Thursday, April 3, 2014

"Beaver Roundup: A Reminder of Home"

Look closely to see the candy and colored balls falling from this Super Cub to the waiting children of Dillingham.

Beaver Roundup: A Reminder of Home

At about noon on March 1, I was sitting in our bayside apartment when my cell phone chimed. It was a text message from Yvonne at the local flight service station where she works: “At 2pm there will be a candy drop from an airplane, downtown! Don’t miss it!”

Yvonne knew I was hunting for good photo ops at the annual Beaver Roundup celebration. I’d already photographed several activities but hadn’t even noticed this one on the list of events.

When I texted back for clarification, she answered swiftly.

She’d spoken to the pilot, who would be dropping in low over Dillingham with his little red Super Cub. He was scheduled to drop candy, along with a slew of colored balls that kids could redeem for cash, near the local lily pond (near the Fish & Game office) at two o’clock. Since Yvonne had specified “downtown,” however, I figured that the venue had been changed because unusually warm weather had created a layer of overflow on the frozen pond. At 1:30, I strode out the door, two cameras at the ready.

On a curving section of an oddly deserted Main Street about 10 minutes later, I leaned against a creosoted power pole and waited. At 2 p.m. there were still no crowds; nevertheless, I heard an airplane, and soon a red Super Cub was aiming straight for downtown, past the pond and directly above the street on which I was standing … and onward, without so much as a Tootsie Roll spiraling to the ground.

Kids with plastic sacks wait for candy to fall from the sky.
I watched as the plane roared out over Nushagak Bay, made a graceful, sweeping left-hand turn and angled for the city water tower. It dived low, as if to land, and I swore I heard children cheering. Then the plane was rising again, heading back toward the Dillingham Airport.

Just as I thought I’d somehow missed the whole thing, however, the plane turned again and headed back into town. Once again it flew over my position, turned above the bay and aimed for the tower. Once again I heard children cheering.

On the off-chance that there might be another encore, I began running. Past N&N Grocery, left, past the hardware store, left, past the bank, right, past Bristol Bay Campus and Dillingham High School, right. There, at the far end of a long fenced-in playground, stood the water tower. Inside the metal perimeter surged a herd of children, brandishing plastic grocery sacks already heavy with treats and colorful plastic balls.

I raced for the scene of the action just as the plane swooped again in front of the tower and laid down another volley. Screaming, happy children sloshed through snow and ice and wet grass, grabbing for goodies on the ground. I huffed and puffed into position, and my photographic efforts were erratic and disappointing.

As the plane departs, the rush for goodies is on!
Then someone near me said the plane was coming back one more time.

And thus it was that I witnessed (and finally photographed) the last candy drop on one of the last days of the five-day, 56th annual celebration known as Beaver Roundup.

All week, I’d been having flashbacks to my life in Southcentral Alaska: eating beluga burgers and cubes of blubber at the old Kenai Days barbecue, watching the parade and rodeo during Soldotna Progress Days, helping my kids collect candy during Kenai’s Fourth of July parade, watching the ceremonial Iditarod start and running with the reindeer at Fur Rendezvous in Anchorage, marveling at the ice sculptures at the Peninsula Winter Games.

Beaver Roundup was like all those things in one neat little homespun bundle.

Despite the fact that poor snow conditions—i.e., almost snow at all—cancelled the traditional sled dog sprint races and all the snowmobile events, the rest of the show proceeded as planned. Cars and people thronged Main Street for about 30-40 minutes of parade action and flying candy, which children and adults scuttled in and out of the street to extricate from the puddles and slush. The costume-centric Fun Run was brief but energetic, as was the outhouse race. I acted as a taster for the pickled salmon and agutuk (Native ice cream) competitions. I purchased Beaver Roundup buttons. Yvonne and I attended the dinner show called Dilly Capers and the chili and chowder cook-offs (again as tasters), the local crafts fair at the senior center, and the end-of-week fireworks display at the harbor.
Pickled salmon awaits judging.

For most of the winter, the action may be slow in Dillingham, but during Beaver Roundup the energy is palpable and frenetic. Everybody, it seems, comes out for at least one event, be it Frozen Turkey Bowling or the Traditional Foods Feast, live music from the New Stuyahok Band or “Dillingham Idol.”

As it is on the peninsula, such events are largely celebrations of community. In Dillingham, it is also a chance to kick the economy in the pants during an ordinarily sluggish time of year. Both Kenai Days and Soldotna Progress Days were engineered by Chamber of Commerce types intent on promoting their towns and businesses. For a while in the 1960s, Kenai used the time to hype its Beluga Whale Hunt Club. Soldotna, excited by the nearby discovery of oil in 1957, jumped on the notion of “progress” to indicate an end to its days of dormancy.

Determination in the outhouse race.
Beaver Roundup, like Fur Rendezvous, originated around the idea that late February/early March was a traditional time for local trappers to bring their pelts to market. Most of those trappers had dog teams, and it was only natural for some competition among the teams to evolve. At the very first Beaver Roundup, 26 teams battled for honors.

Yup'ik dancer riding through town during the annual parade.
Over the years, the celebration grew into a multi-day affair, and the variety of events greatly expanded. Snowmobile races gradually superseded sled dog races in popularity. Food events abounded, as did various games of speed and chance. Now at least one Outside comedian is flown in for a couple of shows—one family friendly, the other rated R—and BRU raffles produce prizes ranging from hooded sweatshirts to new snowmobiles and stacks of cash.

Of course, not every new event survives its debut. At BRU a number of years ago, someone thought it would be a good idea to have two airplanes compete to see which one could break the most balloons with its propeller. Fortunately, no one was seriously injured.

Theresa Duncan performs during Dilly Capers.
Despite the uncooperative winter, Beaver Roundup, like all those other celebrations of self, reminded everyone here of the spirit of community and the aspects of western Bristol Bay that make it unique. And that, I think, is the essence of such things: These events, unlike the glamorous and star-studded Parade of Roses or Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade on television, are filled with real rural citizens, coming together with everything they’ve got.

Local residents make the floats and drive the cars and toss the candy, and if our brief parades sometimes seem a little hokey and jam-packed with ordinary folks, it’s because that’s the way it’s supposed to be. That’s who we are—the residents of rural Alaska (and small towns everywhere), holding a virtual mirror up to ourselves and doing the best we can.
The 56th annual Beaver Roundup went out with a bang, as usual.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

"Against the Wind"



Although I was practically forced to take sides back when rival cities Soldotna (my hometown) and Kenai were arguing over the location of the hospital, the college, the Borough Building and a number of other services, organizations and institutions, that fact fails to explain my climate-related favoritism—in other words, why I prefer Soldotna’s weather to Kenai’s.

The answer to that, my friend, is blowing in the wind.

I appreciate a nice breeze when I’m baked by the sun, upwind of an investigating bear, or under attack from ferocious insects. Wind in general, however, rarely receives a “LIKE” from me in the Facebook of life. Too often it transforms my comfort into discomfort. It scrapes a knife’s keen edge over the skin of a pleasant day.

Kenai perches upon the Cook Inlet coastline and is regularly visited—some would say “buffeted”—by winds of varying intensities. Soldotna, on the other hand, lies inland a few miles and is protected from the gusty brunt of most of those gales.

When I was a reporter for the Peninsula Clarion during the 1980s, I often was too lazy to pack a brown bag and therefore used my lunch break to stroll from the Clarion office to various eateries around Kenai. On a warm summer walk to the Ski-Mo, the breeze I encountered might almost have been pleasant, but in winter the dreaded wind chill would prompt me to extra bundling or the decision to drive instead of exercise and breathe fresh air.

Kenai’s winter wind was cutting and unpleasant, a force that had me perpetually looking leeward.

Frosty after our Christmas run on the Kenai.
Soldotna, while prone to colder winter temperatures, felt warmer because of the comparative absence of wind. When I visited the peninsula this past Christmas, I went running on a windless evening in which the thermometer displayed minus-10, but I stayed comfortably frosty without overdressing.

While it’s certainly not always calm in Soldotna, hardy fans of local high school football would likely concur that a windy day in the stands watching the Kardinals requires greater fortitude than a similar day watching the Stars—even though the bugs tend to be worse at Justin Maile Field.

For me, however, the winds of life concern more than just Soldotna versus Kenai.

Being no great fan of the wind transforms my love of mountains into a tricky relationship. The wind rarely fails to blow down the valleys I tread, along the ridgelines I navigate, and over the summits or through the saddles I ascend. Low-velocity zephyrs may cool my overheated body or keep at bay
swarming, hungry mosquitoes, but I rarely welcome high-velocity winds—some energetic enough to nearly sweep me from my feet.

It’s fascinating to briefly lean against such turbulence, to imagine myself as a kite about to be shot skyward, but my fascination rapidly wanes as chills reach beneath all my layers and send me searching for shelter.

Of course, given this information, one might logically wonder just why I would choose to move from the gentle climes of Soldotna to the Land of Constant Wind, also known as western Bristol Bay. Here, the warmer winds blow across the Pacific and along the Aleutians to smack the bay, while the colder winds blast down from the north and over the mountains to slap us with an icy hand. Here, it seems, the grass perpetually sways and bends. The brush quivers. The treetops whip. The water undulates. And the power lines bounce and roll like jump ropes on a playground.

Nineteen days out of 20 here I could honestly say, “The wind is blowing as I write this column.” In fact, the wind here is such a constant that when it does stop—when one of those remarkably tranquil days does arrive—the relative silence is almost eerie.

On such a day a few weeks ago, I stood atop China Cap, a small bald hill a few miles northwest of Dillingham, and was awed by the absence of sound. I heard snow crunch beneath my boots as I shifted my weight. I perceived the whisper of my coat sleeve against my torso as I adjusted my camera. I noticed my own quiet breathing.

If I stood motionless, I imagined that I heard my own heartbeat.

I could see for miles in every direction but hear nothing—until a raven flew past and I heard its dark wings pushing against the still air.

How much more, I wondered, do I miss because the wind whisks away sounds?

Some days at the Dillingham city dock, belugas swim past, hunting in and out of Nushagak Bay after salmon or smelt. When the wind blows—in other words, more than 90 percent of the time—sighting belugas is a purely visual experience: watch for the white spray (not a white-capped wave), followed by a briefly arcing sleek white back.

On a calm day, however, the sensory nature of the experience expands. The spouting exhalation of beluga breath punctuates the air, foreshadowing the curving white form. When a beluga swims close enough to the dock, its spray can actually be startling, its momentary slicing through water actually auditory.

Skiing in a blizzard near Dillingham.
On especially windy days here, when Yvonne and I go walking or running side by side, we nearly have to shout at each other in order to communicate.

Despite my general disdain for wind, however, I must admit that I am fascinated by particularly strong winds. I find a lightning storm or a good blizzard exciting, even though it exacerbates the difficulties of travel and outdoor adventuring. But I’m no Pecos Bill. I have no wish to ride a tornado. I just want to delight periodically in the staccato blasts from Mother Nature’s exuberant trumpet.

Meanwhile, I’ll continue to sheath myself in or pack along protective layers to urge me outdoors and prevent me from becoming housebound and lumpy. The wind may irritate me, but I refuse to waste my life by using “bad weather” as an excuse, waiting only for “perfect days” to venture outside.
William Arthur Ward, the prodigious creator of inspirational maxims, once wrote: "The pessimist complains about the wind; the optimist expects it to change; the realist adjust the sails."

Some might call that aphorism overblown. But in Soldotna or Kenai, in Dillingham or elsewhere, it seems like good advice to me.

Another winter storm in Dillingham.


Thursday, March 13, 2014

"Caching in on Books"

Gwen Gere talks about books among a selection at the bookstore on the Kenai River Campus of Kenai Peninsula College.


MAY 2011

Tucked away in an office behind the last row of textbooks in the Kenai River Campus bookstore of Kenai Peninsula College sits manager Gwen Gere, ordering, tabulating sales and expenditures, and planning. Although it might be unclear to the casual, Gere is laboring at more than just a job she loves. Given her family’s place in the history of Alaskan literacy, working with books may even be in her blood.

Gere is the second child of Russ and Doris Riemann, who came to Alaska in 1953 when Russ agreed to take over the managerial duties for a floundering Alaska News Agency, which was headquartered in Anchorage. By the late 1950s, the Riemanns had parlayed their knowledge of the wholesale distribution of reading materials into a new retail establishment—The Book Cache—which would become Alaska’s preeminent bookselling business for the next three decades.

Among its many retail outlets, the Book Cache included popular and profitable stores in the Carrs Mall in Kenai and the Central Peninsula Mall in Soldotna. When the Riemanns sold the business in late 1980s, the Book Cache chain comprised 17 outlets, including two, oddly enough, in Maui.


Gere was four years old when her family made the move to Alaska from Bellingham, Washington. Later that same year, she and her sisters began joining their father on Saturdays at the news agency—the wholesale clearinghouse for all reading materials in Southcentral Alaska and beyond—and they were put to work.

The original staff of the Alaska News Agency.
“Let’s say we’re doing magazine distributions,” Gere said. “We have 10,000 copies of Reader’s Digest. You have to figure out where they’re going to go—which store gets how many—so at the time—no computers—you had this giant sheet that said, ‘Hewitt’s Drug, two Reader’s Digest, eight Time Magazine, 14 whatever.’ That was the pull-sheet that they would use to go and pull the magazines, wrap them, and send them out.

“My sisters and I were latch-key sort of children because our parents were running a business, so we would go in with my dad, and he would say, ‘Hey, how about adding all these figures up?’ So we’d sit there (at an adding machine)—which I can 10-key like a fiend—and add up all those figures to make sure they matched.”

Of course, it wasn’t simply all work and no play for the girls. The job had benefits, as Russ treated his daughters to a plentiful supply of comic books.

Gere, however, didn’t mind the work. Her favorite job in her early years at the agency involved opening the old canvas mail sacks. “That’s when I was probably seven or eight,” she said. “I used to love that. I don’t know why. It was the smell, or dumping them out, or whatever. And I remember on my birthday one time, my dad’s like, ‘Let’s go in, and you can empty mail sacks for your birthday.’ And I pulled the mail sacks over, and there was a (brand-new) bicycle. I was more excited about the mail sacks. I was like, ‘Whatever,’ and just kept doing the mail.”


Roy and Doris Riemann met on Roy’s first day as hospital administrator at Camp Swift, Texas, where Doris was a physical therapist. They were married on April 1, 1945, and in the early 1950s found themselves in Washington state, with three young daughters and Russ searching for regular employment.

Working as a wholesale book distributor was nowhere near the top of his list of preferred jobs, but when the opportunity arose he checked it out. He flew to Anchorage to assess the job and then called Doris. According to Gere, he said: “Sell the house. Pack the kids up. Come on up.”

Two of the most important clients for the Alaska News Agency were the Anchorage military bases—Elmendorf and Fort Richardson—and behind Russ’s solid management, the distributor quickly sweetened its sour fortunes.
The Book Cache when it first opened at its 5th Avenue location.

Then in about 1958, the Riemanns began considering retail. Esther Tout had a small bookstore inside the Fifth Avenue building that housed Jonas Brothers Taxidermy & Furrier, and they joined forces with her in her 15x25-foot space.

During the first three months of business, according to an article in an Aug. 3, 1984, issue of Publishers Weekly magazine, the Book Cache grossed $2,300. In the following year, the store grossed $31,000—nearly $230,000 in today’s money.

In the early 1960s, the Book Cache moved into the location for which it would become best known—436 Fifth Avenue, between Alaska State Bank and the J.C. Penney building.

At first, the main sign on the front of the store read “The Cache,” suitable because inside were a “cache” of businesses.

Filling the long left wall and a portion of the back end of the rectangular space was The Book Cache. Also in the back left corner was the Stamp & Coin Cache. Up front and center was a floral-and-gift shop called Barb’s Cache & Carry, and along the right wall and into the right back corner were a lunch counter, a small bar and a cigarette machine—all part of Cache Dining & Cocktails.
Earthquake damage near the downtown Book Cache.

The dining-and-cocktails business became the first casualty. According to Gere, the owners ran into tax problems and were asked to leave. For a while, then, that section of the store was walled off.

On March 27, 1964, The Cache endured the magnitude-9.2 Good Friday Earthquake. In the Publishers Weekly article, Doris Riemann recalled hanging onto two display racks on rollers: “They rolled while books flew off shelves and the display windows (along the street) shattered. A cardboard Easter bunny in the window was impaled on glass shards, and the entire downtown area was in a shambles.”

Just up the street from The Cache, huge slabs from the front of the Penney’s building had fallen into the street; one of the slabs had crushed a sedan parked near the sidewalk and had killed the occupant. All over Southcentral Alaska, communication with the Lower 48 had been severed.

More quake damage.
Despite the damage and the uncertainty, however, the Riemanns were one of the first downtown businesses to reopen. “We had to—we had to have something to do,” said Doris. “And the bookstore was a meeting area. People stopped by to ask directions, and we became sort of an information center for the town.”

Eventually at the Fifth Avenue location, only the bookstore and the stamp-and-coin business remained. The large sign indicating the home of The Cache was replaced with an equally large Book Cache sign in bright yellow, a color that became identified with the business throughout its history.

Gere, meanwhile, continued to work for the family business, primarily for the Alaska News Agency. After graduating from West High School in 1967, she attended college in Colorado for a year and then returned to Alaska to complete her education. She enrolled in Alaska Methodist University and worked for both the news agency and the bookstore.

During the year she was out of state, the number of Book Cache stores doubled. As the State of Alaska experienced a booming economy and a burgeoning population, the serious expansion of the Book Cache franchise began in earnest. And Gere’s life among books continued.


On the door leading into Gere’s KPC office hangs a red plaque that once adorned her father’s office at the Alaska News.

A reminder to speak out for what one believes in, the plaque relays a World War II-era quote from Pastor Martin Niemöller, who voiced regret at not making his own voice heard during the Nazis’ rise to power: “First they came for the communists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Jew. Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak for me.”
A Book Cache tote bag.

Just as Gere’s parents were devoted to the social cause of literacy and the battle against censorship, Gere has a similar social sense. Behind her desk hangs another reminder of the past and another tie to the cultural touchstone that was the Book Cache. Clipped into place near a window is a small white waxpaper cup bearing a tiny bouquet of colorful synthetic flowers; printed in black on the cup itself is the Book Cache name and address and the familiar log-storehouse logo.

“I have a stack of those cups at home,” Gere said. “For years, my mother had this giant coffee urn in the Book Cache downtown, with little cups so people could come in and get a little coffee. All the drunks would come in and sober up on a Saturday morning—come in and have a cup of coffee and hang out. And Doris was their best friend. She never kicked them out.”

Russ and Doris Riemann were compassionate, not just about literacy, but also about their fellow human beings.


Shortly after Gere graduated from high school, her parents successfully expanded the Book Cache into a second store—in the new Sears Mall, located at what was then a fairly remote location away from downtown. The mall bookstore established the blueprint for future expansion: Find a concentration of retail businesses (often other malls) and open outlet nearby. The Book Cache benefited from the business traffic already in place and contributed its own customers to the mix.

Huntington book signing at the downtown Book Cache.
Soon, booming with the explosion of paperback sales across the country, the Riemanns expanded to the Anchorage International Airport and later to the University Center and the Dimond Center. They also opened stores in a mall on Boniface Parkway and in Eagle River, Fairbanks, the Kenai Peninsula and Hawaii, a favorite vacation spot for the Riemanns. At its peak in the early 1980s, the Book Cache consisted of 21 stores, 19 in Alaska.

The Book Cache in Kenai opened in the early 1970s in a small space near the Carrs grocery inside the Kenai Mall, and it eventually expanded as its popularity grew and prompted a need for additional retail space. Gere remembers driving to Kenai to help paint the inside of the first location; her son, who was about a year old at the time, was given a brush and put to work on the lower walls.

Gere called the Kenai Book Cache a productive location and said that the Soldotna Book Cache was at least as productive when it opened about a decade later in the Central Peninsula Mall. By the time of the Soldotna opening, Book Cache had joined with Hallmark Gold Crown stores in many of its key locations, thus expanding its retail offerings and customer base.

By the time the Riemanns were interviewed for the Publishers Weekly article, Russ acknowledged that the total annual sales at their many stores were several million dollars, and they were still enjoying life in the bookselling business.

“They loved books,” Gere said. “They figured everybody ought to, and there should be a bookstore every place you
Doris and Russ Riemann.
turned around.”

So in 1988 when the Jim Pattison Group, a business conglomerate from Vancouver, B.C., came calling, the Riemanns said they were uninterested in selling.

A year later, however, circumstances had changed. Although the bookstore chain was still performing well, Russ had been having some health concerns, and the Riemanns reconsidered the Pattison offer.

They researched the big company and learned that its emphasis was on wholesale, not retail, and that its desire was to buy only the Alaska News Agency, the wholesale parent of The Book Cache, and not the bookstores themselves. The Riemanns told the Pattison Group they would sell either everything or nothing. So Pattison purchased the news agency, the full inventory of the Book Cache and the business—not including the stores themselves, all of which were leased locations.

Then, as the Riemanns began retirement with every hope that their employees and business would continue unimpeded, the Pattison Group began to divest itself of its retail outlets. From 1989 to 1993, it almost systemically began closing doors.

In a Dec. 22, 1993, article in the Anchorage Daily News, the Pattison Group announced that by the end of January 1994 only one Book Cache outlet—a 7,000-square-foot location in the University Center Mall—would remain open.

Already closed were stores in Fairbanks and Kenai and across most of Anchorage; also closed was the Book Cache’s flagship store on Fifth Avenue. Over the next month, the stores in Eagle River, Soldotna and the Sears Mall would cease operations.

Soon the University Center itself fell on hard times, and the once-profitable Book Cache chain fell with it.

As the end drew near, according to the Daily News article, Doris Riemann said, “We can’t help but be dismayed. We had 17 stores when we sold—all viable businesses, and it was exciting. We had lots of good, steady customers and reading material available in all sections of town. We were pretty proud of it.”


Gere and her husband and children had moved in 1983 to Kenai, where she worked for her parents as an Alaska News Agency wholesaler in charge of a local warehouse. After her parents sold the company, she was downsized and soon went to work for K-Mart. About a year before K-Mart’s national financial collapse, she began a four-year stint with Fred Meyer, where she remained until the KPC position opened.
Gwen and Doris.

Now back among the books, Gere has found a comfort level.

“At K-Mart and Fred Meyer, you’re figuring out the thousands of things you’re going to sell,” she said. “And here you’re figuring out, wow, other than textbooks, well, if I can sell eight or nine, I’ll be a happy camper. There’s really not a whole lot of give-and-take as far as textbooks are concerned. There’s a bit of leeway with some of the general reading I can carry, but most of it is textbooks.

“If I screw everything else up in this job, I’d better have the books when class starts. That’s the bottom line. All this ‘froofy’ stuff is fun, but I’d better have the books. And the faculty here is wonderful. I don’t ask them for anything unreasonable, and they, in turn, work with me. I mean, this is a great gig.”

Her sense of joy is accentuated by the memory of what she was once part. “When they closed the last (Book Cache) store, it was actually—because of the way we grew up—like the death of a sibling,” Gere said.

The loss of the downtown Book Cache created pains that were particularly acute: “It’s not like one of those misty moments in my misremembered past— like, oh, how wonderful it was. It was! It was kick-ass fun. It was a good life. It was a feeling that what you did was more than yourself because it affected more than that.

“And I think, by comparison, despite the fact that this (the KPC bookstore) is just a little thing, and it’s not my store, what we do here at the college is more than sell books, advise students, teach class. There’s a bigger picture. And I think for me that is why I like so much. It’s more than all the parts. You can see the growth. You can see the excitement. You can see what’s going on. That’s a kick. I love it.”

The Book Cache at the University Center location in Anchorage.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

"Good Fortune and a Midas Touch"

Heinie Berger's freight-toting ship, the Kasilof. (Photo courtesy of the Pollard Collection)



On Monday, Dec. 5, 1932, after many hours of battling the elements in Cook Inlet, the 31-ton diesel-screw schooner, Discoverer, had had enough. When the members of the ship’s four-man crew realized their craft was doomed, they hurriedly began preparing the lifeboat.

“It was the greatest good fortune that we got out of that bad mess alive,” Capt. Heinie Berger later told a reporter for the Anchorage Daily Times.

It was about 1:30 a.m., and, according to Berger, “the night was inky black.” It was bitterly cold, much of the storm-riddled inlet was filled with ice, and they were a long ways from safe—six miles north of Ninilchik, eight miles off shore.

About 15 years before a highway system was built on the Kenai Peninsula, they had departed Anchorage earlier in the evening, heading out of the inlet and bound for Seward. The 53-foot Discoverer had been plowing through frozen seas between Kenai and Kasilof, “bucking a sheet of solid ice an inch or two thick,” according to Berger, who had begun operating his transportation business out of Seward, Seldovia and ports in the lower inlet in 1926.

What Berger and his crew initially failed to realize was that the ice had cut deeply into the ship’s hull, neatly incising a rim around the wooden craft and virtually slicing the boat in two. When they emerged suddenly into an ice-free zone, the boat, laden with several tons of coal, became a sieve.

Soon, several feet of seawater had accumulated in the hold. Eventually the water reached the 100-horsepower engines and quelled them. As the Discoverer—built in 1914 in a shipyard in Seabeck, Wash.—foundered and began to sink, the crew clambered into the lifeboat and shoved off.

“We were careful to take along a compass, and but for that fact we never would have been able to make shore,” Berger stated. “It was so dark we could see nothing ashore, but as the sea had broken the float ice, we could handle the oars to advantage and after three and a half hours made land.”

In addition to the compass, crew members (including engineer Jack Wilkinson, cook/deckhand Oscar Wick, and deckhand Fred Bergman) had also packed onto the lifeboat a can of coal oil and some blankets, an axe and some food, and matches in a small, tightly corked bottle.

Heinie Berger
Aboard the open lifeboat, the “continuous spray from the sea” blew over the men and “formed a coating of icy mail.” Thus, “we were in a shell of ice when we struck shore,” Berger said, “and too cold to even light a match for some time. To set up our circulation, we ran up and down the beach like wild men for a time and finally were able to cut a little dry wood and strike a match and get the blaze going.”

In addition to the cold created by the “shell of ice,” the roughening seas had caused havoc during the landing by tossing the boat about. Their food was lost in the dark tumult, the lifeboat was swamped, and the crew struggled through waist-deep waters to reach the shore.

“The coal oil and axe were our salvation,” Berger said. “We never could have made a fire without the oil and the axe, and we even saturated the blankets and threw them in for fuel.”

In 1932, no road system connected the few settlements dotting the eastern shore of lower Cook Inlet. To the south were Ninilchik and Homer. To north were Kasilof and Kenai. There was no telephone system. In fact, there was no electricity. Although the men were ashore, they were far from secure.

They warmed themselves with the fire on the beach, and at daybreak they set out for Kasilof, nearly 25 miles away, where Berger’s wife, Alice, awaited at their Kasilof Fox Ranch.

“I was mighty glad I had insisted on Mrs. Berger remaining at our home that day,” Berger said. “She wanted to go along, but there is where the skipper was right for once anyway—and mother escaped a chilly ride we won’t forget.”

“Jack Wilkinson of our crew,” Berger continued, “was particularly glad to be safely back, as this is his third experience of the kind. One time he was in an open boat in the ice of Cook Inlet escaping from a similar plight, and one of his mates went insane by the time he was gotten ashore. Jack says never again for him—and I don’t blame him. He’s a lucky boy to be here today, and so are we all.”

Berger said he was sorry to lose a ship that had served him so well for so long, but he added that he intended to replace the Discoverer with a newer, larger craft. The ship had been covered only partly by insurance, but Berger was not without good fortune where his finances were concerned. According John P. Bagoy in Anchorage Legends & Legacies, Berger had won part of the Nenana Ice Pool in 1929 and still had nearly $15,000 remaining of his winnings. After sojourning in Anchorage briefly, he and Alice almost immediately departed for Seattle to seek a replacement boat.

He purchased one under construction at the Berg Shipyard and gave it the same name as his old craft. At 76 feet, the new Discoverer was about one and a half times the length of the old one. It also featured a 200-horsepower Washington diesel engine, a 14-passenger capacity on the deck, and a 50-ton cargo capacity in the hold.

By springtime of 1933 Heinie Berger was back in business, and once again business was booming.

But this was just a beginning for the man whom Bagoy called one of Alaska’s “true entrepreneurial types [who] not only benefited themselves but benefited the Territory and the people in it.” Before he was through, Berger would grow his transportation business, make a big splash on the Anchorage entertainment scene, and challenge the railroads.

His battle with the railroad was particularly intense.

Col. Otto F. Ohlson was an autocrat who disliked interference, particularly where the railroad was concerned. Although whether he respected Berger was debatable, he certainly found him an expensive nuisance.

In 1928, Pres. Calvin Coolidge had appointed Ohlson general manager of the Alaska Railroad. According to Bagoy, the promotion came with considerable clout: “The job as general manager of the Alaska Railroad was, during the early years, the most prestigious, the most powerful, and the highest paid position in Alaska. The man who ran the Alaska Railroad was next to God in Anchorage.”

From this semi-divine position, Ohlson could be bull-headed and iron-fisted when he chose to be. And as such, he did
The power scow Seldovia in the mid-1940s.
not appreciate—and went to great lengths to hinder—the efforts of Heinie Berger, who was attempting to horn in on railroad profits.

According to Bagoy, the federally owned railroad had not been built for profit-making, but Ohlson aimed to “operate in the black,” nevertheless. Therefore, he kept his freight rates high, infuriating merchants from Seward to Fairbanks, and opening the door for a cut-rate operator like Berger.

Berger, who in 1926 had begun a marine transportation service in Resurrection Bay and lower Cook Inlet, charged far less to haul freight than either the railroad or the Alaska Steamship Company. When Berger’s capacity was a mere 50 tons, however, Ohlson barely noticed. But the game changed in 1938, when Berger purchased a motorized scow capable of hauling 200 tons. Suddenly Berger was carrying automobiles, huge loads of lumber, merchant orders of groceries, and plenty of miscellaneous freight. Ohlson set out to stop him.

Ohlson was powerful, but Berger was wily. And Berger had spent a lifetime finding ways to get things done effectively, regardless of the obstacles.

Although some details of Berger’s life are sketchy or even contradictory—for instance, he appears to have been counted three times in the 1940 federal census—a general sense of his background is fairly clear.

He was born in either Hamburg or Hanover, Germany, on June 24, 1888. He earned the equivalent of an eighth-grade education, and he immigrated to the United States in 1903 at the age of 15, or in 1908 at the age of 20. He may have been naturalized as a U.S. citizen on July 8, 1915, when he was 27, although there is some evidence to indicate that his naturalization came a few years later.

About the rest of his early life, little is known—he apparently was briefly married, probably worked as a miner at some point, and was drafted into World War I—but many of the facts become more clear after his arrival on a steamship in Seward in 1914.

Bagoy says that Berger and a partner “supposedly” set up a tailor shop in Seward. He also says that by 1923, Berger had the papers to prove that he was a master seaman. In about 1922, he had bought a 53-foot motorized boat called the Discovery (later renamed the Discoverer) and had begun his shipping service a few years later.

But according to his WWI draft card (via, he was not still living in Seward in 1917. He was in Fairbanks, where he was listed as a married, an unemployed miner and a foreigner. He is also described as short, with a medium build, grey eyes and brown hair.

During his days of serving the lower Cook Inlet, Berger developed a friendship with Allen Hardy and his wife, Alice, who lived and worked on a fox farm on the Kasilof River.

Alice (Hardy) Berger
In 1930, according to Alaska’s No. 1 Guide by Catherine Cassidy and Gary Titus, Hardy and his friend Ed Zettle were motoring upriver with a load of supplies for a hunting party when they struck a partly submerged tree and flipped their skiff. Zettle was able to reach shore, but Al Hardy was not. Two days later, Hardy’s body was found, and Berger transported it to Anchorage on the Discoverer. A year later, according to Bagoy—or only a few months later, according to a wedding license viewable on—Berger and Alice Hardy were married by a justice of the peace in Kitsap County, Wash.

Berger transformed the fox farm into the headquarters of his transportation service, and in 1931, according to a news brief in the Seward Gateway, he also erected a dock on the river big enough to accommodate his ship.

In the mid-1930s, after purchasing the second Discoverer, he authorized the construction of a new ship, named the Kasilof, and his passenger-and-freight service continued to blossom.

Berger would haul almost anything. In Alaska’s No. 1 Guide, Cassidy and Titus recount that in 1929 Berger hauled live minks to a Tustumena Lake fur farm, and in 1932 he moved 20 horses from Kasilof to a hunting camp in Beluga. He also regularly hauled local residents, the mail, and rifle-toting trophy hunters—all on his medium-sized ships.

But he got Col. Ohlson’s dander up when he put his big scow into operation. And Ohlson, never one to shy away from trouble, went on the offensive.

“Heinie was offloading at the old City dock (in Anchorage), which was on Railroad property but was leased to the City,” wrote Bagoy. “To reach the dock on the second bend of Ship Creek, you had to cross the main line of the Railroad. Ohlson placed a string of railcars across the road, blocking the entrance to the dock.”

Ohlson’s actions prompted a lawsuit from Berger. After he lost the case, Berger appealed to a higher court, but the final verdict was suspended when World War II began, and Berger was forced to pay the railroad $1.25 per ton for wharfage.

According to several other sources, however, Berger often found ways to outmaneuver or outfox Ohlson. In one popular story, when he once again found railcars and railroad men blocking his path, he forced them to move by demonstrating that he was carrying the U.S. mail, the blocking of which was a federal offense.

Seward merchants, in particular, were delighted to see Berger get the upper hand because his success guaranteed them lower rates they could pass on to consumers.

Jim Arness of Kenai, a skipper on Berger’s cargo ships after World War II, said of his boss, “I can truthfully say that I never worked for better people than Heinie.”

Arness hauled passengers and freight mostly in lower Cook Inlet, but also made many trips to Kodiak and Prince William Sound. On at least one occasion, he made a freight run all the way to Seattle. Generally speaking, the bigger the load (especially if it was freight), the happier Berger would be.

“One time we hauled 85,000 board feet of timber on the Seldovia from Juneau to Kenai, plus a barge loaded with
Jim and Peggy Arness aboard one of Berger's freight-hauling ships, bound for Seattle.
timbers,” Arness said in a 1999 recording, transcribed by his wife, Peggy. “We also picked up 13 surplus army jeeps for delivery to Anchorage. Twelve jeeps on top of the timbers on the Seldovia and the 13th jeep over the timbers on the barge! We were deep in the water when we arrived at Emards’ dock in Ship Creek. After off-loading the jeeps we took the timbers back to Kenai. Needless to say, that load made me a good guy for quite a while.”

Conversely, Berger, who by this time was also running an entertainment business in Anchorage, hated even a few pennies of waste. He once berated Arness for failing to collect from one of their best customers a 50-cent minimum hauling charge, but he was even angrier on another occasion when too much of his precious stock was used to “smooth over” an inspection.

“Before we left Seattle, the Kasilof had to be inspected by the Coast Guard,” Arness recalled. “The two inspectors came to the shipyard, put on coveralls and did their walk-through. They left the boat, and a couple of hours later Heinie came aboard, the maddest I had ever seen him. He had a step-son, I guess to be 14 to 16 years old. He had been told to give those inspectors a fifth of good whiskey before they left. The kid had given them a whole case while (they were) up in the yard taking off their coveralls.”

Both the Seldovia and the Kasilof were licensed to carry passengers, but Berger advised his crews to avoid them whenever possible because passenger transportation was not economical. “We could only charge $3 fare from Anchorage to Kenai,” Arness said. “No matter how we scheduled, they would eat at least one meal (supplied by the ship at no additional cost), which meant they rode for nearly nothing.”

Instead, the emphasis remained on freight, and sometimes the loads and the circumstances were unusual.

“One trip, Anchorage to Homer, we had a whole bargeload of homestead vehicles,” said Arness. “We had to lay behind Yukon Island for three days waiting for the wind to stop blowing down Kachemak Bay. One of the vehicles had a number of chicken pens facing out with freight in the center of the truck bed. We pulled the barge up close twice a day so two of the homesteaders who traveled with us could feed and water the birds.”

Berger and his bookkeeper, Sally Gorsuch, watched the transportation and entertainment books carefully, but at least once Arness and his crew found a way to pull the wool over the eyes of the boss. When he was piloting in lower Cook Inlet, he would often stop in Seldovia to order food for the ship’s stores. Frequently, the order would include a $3.50 case of peas, which coincidentally cost the same amount as a case of beer. Beer would come aboard for the crew, while “peas” were listed on the ship’s inventory, and Berger was never the wiser.

Still, the overall relationship between Berger and Arness was solidly built on trust. And Berger liked it that way. In his entertainment dealings, he also employed a man he trusted, Chris Terry, Berger’s manager for a dining-and-dancing club in Anchorage and his marketing agent for Berger Distributing.
The Ambassador Club, probably in 1937, in Anchorage.

Berger had decided in 1937 to expand his financial scope beyond transportation and into entertainment. According to Bagoy, Berger purchased a partially completed building on the corner of 6th Avenue and C Street and named it the Ambassador Club. Bagoy called it “the finest club in town in those days, with a huge dance floor, three sides of booths and tables, a bandstand, and a private entrance.”

In a separate move the following year, Berger brought in three Wurlitzer jukeboxes and installed them in three different Anchorage venues, two of which catered strongly to the teen-age crowd.

All of his enterprises flourished.

In the early 1950s, however, Berger fell ill, and he died in Seattle in 1954.

His ships Discoverer and Kasilof far outlasted their master. According to Arness, the Navy chartered the Discoverer during World War II to use as a submarine net tender at Adak, “opening and closing that net to let the good guys in and keeping the bad guys out.” Eventually, he said, the Navy sold the Discoverer as surplus property, and it was used as a mail boat in Southeast Alaska until it wrecked in the early 1970s.

The Kasilof, on the other hand, maintained a freight run between Seattle and Anchorage, with Cook Inlet stops, throughout World War II. According to rumor, the Kasilof burned to the waterline in the 1980s somewhere in Southeast Alaska.



Sunday, February 23, 2014

"Making Book on the Subject of History"



“What astonished me most was that she was so large. I afterward learned that she weighed around three hundred pounds, but she was not grossly fat. She was wide-shouldered and well proportioned and wore a becoming yellow silk afternoon dress. She was, I thought probably between thirty-five and forty. I had understood that her health was poor, but she looked the picture of vitality…. From her letters I had gathered that she was serenely content in helping her husband conquer the wilderness, but this woman looked far from serene. I found something disturbing about her in spite of her laughing welcome and hearty voice. I had expected our friendship to be as it had been in our letters, but she seemed an entire stranger.”

This less-than-flattering first-impression portrait of homesteader wife Jess Anderson comes from the 1961 Ada White Sharples memoir, Two Against the North, which describes her largely unsuccessful attempts at creating a home with her husband, Jack, on the shady southern shore of Skilak Lake in the late 1930s.

When the book was published, the depiction of Mrs. Anderson understandably infuriated the rest of the Anderson family, particularly since the Andersons had been so generous in their assistance to the young couple.

The Sharples survived, despite being ill-equipped to carve out a home on a large wilderness lake that would not be connected to any road system for another decade—but their unpreparedness did not keep Ada Sharples from taking pen to paper and writing about her adventures in an occasionally sanctimonious tone.

In spite of the book’s deficiencies, however, it does afford readers a glimpse into life in a time and place seldom described except by big-game hunters relating their tales of conquest in outdoor magazines, and it also provides an idea of the rigors required of homesteaders coming into a country sans most of the amenities we now take for granted.

And Sharples’ book, readers may be surprised to discover, is but one of dozens touching on the subject of Kenai Peninsula history. Those books range from other personal memoirs to diaries of pioneers, from collections of facts and stories about mining, the construction of roads and bridges, tales of ship captains and fishermen, of truckers and railroad workers, of hunting guides and Natives and homesteaders, and tales of the founding of peninsula communities, the community college system, the Kenai Peninsula Borough.

Although this is by no means a comprehensive list, here are three lists of peninsula-related works (including those that are excellent, those that are simply average, and those that are poorly written or of questionable veracity):

·         The Hope Truckline and 75 Miles of Women: Stories of Alaska by Dennie D. McCart. The titillating title aside, this 93-page 1983 memoir is entertaining but fairly tame. The enthusiastic writing sounds like the oral renditions of a man who loves to tell stories. McCart occasionally rambles, but his heart is in the right place as he describes what it was like to live in Hope and to operate a trucking service between his town and Seward in the 1930s and ‘40s.

·         Our Stories, Our Lives by Alexandra J. McClanahan. This book is subtitled “Twenty-three Elders of the Cook Inlet Region Talk about Their Lives,” and its 1986 publication was financed mainly by the CIRI Foundation. Among the notable storytellers in the book are Peter Kalifornsky, Victor Antone Jr., Elsie Sanders Cresswell, and Fiocla Sacaloff Wilson. Each section is a transcription of a recording of an elder speaking to an interviewer.

·         Once upon the Kenai: Stories from the People by the Kenai Historical Society, under the direction of Jetret S. Petersen and edited by Mary Ford. This 468-page compendium was published in 1984 and is still selling. Its huge collection of first-person narratives of life on the central Kenai Peninsula focuses mainly on homesteaders and leaves in some obvious contradictions. While most of the stories appear to be largely factual, a few of the writers seemed to have had axes to grind or perhaps faulty memories. Still, this is an invaluable reference work to anyone interested in central peninsula history.

·         Go North, Young Man: Modern Homesteading in Alaska by Gordon Stoddard. Published in 1957, the book involves Stoddard’s adventures as he homesteaded on Stariski Creek, worked various jobs around the peninsula, and ran a greenhouse and garden. A bachelor who sought marriage but never found the right woman, Stoddard packed up and left the area after his greenhouse burned to the ground.

·         Catching the Ebb: Drifting for a Life in Cook Inlet by Bert Bender, published in 2008. Bender moved to Alaska from the Pacific Northwest to become a drifter in Cook Inlet. His memoir is interesting and well written, despite some errors in his opening history.

·         Capt. Joshua Slocum: The Life and Voyages of America’s Best Known Sailor by Victor Slocum, published in 1950. This biography is certainly not centered on the Kenai Peninsula, but part of its story involves this place. Capt. Slocum sailed from San Francisco to Australia in 1869, married a 21-year-old woman there, and then sailed in 1870 to Kasilof, where his ship, the Washington, dragged anchor in a storm and washed ashore. The book details how Slocum and his men survived and eventually made it home.

·         A Dena’ina Legacy: K’tl’egh’i Sukdu: The Collected Writings of Peter Kalifornsky. This 1991 collection was edited by James Kari of the Alaska Native Language Center and Alan Boraas of Kenai Peninsula College, and it contains the works of Peter Kalifornsky, the Dena’ina Native who worked hard in the last half of his life to preserve the stories, traditions and language of his people. These stories comprise an important local heritage of a culture that, until recent years, had no written language with which to record its own history.

·         A History of Mining on the Kenai Peninsula, Alaska by Mary J. Barry, published originally in 1973, and then republished in an expanded, updated version in 1997. The most thorough description of peninsula mining efforts from the 1700s onward, Barry’s book focuses mainly on the latter half of the 19th and the first half of the 20th centuries. The book is replete with references and cross-references, photographs, maps, stories, and lots and lots of names. It is an extremely helpful research tool.

Published in 2009.
·         Clam Gulch: A Memoir by Scott Ransom, published in 2009. Weighing in at a hefty 515 pages, Ransom’s reminiscences of his time as a commercial fisherman in the Clam Gulch area paints a colorful picture of a lifestyle not frequently explored in local literature. Although not without some factual errors, the book is mainly an enjoyable read that introduces its audience to a cast of characters still familiar to many of those living around Clam Gulch.

·         A Handful of Pebbles: Stories from Seward History by Doug Capra, published most recently in the mid-1990s. Capra, who also wrote Something to Be Remembered: Stories from Seward History, treats his readers to a series of tales about the good ol’ days in Seward. Capra, a former English teacher at Seward High School, writes well and knows how to tell a good story.
·         If You’ve Got It to Do by Wilma Williams, whose family homesteaded in the Homer area in the 1920s, long before any road connected Homer to the rest of the world. The book, published in 1996, details some of that early life there. Another of Williams’ works—This Is Coffee Point : Go Ahead: A Mother's Story of Fishing & Survival at Alaska's Bristol Bay—focuses on her family’s time spent commercial fishing near Nushagak Bay.


More Stories

When Andrew Berg died of heart failure in an Anchorage hospital in early 1939, his 69 years of life were memorialized in an obituary in the Anchorage Daily Times:

“Of Finnish extraction, Mr. Berg was known in his heyday as the most powerful man of the Kenai country. He was six feet two inches tall and weighed 235 pounds. He out-traveled all others in speed and distance. As a trapper, he built 14 cabins…. Mr. Berg served as guide for many parties and hunted for museums…. The veteran Tustumena resident was the first game warden of that district and also served as fish warden for some time…. Mr. Berg’s name appears often in the Remington tabulations of record trophies, both as hunter and guide.”

Dubbed the “dean of guides in Alaska,” Berg lived a remarkable life, the last 49 years of which he spent in and around Tustumena Lake, and a detailed, photograph-filled history of his life can be found in the pages of Alaska’s No. 1 Guide: The History and Journals of Andrew Berg, 1869-1939. Thoroughly written and painstakingly researched by Catherine Cassidy and Gary Titus, this book is an open window to the more rugged and wild Kenai Peninsula that existed in the first half of the 20th century.

Other books that open up the sweep of peninsula history to interested readers include:

·         A Larger History of the Kenai Peninsula—by Walt and Elsa Pedersen, self-published in 1983 as an expanded version of the Pedersens’ original offering, A Small History of the Western Kenai, which was published in 1976. Although the Pedersens’ own views shine through clearly in the sections written by Elsa, the research and general sense of local history is undeniable. Most of the histories were written by long-time residents of the areas about which they wrote. Lance Petersen’s essay entitled “The Fragmentation of Kenai: A History” is particularly moving and eloquent.

·         Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula: The Road We’ve Traveled—created by the Kenai Peninsula Historical Association in 2002. This remarkable collection of community histories is actually a paean to the first travel book ever written about the Kenai Peninsula: Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula, published in 1946 by Lois Hudson Allen, a journalist and teacher who died only two years later at age 74. The individuals who assembled the more current work were so taken with Allen’s slim book that they actually incorporated her work into the pages of their own. Consequently, readers of the KPHA collection will be treated to two books in one, and the comparisons between Allen’s Alaska and the KPHA Alaska nearly 60 years later are sometimes striking and provocative.

·         Snapshots at Statehood: A Focus on Communities that Became the Kenai Peninsula Borough—also created by the KPHA, and published in 2009 in celebration of 50 years of Alaska statehood. The emphasis of this particular collection of community-based writings is on peninsula life at the time of statehood. Despite the similar community-related structure of The Road We’ve Traveled, this book is rife with new stories and a vastly different selection of photographs.

·         Any Tonnage, Any Ocean: Conversations with a Resolute Alaskan—by Walter Jackinsky and Jacqueline Ruth Benson Pels, published in 2004. Ninilchik native Jackinsky spent most of his long life at sea, and this book explores the many facets of that life, particularly his long tenure as a ferry captain in the Alaska Marine Highway System. Pels, who did the writing, also has Alaska roots that reach deep; the author/editor of several history-related books, she was a 1953 graduate of Kenai Territorial High School.

·         Memories of Old Sunrise: Gold Mining on Alaska’s Turnagain Arm—an autobiography of Albert Weldon “Jack” Morgan that was published in 1994, although Morgan finished writing his memoirs in 1959, five years before his death in his mid-90s. Among the many and sometimes astonishing tales is the story of how he got the nickname “Black Jack”: A drunken miner mistook Morgan’s young wife for one of the many prostitutes in Sunrise (near Hope) and put his hands on her. Morgan struck the offender so hard that he broke the man’s neck.

·         Brother Asaiah—by Martha Ellen Anderson, published in 2007. This is the affectionate biography of Asaiah Bates, a loving, altruistic pacifist who made his home in Homer, which he called the “Cosmic Hamlet by the Sea.” Of Bates, former Alaska Gov. Jay Hammond once said,Toss into a blender 1 part eastern mystic, 2 parts Old Testament prophet, 3 parts wounded warrior, 4 parts aging flower child and from the mix at least the essence of the man emerges.”

·         Family After All: Alaska’s Jesse Lee Home, Volume II: Seward, 1925-1965—a collection of photos and reminiscences compiled by Jacqueline Pels, published in 2008. This nearly 800-page book is the weighty companion piece to Volume I, which focuses on the Jesse Lee Home when the orphanage was located in Unalaska from 1889 to 1925. Perhaps the most famous resident of the Jesse Lee Home was Benny Benson, who at age 13 entered and won a contest to design a flag for Alaska.
Published in 1941,
·         Alaska Nellie—by Nellie Neal Lawing, published in 1941. Alaska Nellie was a remarkable woman who ran a lodge near the upper end of Kenai Lake in the first half of the 20th century. This is her memoir of that time.

·         Prescription for Adventure: Bush Pilot Doctor—by Naomi Gaede Penner, published in 1993. Penner is the daughter of Dr. Elmer Gaede, who, along with Dr. Paul Isaak and Dr. Calvin Fair, helped establish the first medical-dental center on the central peninsula. The focus of this well-paced book, however, is on Dr. Gaede, who flew out into the Bush to assist patients before and during his time on the peninsula.

·         The Homer Spit: Coal, Gold & Con Men—by Janet R. Klein, published in 1996, the centennial of Homer. Despite the title, the real center of attention here is a man named Homer Pennock, who fits into the categories of coal miner, gold miner and con man, and who is the namesake for the city at the southern terminus of the Sterling Highway. This lively narrative is a quick read at only 70 pages.

·         The Dragline Kid—by Lisa Augustine (nee Arlene Rheingens), published in 2002. Augustine was born in 1939 when her parents were residents of Hope, and then the family moved in 1948 to Kenai, where Joyce Rheingens became the Kenai postmaster. Although the last 40 pages of this book focus on Augustine’s move Outside and the start of her modeling career, the first 213 pages are all about her life in Hope and Kenai. Augustine’s tales of being a teen in Kenai are particularly enjoyable, as she depicts a number of that community’s colorful denizens of that time.

·         Fish, Oil & Follies—by Loren Flagg, published in 2009. Flagg, a Kenai resident, was an Alaska Department of Fish & Game fisheries biologist, and this memoir centers on his time in the state after opening with his earlier life Outside. Flagg writes with good humor about the politics, adventures and misadventures involved in being a steward to one of the state’s most important resources.

·         “I’d Swap My Old Skidoo for You”: A Portrait of Characters on the Last Frontier—by Nan Elliot, published in 1989. These brief but intimate histories of Alaskans cover the gamut of state localities, but this book is noteworthy for peninsula history buffs because it contains the stories of Marge Mullen of Soldotna and Clem and Diana Tillion of Halibut Cove.

·         Legends & Legacies: Anchorage 1910-1935: Remembering Our Buried Past—by John P. Bagoy, published in 2001. At first glance, this book might appear unrelated to the history of the Kenai Peninsula, but what some might not realize at first is that many of the peninsula’s early non-Native residents stopped first in Anchorage before venturing on to the Kenai to try their hand at homesteading, commercial fishing, or a number of other endeavors. Among the many locally important individuals to be found in this book are Heinie Berger, Dr. Howard Romig, Dr. Clayton Pollard, and Tom O’Dale.

·         Bear Wrangler: Memoirs of an Alaska Pioneer Biologist—by Will Troyer, published in 2008. Although only a small portion of Troyer’s adventurous and occasionally hilarious book concerns his time on the Kenai Peninsula, Troyer himself lives in Cooper Landing and has spent several decades connected to peninsula life. Perhaps his most significant peninsula-related achievement was acting as manager of the Kenai National Moose Range during the 1960s.

Oddities & Rarities

Histories of peninsula people and events have been penned many times over the last several decades. Some of those histories are readily available, and are solid, informative and interesting. Others are either just as available but a bit unusual, or are intriguing but difficult to find. Here is an assortment of each of these types:


·         A History of Kachemak Bay: The Country, the Communities—by Janet Klein, published in 1987 by the Homer Society of Natural History. This is a well-written overview of the land and people of this region.

·          Beyond Road's End: Living Free in Alaska—by Janice Schofield Eaton, published in 2009. This memoir centers on Eaton’s own life in the Kachemak Bay area.

·          Kenai Peninsula Gold—by Rob Wendt, published in 2001. This slim volume lightly covers the history of mining on the peninsula.

·          Wolf Trail Lodge—by Edward M. Boyd, published in 1984. This 108-page memoir relates the adventure of Boyd and his wife coming to the peninsula in the 1950s to carve out a life in the Trail Lakes area.

·          Trails Across Time: History of an Alaska Mountain Corridor—by Kaylene Johnson, published in 2005. Filled with photos, maps and clean, clear text on glossy paper, this 112-page history explores the routes across the Kenai Mountains and Turnagain Arm country. The book acts as a pleasant introduction to the development of transportation in this rugged portion of the peninsula.

·          Bridging Alaska: From the Big Delta to the Kenai—by Ralph Soberg, published in 1991. Soberg, who lived in Soldotna for a number of years, was the boss of the Alaska Road Commission crew that established many of the peninsula’s roads and bridges. The final three of the book’s 11 chapters deal specifically with opening up the Sterling Highway and building bridges all the way to Homer.

·          Pioneers of Homer—by Diana Tillion, published in 2001. Tillion’s book contains numerous narratives and photographs from individuals who helped make Homer what it is today.
Published in 2001.

·          Seldovia Alaska: An Historical Portrait of Life in Zaliv Seldevoe-Herring Bayby Susan Woodward Springer, published in 1998. This slim, handsome volume on glossy paper provides just what it advertises.

·          Kachemak Bay Years: An Alaska Homesteader’s Memoir—by Elsa Pedersen and Rebecca Poulsen, published in 2003. This book focuses on Pedersen’s homesteading life in the 1940s in Kachemak Bay. Pedersen later moved to Sterling and penned A Larger History of the Kenai Peninsula.

·          Jesse Lee Home: My Home—by James L. Simpson, published in 2008. This memoir covers, in words and pictures, Simpson’s life in the renowned Seward orphanage.

·          Bent Pins to Chains: Alaska and Its Newspapers—by Evangeline Atwood and Lew Williams, published in 2007. This thick compendium covers the history of newspapers all over the state, but included are the accounts of the many papers that have served the Kenai Peninsula.


Published in 1948.
·         The Clenched Fist—by Alice M. Brooks and Willietta E. Kuppler, published in 1948. This memoir concerns two Midwestern missionary-like sisters who ventured to Kenai in 1911 to teach school and foster “enlightenment” in what they perceived as an uncivilized land, and it should be read with a sense of its historical context. While the book is valuable for its many references to historical facts, individuals and occurrences during their three-year tenure in the village, some readers may want to pass this one by because of the sisters’ pejorative views regarding the local Natives.

·         The Kenai Peninsula College History—by Lance Petersen, published in 1992. The title says it all. Anyone interested in the first three decades of the college will find considerable detail here.

·         Miracle at Solid Rock: An Alaskan Adventure—by Bert and Donna Schultz, published in 1992. Solid Rock Bible Camp has been serving the youth of the Kenai Peninsula, and beyond, for decades, and this is an insider’s tale of how it all got started.

·         A Voyage to the Pacific Ocean—by Capt. James Cook. This multi-volume work has been published many times and in many forms since Cook’s voyages in the latter 1700s. History buffs may be intrigued by some of his early observations of life in the communities along the inlet that would one day bear his name.

·         Dictionary of Alaska Place Names—by Donald J. Orth, published in 1967. This is a fascinating collection of information. Anyone interested in the origin of a particular landmark’s name is likely to find at least a modicum of information here.

·         A History of the Incorporation of the Kenai Peninsula Borough of Alaska—by Robert M. Bird, published in 1992. Nikiski High School history teacher Bob Bird researched and penned this authoritative look at the origins of the peninsula’s central government.

·         McLane Diaries—by Archie and Enid McLane. This is a collection of 17 diaries and record books dating back to the 1920s in the Ninilchik area. These books should soon be available on DVD through the McLane Center on Kalifornsky Beach Road. McLane Center, incidentally, has a number of one-of-a-kind titles that can be viewed and perused.

·         Alaska Teacher Tales—compiled by the Alaska Educators Historical Society in 2009. The two-volume set includes chapters by local writers and teachers Elsie Seaman, Mona Painter, Mary France and Shirley Henley.

·         Alaska’s Heroes: A Call to Courage—by Nancy Warren Farrell, published in 2002. This book contains the 1977 story of George Jackinsky rescuing John Nepple and Kearlee Ray Wright from a burning plane in Kasilof.

·         Seward, Alaska: The Sinful Town on Resurrection Bay—by John Paulsteiner, published in 1975. This book is not particularly well crafted, but it does approach the history of the Gateway City from an angle different than most.

·         Alaska Odyssey: Gospel of the Wilderness—by Hal Thornton, published in 2003. Hal and Jeanne Thornton came to Alaska in 1938 and operated a string of businesses from Hope to Kenai. His memoir is hectic and tinged brightly with his religious views, but it does offer a different perspective of life on the Kenai.

·         Sockeye Sunday and Other Fish Tales—by Dorothy B. Fribrock, published in 1999. The focus of this book is the cannery on Chisik Island, but the cannery’s history involves many peninsula fishermen.

·         Agrafena’s Children: The Old Families of Ninilchik, Alaska—by Wayne Leman, published in 2006. This locally published book examines Ninilchik’s oldest family lines. Agrafena produced a daughter named Mavra, who married Grigorii Kvasnikoff, and the two of them in 1847 became the first permanent settlers in the area.

·         Have Gospel Tent, Will Travel: The Methodist Church in Alaska since 1886—by Bea Shepard and Claudia Kelsey, published in 1986 on the 100th anniversary of Methodists in the state. The book ranges across the state but does include a history of Methodist churches on the peninsula.

·         The Ghost of Fannie Guthry-Baehm: A Murder Mystery—by Jonathan Faulkner, co-owner of Land’s End on the Homer Spit and of Kenai Landing near the mouth of the Kenai River, and the new owner of the Van Gilder Hotel in Seward. Published this year, this is a novel and would not be on this list if it weren’t for the fact that the story takes place in Seward and is based on an actual murder that happened in the Van Gilder in 1950. Harry Baughm, the estranged husband of Fannie Guthry-Baehm, was tried and convicted of the murder and served 25 years in prison. Since the murder, according to local legend, Fannie’s ghost has haunted the hotel and has been reportedly seen by a number of guests.