Alan Boraas: Funny River fire consumed a bit of history

Alan Boraas
Photo by Alan Boraas

During the Funny River fire I could look at online photos of billowing smoke clouds, then step outside and see the same thing in real time. The fire got to just over two miles from our house in Kasilof, uncomfortably closer for some neighbors here and in Funny River.

Wildfire is an awesome thing. Almost 200,000 acres were burned on the Kenai Peninsula, and across Cook Inlet another fire came within a hundred yards of the village of Tyonek, then swept north toward Beluga. Thanks to brave hotshots who fought the fires with chain saws and Pulaskis, skilled Canadian pilots who scooped water from lakes and dumped it on the fire, and a professional incident command team, no one died and no homes were destroyed.

But, through no one's fault except the whims of the wind that drove the fire, there was one irreplaceable loss. A mile or so north of Tyonek near the Chuitna River, the historic Smith homestead cabin burned to ashes.

Frank and Mary Smith came to Alaska from Idaho and in 1926 began a homestead north of the Chuitna. They cleared 10 acres by cutting trees and burning stumps. The now overgrown pasture is visible today. On the north end stood their cabin. The house was a beautiful 20-by-30 story-and-a-half log structure with several outbuildings, testimony to skill and hard work.

Most early Alaska homesteaders settled in established areas to share knowledge and resources and build infrastructure. In those parts of Alaska, there was often friction between indigenous occupants and homesteaders as the latter carved up subsistence territories into farmland and roads in the last gasp of manifest destiny.

The Smiths' sole neighbors were the fishing and hunting Tyonek Dena'ina, notably the nearby Albert Kaloa family. As Agnes Brown, daughter of Albert Kaloa, relates, relations were good between the Dena'ina and the Smiths. The Dena'ina helped the Smiths with knowledge of how to hunt and fish, and traded salmon and moose for milk products. And there were two boys to play with and, later, to date.

According to a land surveyor named Betts, the Smiths lived a subsistence lifestyle. The intent of the Homestead Act was to put land into commercially viable agriculture. But the nearest market for dairy products and vegetables grown on the Chuitna was a distant and perilous boat trip to Anchorage. So the Smiths mostly grew their own food, milked cows, caught salmon, hunted moose and bartered with the Tyonek people.

In 1931, the land was conveyed to the Smiths. Tragically, that same year Frank Smith drowned in a Cook Inlet boating accident. Later, one of the boys also drowned in the hostile Inlet water. Mary Smith hung on for several years after the land was finally patented in 1936 but eventually moved to Anchorage, donating the property to the Catholic Church, which later conveyed it to the Nature Conservancy.

For over half a century the Smith cabin stood unoccupied, weathering icy winters and cold summer rains in a lonely testament to better times. I visited the cabin last fall with a group from Tyonek. It was a little the worse for wear but repairable. And, incredibly, there was a bear hide on the wall; dresses, presumably Mrs. Smith's, hung from the hangers they had been placed on decades before; and pots, pans, grindstones and other tools of life still in their place.

Sometimes, we leave a place thinking we will come back but don't.

Virtually anywhere in the United States such a house would have been ransacked by souvenir hunters eager to claim a bit of history they have no right or reason to own. But the Dena'ina respected the place. The things were not theirs to take, so they didn't.

It was sad to visit the burned-down cabin last week with a group of state and federal officials. But, like my house in Kasilof, I wouldn't have wanted a firefighter to die protecting it.

A patch of the Smiths' strawberries remained on the bluff untouched by the fire. Judith Bittner, Alaska's historic preservation officer, recognized them as an heirloom variety, and attempts are being made to get permission to transplant some.

Though the Smith cabin is gone, life's hopes and heartbreaks still hover in the air. And the strawberries transcend the historic tragedy of the fire and are a fitting legacy of a determined family who made an improbable life on the shore of Cook Inlet.

Author's note: Some of the information in this column is from Mobley and Associates, 2011.

Alan Boraas is a professor of Anthropology at Kenai Peninsula College.