Editor’s note: Following is part three of the histories behind some common central Kenai Peninsula sites, this week covering the area east of Sterling to Cooper Landing. While some of the sites in this area have origins readily determined by a search of the records and a few key interviews, others may remain forever shrouded in mystery. Mystery Creek, for instance, was mentioned by the U.S. Geological Survey as far back as 1911, but its origin seems as mysterious as its name.
By Clark Fair
King Thurman, a trapper and prospector who frequented the Kenai Mountains near Cooper Landing in the early 1900s, went missing in the summer of 1915. When his body was discovered several months later inside his trapping cabin along Rat Creek (the outlet for Trout Lake), it served as a grim reminder of the dangers inherent in the Alaska wilderness.
Thurman, known as a man who liked solitary life and often ran afoul of the territorial game laws, this time had apparently run afoul of a brown bear with an attitude. According to information from U.S. Fish and Wildlife historian Gary Titus, two trappers seeking overnight accommodations happened upon Thurman’s cabin and discovered Thurman’s grisly remains lying on a bed inside.
The entire right side of Thurman’s torso was “torn and chewed up,” according to Titus, and so were his left hip, right arm and right leg. On the bed beside his body lay a .22-caliber revolver with a spent shell in the chamber. On his decomposing body, the trappers found a paper that, on top, declared the contents of the cabin to be the property of King Thurman, and, on bottom, were these handwritten words: “Have ben tore up by a brown bear. No show to get out. Good-bye. I’m sane but have to suffering the of death.”
The physical evidence seemed to support the notion of his message: Thurman had been savagely mauled by a grizzly but managed afterward to make it into his cabin, where he realized he could never reach medical aid in his condition, and so he shot himself to end his misery.
The trappers burned down the cabin, making it Thurman’s funeral pyre. Sometime later, the creek by which Thurman had built his cabin and spent so many solitary days, was renamed as a tribute to him and the lifestyle he had embodied.
- Browns Lake — Named after Gregory Norman Brown, whom some people called George, while others called him Greg. According to longtime Soldotna resident, Al Hershberger, Brown often said, “My English name is George; my Russian name is Gregory.” He had trapping cabins scattered throughout the area, including one on the lake that bears his name.
- Brown was killed in a midair collision while flying near Chinitna Bay around 1960. He and another man, in separate planes, were scouting for brown bears when they collided and plummeted to the ground. The two sons of the other pilot witnessed the collision from the ground and were left alone for several days before someone found them. Meanwhile, bears discovered Brown’s remains and consumed most of them.
- Although this may have been the final tragedy in Brown’s life, according to Hershberger, it certainly wasn’t the first. Hershberger said that former Kenai marshal, Allan Petersen, once told him that Brown, who had lived in Homer before coming to Kenai, had accidentally shot and killed his own father while on a hunting trip.
- Killey River — There’s no definite answer here, but there is a strong possibility. The river has been so named since at least 1904, when it was mentioned in a U.S.G.S. report. According to Peter Kalifornsky’s book, “A Dena’ina Legacy,” the Dena’ina called it Killi, which is not a Dena’ina word, but may have referred to a white man in the area. According to Mary Barry’s “A History of Mining on the Kenai Peninsula,” a prospector named A.M. Killey had a placer claim on Palmer Creek, a tributary of Resurrection Creek, near Hope, in 1895. The timing is right, although not enough information is available presently to make a firm determination.
- Bottenintnen Lake — Peter Kalifornsky wrote that this lake’s name came from the Dena’ina Batinitin Bena, which translates as “trail goes by it lake.” According to Alan Boraas, an anthropology professor at Kenai Peninsula College, the “trail” was almost certainly an exclusively winter route. Bottenintnen Lake is virtually surrounded by marsh, making it a poor choice for warm-weather passage. But during the frozen months, its surface and frozen swamps make for easy travel and likely served as a portion of a winter route to Kenai.
Watson Lake and Petersen Lake — Part of the Seven Lakes Trail system, these two bodies of water were named for former Kenai National Moose Range employees, Gerald H. “Gerry” Watson and James D. “Jimmy” Petersen, who were lost in Skilak Lake in September 1955. Watson was a federal trainee from Portland, Ore., working at the time under Peterson, who was the assistant manager of the moose range and the son of former area marshal, Allan Petersen. Although their bodies were never found, officials, who did find an oar and a gas can from their boat, believed that the two men drowned.
- Egumen Lake — The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service named this lake in the early 1960s, using a word sometimes spelled “Igumen,” a Romanian title for a monk or the father superior of a monastery. The name applied to the peninsula’s Russian Orthodox history, particularly to Father Igumen Nikolai, the priest who founded the current Kenai parish in the 1840s.
- Kelly Lake — Another of the bodies of water along the original Seven Lakes Trail, Kelly Lake was named for Morris Kelly, the first head of predator control in Alaska territorial days and into statehood.
- Upper and Lower Ohmer Lakes —Formerly known as Upper and Lower Alcatraz, so named by the Alaska Road Commission road-building crew, these lakes were renamed in 1965 in honor of Earl N. Ohmer, who served as chairman of the Territorial Alaska Game Commission.
- Skilak Lake — Kalifornsky said that the Dena’ina called this lake Q’es Dudiden Bena, which translates as “flows into outlet lake.” The section of river between Skilak and Kenai lakes was called Sqilantnu, meaning “ridge place river,” and Kenai Lake itself was called Sqilant Bena, meaning “ridge place lake.”
- Engineer Lake — This lake was almost certainly named for an Alaska Road Commission engineering camp established there while the road was being planned and built in the 1940s.
- Mox Lake — This body of water, tucked away between the Sterling Highway and Skilak Lake, was dubbed “Mox” in the early 1960s. According to Soldotna High School Russian teacher Gregory Weissenberg, “mox” (pronounced “mokh”) is the Russian word for moss.
- Chatelain Lake — Not far from Mox Lake, this lake was named by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in honor of Ed Ward Chatelain, the first moose biologist for the agency in territorial days.
- Fuller Lakes — Tucked into the Mystery Hills, these small lakes were not named for renowned Cooper Landing gunsmith Bill Fuller, as many people might presume. According to Fuller’s widow, Betty, who served for many years as Cooper Landing’s postmaster, Fuller Lakes get their name from Wilbert “Dad” Fuller, who, in the 1920s or ’30s had a home on Kenai Lake, off what is now known as Snug Harbor Road.
- Jim’s Landing — As historian Gary Titus once pointed out, the name of this boat launch, located just above the Kenai River canyon, should more properly be “Jims” (without the apostrophe) or “Jims’” (with the apostrophe after the “s”) because there was more than one Jim. According to mining historian Mary Barry, “Big Jim” O’Brien and “Little Jim” Dunmire prospected for a while in Cooper Landing before settling in the late 1930s on a Surprise Creek claim operated previously by Steve Melchior. In fact, the boat launch used to be called Melchior’s Landing. The partners worked their claims there for more than 30 years, and reported finding placer gold in a quantity enough to keep them interested.
- Afonasi Lake — Located near Watson Lake, this body of water was named for an Athabascan chief, whose name was sometimes written as “Ephanasy,” and who reportedly acted as a trailbreaker for Antone Aide, who was a mail carrier between Seward and Hope in 1903.
- Chickaloon River — Almost certainly, this stream (called Nay’dini’aana, meaning “the log over the river,” by the Ahtna) was named after Chief Chickalusion, who lived in the area in the late 1800s. Chickalusion, who died around 1900 and was buried near Hope Point, occasionally warred with the Tyonek Indians while serving as patriarch of his Athabascan tribe near Resurrection Creek.
- Cooper Landing (and Cooper’s Mountain and Creek) — Joseph M. Cooper came into the country around the lower end of Kenai Lake in the 1880s and attempted to organize the Cleveland Mining District, which would encompass the entire Kenai Peninsula. He had coal interests, and he mined gold in Hope and Sunrise, before establishing a trading post at the boat landing that came to bear his name. In Cooper’s Landing, he mined the river bars for gold and later married Elizabeth Kvasnikoff, whom he met while mining for gold in the Ninilchik River. He contracted pneumonia and died around the turn of the century, and he was reportedly buried in Anchor Point.
- Bean Creek — Supposedly, this stream, which empties into the Kenai River just below the outlet of Kenai Lake, was named in the mid-1930s when a group of men building the first Kenai River bridge was encamped along the creek and found themselves with nothing to eat but beans. The bridge was replaced in 1950.
- Langille Mountain — This craggy peak, which stands high above Kenai Lake near Cooper Landing, is often viewed from the Sterling Highway by travelers hoping to spot Dall sheep on its sharp shale flanks. The mountain was named for William Langille, who was appointed the first forestry officer in Alaska in 1902.
- Slaugher Gulch — At least two different versions of the origin of this name exist, and either could easily be true. The essence of each tale is this: Meat-hunters from an encampment of hungry men were sent into the hills to find enough game to feed the entire crew; and, on a ledge about 1,500 vertical feet above where the Cooper Landing School now stands, they did their job so well that their act was memorialized in the name of the mountain. The differences in the stories revolve around what was “slaughtered” up there — moose or Dall sheep — and what kind of a camp was being fed — USGS, servicemen, mine workers or rail workers.
- Cecil Rhode Mountain — This peak was formerly called “Cooper Mountain,” after Joseph Cooper, the founder of Cooper Landing, but the name was changed to honor the outdoor photographer, Cecil Rhode, who, along with his photographer wife, Helen Rhode, chronicled life and wildlife on the Kenai Peninsula, and spent considerable time on the mountain that came to bear his name. Rhode died in 1979, and Cooper got a nearby mountain named after him, instead.