Friday, May 20, 2016

"Not Just for the Birds"

Boyd Shaffer and a great horned owl. (Photo courtesy of UAA Consortium Library archives)

APRIL 2013

Had Boyd Shaffer been less dedicated to or enthusiastic about teaching, his early experience as an itinerant art instructor for Kenai Peninsula Community College might have defeated him.

During the fall of 1966, the 41-year-old Shaffer, a Forest Service foreman, would turn loose his crew at 5 p.m., rush to his Moose Pass home to shower, then drive his Jeep 30 miles to Seward to teach a 6:30 class. The next day, he would drive 75 miles to Kenai to teach another class at 7. When his students left, sometimes as late as 10 p.m., he’d make the long, dark drive home to get enough sleep to power him through another day.

Shaffer didn’t stick with this part-time college gig because he wanted to get rich. At first, in fact, he was paid nothing for his teaching and received no compensation for his commute, which he did regardless of weather. “The whole thing was on my dime,” he said. And he never cancelled a class.

When the college opened its own campus near Soldotna in 1972, KPCC director Clayton Brockel asked Shaffer to move closer to the school so he could teach full time and during the day. Shaffer promptly gave his two-week notice to the Forest Service and moved west.

Shaffer teaches about local flora on the KPC campus, 1985.
Shaffer, who will be 88 in October, excelled at art and was curious about nature at an early age. He was raised in Salt Lake City by “people of the earth, people who knew what they needed to survive,” he said, and they germinated in him the interests that would buoy him throughout his life.

“I started to find as I grew up that there were too many things I didn’t know,” he said. “So I started reading books—about every living thing, about every kind of animal. I was as interested in, say, tigers in Bengal as anything else.”

Before he was in his teens, Shaffer began applying his burgeoning art skills to his love of nature. He sketched what he observed. He examined structures and painstakingly recorded them on paper. He pulled apart plants and drew their contents. And with the help of neighborhood specialists, he also learned the arts of taxidermy and falconry.

“By the time I was 12 years old,” he said, “I knew every bird in Utah by sight and was a member of the Utah Audubon Society.”

Also, said Shaffer, “I was a taster. I tasted everything. I was eating all my mother’s nasturtiums before I even knew they were edible…. I could live off the land (in Utah) when I was 16 years old.”

As a teen-ager, he led tours for the world-famous Tracy Aviary, home to 25,000 birds, and in his late 20s was hired by the Walt Disney production company to be its naturalist consultant.

When the United States involvement in World War II swept him away from his familiar environs, he found himself in the European Theater. In the Battle of the Bulge, he was shot in the leg and hospitalized in Paris. After the war, the Army afforded him the opportunity to attend art school, where he learned some of the techniques that would later make him a financially successful painter.

During an Alaska vacation in 1958, he saw Moose Pass for the first time and knew he had found his new home. With winter approaching in 1960, Shaffer—a direct descendant of Mormon founders Joseph Smith and Brigham Young—moved his family and opened Moose Pass Taxidermy to keep food on the table.

Shortly thereafter, he gained employment with the Forest Service, and in 1966 Brockel, the KPCC director, rang him up and offered him an opportunity that at first he was reluctant to accept.

Shaffer with award-winning painting, 1963.
“He asked me if I’d be interested in teaching at the community college,” Shaffer recalled. “I told him, ‘No, I’m just too busy.’ And about two days later he calls again and says, ‘We sure wish you would think about this.’ I said, ‘What triggered this?’ He said, ‘That art show you entered with that painting that took Best of Show and First, and I’m bugged by people wanting you to come over and teach art.’”

Brockel was referring to Shaffer’s award-winning still life at an art show at the Soldotna Public Library, and his mention of potential students seeking Shaffer’s expertise did the trick. “Okay, I’ll do it,” Shaffer told him.

Over his many years at the college, Shaffer taught a variety of art and naturalist studies classes. After he helped establish the school’s nature trails, he frequently led groups of students through the woods in search of plants, birds, mammals, insects and fungi. In his popular art classes, he developed a loyal following by teaching students how to paint birds, mushrooms, and classic Alaskan landscapes. He also promoted the college and his naturalist philosophies by touring local schools, often with live specimens in tow.

For a while, as he worked to educate the community about its environment, Shaffer toured the schools with a tamed great horned owl. In May 1975, a newspaper article featured Shaffer with his owl. “I have found that if people have a positive experience with something when they are young,” Shaffer said in the article, “they develop a much different attitude about these (things) when they encounter them later in life.”

Eventually, Shaffer’s nature trails were named in his honor, and in 2002, retiring KPC director Ginger Steffy made sure that Shaffer’s large volume on local plant life, The Flora of Southcentral Alaska, was published in full color.

“Boyd Shaffer and his activities provided an outreach to those individuals, from grade-school students to senior citizens, who were lifelong learners,” Steffy said. “His courses, which covered a wide range of topics over the years, were interesting and informative without being intimidating.  His willingness to share his knowledge and enthusiasm presented a positive and welcoming image of KPC to the community.”

For Shaffer, who retired in 2002 as one of the college’s longest-tenured instructors, there was never any doubt that he’d made the right move in leaving the Forest Service for the college.

“I teach because I thoroughly enjoy teaching,” he once said. “If I retired tomorrow, I think I’d see if I could get a job teaching at the college.”

Shaffer instructs during one of his KPC art classes.


Monday, May 2, 2016

"A Remarkable Summer"

Part of the cover of the original National Geographic containing Shiras's article.



A hundred years ago, George Shiras III wrote about a splendid (and unusual) summer spent in Alaska, mostly near Skilak Lake: In 55 days of travel and exploration, he wrote, rain fell during only 19 hours.

Chasing after wildlife with his large camera, his wooden tripod and his heavy photographic plates, he said that he and his party were “wind bound” three days and “experienced a number of violent squalls lasting an hour or so.” In nearly two months, there were three entirely cloudy days and about a half-dozen partly cloudy days.

Blessed with this astonishing stretch of weather, Shiras was able to return home with enough information and images to fill 72 pages of the May 1912 edition of The National Geographic Magazine with an article entitled “The White Sheep, Giant Moose, and Smaller Game of the Kenai Peninsula, Alaska.”

George Shiras III was the son of Supreme Court justice, George Shiras Jr., who had been nominated to the post by President Benjamin Harrison in 1892. Young George himself had served in the U.S. Senate from Pennsylvania, but in 1905 he surrendered a political career to pursue a life of photography, and in 1906 he achieved public acclaim the effect of which can still be felt today.

Gilbert Hovey Grosvenor, who was the first full-time editor of National Geographic and served in that capacity for 55 years, recalled the day in 1906 that Shiras walked into his office “with a box full of extraordinary flashlight photographs of wild animals. He had invented the technique for making such pictures, and an exhibit of his work had won gold medals at Paris and St. Louis Expositions.”

Photo courtesy from the Fair family collection. George Shiras III was enamored
of the Harding Ice Field during his trip to the high country south of Skilak Lake.
In the introduction to Shiras’s debut article, Grosvenor said that he viewed the box of photos “with mounting excitement” and began to sort them into two piles, one very tall, the other very small. Shiras had earlier been able to interest a New York publication in only three of his images and so was astounded to learn that Grosvenor wanted to use everything in the tall pile—74 photographs, filling 50 pages, only four of which would be text.

The magazine would never be the same, and neither would flash photography.

Two distinguished geographers on the National Geographic Board resigned, in part because they believed that Grosvenor was turning their publication into a “picture book.” And they may have had a point, but the July 1906 issue was an immediate hit, and circulation spiked.

George Shiras III found himself with an open ticket to travel where he wished and photograph what he pleased—with the National Geographic Society a willing buyer and a more than willing sponsor. In 1911, after numerous trips across the continent, he set his sights upon Alaska.

In the introduction to the resulting article, he said he wished to study the animals “where the camera, rather than the rifle, was to capture the permanent trophies of the hunt.”

Shiras narrowed the focus of his trip to the Kenai Peninsula because it contained the wildlife he was interested in and virtually all of the terrain, in one place, that he could find elsewhere in that country:

“It is seldom that a small, semi-detached portion of a large and diversified country can satisfactorily portray the whole, not only in the romantic history of its discovery and early explorations, but in those present-day conditions, where the climate, topography, and economic resources excite attention and comparison. Were all of Alaska erased from the map except the Kenai Peninsula and its immediately adjacent waters, there would yet remain in duplicate that which constitutes the more unique and that which typifies the whole of this wonderful country.”

With maps and travelers’ recommendations at hand, he narrowed his plans, and on July 8, 1911, he departed from Seattle for a well-funded two-month sojourn in the Last Frontier.

Alaska, at this time, was one year away from becoming a territory, and two years away from the first meeting of its Territorial Legislature. Anchorage did not yet exist, for the first encampment at Ship Creek was three years away. Because there were no highways, the main artery into the Kenai Peninsula and hence into the Alaska interior was via the seaport and railway at Seward, which had been established with that name only eight years earlier.

Photo courtesy of the Fair family collection. Pictured here, beyond the hikers in the
foreground, is the upper drainage of Benjamin Creek, which flows into the Killey River.
Shiras came upstream into the mountains in the left of this photo to study the Dall sheep.
Seward was the “Gateway City,” and Shiras’ steamship landed there early on July 15 after cruising the length of Resurrection Bay for about 10 hours. Within the next two days, Shiras had met his chief guide, Thomas B. Towle—officially a $3.50-a-day packer then, Towle would become a registered guide the following year, according to Kenai National Wildlife Refuge historian, Gary Titus—and had traveled by “gasoline car” 23 miles up the Alaska Northern Railroad right-of-way to the head of Kenai Lake.

During the next week, accompanied by several men who would haul the bulk of his equipment and run his wilderness bases, he was guided the length of the lake to a camp on Cooper Creek to await the arrival of supplies. From there, he traveled downriver to Skilak Lake, along its northern shore, and across the lake to a narrow-necked peninsula about three miles west of Cottonwood Creek. The small peninsula neatly divided a single large bay into two smaller bays, so Shiras named the site of his base there “Double-bay Camp.”

On July 24, he spied his first moose on the Kenai Peninsula.

Besides photography, Shiras had an affinity for wildlife, and he was willing to spend hours each day, hidden behind blinds constructed of brush and grass or stones, swatting innumerable mosquitoes as he waiting for just the right photo-op.

He also had an inquisitive mind about nearly all things in nature. He was, for instance, fascinated by the bulk and mass of what later became known as the Harding Ice Field, and he took his observations and speculations with him back to the East Coast, hoping to prompt further investigations. He was intrigued, too, by the chemical content of a mineral lick near Double-bay Camp, and he returned home with samples and had them tested by a scientist.

Elsewhere, he pondered the sense of smell of the Dall sheep and the more tenacious spawning habits of sockeye salmon, and he was awestruck by the aggressiveness of a pair of ptarmigan in successfully defending their brood against an attacking hawk.

Shiras spent the end of July and early August observing moose, before climbing up the Cottonwood Creek trail, along the Marmot Lakes, and down to the lower stretches of Benjamin Creek, near its confluence with the Killey River, where Towle had a cabin in which he had lived during his gold-mining days. Shiras spent about a week in this high country, observing and photographing sheep in the mountains around Twin Lakes, as well as watching brown bears, red foxes and hoary marmots.

He departed Skilak country in early September, with high water necessitating his men to line the boats upriver through conditions much more rugged than was customary, and his resultant article in the pages of National Geographic featured dozens of photographs and many pages of keen observations about his experiences.

Among his final observations in the article, he noted that subsequent hunting parties in the Skilak area had reported bad weather during the latter half of September and throughout October. “So the above data must be taken rather as an evidence of what the weather can be than what it is apt to be,” he said, clearly appreciating his good fortune.

He finished with these words: “In conclusion, let us hope that those interested in the permanent prosperity of the Kenai Peninsula appreciate the value of an abundant and available supply of game-food animals and fish, and understand how much the presence of this game has contributed to its fame throughout the world…. Long after the last flake of gold has been panned from the sands and the last blast has fractured the veins of quartz, the Kenai Peninsula should continue to be the home of the giant moose and the place where the sheep, the grouse, and the salmon are worth more in dollars and more in life than all the visionary or fleeting fortunes beneath the soil.”

Photo courtesy of Monte Edwards. Near Twin Lakes, situated about halfway between the Benjamin Creek headwaters and its terminus at the
Killey River, Shiras made a nearly weeklong camp to study Dall sheep. Benjamin Creek was named for the eldest brother of Shiras’ guide,
Thomas B. Towle.


Sunday, May 1, 2016

"Rock Solid"

The rock that was the inspiration for the name of Solid Rock Bible Camp.


JUNE 2009

Bert Schultz is not easily deterred.

In late winter 45 years ago, Schultz was working alone at Solid Rock Bible Camp, cutting rafters for a building that would
eventually contain a crafts shop, when a friend stopped by. Noting the Skil saw, the friend asked Schultz if he’d ever sawed through his own electrical cord. Then, after assuring the friend that he’d never do anything so dumb, he promptly did exactly that during his first cut after the friend’s departure.

Irritated, he leaned against one of his sawhorses and began to braid the wires back together in preparation for wrapping the damaged cord in electrical tape. As he worked, the sawhorse suddenly bucked, the ground started to roll violently, and the building began to shake.

Memorial Lodge in the early days.
Schultz tried to maintain his balance as all around him the world trembled. Windows in a nearby building shattered, and the ice on Miracle Lake cracked as black mud churned around its edges. The camp bus, without front tires and up on blocks for repairs, sank to its wheel housings as the blocks flew outward, and at Memorial Lodge the concrete-block chimney crashed to the ground.

When the shaking finally subsided, Schultz ran to his home to check on his family. The Good Friday dinner of sauerkraut, mashed potatoes and moose meat was ruined and dishes were broken, but his wife, Donna, and their son, Scott, were all right. As night settled in, they attempted to assess the damage to the camp and to use their radio to learn the extent of what had just happened.

They discovered that there had never been a Good Friday like this one in the history of Alaska, and that March 27, 1964, would be remembered as the day of the Great Alaska Earthquake.

But awesome power of nature did not dissuade the Schultzes. A new stone chimney eventually replaced the shattered concrete blocks, and other repairs to the camp were made as well. Under their guidance, and with plenty of help, Solid Rock Bible Camp overcame this setback and continued to grow and prosper. This year the camp will celebrate its 51st year of existence.

The 194-acre camp, which now is run by Ted and Valerie McKenney and features dozens of activities for youths from the Kenai Peninsula and beyond, got its official start in the summer of 1958—and was a much more raw and unpolished affair in those days. In their camp memoir, Miracle at Solid Rock, the Schultzes recall those initial sessions of camp and the years of preparation that allowed it all to happen.

In fact, even before the Schultzes arrived in Alaska, the groundwork for the camp was being laid.

Around the peninsula in 1952, several missionary-based Protestant churches joined together to form the Kenai Peninsula Fellowship and unite under this common goal: “To know the Lord Jesus Christ and make Him known.”

Bert and Donna Schultz penned the story of Solid Rock.
In 1955, according to the Schultzes’ book, Austin Meeks, a Baptist missionary from Ninilchik, first voiced the notion of beginning a Christian-centered youth recreational facility, and KPF established a committee to seek a site for it from the Bureau of Land Management.

Committee members traveled to Anchorage to review BLM maps and selected several potential sites. At one site, located at Mile 90.5 of the Sterling Highway, committee members snowshoed into the property, and there found a rock about three stories high, swathed in moss and spiked with young trees. They climbed the rock and looked around at the mixed deciduous-coniferous forest and the half-mile-long lake nearby, and decided they had found their camp site.

KPF petitioned BLM for all of the land surrounding the lake—about 200 acres. BLM countered with an offer of 100 acres for $1,300, and the committee accepted. Financial times were lean, however, and the sale price was too steep, so in July 1956 KPF settled on only 70 acres for a price of $945.27.

The following year, the Schultzes entered the peninsula picture.

Bert Schultz and Donna Porte had both grown up in Altoona, Pennsylvania. Bert, now 77, was the son of butcher/grocer/antiques dealer, while Donna, now 76, was the daughter of a baker who later worked for the Pennsylvania Railroad. Bert was raised in the Methodist church, while Donna grew up as a Baptist, but both of them came to their faith when they were very young, and both were inspired as teen-agers to consider missionary work in Alaska.

When they met, their inspirations and their passions intertwined. They became engaged in 1952, married in 1953, and headed to Alaska for their first northern missionary experience in 1957. After a four-month building project at Old Harbor on Kodiak Island, they moved to Sterling to pastor the Baptist church there, and made their first connections to the Kenai Peninsula Fellowship.

In 1958, the fellowship became determined to hold its first camp on the property that was becoming known as Solid Rock for its prominent landmark. In order for camp to occur, however, infrastructure was needed—a road into the property, housing for the campers, and a staff to run the operation.

Bert Schultz and Paul Weimer walked in from the highway and staked out a road route that was later opened up by Jesse Robinson and his D-7 Cat. Robinson also cleared the trees and moss from the site that would eventually hold Memorial Lodge, the first permanent structure on the property. This clearing, on exposed clay soil, became the site of the first camp that summer.

The clearing also became the source of considerable aggravation during rainy days, when the clay churned into a gooey mess and inspired a few early campers to dub the area “Solid Mud Bible Camp.”

The Schultzes, along with Floyd and Virginia McElveen, Lloyd and Ruth Dean, Ray and Irene Mainwaring, and others, worked hard to prepare for the first camp. They used unpeeled spruce logs to construct the framework for a camp shelter, which they topped with tarpaulins and sided with Visqueen. Under the shelter, they scattered sawdust for a floor and built tables, benches and a serving counter.

They also built a 10-foot dock on the lake for the camp’s single rowboat, hung a stout rope from an overhanging birch tree, erected primitive outhouses, and built a fire pit to heat the 55-gallon drum that supplied hot water for camper clean-up and washing dishes.

When the first five-day session began, 34 junior high and high school campers showed up, prepared to sleep in tents and under tarps, to participate in Bible lessons and a half-dozen outdoor and under-tarp activities (volleyball, swimming, hiking, boating, arts and crafts, singing), and to help with the basic necessities that would allow the camp to function.

Each camper brought silverware, a bowl, a plate, and a cup; a box of cereal and a box of Jell-O or pudding mix; a
Water-skiing is one of the many popular activities at Solid Rock Bible Camp.
sleeping bag or a bedroll (with moss used as a mattress). Some campers brought extra food—sugar, flour, eggs, bacon—while other KPF members and camper families provided Alaska-grown potatoes, carrots, lettuce, radishes, and rhubarb, plus moose and caribou meat, fresh salmon and wild cranberries, and dozens of cookies and pies for dessert.

Lloyd Dean acted as camp director, with Ruth Dean as camp nurse, and Irene Mainwaring, with her Betty Crocker recipe book, as camp cook. Bert Schultz said that 17 of those original 34 campers “prayed to receive Christ as Savior” during that first session, and that everyone had a great time despite the mostly rainy weather.

However, if Week One was damp, Week Two was soaking. The second camp session, for children from second to sixth grade, was held in a series of downpours, which produced mud three inches deep on the volleyball court, flooded tents, saturated sleeping bags, and created sopping clothes on wet and homesick kids.

Floyd McElveen recalled, “We did our best to quiet them, take care of them, talk to them about Jesus, and keep them from dying of pneumonia.” After only three days, organizers cancelled the remainder of the session. The quarter-mile road up to the highway had deteriorated so badly that they had to trudge up the hill repeatedly with all the kids and their gear to waiting parents.

But, said Donna Schultz, that soggy genesis and rainy exodus “didn’t dampen our spirits.”

Over the next 50 years, Solid Rock Ministries, Inc., would add more than 120 acres, including parts of two small lakes, to its camp property; would construct more than two dozen buildings, including snug cabins for all the campers; would streamline its services to offer a diverse range of camping experiences, ranging from horseback riding to waterskiing; and would add dozens of new activities for participating campers.

In the late 1960s, Solid Rock would even temporarily run its own radio station, KSRM, as it tested its own range of influence. In fact, the station’s call letters originally stood for Solid Rock Ministries.

Every year, it seemed, something new was added to the camp. In fact, for Bert Schultz, who acted as camp director from 1961 to 1986, the notion of newness became a sort of annual mantra: “Every year when camp started, I wanted some new exciting thing for kids to do, so when they came back to camp they could see a difference, see a change.”

“One year,” Donna added, “we didn’t have any money, but we painted all the doors in the camp—red or something.” Always something new, through a half-century and thousands upon thousands of campers, and even under new leadership the camp continues to prosper.


Saturday, April 30, 2016

"Betty, Get Your Gun"

Betty VanDevere gathers firewood outside her family's homestead cabin on Parsons Lake in Nikiski in the late 1950s.


JUNE 2010

Since the early 1960s, Elizabeth Florence “Betty” Idleman has been living comfortably in her Island Lake home nearly 20 miles north of Kenai—but her life on the Kenai Peninsula didn’t begin in such comfort. The early days involved privation, isolation, and more than the occasional gunfire.

There was, for instance, the time that she and her first husband, Lester Dyer “Les” VanDevere, Jr., desired to have a well with a pump in their first home on nearby Parsons Lake. They had a sand point ready to drive into the earth, but their home already had a solid wooden floor covering their intended well site. They had a keyhole saw with which to cut the proper aperture, but they lacked a hand drill to bore a small hole in which to start the action of the saw.

“My husband put an X on the floor where the well was supposed to be, at the edge of the sink, and he stood on a chair and shot a hole in the floor,” Idleman said. Her husband’s bolt-action Springfield 30.06 blasted through the floorboards and provided the opening they needed. They struck water at a depth of only seven feet.

Parsons Lake homestead cabin.
After they installed a pitcher-pump, Idleman said, she was the only one in the area with both running water and a sink that drained.

But life on Parsons Lake was far from being filled with such luxuries.

In 1956, the VanDeveres’ first year in Alaska, they filed on a homestead that had been defaulted on by the man for whom the lake was named. Idleman said she was told that Mr. Parson had gone into town to Eadie’s Frontier Club during the winter and got caught in a “hellacious snowstorm.” Thinking back to his half-completed cabin on the lake, he decided to forget the whole homesteading adventure and leave the state.

In Kenai, through “scuttlebutt from fishermen in town and the locals,” Les and Betty heard about Parson’s abandoned property (the structure and nearly 140 acres) and took actions through the land office to secure it for themselves.

When the VanDeveres arrived at the lake in late autumn of 1956, they discovered a roofless cabin made of unpeeled spruce logs. On the ground nearby, the logs to finish the rest of the cabin had lain since Parson’s exit, and, with no prior building experience, Les and Betty erected a tent as a temporary dwelling and set to work to complete the structure before the onset of winter.

Once completed, the cabin sat just back from the water on the tip of a small peninsula projecting into the lake from the southern shore. To reach their new home, the VanDeveres had to drive from Kenai on the graveled Kenai Spur Highway, then follow the narrow Island Lake Road until they reached a series of even narrower Cat trails that led eventually to the northwest shore of Parsons Lake. There, in summer, they had to row a small boat across to their property; in winter they used snowshoes.

The isolation and the inaccessibility at Parsons Lake began to work on Idleman, although she said she never felt homesick for the rural Pennsylvania environs in which she grew up. In fact, she said, “if his parents and my mother hadn’t sent us five dollars every so often, or stamps for envelopes, they wouldn’t have heard from us.”

A late 1950s photo of Betty bringing in firewood from one of the many snow-covered piles on the front porch illustrates the austere yet homey nature of their cabin on the lake. Hanging below the center ridgepole is a large set of moose antlers, below which hangs a homemade Christmas wreath. The wood-frame cabin windows are made entirely of plastic, smoke is issuing from the metal stack protruding from the rooftop, and a smiling Betty, with an armload of wood, is wearing a dress and an apron.

Born in 1937, she graduated in 1955 from Neshaminy High School in Bucks County—just north of Philadelphia, but far enough away that cornfields were growing out behind the community’s elementary school. Only a year removed from public school, she was married to Les and they were angling across country in their 1954 Ford pickup, with a homemade wooden canopy packed with belongings in the back, and with every intention to turn north toward Alaska.

Big Les and little Les (Dyer), with some company out by the woodpile.
Because they slept out under the stars for the first few nights, Idleman said, they reached Wyoming before they realized that they had neglected to pack the poles for their tent. They made do with sticks the rest of the way.

Subsisting on whatever they could make, find, hunt or gather became a pattern for the VanDeveres over the next several years. They cooked with a three-burner Coleman stove all the way up the Alaskan Highway and during all the years they lived on Parsons Lake. When they stopped along the Alcan, they dropped the tailgate and set up the stove there, extracting a card table and a pair of folding chairs for their open-air dining room.

At Parsons Lake, the Coleman was even more utilitarian. “There was an oven you could set on top of the Coleman—could put three or four loaves of bread in it,” she said. She also had a pressure cooker that she could place atop the burners when it came time to can meat, vegetables or berries.

Cranberries and blueberries grew plentifully around the lake, schools of rainbow trout and spawning sockeye from Bishop Creek plied the waters, and moose were frequent—and sometimes unlucky—visitors.

According to a Donnis Thompson article about the VanDeveres in the Philadelphia Enquirer’s magazine section in May 1959, Idleman canned 112 containers of moose and trout in 1958. They also grew potatoes, cabbage and carrots in the summer and canned them for winter use. A moose shot late enough in the season could be hung under the eaves, where it would stay frozen until a portion was needed for a meal.

Idleman baked her own bread because store-bought bread was too expensive (45 cents per loaf, according to Thompson’s article), and she used powdered milk for the same reason. Regular milk in a store at the time cost about 45 cents a quart. For a family surviving on commercial fishing and sporadic seasonal employment during the rest of the year, pinching every penny was crucial.

One year they managed a fish trap on the west side of Cook Inlet and netted only $400, which was most of their total income until the next fishing season. “It bought a chainsaw or a drum of Blazo for the Coleman, and maybe a drum of gas for the outboard or the chainsaw,” Idleman said.

When they fished the east side of Cook Inlet, they sold their catch to the cannery owned by Harold Daubenspeck, and in turn Daubenspeck, who traveled north to Alaska each spring from Washington state, aided them with their foodstuffs.

“You’d send your grocery order, what you figured out that you needed for the whole year. So when he would come up in the spring, he’d bring your grocery order and you’d pick it up,” Idleman said.

“The first time that happened, I had to buy groceries for a whole winter, and I was only about 18. I didn’t know what the heck I wanted. It took a long time. You try to decide how much flour, how much corn meal, you know, something like that. And a dozen eggs needed to last a couple of months because you couldn’t afford eggs.”

In the early days, she said, nine families lived in the general vicinity—Island Lake, Dogbone Lake, Parsons Lake and Bishop Lake, among others—but it was almost five years before anyone lived close enough to her to easily walk to visit.

In the wintertime, Tony Johansen ran a trapline in the area and stopped in to see the VanDeveres once or twice a week. Otherwise, especially when Les was away on a job, Betty would be alone in the cabin. Even after the birth of their first son, Lester Dyer VanDevere III, child care did little to alleviate the loneliness.

She spent much of each day tending to her infant, preparing food, cleaning, and feeding the woodstove from the numerous head-high piles of firewood covering the porch and the surrounding ground. In Thompson’s article, Les said, “We’ve had some tough times, but Betty never has become upset. In fact, when things are really tough, Betty is at her best.”

Once, in fact, Betty, who in her early 20s was already learning that sometimes extreme measures were necessary in order to make a point or defend what was hers, had to be tough with a neighbor.

Betty often had a gun close at hand during early homesteading life.
Every time her neighbor across the lake brought G.I. friends down from Anchorage to visit, she said, Idleman had to deal with the shooting—even on one occasion when she had to use her outhouse.

“They were always shooting. You get away and you gotta shoot, you know,” Idleman said. “Well, my outhouse was tin—and the guys over there were shooting, and the pellets—the buckshot, whatever it was—were raining down on the tin roof. I started screaming and hollering, but the shooting kept on going. I knew they heard me.”

From her cabin, it was only a few hundred yards across to the shooters on the other side. Angrily she exited the outhouse and marched down to the lakeshore. “I could hear them holler, so they could hear me holler. So I took a .22 rifle and I aimed right across the lake where I thought the shots were coming from. And I aimed high enough so that bullet got across the lake.”

After her single shot, the blasts from the opposite shore stopped immediately. “No more shots—ever,” she said. “One was enough.”

After fishing the east side for a couple of years, the VanDeveres switched to the west side, first in Tuxedni Bay and later in Chinitna Bay. On one particular summer when their first son was less than a year old, they found themselves encamped on Harriet Point (west of Kalgin Island) when the need for firepower arose again—twice.

For a few days while Les was out fishing and then motoring over to the cannery to pick up a paycheck, Betty practiced her shooting by taking potshots at seagulls. The problems began when another area fisherman who had given Les an outboard motor decided to come calling at the VanDevere wall tent and demand the motor back.

“Well, the only place to keep that outboard is under the bed in the tent, and he wanted it. And he was going to take it,” Idleman said. “So I held a .22 on him. I sat on the bed; Dyer’s sleeping behind me. And I sat there a good half-hour. I said, ‘You know I’ve been shooting. You can see that the safety’s off, and you can see that my finger’s on the trigger. It’s up to you whether you stay or go.’ I had to say that to him a couple of times, and he finally left.”

A day or two later, a sow brown bear with three large juvenile cubs paid a visit to the wall tent, which was situated on a large rock that fronted the tide at high water. The VanDevere dogs started “acting up something fierce,” prompting Idleman to peer outside to see what the problem was. She saw the sow lying contentedly a short distance away while her cubs played, slowly moving closer to the tent, where once again the baby lay sleeping.

“I took a frying pan and a spoon and I banged them together. It didn’t bother them one iota,” said Idleman. “It was just about dark, and ‘Tundra Tom-Tom’ was on the radio. Anyway, the bears kept coming, and I banged the thing and shot off the .22 a couple of times, and that didn’t bother them any.”

Idleman, who had never seen a brown bear before that day, looked at the rising tide, watched the cubs drawing nearer, noticed that the sow was growing edgy, and determined that there was no way those bears were coming through her home.

“I took the old 30.06 and sat down on the step of the penthouse and I got myself all aimed up,” she said. “And mama’s coming now. Mama’s coming. And she got pretty damn close, and she stood up, and I shot her.”

The single round into her left upper chest knocked the sow flat, and she lay dying only a few feet away. The agitated cubs approached and were crying over her as she made murmuring noises and tried to move.

“Well, here’s these three cubs. So now I gotta kill them. So I did. Four bears took 11 shots, and one of (those shots) was going out and making sure mama was really, truly dead.”

Betty became a successful gardener at the lake property.
In the tight-knit fishing community, word of the young woman who single-handedly gunned down four brown bears at once made the rounds rapidly. By the time Les returned a day or two later, he’d already heard, too, and the man who wanted his outboard back pointedly avoided the VanDevere tent for the remainder of the summer.

“After the bears were dead on the beach, he was the tiniest pimple out there going around our place,” Idleman said.

Back on the homestead in winter, the VanDeveres typically parked their truck at Dogbone Lake near the home of Guy Moore because Moore worked every weekday at the Wildwood army station and so he kept the road open. If the weather was particularly severe, they dug out the snow under the truck and placed a lighted Coleman stove there to heat the oil pan. They covered the engine with blankets and then visited with Moore until the truck was ready to start.

If too much snow (or mud in springtime) prevented driving to Kenai, they adopted an alternate strategy: They walked, knowing that if no one picked them up and gave them a ride within six miles, they’d turn around and walk all the way home, hoping in the meantime that someone would save them some legwork.

If they made it all the way into town, Idleman said, they could always count on a ride most of the way home from Morris and Bertha Porter, who lived nearby and operated the telephone company in Kenai.

By 1961, because they found the Parsons Lake property “too inaccessible,” the VanDeveres purchased three lots on Island Lake and created a new home where the roads and neighbors were more plentiful.

The use of firepower, however, remained a constant.

While they were having a new house constructed, the VanDeveres stayed in a small cabin owned by a friend over on Wik Road. One night while Les was away doing longshoreman work, their dog began “barking up a storm.” It was about 5 a.m., and Betty looked out of the cabin to see a black bear chasing the dog one way, then the dog chasing the bear back in the opposite direction. She grabbed for the 30.06 and rushed outside.

In a long nightgown, with mosquitoes buzzing and biting, she aimed at the bear and killed it with a single shot. Later, she found a couple of men who volunteered to butcher the bear, with the idea of barbecuing it at the Forelands Bar that evening.

Meanwhile, that afternoon, a surveyor arrived, wanting to survey some of the property around the cabin where she was staying. As she spoke with him, the dog started barking again, and they both looked up into a nearby aspen to see a frightened black bear cub clinging for all it was worth.

Idleman was matter-of-fact about what had to be done: “I asked the surveyor, ‘Well, you want to shoot, or shall I?’ ‘Oh, I will,’ he said. And he was shaking. It took him seven shots to shoot that bear—he was so shook up. So I went down to the bar that night for the barbecue, and he’s in there telling everybody what a big bear hunter he is. I walked in, and he left.”

These days, as president of the Kenai Historical Society and a member of the Garden Club, 73-year-old Betty Idleman still stays busy but finds little need to go for her gun.




Friday, April 29, 2016

"Not Exactly a Soap Opera"

Soapy Smith in his Skagway saloon, sometime after his brief escapades in Hope.


For local historians, tt was a tantalizing prospect: Jefferson Randolph “Soapy” Smith, the infamous 19th-century scourge of Denver and Skagway, may have visited the streets of tiny Hope, Alaska, and even attempted his famous soap scam there.

Hope & Sunrise Historical Society members had one solid piece of evidence to support the idea: an 1896 diary entry from a young gold-seeker who professed a first-hand sighting of the famous con artist in action in Hope. They lacked only an equally solid second piece of evidence to support and lend credence to the first.

This fall, they got their wish.

In August, Dr. Jane Haigh, assistant history professor at Kenai Peninsula College and author of King Con: The Story of Soapy Smith, came to speak about Smith at a historical society meeting in the Hope Social Hall. Before she arrived, Haigh knew that the historical society members believed Smith had come to Hope, but she was skeptical of the claim because she had yet to see the group’s documentation.

A few months earlier, Haigh had met with a few of the historical society members, heard their claim about Smith’s visit to Hope, and agreed to bring her information to them and combine it with their own.  After Haigh spoke in general about Smith, those in attendance got down to the real business at hand.

Historical society president Diane Olthuis produced a copy of the diary entry.

The diary had been written by Joel A. Harrington, who had been born in Montana in 1873 and who had, in 1896, traveled on board the Marion to Hope when the gold rush there was just getting under way. The diary that Harrington kept might never have come to the attention of the Hope & Sunrise Historical Society if it hadn’t first attracted the interest of The Anchorage Daily News in the summer of 1953.

Serialized by the newspaper under the title “Saga of Cook Inlet Gold,” excerpts of the diary ran over the course of several weeks. Sometime later, a newspaper friend of historical society member Billy Miller borrowed the paper’s copies of the diary and mimeographed them for Miller.

Miller and his wife, Ann, perused the diary entries and zeroed in on the mention of Soapy Smith in their town. And ever since, said Ann Miller, “I’ve always been trying to convince everybody of that.”

On May 19, 1896, while in Hope, Harrington wrote: “Later we took a stroll through the town, saw the stump where ‘Soapy Smith’ had his stand, wrapping $5.00 and $10.00 bills in the soap wrapper and selling them, but no one got a bill,
Soapy Smith.
except his ‘cappers’ who were working with him. His pickings were poor here, ’tis said.”

A “capper,” or “shill,” is a person who poses as a customer in order to decoy “marks” (victims, in other words) into participating.

These accomplices were helping Smith to run the very con that had earned him his famous nickname. It was a scam that Smith, arguably the most renowned confidence man of the Old West, had already run repeatedly and successfully in Texas and in Denver and Creede, Colorado, and would continue to run again when he moved his operations to Skagway the following year.

The “prize soap racket,” as it was dubbed by newspapers of the time, involved Smith offering a special monetary enticement as he sold soap on a street corner. As a crowd gathered, he would extract from his wallet several bills, often ranging from a dollar to $100, and wrap them around some of the bars of soap. Then he would wrap plain paper over the bills and appear to mix all the bars together, and then sell the soap for one dollar per bar.

At some point, one of his shills would buy a bar, tear off the wrapping and proclaim loudly that he had won some money—and the rush would be on. Soon, Smith would announce that no one had yet won the bar wrapped in the hundred-dollar bill and would auction off the remaining soap. Of course, he had palmed the big-money bar, and his shills got most of the rest.

However, if selling soap had been Smith’s only claim to infamy, he might have gone down in history as a very minor villain. But Smith was more than that. He bought the influence of politicians, officers of the law, and even judges. He organized crime rings, controlled businesses through strong-arm tactics, ran large gambling operations, and robbed unsuspecting miners of their hard-earned gold.

At the August historical society meeting, the appearance of the very specific diary excerpt excited Dr. Haigh, who then produced two corroborating pieces of evidence for the Hope faithful.

First came a very short report from a Juneau newspaper: A gambler named John Rudolph (a Smith pseudonym) had been arrested in the spring of 1896 for “flim-flaming the guys” with a scheme involving the sale of cakes of soap supposedly wrapped in $10 and $20 bills. No one else in the West is known to have practiced this particular con game,” said Haigh.

This information placed Smith in Alaska a year earlier than had been previously reported, but the next piece of evidence, especially in combination with the newspaper story and diary entry, seemed to solidify the Smith-in-Hope claim.

Soapy Smith’s great-grandson, Jeff Smith, author of a recent history of his famous ancestor, Alias Soapy Smith, also runs an extensive website of information, photographs, and artifacts related to his namesake. Among the numerous personal letters in the online collection there is one (scanned in its original form and also displayed in a typed transcription) from May 10, 1896—only nine days before Harrington wrote his diary entry in Hope.

The brief letter to Smith’s wife back in St. Louis, according to Jeff Smith, was written aboard the steamer General Canby near Coal Bay, on the northern shore of Kachemak Bay, inside the Homer Spit. It reads (with errors intact): “Dear Mollie. Am well, will be to my destination tomorrow if nothing goes wrong. Have had a hell of a trip. You can write to Resurection Creek, Cooks Inlett, Alaska. Have no time to write now as we hail a steamer bound for San Francisco to mail this. Have heard no word from you since I left Denver. Yours Jeff—Love to all.”

Resurrection Creek runs through Hope and empties into Cook Inlet just outside of town.

“These three items together,” said Haigh, “add up to the conclusion that Smith was indeed in Hope in the spring of 1896, a period that had been a gap in my own timeline of his travels.”

Hope & Sunrise Historical Society members share Haigh’s satisfaction—and a certain level of vindication—at the findings.

“We were thrilled to find out we were correct,” said Olthuis.

Soapy Smith, meanwhile, sojourned in Hope only a few days before realizing that the level of action there didn’t meet his expectations, and so he moved on. By 1897, he began establishing another criminal empire in Skagway, one of the entry points for the crush of fortune-seekers funneling into the backcountry to join the Klondike Gold Rush.

But also in Skagway his criminal exploits caught up with him, and by the summer of 1898 he was dead. After three members of his gang bilked a miner out of his sack of gold during a game of three-card monte, the miner sought help, and a vigilante group called the “Committee of 101” stepped in. On July 8, during what was later called “The Shootout on Juneau Wharf,” Smith began an argument with armed and angry city engineer Frank Reid; gunfire ensued and both men were mortally wounded.

As with many of the famous and infamous alike, however, Soapy Smith continues to make news long after his passing. As Smith once profited from the denizens of Skagway, they now arrange tours around Smith lore and continue to profit from his presence there so long ago.


"Short-Lived School"

Recess at the Slikok Valley School, late 1950s.

MAY 2011

Tommye Jo Corr was so accustomed to seeing moose tracks in the snow when she walked to and from work that she rarely worried about her safety. But the day she came across the tracks of a pack of dogs, she decided she needed protection.

Corr used to walk regularly between her home on what was then called Kalifonsky Beach Road and the Slikok Valley School where she was the lone teacher during the school’s two-year existence from 1958 to 1960. After she saw the dog tracks, she said, “I started packing a pistol. The Department of Education didn’t mind just as long as the gun was unloaded during school hours.”

Corr’s quote is part of Slikok Valley School history recorded in a scrapbook and kept available for viewing in the main building at the Soldotna Historical Museum.

What is now called Kalifornsky Beach Road was opened as little more than a Cat trail in 1956, but by 1958 several families were living along the roadway and were finding it difficult to get their children to the nearest available school—all the way over in Kenai.

Plans were being discussed to build a school in Soldotna, but Soldotna Elementary would not be completed and available for students until the fall of 1960. Going to Kenai via Soldotna was the only option in the winter since the Warren Ames bridge would not be completed until the mid-1970s, and the ice over the river was too treacherous to cross safely.

Consequently, depending upon where their homes were located, parents were forced to have their children walk—typically three to eight miles—to the Sterling Highway near the Kenai River bridge in Soldotna, where they could be picked up by a school bus and driven the remaining 14 miles to Kenai. They would, of course, have to reverse that journey once school was over.

In addition to the distance, the conditions for the children’s walks were often difficult at best and hazardous at worst. During the winter months, temperatures were usually below freezing and sometimes below zero. In the warmer periods of spring and autumn, thick mud, washed-out trails, or melting snow prevailed, and the route also included a calving ground for moose, which attracted bears, wolves and stray dogs.

So the residents of the Slikok Creek valley took matters into their own hands. They decided to build their own school and staff it with one of their own residents. Corr’s husband, Tommy, put it this way in Once upon the Kenai: “Few teachers help build their school house; but Tommye Jo did. She peeled logs, laid insulation between the logs, and cleaned second-hand windows. Almost every Slikok Valley homesteader helped in some way to build the schoolhouse. Five men laid the log walls: Charles Brumlow, Lonnie Brumlow, Red Miller, Don Zuroff, and myself.”

Construction begins on the new school.
According to a scrapbook narrative written by Tommy and Tommye Jo’s son, Tommy Reed Corr, the Slikok Valley homesteaders responded to the need, but it wasn’t easy: “Few Slikok homesteaders had their own houses ready for winter. No one could afford the time to help build a schoolhouse. Money was scarce, but the settlers began volunteering labor and money, providing (that) the Department of Education would approve the project. A community letter to the department brought an immediate investigation. A certified teacher lived in the community, and the (minimum) 10 students required for a new school were met. The Territorial Department of Education ruled that if the community could have a building ready for the fall opening, Slikok Valley would have its school.”

Slikok residents received this news on Aug. 11, three weeks before the scheduled beginning of the school year. A community meeting was held that night, and a plan was established. The schoolhouse would be constructed of unpeeled logs from local spruce trees. Volunteers would work eight hours a day, five days a week, until the school was complete.

Lonnie Brumlow, an area bachelor, donated one acre of his homestead as the building site. This location put every area student within two and a half miles of the proposed school.

Led by Brumlow’s brother, Charles, five adults and two grade-school boys cleared the school yard and then felled and limbed 60 spruce trees in only a day and a half—putting them ahead of schedule early in the process. They used the extra time to mark off the building site and lay in the concrete block foundation posts.

As the project continued, many Kenai and Soldotna businesses dispensed credit, discounts and good advice. In addition to Brumlow’s donation of land, the school builders received a $100 donation for windows and doors from area resident Ed Ciechanski. Other individuals furnished vehicles, fuel, chainsaws, and manual labor. Kids were put to work digging pits for the school outhouses, fetching tools for older workers, and supplying stove wood for the women who were cooking for the building crew.

The 16x24-foot school, the last log schoolhouse built in the territorial days of Alaska, was completed on time, opening on Sept. 5, 1958, with 11 students—more than half of whom came from Red Miller’s passel of children.

According to an Anchorage newspaper at the time, the school’s name (and thus the community’s) had come from “the days of the Russian trappers who traveled down the shallow valley along Slikok Creek on their trapping trips to the Kenai River.” This explanation was, however, only part of the story. The name “Slikok” is the Russian equivalent of a Dena’ina word, “Shlakaq’,” meaning “little mouth,” a reference to the narrow stream’s confluence with the Kenai.

Tommye Jo Corr remembered that during the especially snowy parts of the school year, the usual winter gear she wore as she walked through the darkness to school was a warm jacket, her pistol, and a pair of hip boots.

She also recalled the time that two of her students, a boy and a girl, failed initially to return from recess. Suddenly the boy hurried in from outside, took his seat, and began to study, but the girl did not return. Corr took the bell that had been sent to her by the Department of Education and went outdoors to ring it a second time. Just as she did so, the door to the girls’ outhouse burst open and the girl raced out.

“It was obvious she had been standing there waiting,” Corr said. “When I questioned her, she insisted that the boy told her I wanted her to stay in the privy until called. I could hardly believe my ears. Why would he say such a thing? As it turned out, the boy tricked the girl simply because he needed to use the boys’ privy and didn’t want to be the last one back to class. What children won’t do to each other!”

In the second year of the school’s existence, enrollment jumped to 14 students—six members of the Miller family, plus one Brumlow, two Corrs, two Henrys, one Jackson, one Jones, and one Vetters—ranging from first to seventh grade.

The old school as it appears today on the grounds of the Soldotna Historical Society's
Homestead Museum.
Then, as suddenly as it had begun, the life of the school ended. The main road had been improved and graveled, and a school bus could finally reach the once-isolated community. In September 1960, Soldotna Elementary opened its doors for the first time, and the Slikok students transferred there—to modern classrooms with electricity, running water, and indoor restrooms.

The log schoolhouse, which had also served as a centerpiece for Slikok community events, became the Slikok Community Club until the building was sold to the State of Alaska in 1964 to be used as a local museum. In 1967, a building commemorating the centennial of Alaska’s purchase adjoined the old school structure and was named Damon Hall in memory of Frances Damon—a board member of the community club, and her son, Larry, both of whom had been killed in Whittier by a tidal wave following the 1964 Good Friday Earthquake.

In March 1987, the City of Soldotna provided a $1-per-year lease agreement with the Soldotna Historical Society to operate a historical museum on a six-acre plot of ground adjacent to the city’s Centennial Park property. The old school and the Damon Building were moved onto the property, as were the Dick Gerhart and Ed Ciechanski homestead cabins, the log Tourism Center, and an old log food cache built by Johnny Parks.

In trade, the city received the land formerly occupied by the school and Damon Hall.

Tommye Jo Corr said she believed that the Slikok Valley School, in its brief history, truly helped to hold together the valley’s little community. “I know we had the best PTA in existence,” she said. “The children learned how to enjoy being good, working together and getting along.”