal lease on the land. 

“It’s with our whole hearts our board recognizes the community Wrangell – all this volunteer effort, unending support, and genuine positivity toward the construction of Wrangell Mariners’ Memorial,” Miller-Yancy says. 

The Mariners’ Memorial board held its first round of applications for memorial plaques earlier this year. Forty-three plaques were placed on the steel walls of the memorial in early September. Some have an anchor, indicating a mariner that died at sea, like Miller-Yancey’s late husband, Ryan Miller. Others simply remember mariners who spent their lives in, on and around the water. 

“Because of our close relationships and families, we can really exercise our compassion and our kindness and be a part of people’s grieving process,” says Gig Decker, also a Wrangell Mariners’ Memorial board member. He emphasizes the value of having a place to grieve, both personally and as a community. Decker’s two children – Sig and Helen – died in a car accident a few years ago on Mitkof Island. They were on break from commercial seining that summer. Their memorial plaques sit next to each other on one of the walls.

“Amazing Grace.”
(Sage Smiley / KSTK)

“The whole business of retelling our story and being able to remember the people in our lives that had been important, that have had a big part of the sea, and allowing that to come forward and help create the fabric of the history of our little community is really, really very, very important,” Decker continues. 

John Martin, also a memorial board member, agrees, gesturing to the walls: “My brother Syd has his place on the wall. My father Syd has his place on the wall. My stepfather Gunnar has his place on the wall. So as they say in the Old Country: ‘Gunalchéesh, gunalchéesh, gunalchéesh, hó hó.’”

The 43 names memorialized in the first round of plaques will be read out at next year’s blessing of the fleet. Memorial board members say the annual deadline for new plaque applications will be January 31 of each year.

Wrangell music students and music teacher Tasha Morse perform “Amazing Grace,” in honor of those names. As they sing, a hole breaks in the gray clouds, unveiling an orange sunset. 

Borough Manager Jeff Good says every aspect of life in Wrangell is touched by the sea that surrounds the island. 

“At its core, Wrangell is and always has been a fishing community,” Good says, “And the water is our lifeline. Whether through our food supply or staple day-to-day products or through recreation, our harbors and ports are the conduit. The location of this memorial, clearly identifying a safe harbor, is ideal.”

Good, who retired as a Coast Guard captain in 2020, ends with words from “Sailor’s Rest” by D.R. Block. 

Examining names on the memorial walls.
(Sage Smiley / KSTK)

When my sailing days are over,
And I sail the seas no more,
I shall build myself a refuge
By the oceans murmuring shore.
As I watch the foaming breakers
When the tide comes rushing in,
I will contemplate my lifetime,
With its virtues and its sins.

Where the azure of the heavens
Meets the undulating blue,
Where the sweeping, soaring seagull
Flies its endless quest for food.
It is there that I would rest,
When my work on Earth is done,
At the endless blue horizon
‘Neath the crimson, setting sun.

Juneau-based landscape architect Christopher Mertl designed the memorial. 

“A little over 10 years ago,” Mertl tells community attendees, “I was working on the Wrangell waterfront master plan, and someone showed me a wonderful watercolor of the pavilion and said: ‘Chris, we need some help designing our new mariners’ memorial, would you help us?’ And as a landscape architect designing places such as this is such a huge honor. It’s also a huge choice and challenge. How do I embody the spiritual, the celebration, the sacred space that needs to be made into this memorial?”

He says the design’s inspiration came from the community of Wrangell.

Cutting the ribbon.
(Sage Smiley / KSTK)

“For me, honestly, this project probably has more meaning than any other project I’ve worked on,” Mertl says. “You’ve got a great community, you take care of each other and you come together, I’ve never seen a community rally and put something like this together on your own. So this really is a testament to what a great community Wrangell is, how important this memorial is. And it was a great honor to work on this. So I say thank you very much.”

Mertl and board member Brennon Eagle, who’s been with the project for a decade, hold up a giant pair of scissors together. 

“Okay…” Eagle says, closing the scissors: “It’s officially open, come on in!”

Community members rush up the incline of the memorial to examine the new plaques, eat refreshments, and admire the memorial in the last of the day’s sun. 

Near the entrance of the memorial, Laura Larsen stands, looking a little misty-eyed. 

“I think it’s a beautiful thing and it’s a perfect spot,” Larsen says, “And I think that a lot of people appreciate it and will come out here and remember their loved ones here […] I want to get a plaque for my dad, I think. He had so many boats […] It’d just be nice to remember that way.”

The community of Wrangell finally has what it’s worked decades for: the glowing point at the end of the harbor, a tangible space to feel grief, to remember loved ones, and to wish beloved mariners still sailing the seas safe passage at the start of each fishing season. 

This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Chris Mertl’s last name.

Get in touch with KSTK at or (907) 874-2345.

Wrangell’s Mariners’ Memorial.
(Sage Smiley / KSTK)