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Water
Buying a New Car
A True Alaskan
Heroes
Yard of Life
Summer Solstice
Doctor Waiting Rooms
The Longest Summers

“Conversation Continued” transcripts

Heroism High in the Talkeetnas

In the winter of 1957 an Air Force B-29 Superfortress on a routine training mission crashed in the Talkeetna Mountains near Hatcher Pass. What follows is an adaptation of a radio program aired in 2000 by Frank E. Baker on Anchorage FM station KLEF.

On November 15, 1957, about 6:20 p.m., a B-29 training aircraft from Elmendorf Air Force Base with a crew of 10 was returning to base after a radar-calibrating mission farther north. Weather had deteriorated and the ceiling had dropped to below 5,000 feet as they made their way south past Talkeetna. A routine radio report from the aircraft reported no problems. The plane was scheduled to arrive at Elmendorf about 7 p.m.

Staff Sergeant Calvin Campbell, then 34, was assigned to the right scanner position, about mid-point in the aircraft behind the engines. One of his tasks was to monitor the two engines on the right side. Staff Sergeant Robert McMurray had similar duties on the left side. In the pilot seat was 1st Lt. William J. Schreffler.

In the co-pilot seat was Capt. Erwin Stolfich. The ranking officer aboard was pilot Major Robert A. Butler, then 41 years of age. Other officers aboard were Capt. Edward Valiant, Captain Oliver Johnson, and Capt. Richard Seaman.

In a telephone interview in 2000, Campbell, then 77, described what happened next.

“We were descending toward Elmendorf at full speed, when we hit real hard with no warning. Everything went black…I mean real black. Then we hit again and it felt so cold. It felt like the wings tore off and when I crawled out, I saw that the fuselage was broken into two. We were on a snowy field—I didn’t know at the time it was a glacier. It was so quiet.

“Staff Sergeant Bob McMurray was right below me, pinned between the fuselage and the observation post. I pulled him out of there. Navigator Lt. Claire Johnson had dragged himself out of the plane and collapsed in the snow nearby. I wrapped them both in parachutes and put Johnson in a sleeping bag that I found in the cargo hold.

“I could hear Sgt. Samuel Garza, the flight engineer, yelling from farther up the slope. He was still inside the nose section. It had sheared off and gone up the hill about 500 feet.”

“When I got up to Garza I soon realized he was the only other survivor—it was just the four of us. The pilot, co-pilot and three other officers perished instantly—I believe the sixth officer, Major Butler, survived the crash but died later that night.”

“Garza weighed about 140 lbs…it was hard pulling him out. I placed him on a piece of canvas and dragged him down the slope to the others. He had a broken arm and broken leg. I went back to the cargo hold and got more sleeping bags and then got us into the wreckage out of the wind—it felt very cold, but I had extra flight clothing to help cover us up.”

According to the Air Force’s accident report, the aircraft broke apart on impact, but there was no fire or explosion—a key factor in the four airmen’s survival.

Another of the survivors, Claire Johnson, provided more details about the accident.

“I was back with Campbell and McMurray having some coffee,” said Johnson. “When we hit it bounced me around the cargo netting pretty good. I was flying all over the place.”

Johnson affirms that that Calvin Campbell’s quick actions saved him and his fellow crew mates.

“He was scurrying around in the dark taking care of us like a mother hen,” Johnson recalls. “He wrapped us up, got us out of the wind. We owe our lives to him.”

Air Rescue at Elmendorf assembled a search effort that evening, immediately after the B-29 disappeared from radar–but weather turned that first effort back. A helicopter search at daybreak the following morning zeroed in on the B-29’s last known position. By 9:30 they found the crash site—on a broad glacial slope at fifty six hundred feet —about a mile northeast of upper Reed Lake. Thanks to Campbell’s decisive actions, the injured men survived the night. They were taken to the hospital at Elmendorf.

“I think we were about 17 degrees off course.” Campbell says. “Too far to the east—put us right into those high mountains.”

Radar data would later indicate that the aircraft was about 27 miles east of its planned course into Elmendorf. A report indicated that the aircraft had strayed off course due to a combination of factors including deteriorating weather and pilot error.

Campbell said that except for a scratch over his eye, he was unharmed. He later would suffer complications from frostbitten feet, however, and lose the use of several toes.

Not long after the accident Calvin K. Campbell received a special commendation from President Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Soldier’s Medal, a decoration for valor in a non-combat situation. He retired from the Air Force in 1968.

“I didn’t feel like a hero or anything,” says Campbell. “I just did what I had to do. “The other guys would have done the same thing for me.”

Today, the broken bomber sits on the glacier as a quiet memorial to the six men who died there half a century ago.

I hiked there with friends several time over the years—via upper Reed Lake trail and then over the pass. The wreckage looked surreal, out of place. Here was 50 tons of torn and twisted metal, once with wings stretching about half the length of football field. The pride of the U.S. Air Force in World War II now lay in ruins on a glacier, bent and buckled, wrenched apart, scattered… exposed to the whims of nature.

We walked around the site awhile, took a few photos, afraid to touch anything. Six men had died here. It was unearthly quiet, as Calvin Campbell described it. A cool gust of wind blew up from the valley below. I felt like it was telling us to move on. On another hike we found parts of the wreckage scattered far down the glacier, now part of an endlessly shifting ocean of ice.

After that initial visit six years ago, I vowed to find out more about the incident, and through an internet search eventually located Calvin K. Campbell, who though not in the best of health, was more than willing to talk about the experience. Today, at 83, he is in a veteran’s home in California and his health has further deteriorated.

I’d like to extend my thanks to Elmendorf’s Historian John Cloe for help in researching this unique piece of Alaska history, as well as Claire Johnson, another crash survivor who recently reached me through his son Del. For 30 years Johnson has attempted to locate his crewmate Calvin Campbell, and during a recent e-mail exchange I was glad to provide that link to reunite the two retired airmen. At this reporting date I have yet to receive any information on the other two crash survivors–Robert McMurray and Samuel Garza.

No. 44 – April 12, 2001

Good evening. I call this slice of life:

“Young once, rich twice.”

Whether one is wealthy is a highly subjective state. Suffice it to say that when I was about nine years old I became wealthy beyond my wildest dreams. It only lasted a week—but in purely materialistic terms, I’ve never been richer.

It all began one summer morning in Seward when my friend Nick and I noticed that our neighborhood buddy, Jimmy (I’ll assign him a fictitious name in the event the Statute of Limitations has not yet expired) was playing with lots of new toys…ones we’d never seen before. Every summer we held marathon sessions in the sand pile—a game we called “cars”, which involved everything from road and bridge building to prodigious public works projects—on a minature scale, of course.

His new yellow road grader gleamed in the sun—no cheap plastic back then—the real deal with steel. He was also pushing around a shiny red dump truck, and it seemed like he had way more small automobiles than the week before.

“These are really neat,” we chimed jealously. “Where did you get them?”

With an evasive grin, he said, “Bought ‘em with my own money. Wanna go downtown and buy some stuff?”

“We don’t have any money,” I said hopelessly, speaking for both of us.

“That’s okay,” he said stridently, “I do.”

We parked ourselves outside Jimmy’s front steps as he disappeared into his house. Sometimes when he went home he never came back out, because his mom would be mad that he’d stayed away so long. We were skeptical he’d be back, let alone with money. In seemed like a very long time—maybe 10 minutes—then he burst from the door and leaped down the steps, signaling for us to assemble behind his house—in the alley where we couldn’t be seen. We gasped when he pulled several heavy rolls of quarters out of his pockets and divied them among us.

“Let’s go!” He yelled. With a heavy roll of quarters in our hands, we didn’t ask any more questions. The shopping spree was on.

The first order of business was ice cream cones. Big scoops of chocolate and vanilla at O’brien’s for a dime apiece. Then we moved on to candy bars, mostly Milky Ways and Three Muskateers. Next, we made tracks for the Alaska Shop, which had a great assortment of toys, model airplanes and the balsa wood airplanes powered by rubber bands. In our exuberance we still had the wherewithal not to arouse suspicion by purchasing everything in one store. We moved on to explore the aisles in Gus Werner’s Hardware Store.
This went on for days. We were unbelieveably rich. We couldn’t imagine having more money…in fact, we were having trouble spending what we had. The hardest part was making sure our parents didn’t see all of the booty we were collecting, so each night we’d hide them in the bushes in the vacant lot between our houses.

At night in bed I’d couldn’t wait to go to sleep so that it would be the next day and we could go downtown and do more shopping.

One afternoon while we were waiting for Jimmy to emerge from his house with another bonanza of quarters and dimes, I thought I saw a blur out of the corner of my eye…running across the street to the gasoline station on the corner.

“Did you see that?” I asked Nick.
“No.”
“I could swear I saw Jimmy run into Rafters Station. He was really moving.”

We fixed our eyes on the station. After what seemed like an eternity—probably two minutes—we saw him bolting out of the station and across the street. In less than a minute, noticably winded, he emerged from his front door.

“Was that you—over there?” We pointed.
“What are you talking about?” He said.
“We saw you. What were you doing over at Rafters?”
“Oh, nothing. Don’t worry about it. Ready to go downtown?”
We both felt something strange in the pit of our stomach. We didn’t want to believe it, but the truth was right in front of us. We had discovered the source of our cash machine.
“We can’t. I gotta get home.” I said nervously. “Me too,” said Nick.
“What are you worrying about?” Jimmy said. “Nobody’s going to find out.”

But they did. We learned later that old man Rafter had been watching this time. He’d seen Jimmy run into the station and pop open the cash register. Jimmy had always been more gutsy than the rest us, but we couldn’t believe he would try something like this. Rafter paid a visit to Jimmy’s house that afternoon.

That night we were all spoken to by our parents. The toys were returned…well, most of them…a few were damaged. Allowances went to repaying those. At 75 cents per week, it seemed like an endless succession of allowances. Nick and I were placed on severe restriction, and our friend Jimmy received the worst lickin’ from his dad that we could ever recall. Old man Rafter didn’t press charges…but the money had to be repaid, and it took Jimmy a long time, even with jobs and with his parents help, to make things right.

One of the positive things that lingers in memory is that our parents believed Nick and I about not knowing the real source of the money. Our parents’ rejoinder was, however, that we should have been more inquisitive and suspicious about how our buddy could so easily acquire so much pocket change. I guess we didn’t want to know. There’s no doubt that at the early age of nine we had experienced the subtle, seductive power of money.

“I was just getting my truck fleet built up pretty good,” I thought with regret, yet so thankful I’d miraculously survived the episode without a whipping.

I wouldn’t be rich again for a long time…at least 25 years, when I married my beloved wife Becky, had two beautiful children, straightened out a rather tumultuous life, and learned to appreciate Alaska’s outdoors all over again. People often say you can’t put a price on experiences . . . but I disagree. According to my careful calculations, if a tourist from New York wanted to buy the experiences I’ve had in Alaska, both alone and with family and friends, it would cost about $235 million . . . and that would be a bargain.

From the simplest ski trip in the moonlight to a major hunting expedition in the Kenai Mountains, to watching eagles soar from mountaintops, to fishing for rainbow trout in the fall, I can’t imagine living anywhere else and being any richer, far richer
than I was at nine.

A postscript: A few days ago while bicycling across frozen Eklutna Lake with a friend in the spring sunshine (the hard part was our tires weren’t studded). I thought about all of the things that I’ve enjoyed doing on visits to the lower 48 states—Disneyworld, SeaWorld, a Broadway play…and truthfully, I’d rank bicycling across frozen Eklutna Lake in March right up there at the top of the list.

This is Frank Baker, and I’ll catch up with you next week, farther up the trail and maybe an experience or two richer, when the Conversation Continues.

No. 55 – June 21, 2001 (Summer Solstice)

Bivouacked high on the flanks of Bold Peak in the Chugach Range just a few nights ago, I thought about this story from my boyhood in Seward in the 1950s, when on Summer Solstice, June 21, the longest day of the year, a friend and I sneaked out of our houses and prowled the town until the wee hours of the morning.

I’m not sure it was Bud’s idea or mine—probably his, because when I was 10 years old there weren’t many things more terrifying than being caught by my father breaking a rule, and sneaking out of the house at night was definitely a bad thing to do.

Opening the back door without making noise was an agonizingly slow process, with my heart pounding so loud I felt it could be heard from one end of our small dwelling to another. I never knew door hinges could squeak so loudly. Back then no one in Seward locked their doors, so I didn’t have to worry about getting back in.

Stepping outside into our small back yard, it was unearthly still. No birds singing…no dogs barking. No traffic on Seward’s dusty gravel streets. There was still plenty of light, but the clouds were hanging low on the mountains and I felt a slight drizzle as I crept through the alley to the back of the grade school, our rendezvous point.

Bud was already waiting behind the school, dressed in dark, stealthy clothing. He seemed calm, like he’d done this before. In retrospect I think he was just a good actor. I wore a blue cotton jacket, but I could already tell it was going to be a chilly night.

We planned this adventure for weeks, but somehow we hadn’t discussed exactly what we were going to do. Just sneaking out of the house took a supreme act of courage. Gnawing at me was this foreboding feeling that being outside at this time of the night, and not safely tucked in bed, was somehow tampering with the laws of nature—the natural order of things. I thought something mysterious might happen to us if we stayed out all night.

That, as much as getting caught by our parents or other adults, worried me the most.

People are surprised when I tell them that even back in the 50s, Seward had a curfew for kids under 18, and it was enforced. We didn’t know what they did to kids who broke curfew, but instinctively we knew it was probably not half as bad as what we’d get from our parents.

Since Bud and I were now law breakers and fugitives from justice, we had to make sure the town’s only on-duty policeman was not on patrol. If his cruiser was parked by the police station, where it usually was, we were good to go for at least a couple of hours.

We sneaked behind the station via the back alley, thanking our stars that old man Andrews’ dogs didn’t raise a ruckus. We poked our heads around the corner of the building just enough to see the rear end of the police car. It was safe to begin our adventure.

As soon as Bud said he was hungry, I was too. The best place for a quick snack was Mrs. Baumgartner’s garden on 3rd avenue. This early in the summer, her radishes and carrots were small but very tender. Her garden vegetables always tasted better than anything we had at home. I think it was the dirt that made them taste so good.

Along the way we picked some green gooseberries from the back of the Trevethan house. They were so sour that we’d put handfuls in our mouths and then laugh at each other’s contorted, drawn up faces. We regretted it was too early for Mrs. Werner’s sweet, plump raspberries.

Appetites quelled, we set out for the small boat harbor, which involved walking back past my house. It was dark and still. I thought for a second I heard a voice, “Frankie, you should be in here, inside, in bed.” Was it my mother? With a shiver I took a deep breath and resolved to press on.

A car moved slowly down 4th avenue near the grade school and we dived into some bushes. Again I could feel my heart pounding like a sledge hammer. As the car passed something rustled in the bushes next to us. In a single leap I was on my feet and running faster than I’d ever run before…faster than Johnny Andrews. Every year on 4th of July Johnny won the kid’s street race, but at that moment, I would have bet four weeks’ allowance that I could have beat him. Of course, if I got caught tonight, there would be no allowance for a LONG, LONG time.

Bud didn’t catch up to me until I was a block from the harbor.

“What happened?” He panted. “Why’d you high tail it?”
“I heard something in the bushes, right behind us.”
“What do you think it was?” He asked.
“I don’t know…I don’t want to know. Let’s get down on seventh avenue…there won’t be any traffic.”

Like the rest of town, the small boat harbor was quiet—too quiet. Waves lapped rhythmically against the fishing boats. There was still plenty of light to see, and it wasn’t getting darker. We walked light-footedly along one of the piers, serenaded by strange sounds emanating from deep within the berthed vessels. We soon discovered it was a symphony of snoring. I knew a little about music—my mom was a private piano teacher—and those snoring sleepers were creating a unique brand of harmony I’d never heard before.

We peeked through an open window at one of the orchestral snorers, an old guy with gray whiskers, propped in a chair against the side of the bulkhead, mouth gaping open, maybe dreaming about a net full of shimmering silvery salmon. Wherever he was, he was missing the longest day of the year.

Then Bud got the notion he wanted to pull a prank…like throw tin cans through the guy’s open window, or pour some water on his head. Bud was strong willed, and it was difficult talking him out of it.

“Just being out here is risky enough,” I whispered. “We could get
into big trouble.”

Just then a throaty voice disrupted the symphony of snores. “Who is it? Who’s out there?”

It was light enough to see the fear in Bud’s eyes. With a single mind we turned together and ran as fast as we could down the pier and up the wharf ramp. We ran and ran and ran, and when we finally stopped, sweaty and puffing, it was a new day.

The clouds skirted the mountains higher than before, and were now traced with pink from the rising sun. We could hear a truck rumbling into town across the Lagoon. A few birds chirped randomly from somewhere in the tall cottonwood trees. The metal clank of a railroad cars coupling at the City Dock echoed across the still sleeping town.

“Look, I said to Bud. “It’s getting light. We did it.”

We smiled at each other triumphantly. We had spent the entire night out and hadn’t turned into pumpkins or anything else. We hadn’t gotten caught—at least, not yet. We still had to get home. We shared a few crackers Bud found in his pocket before parting company. I was relieved the door was still unlocked as I crept back into the still house, undressed and quickly crawled into bed.

That morning my mom was curious as to why I wanted to sleep so late. She asked me how I’d gotten so much mud on my sneakers, but she became distracted with bread baking in the oven and never asked any more questions. Fortunately, my Dad had already gone to work—because with his detective-like mind, I know he would have pried the truth out of me.

Bud later told me someone locked the door behind him and that he had to climb up on the roof and crawl in through an upstairs window—but that no one found out he was gone.

I left Seward when I was about 13 and I didn’t hear much from Bud after that. He was always more daring than I, and I always hoped that his willingness to take risks would someday help him succeed in whatever profession he chose. Someone told me he became a salesman.

Every summer solstice I look back on our night together as one of the most magical times of my life. We ventured beyond the security of our homes into the unknown, and through our 10-year-old eyes saw how a day doesn’t really have an ending or a beginning—that we are the ones who create those divisions. In a small way I think we learned about barriers– that they exist because we think they exist.

At the 4,000-foot level of Bold Peak it was well past midnight but the sun’s trailing light still illuminated Eklutna Glacier and surrounding peaks. The feeling I had as a boy–that I was somehow cheating night—that I was getting away with something simply by being awake—came rushing back.

Indian legends say we leave parts of ourselves in places that are special to us. That night, too tired to hang on to the day any longer, I rolled over in the sleeping bag, closed my eyes and visualized Bud and I ambling along the streets of Seward at the Summer Solstice. Before long, I was there with Bud. It was like we never left.

This is Frank Baker, and we’ll see you next week, farther up the trail, when the Conversation Continues.

Koslosky’s – The Store With Everything
No. 84 – Jan. 10, 2002

A 50th Anniversary edition of the Palmer Frontiersman newspaper, published in September 1997, jars loose a few memories of Alaska’s bygone days, when a highlight of any road trip north out of Anchorage was stopping at Koslosky’s General Store— the store that had everything and more.

The store was well established when my family started making its first forays north in the late 1950s. The original store site was on Colony Way, but in the 1940s a new expanded store was built on Palmer’s main street, where the Koslosky Center exists today. The store’s owners, Jan Koslosky and his wife Isabelle, sold everything from groceries to fishing flies, work clothes, appliances to kerosene.

Newspaper advertisements from the late 1940s and early 1950s offer insight on what was available at the store, along with some of the prices. A 12-cubic-foot freezer, for example, cost $372 at Koslosky’s. An interesting price, in that today you can pick up a similar-sized freezer at Sears for about the same cost—and according to a University of Alaska economist, a dollar in 1950 was equivalent to $4.72 today, making that freezer at Koslosky’s worth about $1,755.

A Maytag washing machine was somewhat more reasonable back then – about $144.45. Today, a similar unit is about $700.

A dozen eggs at Koslosky’s cost about a dollar, which is quite high when you consider a dozen today costs about $1.89. Again, with the 1950 dollar being worth about $4.72, that dozen of eggs would have lightened your wallet by about 5 bucks.

A much better deal could be found in tobacco. For six dollars you could get a case of tobacco, which contained 144 packages. I’m sure you could roll more than 500 cigarettes from those 144 packages. Today a carton of cigarettes—or 200 cigarettes– cost $46.

For .99 cents you could get two, one-pound cans of coffee at Kosloskys. Today, the same amount of coffee is about $10.00.

Considering the cost of gasoline today, here’s a real transportation bargain. For $2.55 you could buy a one-way ticket from Palmer to Anchorage on the Alaska Railroad.

A gallon of antifreeze at Koslosky’s was $3.65 per gallon—quite pricey even in 1950.

Believe it or not, there were a few items you couldn’t get at Kosloskys. If you wanted a car, for example, you’d have to go to Anchorage. At Tucker and Peterson Motor Company, you could pick up a 1947 1-1/2 ton Studebaker Truck for $2,255.

In today’s dollar, that would have cost about $10,600—still not a bad price for a large truck.

For $1.50 you could buy lunch at the Palmer Chamber of Commerce Meeting. Today you wouldn’t get a salad or a scoop of mash potatoes at such an event for anything less than $10.00.

Back in 1950 you could purchase a 4-ply Goodyear Deluxe tire from the Co-op garage for $17.32. Today you’d pay about $50 per tire.

For $110 plus tax you could charter a direct flight to Seattle from Anchorage on a luxurious DC-4 through a special Frontiersman offer. The trip took more than 6 hours, but security wasn’t a concern and a hot meal was included, along with drinks and free cigarettes.

Back in the 1950s choice residential lots in the Palmer area were being sold by valley pioneer M.D. Snodgrass, ranging from $350-$500 per lot. $13.50 was the starting price for hand-tailored shirts at Dave and Joe’s shirt shop.

Overall, various and sundry items weren’t that inexpensive, even 50 years ago, but stores like Kosloskys had a special charm that brought customers back again and again. Even though the enterprise was divided into departments, everything was in one big, open room. The second story was devoted to offices an apartment where Jan and Isabelle lived.

As I mentioned in a earlier broadcast, stopping at a place like Koslosky’s was much more than a business transaction. It was partly a social event. In one visit you heard a fishing story or two, a road report, a tale about an errant bear or moose, some gossip about new arrivals and sometimes, sudden departures; and in general, how everyone was faring. You took much more from the store than merchandise, and always looked forward to the next visit.

The Kosloskys eventually built a home on Finger Lake. They sold the business in 1979 to Northland Pioneers, but had to repossess it a few years later. Finally the building was sold to Joey and Butch Ehmann, who transformed it into a mini-mall and office complex called the Koslosky Center. Businesses located there today include the Vagabond Blues Coffee Shop, Blossoms and Bygones, a flower shop; Treasures of the Attic, a gift shop; Country Cuts, a hair salon; Ideal Nutrition and Books, and Mad Matters, which provides picture and photo matting.

On your next drive to the Matanuska Valley, try stopping by the Vagabond Blues for coffee. If you listen carefully, maybe you’ll hear the kerchink of Koslosky’s old cash register, or a child’s bare feet slapping on the hardwood floors. And somewhere, maybe in the cellar, you’ll catch the nose-teasing scent of dry goods, denim and leather.

This is Frank Baker. We’ll see you next week, farther up the trail of a new Year, when the Conversation Continues.

Alaska Log Books
No. 8 – Aug. 3, 2000

ANNOUNCER: And now, Conversation Continued, with Frank Baker. Conversation Continued is brought to you by BP Exploration. BP, working for Alaska.

Log books found in some of Alaska’s remote cabins and shelters offer a rare glimpse into humanity—and some reassurance in this rapidly changing world that people are much the same as they were 50 years ago.

During a March ski trip not long ago, with more time on my hands than I really needed, I thoroughly perused a cabin’s log books dating back to 1985, and was moved by what I found. While there was an ample supply of party-animal banter, bad poetry and inane rambling, there were some sensitive, lucid reflections by people from all corners of the world, and from all walks of life.

Amidst the diversity of people who made log entries, I found a common thread that was very heartening. Everyone, to a person (even the beer guzzling party-animals) intimated of a hunger for peace and serenity—a distance from civilization. In their individual ways they treasured this place, and wanted to share their experience with others. It was as if this place had no room for selfishness, enmity, vindictiveness…only harmony.

Returning to my home in Eagle River, I pondered how different things would be if everyone in the world had a chance—at least just once—to commune with nature, to listen to their own thoughts, and perhaps, connect with their soul. There would probably be less hatred, violence, oppression. By getting in touch with themselves, people would probably be more apt to relate to others in positive ways.

Nature is not the panacea for everyone, nor can it provide solutions for the world’s insidious problems. But the log books in Alaska’s remote cabins speak volumes about what the human spirit longs for as the 21st century and the information age crowds in around us. People are over-worked, over-governed, and over-communicated. They simply want a respite so they can, like Henry David Thoreau, hear the tapping of their internal drummer.
We’re very fortunate here in Alaska to have abundant places to do just that. We have vast spaces and silences that stretch the boundaries of our imaginations.

If you stumble upon a log book in some remote cabin, take a minute to make an entry, and read some that are there. I think the main thing that will strike you is how alike we all are.

Alaska Nellie
No. 13 – Sept. 7, 2000

ANNOUNCER: And now, here’s Frank Baker with Conversation Continued. Conversation Continued is brought to you by BP Exploration. BP, working for Alaska.

Alaska’s history is replete with colorful, independent individuals who did things their way—who either through providence or sheer force of will, carved out lives in what was then a rugged frontier.

One notable pioneer who endures in memory is the late Alaska Nellie, an accomplished hunter, trapper, railroad restauranteer and hostess, who achieved legendary status for her exploits on the Kenai Peninsula. Nellie Neal Lawing was born in 1874 on a farm in Missouri, the eldest of 12 children. Her mother once described Nellie as “part domesticated, part wild” because of her penchant for hunting, fishing, horse riding and ploughing. In 1898 her mother died, and a few years later Nellie began a lengthy journey that would ultimately lead her to Alaska. For several years she worked as a lunch counter waitress in Wyoming and at gold mining camps in Colorado. She later moved to Oregon and finally, San Francisco.
Unable to quell her wanderlust, she headed north to Alaska by steamship in the spring of 1915. She landed in Seward July 3, with her wardrobe in two suitcases, a few keepsakes and a total bankroll of $34.

In her book, Alaska Nellie, published in 1940, she penned a verse about arriving in Seward.

“After many solemn years had fled,
By an unseen force I had been led
To the land of my sweet childhood dreams.
Where the midnight sun on the ocean gleams.

“Ere that peaceful slumber came that brought rest slowly to my mind,
I asked God’s richest blessing on loved ones I had left behind.
As the midnight twilight came softly, silently stealing down,
I entered dreamland in this strange and lovely town.”

Nellie’s talent as a hostess, coupled with her ability to shoot and cook her own meat, landed her immediate employment as a cook with the Kenai Alaska Gold Mine, operating 26 miles north of Seward. That winter all of the crew moved to Seward, and by December, Nellie became impatient with town life. She set out with a 100-lb. sled pulled by herself (she had no dogs then) loaded with clothing, food and supplies for living in the woods and trapping. She left the railroad at mile 23 and headed for a lone cabin she had discovered in the woods—where she spent three months trapping fox, lynx, otter, mink, ermine and rabbits.

Nellie wrote: “The short days and the long nights of which I had heard so much were now a reality, and cast their magic spell over me. The first day was spent setting raps and getting wood. Melted snow was what I used for water. One might think I would become afraid. Perhaps the magic silence of the place had numbed fear. I was alone, but not lonely. There was much to occupy my time and mind. I would have been hopelessly snowbound were it not for my snowshoes.”

In the spring of 1916, she received a contract to operate the roadhouse at Mile 45 on the Alaska Railroad (recently purchased by the federal government from the private owners of the Alaska Central Railroad). The roadhouse, which she renamed Grandview, held as many as 125 laborers to be fed and housed. The roadhouse was formerly owned by a fellow named T-Bone Clark, a culinary expert who purportedly concocted T-Bone steaks from chuck and round steaks by implanting bones saved from real T-Bone steaks.

Nellie supplemented the crew’s diets with rainbow trout she caught and rabbits she snared.

Not content to wait for the occasional train from Seward, Nellie was known to walk the 45 miles into town, buy her supplies and return with them on the train. On other occasions she pumped her way to Seward on the railroad tricycle, making the one-way trip in about seven hours.

Nellie had numerous encounters with bears, but her worst experience occurred when a large grizzly bear charged her. She ran to the barn and jumped inside, but as she was swinging the door shut, the bear struck the door with his front paw, breaking three of her fingers. Finally the bear left and she edged out, ran for camp, loaded her gun and went on a bear hunt. When the bear saw her, it reared up and ran at her. She shot him several times, and finally got in the fatal bullet. She found afterward that the grizzly had killed and partly devoured her pet black bear cub, named Mike.

Nellie once drove her dog team through a raging snowstorm to rescue a mail carrier who had nearly frozen to death north of Grandview.

President Warren G. Harding arrived in Alaska July 15, 1923 to participate in ceremonies marking the completion of the Alaska Railroad from Seward to Fairbanks. On the way to Fairbanks, his train stopped at Dead Horse Hill, where he was hosted by none other than Nellie—who had earlier decided to get closer to the railroad action and take over roadhouse operations there.

After meeting Nellie the President confessed, “I had a sweetheart by the name of Nellie Neal one time.”

That same year Nellie moved back to the Kenai Peninsula and married William Lawing, a native of Tennessee who had moved to Alaska in 1909 to work on the Copper River Railroad. Together they developed Lawing Lodge at Mile 23, on the shores of Kenai Lake, which marked the beginning of Nellie’s happiest days in Alaska.

During the winter of 1924-25, she reported breaking a pair of bears to harness and said they made a speedy team. Although the temperature dipped to –36 degrees that winter, the bears did not hibernate but remained on the job. In her book, Nellie describes nostalgically how she caught Kenai Lake trout right out of her kitchen window and prepared them for dinner, right on the spot.

But Nellie’s idyllic days were to be short lived. Tragedy came March 30, 1936, with the passing of her husband. He had gone out on Kenai Lake to cut ice for summer storage and died suddenly of a heart attack.

Again, from Nellie’s book:

“There is a courage at a certain moment of need which springs forth from the brow of sorrow and dares all dangers known. With wet eyes, I looked over at the snow-covered ice on the lake, but I could not see. The sun went down. I then sought a narrow, lonely trail and found there such relief that sad hearts sometimes find when first alone with grief.”

Then 62, she had already begun to compile her memoirs and continued to operate the Lawing lodge. Passenger trains between Seward and Anchorage stopped there so tourists could visit with Nellie and purchase autographed copies of her book.

I met Nellie at her lodge when I was a child—probably about 10 years old. She was very old by then—about 82—and much smaller of stature than I thought she would be. But I was immediately struck by her countenance—her commanding aire…a great strength that seemed to emanate from deep within her. I can recall looking around with wide eyes at all of the big game trophies this now frail person had bagged over the years. And I will always remember her smile—as wide and deep as the Kenai Lake itself.

Nellie died May 10, 1956 at the age of 83. Free spirit, entrepreneur, adventurer, Alaska Nellie was an Alaskan pioneer in the truest sense of the world. The restless farm girl from Missouri described her first Christmas Eve in Alaska in 1915…spent alone in a remote cabin:

“My very soul seemed steeped in happy dreams,
“Heaven itself was revealed to me in gleams;
“This wondrous scene, unfolding in my sight,
“Was an enchanted shadowland by night.”

This is Frank Baker. My special thanks to historian Marry Barry and acknowledgement of the book Alaska’s Dynamic Women, by H. Wendy Jones. That’s all for now. We’ll see you next week, farther up the trail, when the Conversation Continues.

ANNOUNCER: Conversation Continued is brought to you by BP Exploration. BP…working for Alaska.

The Full Scoop on Moose Poop
N0. 26

A Canadian friend once referred to Americans as spoiled and wasteful, asserting that we would do well to emulate our northern neighbors who recycle and reuse everything from empty egg cartons to coffee cans.

I was quick with a rebuttal, pointing out that Alaskans have a long history of resourcefulness. For example, old refrigerators adorning people’s front yards become fish smokers in the summer and outdoor freezers in winter. Automobile bodies serve as wind breaks. Old boats make excellent storage containers for used tires.

But beyond this, I pointed out, Alaskans are the undisputed champions in utilizing one of the north country’s most abundant, renewable natural resources: moose droppings.

He scoffed at this idea—but I had done my homework. I had the scoop on moose poop, otherwise known as the ‘jewel of the north.’

“Selling moose nuggets is a major industry in Alaska,” I said. “It’s one of the main attractions in gift shops across the state.”

He couldn’t conceal his amazement when I began rattling off the litany of moose nugget products such as mooseaic earrings, moose nugget necklaces, moose nugget tie tacks, moose nugget key rings, moose nugget swizzle sticks, moose nugget shish kabobs, moose nugget Christmas ornaments and even mooseltoe.

There is even a moose nugget weather forecaster, I told him. Dry nuggets signify sunny weather. Wet nuggets show that it’s raining. Rolling nuggets mean it’s windy, and extremely soft nuggets mean the moose is very near and that it doesn’t matter what the weather is. For those wishing to supplement their garden, there are flowering moose nuggets.

I could tell my Canadian pal was skeptical. “So all you do is go out and scoop up a pile of moose dung, coat ‘em with shellac, maybe throw on some paint, and you call that art?”

“It isn’t that simple,” I countered. “Alaska moose nugget artists go to considerable lengths to ensure the quality of their products. Anchorage’s Cindy Lampson, for instance, is very particular about the size, shape and condition of her moose nuggets.

“They have to be firm, with no mold and the proper oval conformation,” she told me. “The best time to collect them is in the winter, when the moose are browsing on willows and other shrubs. In summer the nuggets generally have a poorer consistency.”

A 10-year veteran moose-nugget artist, Lampson says she pays her kids a penny apiece for nuggets, provided that they meet her strict criteria.

“Naturally, for things like earrings, the sizes have to match,” she says.

Gift shop owners in Anchorage, Fairbanks, Seward and other Alaskan communities say that moose nugget jewelry and other novelties are quite popular with tourists.

At the Once in A Blue Moose gift shop in Anchorage, a sly-smiling clerk was eager to show me his moose berry candy, which he claimed, (I kept studying that sly smile) was made out of pure chocolate and not moose stool. He also showed me his chocolate moose taffey and moose munch wild cherry raisins.

One has to look at the size of the resource to comprehend its significance, I told my Canadian friend. A biologist with the Department of Fish and Game told me that that moose density throughout large portions of Alaska ranges from .5 per square mile to 4 per square mile – which calculates to thousands of the critters across Alaska’s 586,000 square miles. An adult moose eats about 40 to 60 lbs. of willow, aspen, birch and other plants each day. Even with four stomachs–an extremely efficient digestive system—moose relieve themselves several times a day. That’s definitely mega-tonnage of moose nuggets.

Proof of this thorough digestive process is in the smell, or lack thereof. As any longtime Alaskan is aware, accidentally stepping into a pile of moose droppings is much less traumatic than stepping into a bear’s deposit—if you get my drift. But I digress…

“It’s a growing industry,” noted a clerk at Anchorage’s Grizzly Gift Shop. “There is no lack of creativity out there on how to find new uses for these compact, exquisitely shaped items.”

Some moose nuggets are actually painted gold to resemble real nuggets—Some are used to cap pencils. There are moose nugget perfume dispensers, fire starters, and even a moose nugget lip balm—although I’ve never talked to anyone who has actually used the lip balm.

In Talkeetna, moose nuggets have been elevated to an almost spiritual status, with the Annual Moose Dropping Festival. Animal rights activists have made many inquiries about this celebration, asking about the elevation from which the moose are dropped to the ground. In fact, it’s not the moose, but their precious nuggets—thousands of them—which are released from a hot air balloon onto the festive crowd below. Depending upon the nuggets’ state of dessication or petrification, this event can be quite dangerous to innocent bystanders. Veteran moose-dropping revelers wield umbrellas.

The Anchorage Rotary Club has been known to hold a fundraiser that also pays homage to the nugget. Numbers are painted on them, then they’re released from a helicopter onto a ground target. The person holding the number on the nugget that lands closest to the center of the target wins the big prize.

MUSIC UP. By this time my Canadian friend had grown quiet and rather pensive. “You really think this industry has potential?” he said tentatively.

“Just look at these,” I said, with cupped hands full of firm, dark brown, oval-shaped moose turds. “Have you ever seen anything more perfect? Just the way nature made them.”

“We have a lot of moose in Canada….” he remarked.

Outdoor Mistakes
No. 36 – Feb. 15

Anyone who has spent any time in Alaska’s outdoors has made mistakes–more than we’d like to admit. It’s a big state and there’s lot of room for big errors. I’m not going to dwell here about obvious foopaws–like forgetting mosquito repellent, matches, raincoat, not
taking enough food, a knife or extra socks.

I’ve done all of those things at least once, and some even worse. I’d rather confine this discussion to the more subtle, seemingly benign mistakes that can compound into bigger problems.

This issue is probably moot in a winter as mild as this, but on a winter camping trip a few years ago, when temperatures hovered below zero, I forgot to bring along lightweight gloves to wear underneath my mittens. For finger dexterity, I removed the mittens, and before I could get my stove started, my hands became numb, useless stumps. “Circulation isn’t what it used to be,” I thought, remembering a physical constitution 30 years ago that would have tolerated such carelessness.

It took quite a bit of effort, warming my hands in my crotch and under my arms, to get them limber enough to do the fine work necessary for lighting a match. With stove lit, I was in good shape. In the northern story classic, “To Build A Fire,” by Jack London, the character faces a similar predicament, but in much colder temperatures, and with much more dire consequences—the loss of his life.

In retrospect, there was plenty of wood around and I should have started a fire immediately after finding a camping spot, while I was still warm from skiing. Through painful experiences like this, I am a much better judge of how long it takes my body, and its extremities, to cool down after rigorous exercise like skiing or hiking. I now perform the important work right away—getting a fire or stove started, maybe even getting the tent erected, before the body cool-down. And I always bring along some lightweight gloves, usually polypropelene, with spares in case they get wet.

Here’s a goof that I’m embarrassed to mention because I did it twice in the same location on the Kenai Peninsula. We were goat hunting in early September and the pilot set us down on a small lake at about 3,000 feet, above the Skilak Glacier. On the other side of a 5,000-foot ridge sprawled the Harding Ice Field. My partner Mark and I pitched our sturdy, four-season Sierra Design tent on a grassy clearing, commenced to prepare a sumptuous camp meal and enjoy the sunset.

The third member of our party, we noticed, was spending an inordinate amount of time erecting a four-foot-high rock wall around his tent. Mark and I invited him over to partake in fine camp cuisine at our portable table, but he graciously declined and continued his prodigious task–stopping only for an occasional drink of water.

About 10 p.m., with bellies full and brimming thoughts of tomorrow’s hunt, we nestled into our sleeping bags. It was a crystal clear, calm night—like a Schlitz Beer ad when they say “it doesn’t get any better than this.”

Sometime early in the morning–maybe three or four–I awoke with the frame ramming my shoulder. And this terrible sound…a screaming roar–as if we were directly behind a 737 jet taxiing at Ted Stevens International. I turned over on my back–holding the tent ridge poles an inch over my face. Our four-season, sturdy Sierra Design tent was still intact, but the wind had flattened it to the ground. I yelled above the wind to Mark—he was also on his back, holding up his side of the tent. The tent’s fly was loose and cracking like a whip.

We thought we’d wait until the wind subsided before going out to secure the tent. After an hour and no sign of a break, we fought our way out to confront the gale, which was blowing horizontal rain and sleet. Mark was 6 foot-five, 225 lbs., and could barely stand. I’m much smaller, and was akin to kite material. Our friend, the smart little pig, was sleeping blissfully within the walls of his fortress. We anchored the tent better so that at the very least, it wouldn’t fly away, and crawled back in to wait out the storm.

If you’ve ever heard of the term Venturi effect, this was the real deal, the Kenai version of the Perfect Storm. A narrow valley, between two glaciers–the wind funnelled through here like a jet-powered freight train–and didn’t abate until afternoon the next day. Days later on our pickup, the bush pilot said it was the fiercest storm of the year. Down below, winds were strong enough to knock down big trees, he said.

They say we learn from our mistakes. Not always. A couple of years later, on another goat hunt in the same area, we pitched our sturdy all-weather tent in what we thought was a sheltered spot behind a small hill—thus foregoing the necessity of building the rock wall. For most of the night and part of the next day, it was déjà vu. The freight train returned in full force.

A few years later on a solo trip southwest of Seward, near the Phoenix Glacier which parallels the massive Harding Ice field, I only erected a partial wall around my tent. The September winds came early in the morning, and of course, from a direction I hadn’t protected. Rocks were readily available, so for the next two hours I erected the windbreak I should have built in the first place. By time I finished my project, the wind subsided.

Suffice it to say that any place I camp in the mountains, I now make sure I’m in a sheltered place, and if not, I erect a good windbreak around my tent. It’s taken quite a lot to turn this camper into a smart little pig.

Here’s one that wasn’t life threatening, but could have cost me some toes. On an overnight winter camping trip near Eklutna Lake, I forgot to wear gators…you know, the leggings that attach to your boots and fit snugly just below the knees. The slope became too steep for snowshoes, so I lashed them to my pack and commenced to posthole up the mountain to find a campsite. With no gators, snow got into my Sorrel boots, made the felt liners wet, and by the time I found my campsite my feet were numb. The temperature dropped to about five degrees above zero, not really that cold, but cold if you have wet feet.

I didn’t have replacement boot liners, another major error, and I immediately had to get a fire going to warm my feet. With all the spruce trees around, that was no problem. Had I been higher, with no wood to build a fire, I would have been in big trouble. Once I had warm feet, I quickly made camp, drank some water, ate a couple of candy bars, crawled into the sleeping bag and was fine for the night.

But stiff, frozen Sorrel boots awaited me in the morning, and after walking in them for about 30 minutes, my feet were numb. I had to build another fire and warm my feet again, this time trying to dry the liners as best as I could. No gators, no extra boot liners…stupid mistakes that could have cost me toes.

Then there’s this business about sleeping bag ratings–I’ve finally come to the conclusion that when manufacturers say Rated to 0 degrees, they don’t mean that you’ll be comfortable at zero–they mean you won’t turn into a frozen brick and die. I’ve spent plenty of miserable nights in -20 degree rated bags, when the ambient temperature was barely below zero. And I did all the right things–made sure that I’d stored the bag open to retain its loft, had plenty of padding beneath me, I was hydrated and well stoked with calories, and I wasn’t wearing too many night garments– all the right things. I’ve had more than my share of heated discussions with outdoor suppliers on this subject. I now subtract about 20 degrees from any sleeping bag’s rating to find the comfort range I prefer. But that’s just me.

Here’s one of those seemingly benign type of oversights that caused me considerable consternation. On a sheep hunt in the Chugach mountains a few years ago, I forgot to bring along binoculars. Simple enough—they aren’t needed to sustain life. One morning my partner went off on a stalk by himself. I knew where he was going.

I went on a long hike myself that day. On my way back to camp, I looked up toward where I thought he was and saw three white dots. They looked like sheep, but one of the dots was smaller and could have been my partner in his whites. I sat and watched for along time. Two of the dots moved slightly–they were definitely sheep–but the other remained motionless. With binoculars I could have determined immediately if my partner was that third dot. As it was, it looked like a rock. More than an hour passed and I couldn’t tell for sure if he was up there. I returned to camp, about a mile, and as dark began to fall and he didn’t return, I thought I heard him yell. I figured he might be in trouble, so loaded up a pack with supplies for a bivouac and hiked the mile back to the point where I’d seen the sheep. I yelled but heard no answer. Already exhausted from a long day’s hike, I returned to camp. I began making plans in case he didn’t return…about going for help at morning’s first light…but then, to my relief, he came walking over the hill, just before dark.

He had not yelled at any time, he told me, and was surprised that I should be worried at all. It had all been in my imagination. Maybe the loudness of the stream near our camp had something to do with it. He hadn’t heard me yell. He was that third dot. He was waiting patiently for the rams to move closer, but they never did. I could have avoided a couple of hours of heart-thumping panic if I’d remembered to bring my binoculars.

Experience is, as they say, the best teacher. Here are a few things I’ll never do again. Take a long trip on a snowmachine without a pair of snowshoes, or a companion snowmachiner; take an outboard motorboat anywhere without extra shear pins, a life vest and a can for bailing water; go camping without making sure my tent has been seam-sealed in the not too distant past; I won’t forget to take along sunblock and sun glasses on a summer outing; forget to bring a hat, summer or winter; and always, always, I won’t forget to pack plenty of water, water containers, and a water filter.

Of course, on any outdoor excursion, there is one thing that should always be left at home: complacency. Those who have been bending bushes in Alaska’s backcountry longer than I will tell you that there is always something new, totally unexpected and unpredictable on every trip. After all the careful planning, equipment inspections and checklists, physical conditioning and training, there is one critical, irreplacable tool that will save your life and perhaps, the lives of others: common sense. In Alaska’s backcountry, it’s your most valuable possession.

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