Saturday, May 2, 2015

"Going Nordic"

Skiing the trails of the Kenai National Moose Range in the 1960s and '70s could be a tranquil, rustic experience.

MARCH 2012

The cross-country ski trails on Kenai National Wildlife Refuge land near Headquarters Lake exist largely because of Dick Mommsen and the Billingslea family, who moved from Anchorage to their new home four miles south of Soldotna in 1967. The Billingsleas knew little about skiing back then, but they had plenty of energy and enthusiasm. And Mommsen had connections.

“When we came down here, we could barely ski,” said Freddie Billingslea, now 79. “We were just learning, but we loved it, and it was a family thing.”

When they had started skiing a year earlier, they had done so mainly for health reasons. Freddie’s husband, Earl, had a torn knee ligament that he was trying to strengthen. Freddie herself had arthritis and wanted to stay active.

Progress was slow, but they pursued their new activity with great vigor. “We would ski from here into town,” Freddie said, “and (some friends) would give us a ride back in their truck.” Soon, however, the Billingsleas were helping to form the Kalifonsky Nordic Ski Club, working to carve trails from wilderness, and Freddie was skiing nearly every day, regardless of the weather.

In high school, daughter Sydney and son Everett participated in the very first Kenai Central High School cross-country ski team, which formed in 1977. Coincidentally, that team was coached by Alan Boraas, who later became the last president of the ski club.

In that first winter, however, the Kalifonsky Nordic Ski Club was just a loose affiliation, featuring the Billingsleas, Bill and Charlotte Ischi, Nels Kjelstad, and a handful of others who would soon help create a community trail system. Among that “handful” was Mommsen, who had grown up around Mount McKinley National Park, where his father had worked for the railroad. A Department of Transportation employee, Mommsen spent much of his free time outdoors, mostly skiing and hiking.

Mommsen knew people who knew people who knew how to get things done. In the late 1960s, he used his connections to help the growing core of skiing enthusiasts get permission from what was then the Kenai National Moose Range to construct a series of ski trails in the area between the Soldotna Ski Hill and Headquarters and Nordic lakes.
Dozens of local skiers competed each year in the Stampede between Kenai and Soldotna.

Then into the story stepped Joe Stanski, a ski enthusiast who worked in the area in the summers. “He knew a lot about building trails,” said Freddie, “and he wanted to build them for races.”

Together with Mommsen, Stanski laid out the first 2.5-kilometer loop in 1968, and then Mommsen led a trail-building crew of ski club volunteers, who followed the prescribed route with hand tools, sawing logs and hacking away at the undergrowth.

In the winter, Mommsen did most of the grooming—all of it, in fact, if no help was available. Grooming was also done by hand—well, by foot, actually.

If three people were available, all would don traditional wooden snowshoes. The lead groomer would walk firmly down the center of the trail, snowshoes close together to pack the snow as well as possible. Then the other groomers would overlap the leader’s tracks by one snowshoe per side, producing a four-shoe-wide trail.

Later, another 2.5-km trail was added to the first, and eventually a third 2.5-km loop was connected to the second one. Each of these trails was groomed manually until the ski club, which was responsible for trail maintenance, was able to obtain a snowmobile.

Most skiers from the early days remember a particularly precipitous descent in one section of the trail, Stanski’s Drop, named for the trail’s designer. At the bottom of the hill, the trail veered sharply, and those who could not navigate the turn had to hope to at least avoid the large birch tree on the corner. At some point, a mattress was tied around the tree to soften any collisions, and much later the trail was actually re-routed for safety.
The first KCHS cross country ski team, 1977. (Alan Boraas, coach, is front, left.)

Meanwhile, the Kalifonsky Nordic Ski Club—so named to give it a more central peninsula feel—was burgeoning. A club roster from about 1970 shows well over 100 members, and club-sponsored activities going strong. Mimi Morton designed and made a club patch—a large black snowflake, black lettering and black trim on a field of white—which the club sold for a dollar apiece.

Youth memberships in the club cost $1 a year, while adult memberships were $2, and family memberships were $4. The entry fees for most activities ranged from 50 cents to $2. It was possible to outfit an adult skier with standard wooden skis, plus boots, poles and bindings for less than $100.

The activities ranged from a free 1968 cross-country ski clinic put on by the Army biathlon team at Fort Richardson in Anchorage to a club-sponsored, U.S. Ski Association-sanctioned race on refuge trails in 1970.

In the 1970s, the club also sponsored an event known as the Stampede, a race along the Spur Highway between Kenai and Soldotna. To please the participants in both cities, the starting and finishing lines altered annually.

When the club wasn’t hosting races or participating in races elsewhere, members frequently headed for the hills. On most weekends, Mommsen led day tours and some overnight trips into the mountains around Cooper Landing or Summit Lake. One of his favorite destinations was Manitoba Mountain, but he also led club skiers on some wild treks across avalanche chutes and up mountain ridges, and he once took a group down the ice over the Kenai River from the lower canyon to the upper end of Skilak Lake.
The Kalifonsky Nordic Ski Club climbs the lower slopes of Mount Manitoba, 1972.

Freddie Billingslea, who accompanied Mommsen on several of those backcountry adventures, said that she didn’t worry about the danger as long as Mommsen was leading the way. “He knew these mountains, and all over and every place,” she said. “I trusted him implicitly.”

By the 1980s, however, some of the original torchbearers for the ski club were tired of being leaders and wanted change. A few early members had moved away or on to other interests, and those remaining were ready to let someone else lead for a while. Also, with the passage of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act in 1980, the refuge had changed its policy on sanctioning races on its trails, and the interest in local racing began to wane.

By the mid-1980s, Boraas, along with Charlotte Ischi, had closed out the club account at the bank and attempted to reformulate the organization as the Kenai Peninsula Nordic Ski Club. But the new effort didn’t spark the desired enthusiasm, and it wasn’t until the late 1980s that the fortunes of organized cross-country skiing on the central peninsula began to improve.

The change came shortly after construction began on Skyview High School, just across the highway from the Soldotna Ski Hill. Boraas inquired about the hilly land adjoining the campus, and soon he and a few others had laid out a tentative first trail and sought permission of the Borough Assembly to build it. Then Allan Miller, an Olympics-caliber skier, joined the Skyview staff and, as Boraas put it, “energized a lot of trail work.”

The formation of Tsalteshi Trails and the Tsalteshi Trails Association transformed
and reinvigorated the sport of cross country skiing on the central Kenai Peninsula.
By the time the school opened in the fall of 1990, the Green Trail was in, and others soon followed. The resulting trail system and the Tsalteshi Trail Association filled the void left by the demise of the Kalifonsky Nordic Ski Club.

And now, as Boraas, an anthropology professor at Kenai Peninsula College, likes to say, there is once again in place a northern sport participated in by a northern people living in a northern land. He believes that sports involving the natural landscape best allow the people living in that landscape to bond with their environment.

“If nothing you do is ‘here,’ why live here?” he said. “It’s hard to live here. But you do live here, and we have to create the culture of the north that allows us to embrace this place.”

Freddie Billingslea agrees. Although bad knees keep her off her skis these days, she still loves outdoor exercise, and when she speaks of skiing, the enthusiasm rises in her voice, perhaps as it did more than 40 years ago when she was just getting the hang of an exhilarating sport.


Friday, May 1, 2015

"Nor Sleet, Nor Hail, Nor Dark of Night"

Kenai Postmaster Beverly Sabrowski and her husband Joe in 1935, early in the more modern era of mail delivery.

MARCH 2009

When the price of sending a letter through the U.S. Postal Service rises to 44 cents in May, people will complain.

Those 44 cents, however, can carry their letters all the way across country, winging in swift jets often in just two or three days. A hundred years ago, when the price was about two or three cents per letter, the mail routes were more arduous, and letters and package took much longer to reach distant destinations.

The difficulty of delivering the mail was perhaps more acute in Alaska than anywhere else in the nation. For instance, a resident of the village of Kenai a century ago might receive mail occasionally by boat from Homer in the summertime, but seldom or not at all throughout the winter. When ice made boat traffic unsafe on Cook Inlet, any mail that actually reached Homer had to be transported overland to Kenai, or held onto until better conditions existed.

According to Ruth Grueninger’s postal history in Once Upon the Kenai, the beach and overland routes were used initially by Paddy Ryan, who toted the mail on foot to Kenai’s first postmaster, Eugene R. Bogart, who was appointed in 1899, and to Bogart’s many successors.

Ryan was followed by Gregory George Brown, who used a horse to make the trip, and by Nick Kalifornsky, who employed a dog team. According to Alan Boraas, anthropology professor at Kenai Peninsula College, many Dena’ina men other than Kalifornsky also ran the mail route.

When any of these mail carriers encountered significant water barriers, such as the Kenai and Kasilof rivers, they most likely crossed on boats, left by canneries operating near the river mouths. When the boats were on the wrong side, Boraas said, they probably hailed the cannery caretaker (or winter watchman) to haul them across in his dory.

At smaller streams, such as the Ninilchik River, Deep Creek, or the Anchor River, they likely headed upstream to find a suitable crossing over the ice, he said.
Mail teams prepare for departure on the Anchorage-Seward route, 1916.

When most of the mail began to channel through the “Gateway City” of Seward—arriving in the ice-free port via steamship, then heading out from the southern terminus of the recently established Iditarod Trail—the challenge of hauling the mail to Kenai changed. In 1918, long-time Kenai resident, Paul Wilson Sr., was awarded a Star Route contract to carry the mail by dog team to town.

Star Routes were devised by the U.S. Congress in 1845 to provide the swiftest and most secure means of mail delivery at the lowest possible price. A contract, which typically lasted four years, was put out to bid, and the lowest bidder was usually awarded the deal.

In Alaska, over terrain that could change drastically with each passing storm or warming trend, the task of arriving on time and in one piece could be exceedingly difficult, according to Dr. Linda Chamberlain, a Homer-based sled-dog musher and epidemiologist who is currently writing a book on the historic use of dog sleds to deliver the mail.

The first Star Route in Alaska was awarded in 1894 to Tlingit musher, Jimmie Jackson, who had the prodigious task of delivering mail from Juneau more than 1,000 miles to Circle, north of Fairbanks. He managed the feat a single time, traveling from Juneau by a canoe to Atlin Lake, B.C., and then on foot and by dog team the rest of the way.

On the trip, Jackson had to hunt and fish to feed himself and his team; however, the rigors were too much. “Two dogs dropped dead in their traces,” Chamberlain said. “He had to use the last one for food.”

Another tough Star Route pioneer was Ben Downing, who ran a mail sled between Dawson and Eagle, starting in 1899. In 1903, on the way to Dawson, Chamberlain said, Downing and his dog team went through the ice. He managed to extract himself from the water, but the dogs did not survive. Alone, then, and with his feet frozen, he walked the rest of the way—nearly 300 miles—to Dawson.

“When he arrived in town, the bloody footprints came all the way in,” Chamberlain said. Downing refused to allow his feet to be amputated, and he died two years later of complications resulting from his injuries.

Downing’s story, Chamberlain added, is indicative of the toughness and perseverance of the pioneer sled-dog mail carriers. They were expected to be on time, and they knew they could lose money or even their contracts if they were late. Star Routes, according to Chamberlain, were “a very important source of income for rural Alaskans. There were many, many Native carriers. The Star Routes created a whole economy.”

This economic boost became particularly evident when the Alaska Road Commission surveyed the Iditarod Trail, from Seward to Nome, in 1910, and when it became the official northern mail route in 1911. Every 25 to 50 miles along the trail, roadhouses sprang up, as people in the Bush found ways to tap into local travel, said Chamberlain, whose book, Mushing the Mail, she hopes to have ready for publication by the 100th anniversary of the Iditarod Trail in 2011.
Fred Henton, owner of Henton's lodge in Cooper Landing, was an early mail carrier.

The trail sprang up initially as a means for prospectors and fortune-seekers to reach the gold-mining towns of Iditarod and Nome. “It was brutal out there,” Chamberlain said. “So the Iditarod Trail created a system of safety and support.”

Chamberlain recalled one particularly gruesome pre-trail tale: “They found a mail carrier frozen (in 1907). He was buried in snow outside of Nome, and somebody saw a protruding hand and dug down and found him with his dogs wrapped around him. And the mail was dated 1901.”

From the main Iditarod Trail sprang up ancillary trails, such as Paul Wilson’s route to Kenai, which began in Cooper Landing or in Lawing, depending on which site had the official U.S. post office at the time.

Mail and freight delivery, 1920.
According to U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service historian, Gary Titus, who has researched and traced the Seward-to-Kenai mail run, the route varied somewhat from winter to winter because the conditions were so variable.  In 1923, he said, the ARC performed a reconnaissance of the route and prompted some upgrades. Those upgrades included new shelter cabins, some repairs to existing structures, and widening of the trail in places. Eighteen miles of new trail was cut to a width of nine feet, Titus said, and 27 miles of the old trail were widened to five feet.

In virtually all types of weather, carriers traveled with freight sleds, often packed with hundreds of pounds of mail. These sleds were longer than a modern racing sled, and narrower and more sturdily built, usually of hickory or ash. Carriers rarely rode on the backs of their sleds, and travel could be very slow as they occasionally walked in snowshoes out in front of the dogs to break trail in heavy snow.

Generally, according to Titus, the carriers followed this route into Kenai: From the west (or river outlet) end of Kenai Lake, they followed a light-duty wagon road along the southern bank of the Kenai River until they reached Schooner Bend, where a bridge had been constructed in 1920. Now on the river’s northern bank, they followed a continuation of the wagon road until they moved onto a higher bench for easier travel.

A mail plane parked on Pollard Lake in Kasilof in the 1930s.
They followed the bench until they reached Jean Creek, which they followed up to Jean Lake. They crossed the length of the lake and climbed the low pass to Upper Jean Lake, from which they descended into a series of lowland lakes and swamps that led them to the Moose River. They followed the Moose River to its confluence with the Kenai River, and then followed a Native river trail on into Kenai.

The round trip could be made in seven to eight days under good conditions, but the carriers were given 30 days in which to do it.

In 1930, airplanes began to land on the Kenai beach once a month with the mail, and by 1934 an airstrip was created on the bluff. By 1940, the end of the mail-sled era was at hand. The bulk of the mail throughout Alaska was now being carried by airplanes, which could arrive every day on the airstrips carved next to some rural communities.

By 1940, Kenai had had 13 different postmasters and had moved its post office nearly a dozen times, usually from one person’s home to another, but the price of postage to send a letter across the country was still three cents.

The price rose to four cents in 1958, and, as usual, people complained.


"Building a Road to the Future"

Morris Coursen (left, back row) and his parents, Ken and Manila Coursen (front left) pose with the rest of the family. Morris, Ken and Manila worked together on the original construction of Swanson River Road, gateway to the first commercially successful oil well in Alaska. (Photos courtesy of the Coursen family)

JULY 2012

It looked like some malformed mechanical inchworm: a large bulldozer clanking in reverse, towing an 8x14-foot wooden shack on skids, cabled to an old school bus, trailed by a Jeep, all creeping down a freshly made dirt path through the wilderness of the Kenai National Moose Range in the fall of 1956.

Today, while many residents of the Last Frontier know that the 1957 discovery well on Swanson River Road produced the first major commercial oil strike in Alaska and heralded a new economic future for the territory, few are probably aware of the work involved in creating the road that allowed the strike to happen in the first place.

The strange procession in 1956 was part of that work, according to an article in the April 1959 issue of The Alaska Sportsman by  Manila Coursen, who served on the crew that carved out the pilot road to the drilling site.

Morris Coursen was the chief Cat operator on the project.
The road building, as it turned out, became something of a family affair for the Coursens, beginning with Manila’s son, Morris, a Caterpillar operator who had already spent years on the Kenai Peninsula clearing land for homesteaders and building area roads. In 1956, Morris was hired by officials of the Richfield Oil Corporation. Morris in turn hired his father, Ken, and his neighbor, Jesse Robinson, to help with the road construction. Once it became apparent that a movable camp would be expedient on a project that might last several months, Manila asked for the job of camp cook and was also hired.

Two other peninsula homesteaders, Blaine Saunders and Jimmy Hovis, were brought on by Richfield as scouts to round out the crew.

When Manila Coursen first heard what her son was up to, she was confused by the concept of a pilot road. “I wondered how a pilot could use a road,” she wrote.

Morris had to explain to her the alternate use of the word “pilot,” and how Richfield would benefit strategically and financially from the creation of an avenue over which to transport its drilling equipment, supplies and employees. Richfield geologists, she learned, had “more than a hunch” that a rich deposit of oil lay beneath the remote location, but the site itself lay 23 miles of swamp land, lakes and forest from the Sterling Highway.

To start the process of road building, Morris boarded a helicopter with Richfield officials and flew several times over the area, seeking the “most feasible” route and cross-checking their observations with data from available topographic maps. Once they had roughed in a suitable course, they also determined that the new road would branch north off the Sterling Highway near the Sterling schoolhouse (about where Sterling Elementary stands today).

The next step involved more flyovers, with officials dropping rolls of white toilet paper—“one roll to each two slow counts”—to mark the path for the scouts, who would blaze the trail for the bulldozer operators.

The scouts began their work in mid-September, followed shortly thereafter by the heavy equipment: Morris’s Cat and a rented bulldozer operated by Robinson and the elder Coursen. The first bulldozer stripped off the trees and overlying moss, and the second graded and ditched a road about 16 feet wide.
Ken and Manila Coursen.

Soon, however, it became apparent that their time and fuel were being spent inefficiently by traveling back and forth from their homes each night, so they planned for a portable camp, which is the point at which Manila entered the picture.

The white-painted wooden shack, with its tall and ungainly stovepipe wired into place, was hauled in to the worksite, as was the old bus, which was “unable to move under its own power but (was) towable.” The shack served as a cookhouse and portable sleeping quarters for Manila and Ken, while the bus became the storage facility and men’s dormitory for the remainder of the crew.

Inside the bus, the seats had been removed and replaced by four cots, an oil heater, a makeshift dining table, and cases of groceries. When the bus was being towed behind the cook shack, Hovis had to sit behind the wheel and steer to keep the vehicle moving as smoothly forward as possible. From September through December when the job was complete, they moved the camp four times, through mud and dirt, through sand, through snow.

“No cook ever served a more congenial, less complaining crew,” wrote Manila, “and I promptly observed that fresh, hot rolls and meringue pies were supper favorites.” When bitter cold weather arrived in November, the crew supplemented Manila’s grocery supplies with fresh moose meat, which kept frozen under a canvas on the back of the cook shack.

But the cold weather created difficulties, too, making cold steel brittle as the men worked, and exacerbating the problems of keeping warm the interiors of both bus and shack.

As winter wore on, the temperatures at times dipped well below freezing, at least once all the way to minus-40 degrees.

“Our magazines did double duty,” wrote Manila of the struggle to stay warm. “After everyone had read them, I put them under the bedding on our cots as insulation. During one very cold spell I hung my housecoat in the corner to keep the cold draft from our heads at night.”

Despite the occasional strains, however, Manila enjoyed the work. “I love that remote wilderness, just as I have always loved our homesite here in these rugged mountains,” she wrote. “I enjoyed the daily outside chores—filling the lanterns, carrying in the wood, getting the necessary six pails of water from lake or stream.”

The crew got along well, she said, discussing the experiences of the day over dinner, and sometimes listening to the strains of Hovis and Saunders’s harmonicas after a meal. They listened to a battery-operated radio to keep in tuned to current events, and the men made trips home when possible to visit family and gather more groceries.

After the snows arrived and covered or ruined the trails of toilet paper, more T-P arrived—blue, this time—to re-mark the trail and keep the crew on track as they marched slowly forward, building log bridges or changing course whenever necessary.

On Nov. 25, they reached the designated drilling site, where Richfield officials directed Morris to strip about four acres of forest—except for a single, tall spruce which they decorated like a Christmas tree and gave rise to the nickname of the eventual discovery well.

Under the Christmas tree, starting April 15, 1957, drilling began. The bit went down more than 11,000 feet, and on July 15 Richfield struck oil, dramatically changing the course of events for the Kenai Peninsula and all of Alaska.

The month after the discovery was announced to the public, Manila made her first trip to the well site since she had finished her job as camp cook, and there she saw her old cook shack, “with its stovepipe still askew.” No longer a location for hot rolls and meringue, however, the sign on the building indicated the changing times: OFFICE.