By Jenny Neyman
Like its namesake mountain, Truuli Peak Vodka presents a striking image — a tall, slim bottle covered in a frosted white expanse capped by jagged blue mountain peaks with crystal-clear glass extending above to the blue-and-silver wrapper securing the cork cap.
Truuli Peak exhibits a similarly striking visage. At 6,612 feet above sea level, Truuli is the highest peak in the Kenai Mountain Range, situated to the southeast of the eastern end of Tustumena Lake. Looking out across Tustumena on a nice day, Truuli juts its peak up from snow-covered shoulders into the clear blue expanse above.
The creators and marketers of Truuli (the vodka) were hoping to capitalize on the Alaska cache of Truuli (the mountain). The vodka, released at the end of 2011, is produced by Bare Distillery in Anchorage, and is made with all-Alaska ingredients — 95 percent Delta barley and 5 percent wildflower honey. Marketers hope that the aura of an American-made spirit, particularly one flavored with the majestic image of Alaska, helps it compete with other midrange and top-shelf vodka brands, such as Grey Goose, Absolut and Belvedere.
“We really wanted to affiliate it with peak performance, top of the line. There really isn’t an American vodka that’s authentic and that’s out there at this level,” said Monika Elling, with Foundations Marketing Group in New York City, the company that did the naming, branding and marketing for Truuli Peak Vodka. “We wanted an authentically Alaskan product and we wanted an authentically all-American vodka, and so we did some historical research and essentially spent two weeks on identifying what would make sense with our direction and a top, high-end product. It really didn’t take all that long — once we identified Truuli Peak we knew that we had a winning name, and it’s obviously close to the distillery so there were multiple reasons why we thought that the name would correspond beautifully with where we were going with the vodka.”
Top shelf, top elevation. Symbol of made-in-Alaska pride, symbol of Alaska mountain majesty. But there’s one other similarity between the Truuli mountain peak and the drinkable Truuli Peak — both names were co-opted from a more original source. As a result, both names are an incorrect misinterpretation of the local Native language.
Meant to be climbed
Long before Truuli became a vodka, it was an unsummited (at least, in modern recorded history) peak tempting area residents caught up in the burgeoning mountain-climbing boom of the 1960s.
Eric Barnes, who had the first veterinarian practice in Kenai, which today is Kenai Veterinary Hospital, was part of that early culture of climbing. He’d been climbing since he was a kid in Colorado. He can’t remember anything, in particular, that set him on the vertical path. He just always seemed to have an affinity for the direction of “up.”
“We used to climb up the chimney at the house. I just wanted to do that, I guess. Well, my dad asked me to stop when he noticed a crack between the chimney and the roof. Mom said, ‘If you’re going to go climbing, you better join the Colorado Mountain Club and learn how. And I did,” said Barnes, who now splits his winters in Arizona and summers with a family-run commercial set-net site seven miles north of the mouth of the Kenai River.
Military service first brought Barnes to Alaska, being stationed in Anchorage in the 1950s. He and his wife, Tina, moved up in 1957 and he was immediately drawn to the peak possibilities.
“Of course, we were fascinated with all the big mountains. Coming form Colorado, why, snow-capped peaks as you drive into Alaska were just as exciting as can be to a mountain climber,” Barnes said.
While living in Anchorage he made friends among members of the newly founded, yet destined to become legendary, Mountaineering Club of Alaska. With that group Barnes was part of several first ascents of prominent area mountains.
In June 1959, Barnes and a small group of climbers, including Helga Bading and Paul Kruse, flew across Cook Inlet and made the first ascent of 10,016-foot Iliamna Volcano. In 1962 Barnes started coming to Kenai in the summers to fish, and by 1968 he and his family moved down from Anchorage. From his set-net site, the mountains across Cook Inlet beckoned, especially the notable cone of 10,197-foot Redoubt Volcano.
“Of course, Redoubt sticks out there right in front of you all day, every day. I couldn’t resist. And, so, myself and our crew on the beach — three high school kids — went over after the season was over and climbed Redoubt (in the 1960s), and I believe that was the second ascent,” Barnes said.
In 1960, Barnes, Bading, Gregg Erickson and a few others were the first to summit 11,070-foot Mount Spurr.
“And somewhere in there, I’m guessing the early ’70s, we went down and climbed Augustine (Volcano) — Dick Stenmark, just the two of us. And nobody will climb it any higher than we did because it’s 200 feet shorter now. That was before it blew its top,” Barnes said. “Somewhere after that we went down and climbed Mount Douglas — the high peak on the corner as you leave the inlet on the west side. My son, Dan (Chay, of Kenai) was on that one. That pretty much takes care of most of the stuff we did in Alaska.”
Except for Truuli. Barnes was among the party to first summit that peak, as well, in 1968. But Truuli was tame, a mere moderate day hike compared to the technical challenges of Redoubt or the medical emergencies seen while climbing Denali. Those were the days before medical science knew what to make of the problems climbers sustained at high elevations.
“We were all at that stage learning even what pulmonary edema and cerebral edema was. Everybody and was young and dumb and just thought we had a headache,” he said.
Barnes and his climbing partners flew in and landed on Truuli Glacier, and met up with another party of mountainers who were making the first traverse across the Harding Icefield at the time. He, along with Vinn and Grace Hoeman, Bill Babcock, Dave Spencer, Dave Johnston and Yule Kilcher, shuffled up and back down the highest peak in the Kenai range in a day.
“It couldn’t have been very long because we got back to the airplane the same day,” Barnes said. “If you’re landing at 5,000 feet, why, it’s not very far. It was pretty easy. It was a nice, sunny day. If you don’t get stuck with your airplane, why, everything goes well.”
Barnes said he still climbs — “A few little bumps down here (in Arizona),” he said. “Climbing has been a good part of our life, and it’s been fun all the time.”
Climbing wasn’t about being first, fastest or fearless. For Barnes, it was more about the experience.
“It’s self-challenge of some kind. Every time I look at a mountain, why, I don’t think about the hillside going up. I just think about, ‘Well, I’d like to get up there.’ And when I’m up there I think, ‘Well, I’d better get off of here. It’s time to go home.’ You rarely spend any time on top. I think what I enjoy is the effort,” he said.
Lost in translation
It’s fitting, in a quirk-of-history sort of way, that Barnes, as one of the party to first summit Truuli Peak, didn’t give much thought to the name of what he was climbing. The men responsible for the official name that endures today, and that now graces a fancy vodka bottle, also didn’t give it quite enough thought.
A Russian scientist by the name of Iliya Vossnesenski visited the Kenai Peninsula during the summer of 1842. Among the information he recorded was a list of place names, gathered from the area’s Dena’ina Athabascan Natives, who served as his guides. One of the trips he took was up the Kasilof River to Tustumena Lake. Looking out across the lake, he apparently asked the name of the highest peak seen on the horizon and wrote down, phonetically, what he heard.
The Dena’ina term likely told to Vossnesenski was “dghili,” said Alan Boraas, professor of anthropology at Kenai Peninsula College. The “d” sound in Dena’ina often was mistranslated as a “t” sound to Russian explorers. For instance, to a Dena’ina, the biggest lake on the peninsula would be called Dusdubena, rather than Tustumena as we know it today. And the “gh” combination in Dena’ina is a guttural sound produced in the back of the throat, similar to an “r” in French, as in Moulin Rouge. To a Russian, writing phonetically, Vossnesenski likely represented the “gh” sound as a “ruu” sound.
Vossnesenski sent the information he gathered to Constantin Grewink, a German naturalist employed as a mapmaker. Grewink never made it to Alaska — though he has a glacier named in his honor. Grewink wrote a geology of Alaska and the Northwest Coast of the U.S., including a map of the Kenai Peninsula based in part on information from Vossnesenski’s trip. It was written in German, since that was the standard language of the scienctific community in Europe at the time.
“He writes down sort of a phonetic Dena’ina name, but in Russian phonetics, I guess. So it goes from Dena’ina to Russian to German, and two things happened,” Boraas said. “The initial ‘d’ became ‘t’ and the ‘gh’ became ‘ruu,’ so dghili became truuli.”
Grewink’s map lists Truuli Peak, and that same spelling and pronunciation still is in use on official U.S. Geological Society maps today. Quirks of spelling aside, the meaning of the word also is incorrect.
In Dena’ina, “dghili” is a generic term simply meaning “mountain.” Dghili Ka-a, for example, is the Dena’ina name for Denali, meaning “big mountain.”
“It’s not a place name, it’s just ‘mountain.’ So I’m not sure how that happened,” Boraas said. “I have this image of Dena’ina men and women taking Vosnessenski up the Kasilof to Tustumena and he’s asking, ‘What’s the name of this, what’s the name of that?’ pointing to the tallest peak. And the Dena’ina guys, puzzled, answer, ‘Well, it’s mountain.’ And Vosnessenski goes, ‘OK, mountain it is.’ And he dutifully writes it down but hears it as Truuli, or at least it becomes that when Grewink puts it on the map. And there it is to this day, Truuli Peak, which is like saying ‘mountain mountain.’ That’s a little loose with history, but it was probably something like that,” Boraas said.
“And then some yuppie vodka maker comes along and says, ‘Cool, Truuli Peak,’ we’ll use that name,’” Boraas said. “But I think it’s neat. It’s a good way to talk about history.”