Homer Alaska - News

Story last updated at 5:11 PM on Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Jim Lavrakas: 'Fishing Dude' finally settles in Homer

Kachemak Color

By Michael Armstrong
Staff Writer

Editor's note: "Kachemak Color" features residents who make the communities of the southern Kenai Peninsula interesting. If you know of someone who you think would make a good story, call the editor at 235-7767.


Jim Lavrakas

Jim and Ruth Lavrakas and their BayWeld boat, "Skookum."

People who wind up in Homer arrive by many paths. Some are born here. Some visit, fall in love with the town and figure out a way to make a living. Some retire after long careers elsewhere in Alaska or Outside.

And then there are people like Jim Lavrakas, who wind down one career and start a new one in Homer.

"I think we Baby Boomers have a completely different view of what retirement should be," Lavrakas said. "It's not sitting in front of the TV watching football."

Lavrakas and his wife, Ruth, moved to Homer in March of 2010. Ruth Lavrakas started a new career as a nurse in 2009 after working as a computer systems analyst at the Anchorage Daily News and GCI. Taking care of her sister with pancreatic cancer inspired Ruth Lavrakas to go into nursing. After working a year as a nurse in Ketchikan, Lavrakas got hired last year at South Peninsula Hospital and now works in Long Term Care.

The byline "Jim Lavrakas" may be familiar to readers of the Anchorage Daily News. Over 28 years Lavrakas has photographed everything from bomb explosions to the opera. When the Daily News started laying off employees, Lavrakas took a buy out and left the paper. He started his second career as a sport fishing guide.

How Jim Lavrakas originally came to Homer is a bit more convoluted. He first started spending a lot of time on Kachemak Bay in 1978, when he and a former girlfriend built a cabin on a 1-acre lot on Kasitsna Bay. That cabin lured his parents up here: his father, the late Vasilis "Babe" Lavrakas, and his mother Ann Lavrakas, who loved the area so much they got a cabin on Little Tutka Bay.

Really, though, Jim Lavrakas can trace his connections to Alaska back to 1970 and his freshman year at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. He met an older guy going to school on the GI Bill, Jim Nardelli, who had served in the U.S. Air Force at Elmendorf Air Force Base in Anchorage —yes, that Nardelli, the guy who owns the 299-TACO truck. Back in the 1970s, Nardelli worked summers doing halibut charter fishing.

Lavrakas first came to Alaska with Nardelli after his junior year in 1973.

"A bunch of us piled in the back of his pickup truck," Lavrakas said. "We drove from Massachusetts to Girdwood with a stopover in Jackson Hole, Wyoming."

Lavrakas, 58, was born in Lowell, Mass., the son of Greek Americans. Babe Lavrakas met Ann Thanos during World War II, and after Babe saw combat in Europe, the couple married. Babe Lavrakas taught chemistry at Lowell Technological Institute in Lowell, Mass. The family lived on a 120-acre timber farm in Dunstable, Mass.

"I grew up with lots of woods to run around in," Jim Lavrakas said. "I built a log cabin when I was a kid. I had a brook called Salmon Brook."

Lavrakas got into photography through his father when Jim was 12. Babe Lavrakas had a darkroom in the basement of their home.

"He said, 'You should come downstairs and see what I'm doing in the darkroom. It's applied chemistry,'" Jim said of his father.

Babe showed Jim how to print photos.

"We put it (the print) in the developer, and I said, 'My God, this isn't chemistry. This is magic.' He got me hooked then and there."

Soon Jim started shooting and developing his own photos. As a freelancer at 14 Lavrakas sold photos of country life to the Lowell Sun newspaper.

"I'd bring in these bucolic scenes of horses and people working in the field. They loved it," he said.

Lavrakas' high school yearbook profile said "ambition: photojournalist," but it took him a few years to achieve that. After graduating from U-Mass in 1974, he moved to Alaska. He worked for a few years as a ski bum at Alyeska Resort in Girdwood. Later Lavrakas had a job as a gandy dancer with the Alaska Railroad, going out to remote sites to repair the railroad.

"It was a great way to see country you wouldn't normally get to see," he said.

In 1979, Lavrakas started to make his career in photography. After working at camera shops and freelancing, he landed a job at the Anchorage Times when photographer Alice Puster took the summer off. Six months later he moved to the Daily News.

Among the highlights at the Daily News was catching a shot when an Anchorage Police Department bomb squad officer had a firebomb blow up in his face. Lavrakas won a Pulitzer in 1989 as part of the team that won the public service award for the Daily News' People in Peril series.

A real highlight came with what photographers call an original image — a shot no one has ever done. While shooting a story on northern pike, he took a photo of a pike with a live rainbow trout in its mouth.

"A biologist said, 'I've never seen that before,'" Lavrakas said. "I had something special."

Since boyhood Lavrakas has fished. While at the Daily News he did video blogs as the Fishing Dude. He started guiding on Ship Creek in Anchorage and got his six-pack license in 2008. In Ketchikan he worked with Alaska Fishing and Wilderness Dining.

Last year, Lavrakas bought a 27-foot Bayweld boat, the Skookum. He started Skookum Charters last summer, doing combination fishing trips.

Not that he's quit photography. Lavrakas takes people out on photo safaris with a little coaching thrown in. From July 22-24 he teaches a photography workshop at Across the Bay Tent and Breakfast. Lavrakas still does freelance work, too. His work can be seen at www.lavrakas.com.

After 32 years, he's finally where he wants to be.

"We're excited to be here, really happy," Lavrakas said. "Like I tell people, it's the best thing Ruth and I have ever done next to getting married."

Michael Armstrong can be reached at michael.armstrong@homernews.com.