Editor’s note: This is the first of a three-part story about the first settler on Longmere Lake. Part one examines the route taken by this settler to establish a presence on the lake. Next week, part two will focus on an important friendship begun at the lake and on the settler’s attempt to create a new home. Part three will look at his first years on Longmere with his growing family.
By Clark Fair
Around Longmere Lake today, 102 individual parcels of land make contact with the waterline. The largest of these parcels is 27.06 acres. The smallest is a triangular sliver of only 0.07 acres.
In the spring of 1947, however, the lake contained only a single parcel of land — a 167.29-acre homestead along the northwest shoreline.
The lake today features an air taxi service, several bed-and-breakfast establishments and a lodge, in addition to the homes of dozens of families and individuals. As such, Longmere is a busy place, frenetic with activity. In the summer, as swimmers and canoeists ply the waters, the lake is abuzz with floatplanes and jet skis. In the winter, ice fishermen bore holes into the lake to jig for trout as snowmachines roar up and down its frozen length.
In the early summer of 1947, common loons were the most frequent breakers of the natural quiet, and a single white canvas tent was the only sign of civilization along the 1.5-mile stretch of fresh water that runs diagonally from northeast to southwest on a topographic map.
In 1947, the Alaska Road Commission had cleared a pioneer trail suitable for Caterpillars and other road-building equipment. This trail would one day be a permanent road — the Sterling Highway — from Cooper Landing to Kenai and Homer, with a junction near the mouth of Soldotna Creek, where homesteading land was just becoming available. The new road was slated to pass less than 500 feet from the lake’s northernmost tip.
The single man in the white canvas tent liked this situation. And even a nearly disastrous turn of events later that summer could not dissuade him.
Don Culver may have been just 20 years old when he landed for the first time on Skilak
Lake, but already his was a life rich with experience. His stepfather had taught him to fly when Don was only 14 or 15 years old. In February 1945, a month before his 18th birthday, he had enlisted in the U.S. Navy to assist the American effort in World War II. Because the war ended before that year was out, Culver found himself released from military duty in July 1946, when he was only 19. Back home in Palo Alto, Calif., he decided to head north to visit his father, Ben Culver, in Anchorage.
Ben, who had traveled to Alaska during the war as a field officer with the American Red Cross, was an Anchorage Realtor with political leanings and plenty of connections. Ben had been to Alaska at an even earlier time to visit his brother, Walter Culver, who had been hired by the Bureau of Indian Affairs to come to Alaska in 1915 with his wife, Mildred, and teach Eskimo and Aleut children at Port Moller.
By the time Don arrived in Anchorage and found employment, his Uncle Walter had already been through town — acting as a deputy game warden, a chief special agent for the Alaska Railroad, a U.S. deputy marshal and the Anchorage chief of police — and had moved on, mining and prospecting in the Goodnews Bay area for a decade before retiring in California in 1943.
Ben, on the other hand, was fully immersed in the Anchorage scene. One day, when Don
was visiting Ben, he met an influential man whose information changed the course of his life.
“He was having dinner with a friend of his who was named Hawley Sterling,” Don Culver said. “He was the engineer for the section of road from Cooper’s Landing through to Homer, and at that time it had been engineered and had a Cat trail roughed out at least as far as Soldotna, and then hooking on to the old Kenai road.”
Hawley Sterling was the man for whom this stretch of highway (as well as the community just east of Soldotna) would one day be named. During that particular dinner conversation, however, Culver knew him simply as a man with an intriguing document.
“Hawley told my dad that while he was in the process of surveying, he said he had camped on this lake, and that if he wasn’t involved in something else, it was a place he’d love to settle. So that made me think, ‘Oh, man, that’s pretty good,’ and he had a survey map, and he gave us a copy of it. And it showed this lake.
“Well, officially the survey had not been published as such, but he had the information and the location, and I had a fresh pilot’s license.”
So in mid-March of 1947, Don and Ben Culver paid a visit to Jack Carr’s Flying Service at
Merrill Field and rented a single-engine airplane affixed with snow skis. They flew south and located the lake about five air miles west of the wooden bridge over the Moose River near its confluence with the Kenai River. Then, after they viewed from the air the snowy survey lines, they landed on the frozen lake surface and used the survey map to locate corner posts and stake out a homestead claim.
With the map in hand, they were able to stake almost exactly 160 acres, despite the curving shoreline of the lake. Then, in the tradition of many claim-stakers before them, they located a section corner and made Don’s claim official.
“We did the old miners’ thing of taking a Prince Albert tobacco can and nailing it to a tree. We put my claim in there and made a copy of it and went back to Anchorage to the District Land Office and filed it with the clerk.”
The romanticized name for the lake was Ben Culver’s contribution.
“Because of its shape — a long lake — and because he had some old Scottish history — ‘mere’ being an Old English word for water or pond or lake — ‘Longmere’ came out of that.”
In early May, Don Culver chartered Bill Cuffel’s Waco floatplane to haul himself and his gear down to his homestead, and he established a camp just north of the first point of land protruding into the lake from the western shore. He erected an 8-by-10-foot white canvas wall tent and constructed a log cache designed to keep his foodstuffs 8 feet off the ground and away from hungry bears. Inside his tent, he placed a “little bitty cookstove,” a cot and his tools.
As soon as he had settled in, he selected a cabin site just south of the same point of land and
began clearing trees and preparing to build. He had decided to use the materials most readily available, and from a mostly deciduous patch of trees he selected aspen logs for the foundation and walls of his new home. Two of the four corner posts on which his cabin would rest were stumps left behind by his clearing process.
The aspens for the first four or five horizontal courses of the cabin he cut in the spring when the sap was running thick under the bark. As a result, these logs — as can be seen clearly in early photographs of the cabin — darkened substantially more than those that he cut later in the summer.
By the end of June, Culver had laid in about three courses of those early logs, and he had ordered materials that he would need as the cabin construction progressed: framed glass windows, 8-inch shiplap for the cabin floor and roof, aluminum roofing and a stovepipe, among other items.
During that dry June, however, a spark kindled near Hidden Lake (almost 20 miles to the east) broke out into a conflagration that threatened Culver’s construction venture and his peaceful new existence.
By late July, the 1947 Kenai Burn had blackened nearly 300,000 acres of the central peninsula lowlands. The forest fire moved relentlessly westward, and during this month Culver found it necessary to take action.
“The Army sent a team of people down to supposedly protect stuff and try to see what they could do if the fire headed toward Kenai,” Culver said. “They came through and invited me to join them. They sort of considered me as a local scout, so I took all my camp and buried the stuff — made a pit and covered it over so it wouldn’t burn, and I put foodstuffs and other things up on the cache — and then I went and joined them for about 10 days.”
During those 10 days, the massive fire began to die at last. When Culver returned to his homestead, he discovered that that he had been lucky. The blaze had barely encroached on the eastern edge of his property before dissipating.
Construction of his cabin could commence anew.