Editor’s note: This is the first part of a two-part article about some of the histories that have been written about the people and places of the Kenai Peninsula. The second part will appear next week.
By Clark Fair
“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 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 offer 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 and 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 and the Kenai Peninsula Borough.
Although this is by no means a comprehensive list, here are some of the 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 Hope 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 drift-net fisherman 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.
- “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 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 in Bristol Bay.