Editor’s note: This is the second of a two-part story about Tustumena miner and trapper Joe Secora, who lived a mostly solitary life on the lake for several decades. Last week’s story discussed the type of man Secora was and the way he lived. Part two reveals his origins and his abrupt demise.
By Clark Fair
After Joe Secora was laid to rest beneath the mossy loam of Spruce Grove Memorial Park Cemetery in Kasilof, George Pollard mourned the loss of a man he had considered a friend. Then, after intruders invaded Secora’s home on the northern shore of Tustumena Lake, Pollard also re-evaluated the paranoia he had once perceived in the wiry gold miner.
Secora, he said, worried that other individuals were after his gold.
“I think he figured they thought, ‘That old prospector up there, he’s got a fortune under his floorboards,’” Pollard said.
In the days after Secora’s death in February 1972, Pollard said, snowmachine riders apparently seeking hidden treasure cruised the length of Tustumena Lake to Secora’s cabin and gave it a thorough going-over, scattering the old ore samples stored under his bunk, dumping out the cooler full of potatoes kept under the floor, and generally “working the place over pretty good.”
Years earlier, recalled Pollard, he had begun to feel concerned about the mental
state of the man he had frequently employed as an assistant hunting guide in the Kenai Mountains. In the mid-1960s on one of his many visits to Secora’s home, located just west of the mouth of Indian Creek, he and Secora had shared an odd conversation.
“He said, ‘There was a couple of guys here, and they left me a bottle of wine. And I drank that wine and got terribly sick. I thought I was going to die.’ He said, ‘They must have poisoned it.’ So I said, ‘How could they? Was it sealed?’ He said, ‘Yes.’ I said, ‘Well, how could they poison it?’ He said, ‘Oh, with a hypodermic needle. They could stick it through the cork.’ I got to thinking, ‘This is pretty loopy, you know.’”
Sometime later, on another visit, he and Secora had a similar exchange.
“Someone left him a dozen eggs, and he said, ‘You know, I ate a couple of those eggs and I got sick. I almost died.’ I said, ‘Are they rotten?’ He said, ‘No.’ I said, ‘How could the eggs make you sick?’ I knew he hadn’t had eggs for years and years. He said, ‘They could stick a hypodermic needle in them.’”
The reclusive Secora was known as a reticent man who could be amiable if
necessary, but as a rule he listened far more than he spoke, and he kept to primarily himself, venturing to civilization — mostly Kasilof — only once or twice a year, ostensibly to re-supply his staple goods and occasionally to play pinochle with his brother John’s in-laws (the Hermansens) or another small group of friends.
Leaving the lake was an involved process and a long journey. Secora would pull-start the five-horse Mercury engine on the transom of his 16-foot, kit-built Chris-Craft and, in good weather, spend about four hours motoring more than 20 miles down the lake to its Kasilof River outlet. About two miles downstream, he would tie off his boat at the head of an old Army trail, unload his homemade wheelbarrow (for toting supplies), and push it the next five miles to the nearest store.
“Time had a different connotation to Joe Secora than to the rest of us — probably a better one,” said Pollard, who believes that Secora never wore a watch or worried much about the time of day. His primary concerns were gathering enough to eat, assuring his warmth and security, searching hard for flecks of gold, and working as a trapper or assistant guide for extra money.
So it may have seemed odd to the man with nothing but time when Martin Hermansen came to him — after hearing from others of Secora’s paranoia — and insisted that it was time for Secora to take a vacation.
Hermansen attempted to persuade Secora to sojourn in California, where he’d been a prospector before heading north to Alaska in the 1930s. Secora argued that he didn’t have the money to cover the airfare, but Hermansen convinced him to accept a personal loan.
When he returned sometime later to Alaska, he had yet another tale to relate to Pollard.
In northern California, Secora had headed straight for the mountains to prospect and soon found pay dirt. Unfortunately, it was located on private property, so Secora offered the owner a deal — he and the owner would file a joint mining claim, Secora would do the mining, and the two men would share the profits.
The landowner agreed, but insisted that a friend of his be included in the deal; he said that he and his friend would take care of the paperwork. When they returned, however, only the friends’ names were on the claim. Discouraged that circumstances were once again conspiring against him, Secora grew determined to return home directly.
But there was a problem; Secora had no money. So he sold his good pair of
Bausch and Lomb binoculars, and may have sold his Exakta camera as well, to raise the necessary funds to fly back north.
In the early 1970s, Secora met a Ninilchik entrepreneur named Wayne Bishop, owner of Inlet View Cabins and Café. Bishop, a former hard-rock miner originally from Wyoming, was also the owner of a single-engine Aeronca Champ. He flew in to the upper lake three or four times to chat with Secora and bring him old mining magazines.
On his final day of Tustumena flying, Feb. 23, 1972, he brought Secora one of his wife’s homemade pies, and he convinced his new friend to make the short flight with him up Indian Creek to Lake Emma, where they would land on skis, auger a few holes through the ice, and see if they could catch a few Dolly Varden.
Joe Secora, according to Pollard, was born in or around Scranton, Pa., on Dec. 30, 1908. “Alaska’s No. 1 Guide: The History and Journals of Andrew Berg 1869-1939,” by Catherine Cassidy and Gary Titus, doesn’t specify a birthplace but says that Secora and his brother came from New Jersey.
Eventually, the Secora brothers trekked transcontinentally to California to prospect for gold, and Pollard said he thinks that Joe Secora’s next move was into the Susitna Valley, where he continued prospecting until taking up residence near Indian Creek at Tustumena Lake in 1938.
With the exception of military service, Secora spent the rest of his life at the lake. At Spruce Grove Memorial Park Cemetery, Secora’s grave marker inndicates that he was a private first class in the Army Air Forces during World War II. Pollard said that Secora was also involved in a rescue on Mount McKinley during that time.
At Tustumena Lake about four decades earlier — in May 1901, according to Cassidy and Titus — 51 placer claims were located and filed along the lower stretch of Indian Creek. In July, those claims were consolidated under the Northwest Development and Mining Co., which issued $50,000 in bonds to fund the enterprise.
In October 1901, Andrew Berg, his brother, Emil, and two other men also filed on 80 acres of placer ground along Indian Creek. Over the next three years, while Berg built a cabin near the creek mouth, the NWD&M Co. installed a small sawmill along the lakeshore just north of Berg, began building a road from the mill up to creek itself, and then set up a hydraulic mining system. In 1904, the company reported having a “fairly good season,” but then it abandoned its operations and never returned.
In November 1930, on the site of the old sawmill, one of Berg’s friends, Erling Frostad, began but never finished a log cabin.
At some point after his own arrival at the lake, Secora enlisted the assistance of his brother and either Jimmy or Buddy Minano to take up the task of completing Frostad’s project, said Pollard.
The cabin they finished became Secora’s main home until his death on Wednesday, Feb. 23, 1972.
On that day, Secora sat in the passenger’s seat of Bishop’s plane as they flew into Lake Emma. Pollard said he remembers Bob Ritchie of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service saying that he had seen ski tracks and evidence of ice fishing in the snow covering the lake ice. Ritchie had noticed the tracks on Thursday, Feb. 24, while assisting the Civil Air Patrol in searching for Bishop’s plane after it was reported missing at 10 p.m. the night before.
Ritchie then spotted the wreckage of an airplane at 11:25 a.m. on Thursday in the mountainous terrain between Indian Creek and the Tustumena Glacier. He identified the wreckage as Bishop’s Aeronca. According to the Cheechako News, a helicopter was called in from the Rescue Coordination Center at Elmendorf Air Force Base. The chopper carried two Alaska State Troopers from the Soldotna detachment, who recovered the bodies and transported them to Walsh Mortuary in Kenai.
“They (Bishop and Secora) took off toward the south fork of the Indian, and they
turned around to come back and crashed,” Pollard said. “There were a couple of little rises there he had to get over, and he didn’t get over the second one. I think he overestimated the power of his plane.”
For all his earlier paranoia of murderous plots and his wariness of people out to get him through the nefarious subtly of food poisoning, Secora was done in by the very straightforward force of gravity.
Bishop, who left behind a wife, daughter and a business, was 56. Secora, who left behind three cabins and a gold-mining operation, was 63. Whether Secora also left behind any gold, only the intruders to his Tustumena home may ever know.