By Jenny Neyman
Helen Gwin spent 26 years looking out for residents, visitors and travelers through Cooper Landing as the proprietor of Gwin’s Lodge, which she and her husband, Patrick “Pat” Gwin, started in 1946. Even after retiring in 1976 and until her death at age 92 in 2007, she still kept an eye out for the community she loved and had lived in for 61 years, by volunteering for several organizations integral to the character of the town, many of which she helped found.
If Cooper Landing gets its way in the coming year, this pioneer of its past will have a permanent link into the area’s present and future, giving Gwin a spot to peek down on her lodge site along the Kenai River and her beloved community beyond it, by naming a mountain peak in her honor.
Mayme Ohnemus and Mona Painter, members of the Cooper Landing Historical Society and friends of Gwin’s, have researched, compiled and submitted the application and documentation required to request an unnamed peak of the mountain directly to the south behind Gwin’s Lodge, at Mile 52 of the Sterling Highway, be named Helen Gwin Peak, and a ridge running to the west of the peak be named for Helen’s husband, Pat.
Ohnemus said the idea came from a previous owner of Gwin’s Lodge, Bob Siter, who had mentioned it to Helen, who was tickled at the thought of a mountain bearing her name.
“She was so pleased with that. She just really was pleased he wanted to do that,” Ohnemus said.
But a little research made it clear the idea was a dead end at that time — as Gwin currently wasn’t. The regulations governing the naming of geographic features after individuals state that the honoree must be dead for five years before an application may be considered. Gwin died in 2007, and Pat before her in 1986. Ohnemus didn’t forget the idea, just like she couldn’t forget Helen and Pat.
The two came to the Kenai Peninsula from Colorado in 1946, landing in Seward and settling in Cooper Landing, which is as far as the existing road at the time would take them. But they saw potential in the tiny town, then with a population of only about 100, but with ample hunting and fishing resources all around them. The Gwins applied for a roadhouse license, thinking business would grow along with traffic along the new road being planned for the area. They started out operating a small packaged goods store out of a tent until starting construction of the lodge in 1950, cutting, hauling and hand-peeling the logs themselves. The lodge opened in January 1953 to serve Cooper Landing residents and the trickle of travelers and fishermen that were starting to traverse the Sterling Highway, completed in 1950, and the Seward Highway connecting the peninsula to Anchorage, completed in 1951. They added a kitchen in 1953 and the restaurant and bar in 1954, with Helen doing the cooking and cleaning.
Helen and husband, Pat, divorced in 1959 and Helen remained to run the lodge. They stayed friends, though, in a cantankerous fashion that suited them, not inviting anyone else’s opinion on the matter, with Pat returning to live out the rest of his days at the lodge.
“He was kind of an old rascal and she called him ‘Old Buzzard,’ and he loved it when she did,” Ohnemus said.
Helen herself had a reputation for being a tough old bird, once reportedly swatting a brown bear away from the back door with a broom. But there was some downy softness to her, as well — particularly for animals.
“She was tough when she had to be tough but other times her heart would just melt. She loved animals and there were all these rabbits around the lodge. Pat would come in with a little baby rabbit, and hand her one of these little rabbits that would have to be fed with an eyedropper and her heart would just melt — and he knew how to work her that way,” Ohnemus said.
Every Thanksgiving she would cook a big meal for any bachelors in town, believing that no one should be alone on the holidays. For Christmas she’d throw a party for the entire community. Everyone would come, including from the other lodges and businesses in town, which would shut down for the night to head to Gwin’s. Helen would spend weeks preparing the food, Ohnemus said.
“It was a big thing, the community getting together,” Painter sad. “And that was important — in those days, especially, the pre-television days.”
Over the years Gwin’s became a well-known establishment across the peninsula and beyond, where people would cram elbow to elbow around the family-style, handmade wood tables underneath the taxidermied fish trophies and swap fishing, hunting, hiking or traveling tales of their own, washed down with dinner and a beer.
“There have to be a lot of people out there who remember her from stopping there,” Ohnemus said.
Any long-timer in Cooper Landing certainly remembers the Gwins, and even newcomers are familiar with their legacy, whether they know of the Gwins or not. Pat helped build the original Cooper Landing Community Hall in 1949-50, and much of the contents of his old woodworking shop were donated to the Cooper Landing Historical Society for use in its museum.
Helen was particularly active in the community, as a founder of the Cooper Landing Community Club and Cooper Landing Senior Citizen Corp., Inc., secretary of the first chamber of commerce in the 1960s, treasurer for the Dall Homemakers for 11 years, and a founder of the unforgettably named Sexy Senior Dumpster Cleaners — a volunteer group that keeps the Kenai Peninsula Borough’s waste transfer sites in Cooper Landing, Hope and Crown Point picked up, orderly and unattractive to wildlife. Gwin is the one who came up with the name, though some, including Ohnemus and Painter, weren’t sold on the choice at first.
“I was skeptical of the name, I wasn’t sure about that. And she said, ‘Well, they’ll just take one look at us and laugh and know it’s a joke,’” Painter said.
Though ownership has changed over the years, Gwin’s is one of the oldest roadside lodges in the state, and Ohnemus didn’t want that legacy to be forgotten.
“So many (lodges have) burned here recently, in Cantwell and different places in the state. I thought, ‘You know, the building itself can go anytime — flood, earthquake, fire. Well, a mountain would be there forever in their memory. And I loved both of them. We were like family all of us, so I was really tickled that I could even go through with this idea of naming the peak,” she said.
Ohnemus worked for Helen for a few years and remembers washing dishes in the back, looking out the window at that mountain, or standing in front of the lodge and seeing it provide the backdrop to the log structures. It’d be a fitting memorial for a woman who gave so much to the area.
“There is no question that she was a very important part of the community,” Painter said. “And for a long time, too, because she came here in 1946 and died in 2007. So she was a longtime resident.”
And a fitting designation for Pat, as well, to be memorialized on a mountain next to Helen, though not quite on her level, as the ridge is at a slightly lower elevation than the peak. And the proposed named of the ridge isn’t quite as noble sounding as Helen Gwin Peak, but it is, again, fitting.
“Old Buzzard Ridge,” Ohnemus said. “It wasn’t done in meanness or anything. That’s what Helen used to call him, and he really did puff up with pride.”
Also fittingly, the peak and ridge are part of a larger mountain structure, with the highest peak being named for another Cooper Landing pioneer, Helen Rhode (nearby Cecil Rhode Mountain is named for Helen’s husband). If the application is approved, the two Helens can spend the future as neighbors, peeking down on their community from their respective peaks.
“Oh, yes, they were friends. Helen (Rhode) came in 1946 also. She died in 1992 but all their lives here they were friends,” Painter said.
“I thought that’s really fitting. They both came here at the same time and both were very, very involved with the community and the development of the community,” Ohnemus said.
Ohnemus submitted the application packet to the state Department of Natural Resources Division of Parks and Outdoor Recreation, Office of History and Archeology. And if you think that’s a mouthful, that’s nothing compared to the current official designation of the peak they wish to name for Helen Gwin — Latitude 60-72 minutes, 28 seconds north, Longitude 149-55 minutes, 50 seconds west, Elevation 3,600 feet, Northeast ¼ Section 11, T4N, R4W, Seward Meridian Alaska, USGS Quad: Seward B-8 1994, Chugach National Forest.
The naming process is lengthy, requiring research and documentation establishing what geographic feature is to be named, that it is currently unnamed, who it is to be named for and what relevant significance the potential namesake has to the area.
“It was really interesting the different levels this has to go through before it gets through the whole thing. It was quite an experience,” Ohnemus said.
The rules are laid out in the “Principles, Policies and Procedures for Domestic Geographic Names,” if that says anything.
“So many pages!” Painter said.
The applicants also must gather letters of support, which they gathered from historical societies, chambers of commerce, local organizations and the school, Ohnemus said. Land managers, including the borough and Chugach National Forest, and neighboring property owners also must be notified of the application.
“Once you get all this information, who and why and the support and all that, and your application filled out, which has to have exact geographic location, which we got from the borough, then you turn it in,” Painter said.
Then wait. The state board that considered geographic name requests only meets twice a year, with the next meeting this fall. If it’s approved at the state level, it then must be approved at the federal level.
“So it’ll take awhile. It has to go through a review process in-state and nationally,” Painter said.
It could take a year to get an answer. But in the meantime, Ohnemus is confident the Gwins’ significance won’t wane.
“We had really good, strong support, and a lot of people who lived around here for years certainly knew Helen Gwin, and lots of people have eaten there,” Ohnemus said. “It would really be fitting.”
Anyone wishing to send a letter of support for naming Helen Gwin Peak and Old Buzzard Ridge may direct it to Ohnemus at P.O. Box 754, Cooper Landing, AK, 99572, to be submitted as addendums to the application.