Traveling dentists cleans teeth in a boat

Posted: Thursday, July 20, 2000

Sometimes Fred Bache's dental office rocks gently as he works on a patient's teeth, but he's used to it.

For 31 summers Bache and his wife, Jenny, have cruised around Prince of Wales Island, cleaning teeth and filling cavities from their boat.

``I'm the dentist and she's the captain,'' said Fred Bache, who has a land-based dental practice in Aberdeen, Wash., the rest of the year.

From the outside, the Jenny-B looks like a typical 50-foot cruiser commonly used for fishing, except for the pots of flowers and plastic chairs on the back deck. Step inside and there's a dentist's chair bolted to the floor, an X-ray machine on the wall and all the whirring, drilling, and sucking electronic gizmos found in any dentist's office.

``It's designed for it. I've got almost more water capacity than fuel capacity,'' said Fred Bache, who built the Jenny-B in 1969. She holds 1,000 gallons of water, and all the sterilization equipment is set up on a generator.

The Jenny-B's regular rounds take her to about 17 communities, some with only a couple of families. Word goes through town that the Jenny-B is coming, and by the time they tie up at the dock people are there to meet them. Some just make appointments over the CB.

``When it's time to go to the dentist you wait until five minutes before the appointment, then you brush your teeth and just walk down to the dentist,'' said Gayle Young in Port Alexander. ``That's just like getting the very best of the dental world right here in your own front yard here in rural Alaska.''

Fred Bache had been out of dental school just a few years when he decided to take his practice on the water. He'd worked his way through college fishing for halibut in Alaska and missed the lifestyle.

``I could see the pulling, the tugging, the struggle he was having with just facing the fact that he was going to be in an office the rest of his life after being in the woods and on the ocean,'' Jenny Bache said.

She'd never been on a boat when her husband suggested they move their business, and their lives, onto one. Though she was raised on a dairy farm and couldn't swim, she said yes.

``I didn't have a clue of what I was getting into,'' said Jenny, now an able seaman and lifeguard instructor.

In 1969 the Baches launched the Jenny-B and sailed north with an infant and a 5-year-old. When they reached the border, the Canadian customs officials were momentarily stumped.

``They didn't have any kind of box to fit a floating dental boat in,'' said Fred Bache. Instead, the Jenny-B was designated as a coastal trader.

It's as much a public service as a business. If it weren't for the floating dentist, some of the people in remote Southeast communities would rarely get their teeth checked. Besides accepting medical insurance as payment, Fred Bache has been known to sometimes accept art or fish in exchange for dental work.

``Of course IRS doesn't know about that,'' Bache said, ``but you can only stand so much fish, too.''

Until the Baches cruised into Craig, Elizabeth Dennis only went to the dentist every few years.

``There were no dentists here at all. There were no doctors,'' Dennis said. ``When they showed up in 1969, I'll tell you it was a blessing.''

Now there are two other dentists in Craig, but Dennis and other patients are loyal to Fred Bache, waiting for the Jenny-B to arrive each summer and sometimes visiting his office in Aberdeen during winter trips south.

In the early years the communities the Jenny B served were even more isolated than today. Now the Baches carry a cell phone and check their e-mail wherever there's a phone line available. Twenty-five years ago the only news came from bush pilots or over shortwave radios.

When man landed on the moon, the Baches were in a remote logging camp. Fred Bache said the news was relayed by the camp crier, a woman who listened to the shortwave radio and then spread the news. She told them ``Oh, they found diamonds and rubies and things on the moon,'' Fred Bache said. ``We had this real serious conversation about what it was going to do to economics, until we found out it was nothing but green cheese.''

Port Protection still has no dentist, as Judy Mason discovered when she moved there a year ago.

``I should have gone before I moved out here,'' said Mason, who went two years without a checkup. By the time she saw Fred Bache, an old filling needed to be replaced.

Mason's 3-year-old daughter sat on her lap as Fred Bache drilled her teeth. He didn't use Novocain -- he rarely does patients say -- but there was no pain.

``It was a wonderful experience, no Novocain. It was easy, pain-free,'' Mason said. ``I can't understand why people don't do it more, why there aren't more doctors and dentists and things like that on boats.''

Two other dentists have tried to set up traveling practices, but both quit after a few years, Fred Bache said.

``The market's very small, and second of all, it's not something you make money at,'' Fred Bache said. ``It's a mission is what it is.''

His reward is not the money, but being part of the coastal community, Fred Bache said. Some of his new patients are grandchildren of people the Baches have done dental work on for 30 years.

``They're more than patients. They're friends now,'' Jenny said. ``It's less work and more fun than you can imagine.''

When Jenny Bache was fighting breast cancer about eight years ago, the people in Craig raised $5,000 with a spaghetti feed and auction to help her. They sent it with a video tape of all the townspeople for ``Aunt Jenny.''

``You're part of this group that's very unusual in these days,'' Fred Bache said. ``Open armed and generous and just a little bit different.''

Fred Bache doesn't plan to give it up soon.

``I'll never retire out of it. I'd go until I couldn't see anymore or my hands didn't work,'' he said. ``I'm like a Viking. I think I'll burn the ship.''

Bache's patients worry he's serious.

``The worst thing for us is so far I haven't heard of any young person coming up who wants to take this over,'' Young said. ``We don't want it to go away.''

This article first appeared in the Southeast Empire.

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