By Clark Fair
Nate White’s beefy wife had finished with her business in the outhouse and was stepping outside when a brown bear lunged at her. She retreated back into the odorous confines just as the bear smacked the door, slamming it shut.
More angry than afraid, Mrs. White peered out through a crack in the boards of the structure and watched as her husband’s pet bear prowled around her, restrained by its collar, a length of chain, and the running line to which Mr. White had secured the animal before leaving to act as a substitute deliveryman on the mail boat out of Hope.
Nate White had raised the bear from a cub, and now, at about age 2, it was large enough to pull White’s dogsled into the woods surrounding Hope and help him haul out loads of birch for firewood. Nate had a fondness for the burly bruin. His wife, on the other hand, detested it.
At one point, she saw a group of men strolling toward the local pool hall and she hollered for help, but although they heard her cries the men seemed unable to ascertain the direction from which they had come, and so they continued on.
Eventually, more than half an hour passed and Mrs. White noticed that the bear had drifted away, so she made a break for it. As fast as she could move her large frame, she bolted away from the outhouse and was able to reach her home. There, she gathered up a shotgun, strode purposefully back outdoors and dispatched her husband’s pet.
Visitors to the Hope-Sunrise Historical and Mining Museum are likely to hear this story, because a 1917 photograph on the wall in the main building depicts Nate White standing at the ready behind his sled, with his trusty brown bear out in front on the end of a lead line. It is a photo that readily draws visitors’ attention, and the museum’s main guides and caretakers, Ann and Billy Miller, delight in telling the tale, just as they enjoy regaling guests with dozens of other stories and hundreds of interesting facts about the community in which they have lived for almost 50 years.
But the Millers — Ann, 84, and Billy, 80 — have stories of their own to tell, too. Sometimes it takes a little longer to jar those stories out, however, since their main repertoire involves primarily the communities of Hope and Sunrise. But since the Millers are largely responsible for the very existence of the museum, it can be difficult to separate much of Hope’s history from their own.
This is especially true of Billy, who has hunted and trapped and guided for many decades in the area, and to whom Ann often defers for the telling of tales.
Billy first came to Alaska in 1949 as a member of the United States Army stationed in Whittier. When he was a youngster in Maryland, Billy used to take his recruiting sergeant hunting for grey squirrels out on his grandmother’s farm, and he’d told the officer of his desire to one day go to Alaska.
“In high school, he come to see me and asked, ‘Do I still want to go to Alaska?’” Billy said. “I said, ‘You betcha!’ He said, ‘If you’ll sign up with me, I’ll guarantee that you’ll get sent to Alaska.’ He kept his word. I did.”
In the year that he was stationed in Whittier, 18-year-old Billy spent nearly all his free time outdoors. When he had a free weekend, he would hike up Neil’s Pass onto Portage Glacier and walk down the ice to Bear Valley. With a three-day pass, he would hike the train tunnel through the mountain to Portage, to Diamond Jim’s bar, where he had befriended an old Norwegian trapper named Ben Goodland.
“Him and me got along real good right off the bat,” Billy said of Goodland. “He had a little cabin on the Placer River. He took me on his trapline he was running out of Portage. I snowshoed with him and stuff, and I got interested in trapping, and he told me when I got out (of the Army), we’ll go up Twentymile (River). He had one cabin up there, and he wanted to build a couple more. He says, ‘You help me, and we’ll split the fur money, whatever we catch during the trapping season.’”
The trapping partnership deal was on the table, but the transaction didn’t occur until 1953 when Billy had completed his Army duties, including stints with the 10th Combat Engineers at Fort Devens in Massachusetts, and the First Cavalry Division during the Korean War. Once he was back in Alaska, he trapped with Goodland in the winters and worked for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service the rest of the year as a fish hawk and game warden.
His work in law enforcement took him to various parts of the state, and he reveled in his many wilderness experiences. He quit his job a year after Alaska became a state, however, because he disliked the rigidity of state rules. “They wanted me to wear a uniform and all that crap,” he said.
Through his acquaintance with Hope big-game guide, Keith Specking, Billy became involved in Specking’s guiding business and worked with him on Brushkana Creek off the Denali Highway near Cantwell. After he learned the business, he bought a pair of horses of his own, got his own guide’s license, moved to Hope in 1962, and began guiding hunters out of a tent camp on Fox Creek, a tributary of Resurrection Creek on the Resurrection Pass Trail.
It was in those early days in Hope that he met Ann, who had moved to the area with her Air Force photographer husband at about the same time. Ann, originally from farm country near Dover, Del. (only about 90 miles from the place Billy had been raised), and who had come to Alaska with her husband to be stationed at Elmendorf Air Force Base, had been lured to Hope by the prospect of building and operating a trading post with Specking.
A friendship formed between Ann and Billy, and when Ann became single again, they married in 1969, and shortly thereafter became involved in the Hope and Sunrise Historical Society. And as they became more and more immersed in the community and its rich history, Billy continued guiding, eventually going in with Jim Strong to buy the old Harry Johnson cabins high up in the pass and to operate his business from them.
Of his days in the law enforcement and guiding business, Billy can recall a litany of experiences. He remembers the time in 1954 when he was working as a game warden north of Anchorage, got caught in a snowstorm and had to sleep in a 4-foot culvert until the front moved through.
He remembers another time in the mid-1950s when no one flew in groceries to his remote enforcement outpost, so for two weeks he subsisted on hotcakes, a small portion of bacon and fireweed, and meal after meal of pink salmon. He didn’t like fish before that assignment, and his predicament didn’t change his appetite.
Both he and Ann remember the moose-hunting trip they took about 20 years ago up by Fox Creek.
“Here’s this great big bull moose standing right by the trail, with a beautiful palm sticking out,” Ann said. “And Billy said, ‘Well, I don’t know why that bull’s standing there, but if you’re ever going to shoot, you better hurry up.’”
The moose was standing, apparently oblivious to the Millers, only about 30 feet off the trail.
“So I shot, and he started running. And we were running after him because I knew I’d hit him. And then he went down. And then we discovered why he was standing there.”
The bull had an irregular antler growth on the side closest to the Millers. One portion of the antler had grown down over the eye on that side, effectively blinding him, so he’d never known the Millers were there.
“That was a big, old, fat bull,” Ann said. “And I look at that (set of antlers, which she still has), and I think, ‘There’s nothing perfect in this world.’”
Today, with Billy retired from the guiding business and Ann retired as Hope entrepreneur and postmaster, their main focus is their home and the museum, which will remain open this year from noon to 4 p.m. every day through Labor Day.
Billy performed or supervised most of the construction of the museum in 1993, and the museum opened for business in 1994. Visitors to its Second Street location today will also be treated by Billy to a tour of the grounds, where he has restored and arrayed several relics and historic buildings, including the first “school” in Hope, and the barn, bunkhouse and blacksmith shop from the Bruhn-Ray mine on Colorado Creek, just across the Seward Highway from the Hope Road.
The school is actually the home of Oscar Grimes, who many decades ago offered to teach the children of Hope and first introduced them to the McGuffey Readers.
After Billy briefly introduces visitors to these buildings, he allows them to wander freely among the structures, where voice recordings and well-designed posters allow them to learn the rest of the history and view the artifacts at whatever pace they desire.
And if they wander back into the main building, there are always other intriguing photographs on the wall, almost begging for an explanation that either Ann or Billy is happy to supply.