By Clark Fair
The three 60-something Cooper Landing men posed for a photograph in the temporary cook shack they had erected along the shore of the northern end of Upper Russian Lake. The roughly rectangular structure was open in front, enclosed with canvas and aluminum on the other three sides, and roofed with log rafters and wooden planks.
Hanging from the log supports were two trout, their bellies slit and guts removed. Behind the men were shelves of mainly canned food and dry goods, cooking supplies, and a calendar for June 1951.
The men — Jack Lean (holding a rifle), Frank Towle (holding two metal plates) and Bill Parchins (holding a coffee cup) — were taking a break from the construction of a Forest Service cabin near the lake. They were building it from native spruce logs, and although it has undergone some renovations over the years, it is the same reservation-only cabin that greets hikers at Mile 12 of the Russian Lakes Trail today.
But it was not the first cabin on this backcountry lake.
Upper Russian Lake, which is split from end to end by the boundaries of the Chugach National Forest to the east and the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge to the west, was already occupied when construction of the recreational cabin began.
In fact, one of the residents of an earlier cabin on the lake made this notation in her journal on June 30, 1951: “This is our 36th wedding anniversary. Cooked a chicken for the Forestry Crew … and they ordered a case of beer from town.”
In 1939, Luke and Mamie Elwell homesteaded a 40-acre parcel across the lake from where the Forest Service would build 12 years later. There they built their home, which doubled as a hunting and fishing lodge. Visitors came to the Elwells’ lodge from around the world to fish for trophy rainbow trout or to be guided by Luke after big game.
The Elwells, in the their late 40s when they arrived at the lake, hailed from Ohio, where they had met
and eloped at the age of 20, according to Mamie’s great-niece, Abby Everett Tignor, in a fall 2005 Women in the Outdoors article. They shared a love for outdoor adventures, Tignor said, and by the early 1920s they had departed the Midwest for Alaska. Near Fairbanks, they purchased a 160-acre gold-mining claim, which they worked for several years before making sojourns in other remote parts of the territory.
By the time they moved to Upper Russian Lake, they were seasoned veterans of outdoor living. For their first cabin, they used native spruce for the walls and had most of the rest of their building supplies flown in. According to Tignor, Mamie laid the wooden floors, built and hung the doors, and made carvings of local scenes around the ceiling.
The Elwells were living in the new structure by 1940, according to Cooper Landing historian Mona Painter. And from that point on, they were almost
continually building. Over the years, they expanded the lodge into three sections, they erected other cabins for overnight guests, and they also built a meat house, woodshed, tractor shed and other outbuildings.
One of the prize features of the lodge area was Mamie’s flower and vegetable gardens, in which she routinely grew potatoes, cabbage, kale, rutabagas, peas, celery and much more, said Painter.
Katie Coppock, of Cooper Landing, flew in to the lodge with her family in the late 1950s and learned firsthand how Mamie could put together a meal from what she had grown and had had flown in. Coppock wrote about the meal in a 1957 Christian Science Monitor article:
“‘This is Monday, so you’re getting leftovers,’ Mamie warned us as we sat down to dine. But what leftovers! Barbecued chicken, roast beef, hot rolls, potato salad, radishes and leaf lettuce salad from Mamie’s hotbed; and rhubarb pie for dessert. Among her other accomplishments she is famous for her cooking. To preserve the food flown in by Bush pilots, Luke has put up lake ice in sawdust. All supplies as well as visitors are flown in.”
Among the “other accomp-lishments” mentioned by Coppock was Mamie’s ability to fend for herself outdoors. According to Tignor, Mamie was a good shot with her .250 Savage rifle and was adept at running a trapline to help supplement the family income. She was also a skilled writer, and when Luke was engaged in extended hunting trips, she often authored articles (under the pen name “Niska”) for magazines such as Field & Stream, Outdoor Life and Alaska Sportsman.
Once while snowshoeing home after checking her trapline, said Coppock, Mamie fell on the rough lake ice and broke her nose. It was healing all right
until one night when Luke accidentally elbowed her in the face as he was turning over in bed.
Luke’s health declined in the late 1950s, and the Elwells sold their place in 1960 to a three-person partnership that included Dr. Howard Romig of Cooper Landing. Romig and his wife, Marian, who for years had been frequent guests at the Elwell establishment, later bought out the partners, and afterward the main structure became known as the Romig cabin.
The partnership (Alaska Safari Inc.) operated the place only briefly as a lodge, but after the buyout it quickly became a fixture as a private recreational structure.
But, according to Painter, even that was not the first cabin on the lake.
Painter said that Mamie Elwell told her that there was an abandoned cabin already standing along the lakeshore when they arrived in 1939.
Painter said she believes that the abandoned cabin had belonged to Gerhard “Stucco” Johnson, a Seward-based artist and craftsman known for his
top-quality stucco exteriors in the Gateway City. Born in Norway in 1873, Johnson reportedly lived and worked for several years in New York City before coming to Seward in the early 20th century. He died in 1942 and was buried in the Seward cemetery.
Uniting the past with the present, the Elwells apparently used some part of the Johnson cabin to help build their own.