By Jenny Neyman
Helen Gwin spent 26 years looking out for residents, visitors and travelers through Cooper Landing as the proprietor of Gwin’s Lodge, which she and her husband, Patrick “Pat” Gwin, started in 1946. Even after retiring in 1976 and until her death at age 92 in 2007, she still kept an eye out for the community she loved and had lived in for 61 years, by volunteering for several organizations integral to the character of the town, many of which she helped found.
If Cooper Landing gets its way in the coming year, this pioneer of its past will have a permanent link into the area’s present and future, giving Gwin a spot to peek down on her lodge site along the Kenai River and her beloved community beyond it, by naming a mountain peak in her honor.
Mayme Ohnemus and Mona Painter, members of the Cooper Landing Historical Society and friends of Gwin’s, have researched, compiled and submitted the application and documentation required to request an unnamed peak of the mountain directly to the south behind Gwin’s Lodge, at Mile 52 of the Sterling Highway, be named Helen Gwin Peak, and a ridge running to the west of the peak be named for Helen’s husband, Pat.
Ohnemus said the idea came from a previous owner of Gwin’s Lodge, Bob Siter, who had mentioned it to Helen, who was tickled at the thought of a mountain bearing her name.
“She was so pleased with that. She just really was pleased he wanted to do that,” Ohnemus said.
But a little research made it clear the idea was a dead end at that time — as Gwin currently wasn’t. The regulations governing the naming of geographic features after individuals state that the honoree must be dead for five years before an application may be considered. Gwin died in 2007, and Pat before her in 1986. Ohnemus didn’t forget the idea, just like she couldn’t forget Helen and Pat.
The two came to the Kenai Peninsula from Colorado in 1946, landing in Seward and settling in Cooper Landing, which is as far as the existing road at the time would take them. But they saw potential in the tiny town, then with a population of only about 100, but with ample hunting and fishing resources all around them. The Gwins applied for a roadhouse license, thinking business would grow along with traffic along the new road being planned for the area. They started out operating a small packaged goods store out of a tent until starting construction of the lodge in 1950, cutting, hauling and hand-peeling the logs themselves. The lodge opened in January 1953 to serve Cooper Landing residents and the trickle of travelers and fishermen that were starting to traverse the Sterling Highway, completed in 1950, and the Seward Highway connecting the peninsula to Anchorage, completed in 1951. They added a kitchen in 1953 and the restaurant and bar in 1954, with Helen doing the cooking and cleaning.
Helen and husband, Pat, divorced in 1959 and Helen remained to run the lodge. They stayed friends, though, in a cantankerous fashion that suited them, not inviting anyone else’s opinion on the matter, with Pat returning to live out the rest of his days at the lodge.
“He was kind of an old rascal and she called him ‘Old Buzzard,’ and he loved it when she did,” Ohnemus said.
Helen herself had a reputation for being a tough old bird, once reportedly swatting a brown bear away from the back door with a broom. But there was some downy softness to her, as well — particularly for animals.
“She was tough when she had to be tough but other times her heart would just melt. She loved animals and there were all these rabbits around the lodge. Pat would come in with a little baby rabbit, and hand her one of these little rabbits that would have to be fed with an eyedropper and her heart would just melt — and he knew how to work her that way,” Ohnemus said.