By Clark Fair, for the Redoubt Reporter My expectations rise when I spy a memoir concerning one of my favorite places. I anticipate a good story, historical references, familiar landscapes and, I hope, new insights. Perhaps it was those heightened expectations that prompted the overall disappointment I felt recently in reading “Winds of Skilak.” The front cover of Bonnie Rose Ward’s 2013 memoir promises, “A Tale of True Grit, True Love and Survival in the Alaskan Wilderness.” And while the 390 pages between the covers deliver on much of that promise, they do so in mostly pedestrian, occasionally cloying prose that omits certain details and displays prominently the teary-eyed heart of the author. When I learned of this book a few months ago, I shopped for it almost immediately. I was excited to delve into an adventure on Skilak Lake. I’ve spent considerable time on and around the lake, and know that Skilak, while beautiful, can be cantankerous, even dangerous. I have enjoyed hiking and exploring the woods, drainages and mountains around its perimeter, and I’ve also avidly investigated the history of the area. Years ago, I read Ada White Sharples’ occasionally sanctimonious 1961 memoir, “Two Against the North,” about the mistake-prone attempt she and her husband, Jack, made to live on Skilak’s southern shore in the late 1930s. I had also interviewed Val Anderson about how his parents, Hjalmar (Andy) and Jessie Anderson, had homesteaded Caribou Island in 1924. When the Andersons homesteaded the 159 ¼-acre island, they were truly forging a home from the wilderness. Soldotna and Sterling did not yet exist. Cooper Landing, accessible by foot trail only, lay far upstream, above the Kenai River canyon, and the village of Kenai lay 50 miles downstream. Construction of the Sterling Highway was more than two decades away. No road of any kind led to the lake. At the mouth of Cottonwood Creek, on the southern shore, according to an unpublished manuscript by Catherine Cassidy and Gary Titus, big game guides Hank Lucas and Bill Kaiser had begun a fox farm in 1915. After Kaiser’s departure in 1922, Lucas had hooked up with George Nelson, and by 1935 they had established a hunting lodge at that location. Other than occasional hunters, however, the lake had few visitors. Most, according to Titus and Cassidy, were like the Fairbanks retirees Mr. and Mrs. G.W. Keys, who in 1934 attempted to create a home in Egyptian Bay on the northern shore. After spending a summer building a log cabin in the protected cove, they apparently found life on the lake too tough and abandoned their new home. Life wasn’t much easier for the ill-prepared Sharpleses, and they might not have survived their first winter on the lake without assistance from the Andersons. Still, they did persevere at a time when lake residents were few and guided hunters and fishermen were still rare. On the other hand, by 1981, when Bonnie and Sam Ward sold their home in the suburbs of Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, and then bought a small parcel of land on the island and built a cabin there, times had definitely changed. Yes, winds and ice on the lake could still make travel difficult — even impossible — at times, but Caribou Island could scarcely be called “wilderness” any longer. To begin with, Andy Anderson had sold his homestead sometime after Jessie died in 1940, and in April 1959 a newspaper advertisement revealed a new map of the island, offering 210 tiny parcels for sale in the “Caribou Island Subdivision.” By 1981, Skilak Lake was connected to the Sterling Highway by an 18-mile gravel loop road and an upper and a lower campground, each with a boat launch on the northern shore. Sterling lay only a few road miles away, and Soldotna only a few miles beyond that. A peninsula population burgeoning from the pipeline years brought frequent boaters to the lake for fishing and recreation during the ice-free months. The Wards owned a boat with a motor, and they often kept their Jeep at one of the campgrounds so they could drive to Sterling to check their mail or travel on to Soldotna to grab a burger at Sourdough Sal’s. Perhaps more importantly, by 1981 Caribou Island itself was already inhabited. One man, Jack Coppock (named “Nels” in Ward’s book), lived there year-round, and his wife (“Anna”) lived with him during the warmer months. Other cabins, some used by summer recreationalists, dotted the lakeshore. The Wards, to their credit, did not have it “easy” because more modern times had come to the central Kenai Peninsula, nor did they shy from the more difficult tasks of remote country living.
Sam Ward appears to have been born to live a rustic life. He is portrayed as a hard worker, adept at building, trapping, hunting, fishing, operating boats and preparing food. He was a survivor, and even when times were tough, he was clearly in his element. He is the one, in the book’s first chapter, who makes it plain that such a life is his longtime dream: “I want to go to Alaska,” he tells Bonnie. “I want us to go to Alaska … where a man can still live off the land. There’s so much land and game up there, places a man hasn’t even seen. … I could build a log cabin, and hunt and fish for my meat … (and) provide for all our needs with my own two hands.” For Bonnie, on the other hand, life on the frontier was not her dream. She was content in the suburbs and agrees to Sam’s plan solely because she cares so deeply for her husband. “I love you, Sam,” she tells him. “As long as we’re together, nothing else matters.” Once they arrived on the island, Bonnie worked hard and did her share to ensure their mutual success. As they spent the first three months living in a pup tent, Bonnie peeled cabin logs, hauled water, canned fish and game, dug a garden plot and did all the cooking. She and Sam — with the help of “Bill,” who accompanies them from the Lower 48 and stays throughout that first summer — built a home and lived on Caribou Island for nine years, coping with occasional isolation and hardship before leaving the island in 1990. “Winds of Skilak” covers only the first two of those nine years. According to Ward’s website (www.windsofskilak.com), she is writing more memoirs about her time in Alaska. (Also, she says she was a “wilderness wife” in Alaska for 15 years but never clarifies where they spent the other six.) Despite the book’s clearly captivating passages — when Nels shoots some of their domesticated animals, when Sam is jailed for poaching a moose, when Sam breaks his back and when Bill displays his incredible pistol-shooting acumen — I was put off by several aspects of Ward’s tale:
- Most of the black-and-white photos in the book are too small. (The website features a video with a much better and larger selection of color images.) And none of the book’s many other characters are featured. Every photo shows either something scenic or Sam and/or Bonnie.
- I grew rapidly weary of all of Bonnie’s weeping. At first I thought all the tears had to be my imagination, so I performed a somewhat obsessive count. In 34 of the book’s 56 chapters — about 61 percent — Bonnie cries, sobs, starts to cry or barely holds back tears.
- Just before the dedication at the beginning of the book is this statement: “Many of the names in this book have been changed.” I was bothered by these seemingly arbitrary alterations. I wanted facts/names I could identify, but the changes made that difficult. I wanted her to write around the names of people she could not identify (“the Sterling postmaster,” for instance, if she didn’t want to name Gloria McNutt), and I wanted real names, otherwise. If an author wishes to relate the facts to the best of her ability, precise identification is crucial. Otherwise, her overall sense of accuracy can be thrown into doubt.
- In her acknowledgements, Ward heaps praise on her editors. Honestly, though, the book needed a firmer editorial hand, with a greater emphasis reducing overwriting (“the blood seemed to drain from my brain into a nauseating puddle at my feet,” for example) and on providing more specific details than general statements. It also needed at least one more round of proofreading to eliminate the final typos (to “stanch” the bleeding, not “staunch” it, and to “pore” over her letters, not “pour” over them, etc.).
- And I was bothered by the final irony that the Wards, who fulfilled their Alaska dream to carve out a life for themselves from a wild place, diminished that opportunity for others on Caribou Island because (using money Sam earned working occasionally up on the North Slope) they bought more land on the island, built seven more cabins, and helped populate the place before they departed.
Clark Fair, a resident of the Kenai Peninsula for more than 50 years, is a lifetime Alaskan now living in Dillingham.