By Clark Fair
By moving in a circle around the body, the two sisters were able to twist the spine, winding it somewhat like the rubber band on a balsa-wood airplane, until the head popped neatly off and the prize was theirs.
But the sisters, Marcia and Mary Grainge, had never intended this day, during the winter of 1972, to be a headhunting expedition. In fact, it had begun as volunteer work.
The Cheechako Ski Benders Club was preparing for a snowmachine race, and the Grainge girls were out helping mark trail. From their family home on the north shore of Sports Lake, they had driven out on a pair of snowmachines, an Arctic Cat and an old 12-horse Ski-Do pulling an ahkio — a narrow, runnerless, low-riding sled convenient for trail use because of its shape.
The ahkio had been modified with tubular bars on the sides to allow it to hold a larger load, and on this particular day, as they traveled over deep snow in minus-15-degree weather, the sled held a number of trail signs. About eight miles from the house, they were roaring along Marathon Road, near Kenai, when they stopped to do a little trail marking.
As they worked, Marcia spotted something curiously smooth and spiky protruding from the snow a short distance away. In her one-piece, zip-up, blue snowsuit, white helmet and Sorels she ambled nearer, and when she got close enough, she realized that it was a piece of an antler. Curious, she began to dig with Mary’s help.
What Marcia had suspected was a dropped caribou antler turned out to be a very large dropped caribou antler, which also turned out to be
attached to the skull of a very large dead caribou bull, and the skull itself was attached to the matching antler. Except for the single antler tine that had been poking out, the entire body of the animal had been buried beneath at least 2 feet of snow.
Once the upper carcass was exposed, the sisters could see that the body was badly decomposed and had probably been lying there on the spruce-dotted tundra for quite some time before winter had gotten under way.
“There was no hide on the skull,” Marcia said. “It was totally bare and brownish-white.”
Determined to keep their prize, each sister grabbed an antler and began to move in a circle around the head.
“Not a normal way to harvest antlers,” Marcia said.
After they had detached the antlers and skull from the rest of the body, they lugged their massive trophy over to their ahkio, wedged it into the sled, fastened it to the side rails with a piece of rope, and headed for home.
“But we had to keep checking it because the trail was rough, up and down, bouncing, etc.,” said Marcia.
The antlers sat in their parents’ garage for a number of years before someone suggested having them measured. Eventually a representative from the Boone & Crockett Club traveled to the Kenai Peninsula and performed the official measurement. The representative determined that the antlers
scored 440 2/8 with a double-shovel, enough to enter them into the “Found” section of the Barren Land Caribou record book with a ranking of 58th largest in the world — a ranking they continue to hold.
Later, the antlers were mounted professionally and displayed in the home of Marcia (Grainge) and Rich King. Then, in 1990, Marcia and Rich relocated to Kauai and gave the antlers on a temporary loan to the Soldotna Visitors Center. Mary, as well as their sister, Lou, still live in the Soldotna area.
A few weeks ago the sisters told center officials to make the antlers a permanent part of their collection. The antlers are there now, with a somewhat shorter version of the story, for public viewing.
Ministrations of the Yorks
When the 36th annual Peninsula Winter Games get under way next month, many will see the myriad activities for exactly the purposes they were intended — a means to unite area residents to their environment in the heart of the winter, and a way to beat back the doldrums of winter’s long nights and cold days.
But the winter games are more than that. They also are an ongoing tribute to Al and Bernice York, the Sterling-area couple who began what was then called the Soldotna Winter Games in January 1977, and who dedicated their lives to helping others.
Allen York traveled in 1947 from Indiana to Alaska to work as a mechanic during the building of the airfield at Eielson Air Force Base. Bernice traveled in 1949 from Wisconsin to Alaska as a missionary. They met in Nome and, after Al sojourned in the states and received religious training, they wound up together performing missionary work in College, Alaska, from 1950 to 1952, before spending nearly two decades as nondenominational missionaries in the Kuskokwim area.
In 1971, after their mission had disbanded and when Al’s health dictated that they move nearer modern medical facilities, they exited the Bush and began living in a log cabin near Longmere Lake. The move to the highway system didn’t deter the Yorks’ missionary zeal, however, as they continued to minister and to help others whenever and wherever possible.
They also raised their two daughters, Claudia and Diane, and their son, Elwin, and gave them more educational opportunities.
After Al agreed during the winter of 1974-75 to put on a minicourse on dog mushing for area schools, the idea for something grander began to germinate in his brain, resulting first in the Peninsula Junior Dog Mushers Association.
Organizing the PJDMA almost singlehandedly, Al put his more than 25 years of mushing experience into teaching boys and girls ages 5
through 18 how to construct mushing trails, how to handle sleds and dogs, how to make a dog harness and build a sled, how to select and train good sled dogs, and how to survive outdoors in the winter. While Al worked with young mushers, Bernice became involved in the Soldotna Community Schools program, teaching classes on sewing animal skins, using Frostline Kits, knitting and bread baking.
About this same time, Al and Bernice also began working each summer as hosts at Russian River Campground. Starting late in each May, they moved out of their log home and into camping space No. 50. From there they greeted campers and fishers from all over the country and taught them a variety of Alaska skills: smoking and dry-salting salmon, making squaw candy, canning fish, gold-panning (over on nearby Quartz Creek), identifying plants, jam- and jelly-making, and the manufacture of ulus.
By 1982, they were a fixture at Russian River and were featured in a September issue of Ruralite magazine in an article entitled, “The Genial Yorks.”
Meanwhile, almost entirely on his own, Al organized the Soldotna Winter Games, originally a two-day affair (Jan. 22 to 23, 1977).
Centered at the Soldotna Rodeo Grounds, the games began ambitiously. According to a schedule from the inaugural winter games, the events included snow sculpture for kids, various cross-country ski races, a snowshoe softball game, figure skating, the Peninsula Championship Sled Dog Contest, snow soccer, a junior mushing event, an open-class weight pull, skijoring and a winter pentathlon.
By the second year, the Soldotna Lions Club had taken up sponsorship of the event, and today it boasts a number of big-money corporate sponsors and a history of events and memorabilia.
Al died June 1, 1986, and Bernice, who is in her early 80s, lives in Wasilla near her daughter, Claudia. Diane lives in Soldotna, and Elwin lives in Sutton.
And the games live on.