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Building an outhouse? 'Alaska Homesteader's Handbook' might help

Suzanna Caldwell

It would be tough to talk about United States’ history without mentioning homesteaders, the brave souls who ventured into unknown territories in search of new beginnings.

But Alaska homesteaders are a different breed. No covered wagons ever traversed the state in search of manifest destiny, but a different kind of hardscrabble destiny emerged.

A new book from Alaska authors Tricia Brown and Nancy Gates explores what it means to be a homesteader in the 49th state, the last state in U.S. that allowed people to obtain federal land virtually for free so long as they met certain requirements. From 1898 to 1986 in Alaska, 3,277 homesteads on some 363,000 acres of Alaska land were issued. “The Alaska Homesteader’s Handbook” even includes America’s last homesteader, Ken Deardorff, who was issued his homestead patent for land near remote Stony River in 1988.

Alaska homesteaders: mixed bag

The new book examines the lives of 45 Alaska homesteaders, a category that's difficult to define. “When I think of who's an 'expert,' they would never consider themselves to be experts in this area,” Brown said. “But they have a special knowledge that most in the Lower 48 don’t have.”

The age, experience and living situation of the Alaska “homesteaders” differ widely. Many are Outside transplants who ventured north decades ago. Some are third or fourth generation Alaskans.

Almost every corner of Alaska is covered in the book, with contributors from both rural and urban areas.

The homesteaders’ skills, though uniquely Alaska, are intended to reach a broad audience, Brown said. There's a little something for everyone  -- from the Arctic-inclined “prepper,” to weekend warriors and even those looking for a little relationship advice.

“I tried to get a sense of not glamorizing Alaska,” Brown said. “Instead . . . show true life on the Last Frontier.”

Topics include some Alaska basics:

• How to avoid an avalanche;

• How to live among bears;

• How to assemble a first-aid kit;

• How to keep a sourdough starter;

• How to build an outhouse; and

• How to survive falling though the ice.

Perhaps the most exciting involves how to land a plane in Bush Alaska.

Kris Capps, a former Fairbanks Daily News-Miner reporter who moved to Alaska from Chicago in the '80s, wrote a chapter on how to live off the grid.

'I don't romanticize it' 

Capps and her then-husband built a 16-by-16 foot cabin near Denali National Park in 1986 that used solar panels and generators for electricity. Living off the grid wasn't entirely a choice for Capps; getting connected to the power grid wasn't possible until 1995. But she downplays the hardship.

“I never thought of myself as a homesteader,” Capps said from Healy. “I just thought of myself as living without power and water.”

Capps now has what she terms a “real house”  connected to the grid and complete with a 500-gallon water tank. While there are moments of off-the-grid living she'd rather not repeat (like accidentally getting locked out of her cabin while making a quick trip to the outhouse, sans coat), there was a simplicity to homesteading that's hard to beat.

“It was a really wonderful thing to experience,” she said. “I don't romanticize it. It's a lot of work, but there's something simple and nice about that kind of lifestyle.”

On to second printing

Even some homesteader basics have broad lessons. Ken Marsh, a spokesman at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, is featured in the chapter on how to catch a king salmon. Marsh moved to Alaska in 1966, when he was 4 years old. His parents were teachers living on a tight income, so fishing and hunting was necessary to make ends meet.

Like any good angler, Marsh doesn’t divulge trade secrets, but he gives readers a taste to get their hooks wet. But the true lesson isn't how to catch king. In the book, Marsh is pictured with his trophy catch, a monster king caught in the Matanuska-Susitna area north of Alaska’s largest city.

Marsh, now a public information officer for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, often tells anglers that story, the point being “there's more than one way to skin a cat. There's many ways to do things,” he said. “If the first thing doesn't work, just keep on trying.”

But he added a truly Alaska qualifier: “That's if the first way doesn't kill you.”

According to Brown, the first printing of the book sold out however a second is on the way. Those who can't wait can try to get a copy through Amazon, or visit some of the homesteaders in Talkeetna Saturday, where the Talkeetna Historical Society Museum will host a book signing from noon to 3 p.m. as part of weekend festivities surrounding the Wilderness Woman Contest and Talkeetna Bachelor Auction and Ball.

The second printing of books is en route to Anchorage and will be found soon at Barnes and Noble, Title Wave Books and the Anchorage Museum Store.

Contact Suzanna Caldwell at suzanna(at)alaskadispatch.com