By Joseph Robertia
For some youths on summer vacation, constructive activities can be few and far between, particularly literal construction projects. But a small group of local teens worked hard recently to preserve a slice of history of the Kasilof area, and in learning about the past, they also developed skills that may one day help them in the future.
“All the kids are from the local area, so they were excited to be working on this project,” said Ciara Johnson, a Kenai National Wildlife Refuge leader for the Youth Conservation Corps, in regard to the efforts of the eight teens in YCC to restore the roofing tin on a portion of the Watchman’s Cabin, which now resides at the Kasilof Regional Historical Association’s museum grounds on Kalifornsky Beach Road.
Believed to be built sometime between 1882 and 1890, the Watchman’s Cabin is one of the oldest structures on the Kenai Peninsula, and originally stood just above shoreline on the north shore of the mouth of the Kasilof River.
In 2009, after many years of natural erosion and damage from vandalism, the cabin was moved to museum property in order to protect and preserve the structure for future generations. Restoration work has taken place on the cabin annually since the move.
“We’re putting the addition on like it originally was,” said Gary Titus, a historian for the refuge overseeing the work, in regard to a portion of the cabin built sometime later than the original structure was constructed.
“This originally had cannery tin, in pieces that were 14-by-20 inches, and they worked well. It was still good under that tin,” Titus said, but for the restoration they used newly made metal shingles fabricated at Alaska Steel, cut to be the same size as the originals.
The teens in the YCC program worked side by side with Titus and other refuge employees skilled in cabin
restoration. They climbed ladders, passed up the metal sheets, measured everything out and pounded nails to fasten the sheets in place.
According to Johnson, a few of the kids arrived with some basic carpentry skills from helping their parents with projects around the house, but the firsthand work on the cabin in which they have been involved has taught them much more about the practical application of building and, specifically, old-time roofing.
“Working with this tin has been a first for all of them,” she said.
Scott Slavik, a refuge backcountry ranger who oversees the YCC program, said the cabin restoration has been a great project for the YCC to support.
“We try to come up with a diverse project base for the kids, so they get an understanding of all we do at the refuge, and part of the commission of the refuge is to assist with community projects such as this, and we’re happy to help due to the scope, complexity and challenge of the work,” he said.
The teens involved shared similar sentiments. Many were unaware of the history of the Kasilof area and enjoyed learning about it as much as using the tools of the trade to restore it.
“I’m glad we learned about the history of the cabins before we started working on them because then, when we were up there working on the roof, what we were doing seemed more important,” said YCC worker Joanne Glaves. “Just working on the cabins made us a part of history.”
“What I liked was that I got to restore history with my own hands,” said Cody Whitely.
The cabin work is only a portion of the work the YCC crew will be involved in this summer. The crew started its eight-week season making trail improvements on the Keen Eye trail and cross-country ski trails at the refuge visitor center, and worked with Stream Watch program coordinators and volunteers to put up fencing in the Russian River Ferry area to protect recovering vegetation to stabilize the river bank.
The YCC crew has also cleaned up downfall at the Outdoor Education Center down Swanson River Road and made
improvements to the nearby Drake-Skookum Lakes Trail, including backpacking approximately 4 tons of rock and gravel to a site a quarter-mile in to raise sections of trail that passed through low, wet areas.
In the coming weeks, the YCC crew will head into the field, camping and working alongside the refuge trail crew, to cut a new, more-scenic reroute section on the Kenai River Trail, as well as spending a week clearing downfall and overgrown brush from the portage trails in the Swan Lake Canoe System.
Then the crew will spend a couple of days with Dr. Libby Bella, an ecologist at the refuge, to repair moose enclosures for a study that will allow a comparison of vegetation growth with and without moose browsing.
The season will wrap up with another week with the refuge cabin crew working at the Nurses Cabin, a historic cabin available for public use on the edge of Tustumena Lake at the end of the Doc Pollard trail.
With so many weeks of swinging a pickaxe for trail work behind and still ahead of the YCC crew, the week of cabin work was a nice reprieve in addition to a valuable learning experience.
“The feedback from the group was really positive. They enjoyed the roofing work, their interactions with the cabin and Kasilof Historical Society volunteers, and many were very interested in the history of the cabins and the people who built them,” Johnson said. “It was a nice break from trail work. They enjoyed using a different tool set from digging and grubbing.”