STORIES OF COURAGE & BRAVERY IN ALASKA'S RUGGED COPPER RIVER VALLEY

The Copper Valley Is Like A Space Station. And Local People Are Like Russian Cosmonauts

Fixing Your World With Duct Tape 

  Northcountry Communications. All Rights Reserved


There's a big difference between American astronauts and Russian cosmonauts. On the Russian space station, Mir, controversy erupted over how the astronauts from the two different countries approached practical problems in outer space. 

When something happened on the delicate and far-away space station, the Russians would rush to fix it. They'd look around, scramble up some available spare parts and improvise -- using ordinary hand tools and duct tape. They pounded nails into jammed oxygen canisters. They used wrenches and screwdrivers to prod delicate instruments back into shape. Again and again, the Russians pieced together improvised solutions, using only the limited palette of materials they had on hand.

A crashed ultralight or other homemade plane at the end of the Gulkana runway, held together by duct tape.  (2011)

This drove visiting American astronauts crazy. The protocol for Americans in space has always been to call Mission Control for advice when there was a problem -- with the idea that "experts" back on Earth could figure it out far better than some crazed Russian wielding a screw driver and some duct tape.

Yet, you had to hand it to the Russians. It worked. And, you've got to hand it to the people of the Copper Valley. Compared to the rest of America, the people of the Copper Valley were the Russian cosmonauts of America. They operated in a pragmatic get-it-done manner that was very similar to the way Russians on the space station did their work.

There were so many parallels. The space station had no supply lines.  The physical environment of Siberia itself, and Russia in general, is very much like the typical rural Alaskan's environment. Empty. Cold. At the ends of the earth.

The vast tundra and taiga that crosses so much of Russia spills over into the Copper River region. And, the typical rural Alaskan, in many ways, had much more in common with a typical rural Russian. And very little in common with people in places like Sacramento, or Detroit, or Florida -- or New York City.


Duct tape holds onto a crashed Copper River plane long after the plane is gone.

If you wanted something in the Copper Valley, you did it yourself, too.  You did it the "Russian way." Though, of course, in the era during and after the collapse of the Soviet Union, a patriotic  Copper Valley resident would never allow himself to be compared to a Russian. 


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State Of Emergency: Copper Valley People Stepped Up To Help In Everyday Crises


A Motorist Rushes To Help A Burning Car Out On The Glenn Highway, Miles From Any Town.

U.S. Law Doesn't Mandate A "Duty To Rescue"

...But Try Telling That To An Alaskan

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Heroism is highly regarded in the United States. TV news anchors just can’t get enough of it when they see someone saving a kitten, or risking their lives by pulling a stranded woman (or even a horse) from a raging river during a major flood. Saving others is a point of cultural pride. Americans like to feel that helping others who are in need is one of the great tenets of American life; a moral stronghold of our culture. Something that all Americans are legally obligated to do when they see a fellow citizen in trouble.

This isn’t so. As a rule, rescuing strangers, pets, children and damsels in distress is, in the United States of America, totally optional.

Americans are not legally obligated to help strangers. Even (as the law textbooks like to point out) somebody who is very easy to save. For example, someone drowning face down in a mud puddle, who only requires you -- the passerby -- to turn him over. Under United States law, in almost every state, you have absolutely no legal obligation to use the toe of your boot to flip over a random, drowning baby and save her life.

Only two states -- Vermont and Minnesota -- have laws that say it is your obligation to try to help somebody you randomly come across who is in need.

This attitude is a far cry from Argentina. Unlike America, an Argentinian bystander who fails to try to save someone in trouble faces up to 6 years in prison for “abandoning to their fate a person unable to cope alone who must be cared for...”  (Wikipedia, Duty to Rescue.)

People in Argentina and over 20 other countries, ranging from Brazil to Finland, France, Poland and Portugal, are legally required, as citizens, to help others who are in danger. With only one caveat -- you are protected from the need to rescue if helping somebody else would put you, the rescuer, in harm’s way.


Good Samaritans

When somebody stumbles across a person in trouble and rescues him, they are frequently called “Good Samaritans.” 

Like so many concepts in our western culture, this idea stems from the Bible. And, in many ways, it highlights the grim reality of heroism: it’s very hard to find a “good” hero.

In the Bible (Luke 10:25-37), Jesus is asked how to define your “neighbor,” after he says you should “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus tells a story of a man who was stripped, beaten and left behind by robbers. Three people come across him; one is a priest, and the other a Levite (in other words, both were high status, and acceptable people.) Yet, they both ignored the victim. The final person to come across the wounded man was a Samaritan.

Today, “Samaritan” is synonymous with the words “good” and “helpful.” Today, “Samaritan” is a positive term. In fact, it’s so positive that many visitors to Alaska travel the state, looking for camper parks who advertise their reliability because they’re members of the “Good Sam Club.”

But, for the Jews of Jesus’ time, Samaritans were a despised minority; and when Jesus is quoted as saying that a Samaritan (of all people) was “good,” he was being provocative and daring.

That a Samaritan was the one to bandage up the victim’s wounds, rescue him, and pay for his care, was throwing fat in the fire. It was a challenging, in-your-face, unlikely thing to say. Placing a Samaritan in the story gave a view of the world that was unexpected. For the average Jew there was nobody more hateful or despised than a Samaritan. If Jesus had been a prophet in India, it would have been like saying the “Good Untouchable” was your neighbor and rescuer. And what do you think about that?!


The people of the Copper Valley of Alaska were like the original Samaritan. Sometimes considered unsavory characters, but rescuers nevertheless. And, the idea that Copper Valley people were somehow made “good” by rescuing others wasn’t something even local people thought, or bought into. You rescued others because that's what you did. Not because you were angling for brownie points.


Dangerous Rescues

It’s easy to get into harm’s way.  Saving people is dangerous. Invariably, it places the rescuer into the very same desperate and lethal difficulty as the rescued.

The Carnegie Awards for bravery are given four times a year to people from all over the United States.

Usually, the winner of a Carnegie award is a man. And the random locations where the rescues occur are usually small towns; parts of America whose problems -- icy lakes, burning buildings, and long roads -- mirror, on  a lesser scale, those of the Copper River Valley. Carnegie Award winners tend to come from desolate places like Crete, Nebraska, Auburn, Maine, and Lake Norden, South Dakota...

--Not from places full of EMT's, ambulances and cops, like New York City, Chicago, or Los Angeles.

Around 10,000 awards have been given over the years. And the Carnegie Awards carefully catalog not just what happens to those victims who are rescued -- but the rescuers’ injuries: hypothermia, burns, exposure, smoke inhalation, cuts, scrapes, and bruises.

Andrew Carnegie was a self-made man from another era. He was a steel and railroad baron from the turn of the century; the days the Copper Valley was first being settled. He began his awards in 1904, spurred on by the belief that there were such things as selflessness and brave deeds. The same beliefs that led to the founding of the Boy Scouts, a few years later, in 1910.

His awards spur on an acknowledgement of public service, and are seen as a symbol of the American Way -- a nod to courage, bravery and idealism in a culture where saving others is purely optional. And not something that a “normal” person might be driven to do.

Since impromptu, impulsive rescue is such a risky business, around half of all Carnegie Award rescuers are injured, and 16% of Carnegie Award winners are unfortunately dead by the time they’re given their awards -- killed by the rescue.


And yes. Often, Carnegie Award winners are “good Samaritans” -- in the old, biblical (and Copper Valley) sense of the word. As a 2005 University of Illinois paper, “Rescue without Law” observes, a high number of award winners are people with “relatively low status and/or unskilled occupations” who clearly  identify with the lives, status and plights of the people they rescue, and use the compassion they get from their  shared positions in life as a reason for trying to help them.   (University Illinois)

In many ways, this is a commentary on the Copper Valley’s rural system of caring for others, and its overwhelming interest in volunteering. The people of the Copper Valley had most to lose in their efforts to volunteer. They seriously didn't fall into the category of self-made ‘philanthropists.’ They were not rich; they didn't have any time on their hands. They were overworked with the trials of ordinary life. 


And yet, they stepped up when needed.

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© 2016, Northcountry Communications Inc.


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Fred Rungee And How He Skinnied Up A Dwarf Spruce To Escape An Angry Mama Grizzly

Fred Rungee in 2007. Photo By Tom Sadowski.

 

Downplaying His Mauling By A Bear, Fred Rungee Remembered The Incident Like It Was Yesterday

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Many an 1898 Alaska prospector lay on the cold ground, wrapped in an oilcloth, and worried about being attacked by a bear. But their most dangerous problems were not bears. Their most dangerous challenge was water.

In Alaska, winter or summer, water is the enemy.

Bears are statistically not as dangerous as Alaska's treacherous icy waters, in part due to their short season of activity. Lengthy winter hibernations limit bears to the summer months -- and the Copper Valley’s norm is winter, when bears are asleep, and there's still water under the ice of rivers and lakes.

But of course, ‘Bears Happen.’ And, generally, a bear encounter requires you having to save yourself. 


For example, Fred Rungee, a Copper Valley Bureau of Land Management ranger, came to  Alaska in 1953. Fred was working on a fire, alone, around 150 miles from Anchorage one July in the 1960’s. Over 50 years later, he could still clearly remember being treed by a 400 to 500 lb., ferocious female grizzly, like it was yesterday. And he recalled the bear standing under the little spruce he had climbed, and bear whipping it back and forth, clawing at his legs,

In 2013, Fred Rungee told me:


“It was a female bear, and she had a couple of cubs. About 200 lbs apiece. She was very protective of those cubs; she thought I would be a menace to them. She stopped in front of me; about 200 yards, and stood up. I thought, I’ll just back up a bit and get out of her way. She dropped down and started coming to me.

I didn’t have a rifle. It was thick grass and an old berm. So then I stopped and backed up to a tree, a living tree. I thought, ‘Well, I’ll just stay here and bat her down with my polasky -- which is a fire tool.’

She came up. Usually a bear will stop and check you over with your eyes; they have bad eyesight. She stopped about 15 feet away, and looked me over.

When she stopped, I thought, ‘It’s time to go up in that tree.’ She shook the tree, and shook it. She shook it pretty good. It didn’t break. I held on. I waited fifteen to twenty minutes. I went back where I had the pickup--which was about 2 miles from there...”

Fred Rungee was injured on his leg by the grasping bear. But he was relieved to have survived, and decades later, he still downplayed the injury: 'It was just cosmetic; I only had thirteen stitches.'


Fred Rungee Playing His Piano. (Tom Sadowski)
Fred Rungee died two years after this interview, at the age of 93. 

Born in Connecticut, he was a college educated New Englander who was a gentleman scholar/woodsman. 

He was as handy with a piano keyboard as with a double-bitted ax.

Copper Valley Black Spruce. 

  Northcountry Communications. All Rights Reserved.


©Author Interview with Fred Rungee, November 24th, 2013

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Cliff Steadman Got A National Award For Hauling Mail Under Coldest Conditions In North America


 The Copper Valley Postal Service Really Was Above And Beyond The Call Of Duty!

Northcountry Communications Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Cliff Steadman and Garner Hamrick (Historic Photo)

Delivering Mail At Minus 83 Degrees In Alaska

Wednesday, February 3rd, 2016
In the middle of a winter that hardly seems like winter at all – when El Nino is pumping up volleys of warm air into Alaska – it’s worth remembering that in the second half of the 1980’s we had a series of extremely cold winters.

During the frigid February of 1989, Cliff Steadman wrote me a letter from Palmer with this riveting story. His letter described an event in his mail-carrying days in the 1940’s when he carried the mail from Palmer to Chitina in the Copper River Valley.  Cliff writes of an earlier Alaska before plowed roads and modern cars, and of the desperate difficulties of winter roadside travel.

His letter also describes the strength and endurance of the Ahtna people, who are considered, by anthropologists, to have historically been among the strongest long-distance walkers on earth – under the harshest conditions.

Cliff Steadman wrote:

I Hauled The Mail From Palmer
Here it is February 8th, 1989, which reminds me of February 8th, 1947. This is a little bit of history that some of the old timers might remember and the younger people might like to see too.

I hauled the mail from Palmer for 16 years. I was carrying mail from Palmer to Glennallen, Gakona, Copper Center and down to Chitina. That February night I headed to Chitina. It was in the minus 70’s at Glennallen and Gakona. My partner, Clay Prewitt, was with me on this trip, to drive the ARC Cat dozer to clear 20 miles of road near Chitina for me.

We stayed at Copper Center that night and kept the truck engine running all night then left in the morning. Minus 80 degrees. (Fred Neeley’s vehicle run all night too; but it run out of oil. And ruined the motor.)

My partner and I headed out and got to Chitina about 3 or 4 pm. It had warmed up.  Minus 35 degrees. We refueled the tractor with diesel I brought for the occasion, got the tractor heated up, and started and let it run all night, covered with canvas.

The Next Morning We Put The Plumber’s Fire Pot Under It

The next morning, it was Minus 45 degrees, so we pulled the canvas off and started out. We couldn’t get much more
than 100 yards, and the tractor would die for fuel, so we put the plumber’s fire pot under it, and covered it with canvas again. Then in about one hour, it would start OK again.

When we were halfway to 5 Mile, someone walked past us, while we were waiting in the truck for the tractor to warm up again. When we got to 5 Mile, it was 5 pm, so we went back to Chitina after covering the tractor again. We had supper in Chitina, with O.A. Nelson.

Footprints In The Snow
I bought 5 gallons of Blazo for my heater in the van, and 5 gallons kerosene to limber up the tractor fuel. I stirred it up with a piece of 4 inch board for about 20 minutes. The big chunks seemed to be floating on top. I left the canvas around the engine and radiator. It ran good to 22 Mile, where we left the tractor at Jack Marshall’s place. The foot tracks of the man who had walked passed us were still going ahead of us, in the snow and into the dark.

When we passed Grandma George’s place, at 27 Mile, the man’s tracks were still going, towards Copper Center. When we got to Copper Center, 50 miles from Chitina, the foot tracks were going towards the village when we turned in to the Copper Center Roadhouse. Minus 83 degrees by the thermometer on the post in Pete Jordan’s yard at 1:30 am.

You Had To Keep Moving Or You’d Freeze
Later I saw Art Goodlataw, and something about his posture made me think of the person that we had followed for half a day and all night to Copper Center. So I asked Art if he was the one that passed us at 2 Mile Lake. He said, “Yes, whatever happened to you?” He thought he could catch a ride with us. I told him the trouble we had with the tractor.

I asked if he knew how cold it was. He said, “No.” Said he stopped at Grandma George’s and had a cup of tea, and from there to Copper Center it got colder. Said you had to keep moving, or you might freeze.

My partner, Clay, said later he had been called all kinds of liars, from people who didn’t believe this story, and it was impossible for anybody to walk 50 miles in that kind of weather.


Credit For A Feat Like That
The Post Office Department of the Bureau of Vital Statistics in Washington, DC. said I hauled the mail that February the farthest – in the coldest weather –  in the history of the North American Continent. But, I always had a warm spot in my heart for Art Goodlataw, and think he deserved credit for a feat like that – 50 miles in half a day, and all night. Art was 18 days less than eighteen years old that day. I would say he was one tough boy.

© 2016, Northcountry Communications Inc.

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Keith Murray, The Goat Man Of Kenny Lake

Keith Murray Of Kenny Lake 

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Jean "Keith" Murray, On His Kenny Lake Homestead, Probably In The 1990's.

Jean "Keith" Murray came to Kenny Lake decades ago to homestead and start a new life in Alaska. He built a small log cabin -- and liked to tell people it cost less than the one built by the great American writer and proponent of self-reliance, Henry David Thoreau, at Walden Pond. 


Keith Murray had worked in California as an artist, making models of Ice Age animals that got enmired in the La Brea Tar Pits. When he moved to Kenny Lake, he had a herd of goats, a barrel stove he outfitted himself -- and he stored root crops he had grown between the struts of the log cabin floor where they could stay cool.

We first ran across Jean Murray back around 1976, and wrote a story about him and his cabin for the Anchorage Times. This photo was probably taken in the late 1980's or early 1990's by Bearfoot Travel Guides (and the Copper River Country Journal -- both of hem among our publications) at his Kenny Lake homestead, which is in the Copper River Valley, where Bearfoot Travel Magazines has its home base. We are pleased that our photo triggered a dramatic family reunion.


On May 31st, 2014, Jean "Keith" Murray's long-lost daughter wrote us the following:

Hello,
"THANK YOU! The significance of this photo – one that pops up on the internet related to Alaska’s Bearfoot magazine – is one I had to share, as it literally changed my life: I am the 58 year-old daughter of Jean Keith Murray and I have not seen my father since I was 2 so, effectively, I had never really “seen” him. I had looked for him often over the years and it is no wonder he was hard to find: having moved to Alaska in 1968 to homestead in the remote Kenny Lake area made him nearly “lost”. It was through family obituaries that I found he was in Kenny Lake, but it was through this photo that I experienced my first look at him as a man still alive and well; I was stunned, utterly stunned. I thought immediately of the movie “Heidi” and wished I were Shirley Temple. This old bearded man on a mountainside with a goat captivated me. And introduced me to the man my father had become. I stared and wept. I became excited. One call to the Kenny Lake Mercantile and I was on the phone with him within a day. Thank you. Thank you.
In your debt...
Sandy Murray
(Still in California, but visiting Kenny Lake every chance I get)"

Later in the summer, Sandy wrote:

"My last trip up was in early June and it was a family reunion of sorts. Keith's great-granddaughter (my granddaughter, Sacoya) and one of his other daughters (my half-sister, Alice), along with her son and grandson all made the trip and spent about a week at the homestead, with brother Bob and family driving in from Anchorage for an overnight as well."

Jean "Keith" Murray dropped his French name a long time ago, and in 2016, he celebrated his 98th birthday, still in Alaska.  

  Northcountry Communications. All Rights Reserved.



© 2016, Northcountry Communications Inc.  Linda Weld, Editor All rights reserved, including photographs and maps. 


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The Copper Valley: Where Tragedy Strikes Often

The Copper Valley's Sudden Death Syndrome

Northcountry Communications. All Rights Reserved. 

Door at an impromptu "rescue" cabin along the Richardson Highway, entering the Copper Valley.

Through The Open Door
In the rest of America, "death" is seen as something unusual.

The world hurtles on in the big cities. And then death strikes.

Older people, mainly. Or people you didn't know. Celebrities with heroin addictions. Young athletes with undiagnosed heart problems. Or, if you did know the newly deceased, the cause of death is tragic and unfathomable: a car accident, or some form of terrible cancer.

In the rest of America, the aged know death best. They talk of their dwindling circle of friends and family, as the dead begin to outnumber the living.

But in the Copper Valley, death was not limited to people you don’t know, or to your great-grandfather -- or to that girl in your grade school who died when she was hit at the railroad crossing by a train when you were ten years old.

Copper Valley people lived a life in which death was constantly there. Waiting for you and your family and friends to make a small mistake. A little slip-up. A wrong decision that will deliver you through the door to the other side.



It's All Personal 
It was a world where tragedy struck often and where the reality of life and death was something everyone is aware of.

This was not a place where you idly watch  the ambulance go by and fret that a two-car pile up will result in getting home late for the movies. You knew that whoever would be picked up by the local EMT’s is either a friend, or a neighbor or somebody you have heard of or met.

This was a place where after a lifetime you could catalog a long list of untimely deaths.

The terrible drownings. The baby who slipped into the ice at the water hole at the creek. The neighbor’s son -- who fell out of the fishing boat and sank under the water. The car wrecks, taking multiple children from their families, in one blow -- making parents afraid to let their children double up in a car and go anywhere together, for fear of losing not just one child, but both. The motorcycle and snowmachine wrecks that left children and young people dead or damaged irreparably. The plane crashes. The cold-weather incidents that led to freezing to death, or losing fingers to frostbite.

And the alcohol-related disasters that, at their most terrible, killed newly initiated young people who choked in their own vomit.

The accidental death and injury rate in the Copper Valley of Alaska was stupefyingly high. And the causes so varied that Copper Valley people took note of all of them, mentally itemizing exactly what to avoid. It’s all “personal.”

Every tragedy involved  someone you know.  They built on one another. They formed a pile of danger. And they sucked all Copper River people back into a world that existed before modern life. Where danger surrounds you, and there is no safety net, other than you, your family and neighbors.

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©2016, Northcountry Communications, Inc.  Gakona, Alaska 

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When The Flu Came To The Copper Valley in 1918

Fear Of Epidemics In Alaska Is Nothing New. Ebola, Hantavirus, Diphtheria, Flu, TB, Measles...

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News about the flu in the Chitina Leader of 1918.
Epidemics have a long and terrible history in Alaska. Even before westerners entered the territory, their germs went before them -- spreading diseases that had never been seen before. They don't sound like much today: "flu" and "measles," for example. But they were deadly. During the early 1900's, diphtheria threatened Nome -- leading to the great Nome serum run, in which dog mushers who had been mail carriers saved the children of the coastal city. The 1918 flu epidemic was bad enough to stop the trains between Chitina and Kennicott. You can see newspaper stories from the Chitina Leader about the flu epidemic at the Copper Center Museum, and read actual telegrams there that were sent back and forth from local telegraph offices, trying to handle the quarantine, and to get needed medicines to the right people. In November, 1918, someone in Juneau wrote to a Kennicott man: "You may be held at Cordova indefinitely. Influenza... use your own judgement. Travel to Kennicott discontinued." Someone else telegraphed back: "Mail is not fumigated to Cordova..." Someone in Kennicott wrote to a Cordova physician, on December 21st, 1918: "Can you spare us some serum sufficient for 100 people. We will purchase outright or will return same upon arrival Northwestern about 27th." In many ways, the great flu epidemic of 1918 was as terrible as the current Ebola epidemic in Africa. But it was truly worldwide, touching even the remote parts of Alaska. In 1995 (like today) people worried that something -- like the terrible flu -- would come back again. Here's a story from that summer. It's about something called the "hantavirus," which that year had spread to the Yukon Territories, across the border from Alaska. Like the current Ebola virus, it had a huge potential death rate: 60% of the people who got it wound up dead.

From: July 13th, 1995 Copper River Country Journal

ALASKA - A deadly virus that struck an Indian community in the Southwest is very unlikely to be a threat in Alaska -- even though there are reports of the virus existing in deer mice in the Yukon.
 

Dr. John Middaugh, of the State Section of Epidemiology, told the Journal that discovery of the hantavirus in the Yukon "is no big deal." A July 7th Associated Press story said that the virus, which is carried by airborne  particles of deer mice excretions, such as urine, droppings, or saliva, has been found in the Canadian province. Around 60% of the people who come down with the flu-like illness, die.

But Alaska's epidemiologists say the problem is "totally overblown." Dr. Middaugh told the Journal that deer mice exist "all over North America." He said the epidemic on an Indian reservation in the southwest was due to specific overpopulation in that area. Although the virus is now understood to affect around 20 to 30 people a year, the conditions that existed in the May, 1993 epidemic were unusual. A huge overpopulation of deer mice arose there because there was a large flood. The flood killed snakes and scorpions -- deer mice's natural enemies -- leaving them to grow, unchecked into extremely high numbers. The number of deer mice grew even more when the floods were followed by good weather, which led to a great abundance of the types of food the mice liked to eat.  

Finally, when the population was huge, due to the lack of predators and the abundance of food, the deer mice began crowding into people's homes. And they followed the classic cycle of overpopulation; they grew sick with the hantavirus. The virus then passed on to the human population.

At this point, Middaugh told the Journal, "There are no documented human illnesses from the hantavirus anywhere in Alaska, the Yukon Territory and Canada." He acted as if there wasn't much possibility that there would be any chance of an epidemic here. Of 569 mice tested in Southeast Alaska for the virus, all were negative.

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When Alaska's Roadhouses Were More Like Bomb Shelters Than Hotels

Alaska Life & Survival
The Fairbanks-Valdez Overland Stage.

Winter Trail Travel In Turn-Of The Century Alaska On The Richardson Highway

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Winter Was Travel Time
A hundred years ago, Alaska's tourism schedule was completely reversed from what it is today.

Today, it's the summer months -- June, July and August -- that form the core of the tourism season.
But, back in the days of trails and horse-drawn stage lines, travel through Alaska was mainly done in the wintertime.

Why? Because there were few bridges over the hundreds of rivers and streams that trails had to cross. So the optimum time to travel was winter, when the creeks and rivers were ice. Summer trails were muddy and wet. Winter was far better, in spite of the extremes of cold weather in open-air sleds. There were lots of people traveling, too.


Freight Sleds On The Valdez-Fairbanks Trail.
 
Sleds Along The Trail

Here's an early Alaska travel guide, describing the Valdez-to-Fairbanks trail:
"Through a part of the winter season, every day more than a hundred sleds laden with supplies and equipment would leave on their trip to the interior…"

Sleds along the trails arrived at various small lodges along the route, and travelers would pile in. Men, women, children… Some finally ending their long day out in the elements by lying on cold floors and under tables -- as more and ever more people showed up.

Made of cold mountain rock, the Summit Roadhouse at Thompson Pass had two doors. One was on the left, high in the air, and at winter snow level. The other was on ground level.


Sleeping On The Floor
There were never "too many" people in these cabin-like lodges on those subzero winter Alaskan nights. Late arrivals would accidentally kick awake the earlier folks who were snoring underfoot. Noisy latecomers scraped chairs across the floor, took off their heavy furs, and sat down to eat, drink and talk -- long into the night -- before rolling out their own well-used blankets and joining the others, piling onto the rough lodge flooring. And then, they too were awakened by even more loud and boisterous "winter tourists" coming in for the night.

​Two Doors

In a way, the lodges and roadhouses were more like bomb shelters than hotels. Their job was to protect visitors from the dangerous, raging everyday killer instincts of your basic Alaska winter, One famous roadhouse was up at the top of Thompson Pass. The Pass is well known even today as having the thickest snowpack in America. This lodge at "Summit" was made of stones.

​It had two doors. One was at tundra level. The other door was high on top of the building. The top door was used by visitors arriving in midwinter during the deepest snows. They'd drop down through a sort of chute into the frigid little rock roadhouse, joining the dozens of others who were already inside -- finding hot coffee and comfort in the gloomy, foggy heights of the Pass.

The travel season then, as now, was short. The owner of the Donnelly Roadhouse complained that his entire money-making operation was basically limited to "only six weeks." Many modern entrepreneurs in the tourism industry might agree that six weeks, even today, forms the core of the "best" part of their tourism season, too.

But, for early Alaska tourism entrepreneurs, those six weeks fell in October, November -- and perhaps in February. Not in the summertime!





References: "The Trail" by Kenneth Marsh; Historic photos of Valdez-Fairbanks Winter Stagecoach & Horses Freighting over Thompson Pass; The Alaska Road Commission's 1931 "Travelogue of the Richardson & Steese Highways.
©2016, Northcountry Communications, Inc.  Gakona, Alaska

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