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We Alaskans

A living legend of Alaska's Lake Clark

  • Author: Steve Kahn
  • Updated: April 23
  • Published April 23

In rural Maine, where John Branson grew up, the surrounding woods were his playground and sanctuary. When he was 12, his father took him on a boat tour of Southeast Alaska — and when he saw the rugged mountains, fjords and the expansive coastal forests, it stirred his desire to live like his maternal New England forebears. That seed grew into a full-blown passion.

In the fall of 1969, with a diploma from Boston University, he headed to Naknek to teach history and social studies. Two of his students were Jay and Bella Hammond's daughters, Heidi and Dana. At the time Bella occasionally substitute taught at the school, and Jay was the state Senate president.

Branson, never one to shy away from speaking his mind, expressed his opposition to the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War during class. Some school board members were unhappy and he wasn't hired back for a second year.

His teaching job may have vanished, but the wilderness was still there.

Teacher turned student

Besides working at a cannery and for a big-game guide, Branson maximized his exposure to the wilds. During his time in Southwest Alaska, he became friends with Tony and Olga Malone. Olga was born in Goodnews Bay, of Danish and Yup'ik parents. The Malones owned three Native allotments in what is now Katmai National Park and Preserve. Branson expanded his knowledge of living off the land by trapping and hunting with Tony. Sometimes Olga would join them at their cabins on Headwaters Creek, which flows into Brooks Lake.

While Branson was staying at the Malones' enclave, Jay Hammond stopped by to ask if he would like to caretake his homestead at Lake Clark.

In the spring of 1974, Hammond flew Branson to Lake Clark. As part of his caretaking duties, he cut logs for a steam bath on Bella's Native allotment. With scant carpentry experience, he wasn't about to attempt construction, so Hammond hired Ralph Nabinger, a talented carpenter from Port Alsworth, to help. As it turned out, Nabinger hadn't worked with logs either. But Dick Proenneke (the well-known author of "One Man's Wilderness") had.

Proenneke was flying his own airplane at the time, and on his weekly trips to Port Alsworth for mail he would sometimes stop in at Hammond's homestead to offer advice on the construction. Branson recalls that Proenneke had a very idiosyncratic way of scribing. "He didn't use a scribe, he used his hand and fingers — and a little block of wood, totally his own style."

The log steam bath at the Hammonds’ homestead is one of many log structures that John Branson helped build. (Steve Kahn)

Over the next decade, Branson would be involved in plenty of log construction on the Hammonds' property — a generator shed, guest cabin, greenhouse, as well as Bella's kitchen and windbreak addition. Branson valued his time working with talented logsmiths, including not only Proenneke, but Monroe Robinson and Jay Hammond, whom Branson describes as "a pretty damn good log builder himself."

After Hammond ended his second term as governor in 1982, the family moved back to Lake Clark. By June of 1984 Branson felt it was time to move on. 

A team of oxen

Branson had always admired the ox men of Maine, whose teams pulled lengths of hardwood out of the forest. When he headed back east to try his hand as an ox driver he hooked up with a second-generation teamster named Clyde Robinson. Robinson was from Maine but known all over New England. In partnership with a cutter named Herbert Wright, the two men provided firewood for poor rural people under a contract with the state of Maine.

Robinson had a big pair of oxen that weighed 2,500 pounds apiece.

Branson tried to shape his own young team. He remembers Robinson telling him, "John, if they balk you've got to figure out a way to encourage them, but you don't want to have them panic or completely shut down."

After a half a year's effort that included training the slow-yet-powerful animals and throwing around heavy lengths of ash, beech, birch and oak — some up to a foot in diameter — he'd had enough. Branson, with no hint of embarrassment, says, "You have to have a special knack with those animals. I wasn't a born ox driver." He headed back to Alaska.

Jay Hammond, right, and John Branson share a moment of levity at Port Alsworth in July 2005. (Courtesy of John Branson)

Backcountry ranger

Both Branson's father and Gov. Hammond had observed his aptitude and interest in local history and suggested that he apply for a job with Lake Clark National Park, based out of Port Alsworth. With the help of a friend, Branson built a small home in Port Alsworth.

His National Park Service career began as a seasonal maintenance worker and ranger, and Branson officially began working as a historian in 1998. He was a natural. He loved history, had an excellent memory and kept journals on his activities and people he met around Lake Clark.

Jeanne Schaaf, former chief of natural resources and Branson's supervisor for years, sums up his devotion best. "His true interest in the historical integrity of the Lake Clark and Bristol Bay area has led him to numerous adventures that personify a person who is not just doing his job, but truly loves his work."

Branson sucked in local knowledge like a sponge. He forged long-lasting relationships with locals, fellow employees and scholars. Tim Troll, executive director of the Bristol Bay Heritage Land Trust, has called Branson "Bristol Bay's preeminent historian." 

The man who could walk fast

During his early years with the park service, Branson heard the legend of Dena'ina Athabascan Trefon Balluta, who had a reputation as a great hiker. Almost all the Dena'ina, both men and women, were excellent hikers — it was part of their lifestyle. But Trefon Balluta was among the best. According to Branson, Balluta's Dena'ina nickname meant "the man who could walk fast." There were tales of Balluta walking 50 miles in one summer day from Telaquana village to Kijik village just to get tea and sugar.

Branson loved the idea of connecting with early Native culture by trying to hike light and fast. It was yet another way to immerse himself in local history — not to just study it, but to live it organically.

He admired not only Balluta's hiking prowess, but also his goal to get his eldest son, Gabriel, a Western education. Gabriel Trefon eventually became the last traditional chief of the Lake Clark Dena'ina. Branson devoured every bit of information available on Trefon Balluta, and sought out more stories from anyone in the Dena'ina community who'd known him.

John Branson warms up on the banks of the Mulchatna River just below Turquoise Lake with a partially obscured view of Telaquana Mountain in the background in 2002. (Courtesy of John Branson)

That intrigue may have been the spiritual and emotional birth of Branson's idea for yearly hikes, but the physiological connection with moving fast across the landscape was born years earlier, of necessity. In December 1971, Branson had been working for big-game guide Eddie King from Naknek. After the guiding season, Branson was checking his traps on the Meshik River, 25 miles upriver from the village of Port Heiden. A rabid fox attacked his Labrador as the dog walked at his heels. Branson shot the fox and decided he needed to get the dog to Port Heiden as fast as possible. Crossing tidal streams choked with ice was a dicey proposition for a Bush Alaska newcomer, but he covered the distance almost nonstop. Upon arrival, he felt relief at having helped his pet and satisfaction at having moved so quickly over the land.  That satisfaction was a feeling he never forgot.

Following traditional routes

For years, Branson organized arduous hikes in the Lake Clark area, usually over routes once frequented by Native travelers. He found it exhilarating to "get a feel for what the Natives did, how they walked across the country." He compares the Telaquana Trail in the fall to a 50-mile-long berry patch.

Although Branson had done solo hikes, he was quick to invite friends, neighbors and colleagues to join him. Parry Grover from Anchorage and Lake Clark accompanied Branson on hikes for a decade.

"The Native trails that are shown on maps of the Lake Clark region are historical wishful thinking," Grover said. In other words, hikers beware — they are considered more routes than trails, with few visible markers.

Many who participated in these treks affectionately refer to them as "the annual Branson death march." Branson recoils from that description, hates it in fact, especially considering the negative historical association.

"The name fit because we were all dead tired, sore, smelly, bruised and scratched up by the end of each trek," Grover said. At the same time, Grover is quick to praise. "John was unquestionably the best leader," he says. "He knew where he was going and how to get there. He pushed us to keep moving, but never past the breaking point."

Nonetheless, most of the hikes were not for the timid. One year, Grover made the mistake of wearing hiking boots that were too snug and lost nine toenails. When Walt Wrede and a friend hiked with Branson, communication had been inadequate before they set out on the Telaquana Trail together. Wrede and his friend showed up with 70-pound packs. They thought they were on a camping trip that would involve setting up tents and day trips into side valleys. Branson showed up with a lightweight day pack, a deadline and a shotgun. Wrede was more of a "bear spray guy" and teased him about toting the heavy firearm.

The weather turned out to be beautiful but hot — and dehydration eventually set in for those with heavy loads. Wrede and his friend carried a camp stove and fuel but they hardly had time to use them. "Branson ate something that came out of a tube called 'Goo.' (He ate that the) whole way," Wrede says. "He'd just squeeze it and keep going." 

John Branson at a beaver pond in 2013. (Margaret Goodro / NPS)

'Sweating like a boootcher'

Professional adventurer Dan Oberlatz joined Branson for a hike on the July 4 weekend of 1997. The route was ambitious: a trip up Currant Creek and over the pass at its headwaters, down to Kontrashibuna Lake, and back to Port Alsworth. They started at the mouth of Currant Creek on a blazing-hot day.

"In characteristic style, Branson never shed a layer and carried his shotgun with purpose," recalls Oberlatz. Branson, in his thick Maine accent quipped (that he was) "sweating like a boootcher" (butcher.) After about 13 miles, they found themselves in thick alders on a dangerously steep creek. The temperature was 80 degrees.

They camped in the bushes, totally out of water and "absolutely knackered."

The following morning they continued into the alpine, but they had lost their bearings. Branson, who rarely travels with extras, had left his topo maps in his office. The small drainage ended in a "cliffed-out cirque." A scramble up a steep ridge had them looking down a precipitous slope into Gladiator Basin. Accepting the fact that they'd made a wrong turn, they headed back down the valley to their drop-off point. From that time forward, Oberlatz always carried a topo map.

The top of the mountain

Karen Evanoff, a cultural anthropologist for the National Park Service, joined Branson on a portion of the Telaquana Trail for a park-related project. Three other women had signed on. After half a day of walking through soft and lumpy tundra, Evanoff needed a long rest. She sat down, as did one of her companions, but Branson wasn't going for that. He wanted to make it to the top of the mountain before dark.

Many folks who've hiked with Branson have experienced his unrelenting drive and unwavering focus. He knows where he wants to be and when he expects to be there. "He gave us a few minutes, and then he was yelling, 'We have to make it to the top of the mountain!' " Evanoff recalls. They did make it, and though Evanoff admits it wasn't funny then, she laughs about it now.

No matter how grueling or smooth a particular trip might turn out, Branson's hiking companions eventually are grateful for being in the wilderness with him.

"He knew every little valley, he knew who explored there first, he knew all the Native history of the area, he knew who it was named after and what their story was," Wrede says. "It was like walking with a librarian."

Shotgun comes in handy

In the late 1990s, Branson was leading a team of five park service employees during an archaeological field trip in the Kijik National Historic Landmark, the largest Athabascan archaeological site in Alaska. No. 2 in line behind Branson was Jeanne Schaaf — and she was first to see a black bear moving quickly toward them.

Schaaf shouted, "Bear!" signaling to others an opportunity to see wildlife up close and personal. Then she yelled, "BEAR!" a second time. The bear was closing in fast, coming straight down the trail. It made a right turn and headed for Branson.

"John just calmly shouldered his gun and shot," Schaaf said. It died about 10 feet from where he stood.

The bear was scrawny, an emaciated sow with no cubs. The group skinned the animal and packed out the hide, head and meat, which they gave to people in Igiugig and Nondalton.

A raven's caw?

Branson would meet up with another rogue bear a few years later.

When Lee Fink, the chief ranger at Lake Clark National Park and Preserve, received reports of a black bear having killed two of Bella Hammond's dogs, Branson was called. The bear was still hanging around the area and acting aggressively.

The first day after Branson arrived the bear was a no-show, so he spent the day working on a manuscript in the guest cabin.

Around 6 a.m. the next morning, Branson heard what he thought was a raven's caw or a human scream. He got dressed and looked out the window. The wind was howling, masking sounds, but he thought he heard another caw — or scream.

It wasn't a bird. It was Bella. The bear circled her house looking for a way in, slamming at windows and tearing the screen out of a door's porthole window. When it moved away from the door facing the guest cabin, she quickly reached outside to ring a ship's bell and yell for help.

In the dim light Branson couldn't see any movement. When he looked a second time he noticed a black object near the back door of Hammond's home. With his shotgun loaded he closed the distance to the house. The bear abruptly left the door it was frantically scratching and moved in his direction. He held his fire because the house was directly behind the bear, but as the animal ran toward him, it made a slight loop and offered a clear shot. He took it. Branson says, "The adrenaline was pumping, that's for sure. It wasn't doing any bluff charge stuff."

One man's wilderness

The late Richard Proenneke achieved international fame due to his classic book, "One Man's Wilderness" and the video "Alone in the Wilderness." Branson's long history of friendship with Proenneke, dating back to their first meeting in the early 1970s, was one reason Schaaf tasked him with editing Proenneke's extensive journals. Branson also had some serious trail time with the Twin Lakes icon, joining him on the longest hike Proenneke ever made.

Dick Proenneke, stern, and John Branson paddle Proenneke’s canoe in Lake Clark National Park and Preserve in about 1983. (Fred Hirschmann)

Branson accepted the editing challenge, but insisted that he would follow Proenneke's wishes of using his own words and not paraphrasing. From 119 pounds worth of spiral notebooks, reflecting Proenneke's almost 30 years at Twin Lakes, he has shaped three books to date. The latest, covering the years 1981-85 is titled "A Life in Full Stride."

Accolades and books

Branson is hard at work editing the final book in the Proenneke series, which will cover 1986 to 1996, the last year Proenneke wrote extensive journal entries. At the same time, he is also working on a book that focuses on aviation's relationship to socioeconomic changes in Lake Clark-area communities in the early years of the 20th century. When these two are published, Branson will have written or edited 13 books.

One of Branson's favorite projects over the years has been to sleuth out and collect historical photographs from locals. The grass-roots effort has paid off in spades — friends are spread far and wide, and more than 3,000 images have been entered into the Lake Clark National Park and Preserve collections.

His dedication and talents have not slid under the radar. He received a Star Award, a National Park Service Partnership and Leadership Award and the Interior Department's Superior Service Award. In 2016, Branson received the Evangeline Atwood Award for Excellence from the Alaska Historical Society. Also in 2016, the Nondalton Tribal Council recognized Branson "in appreciation of 26 years of dedicated service to the people of Nondalton."

Additionally, Branson has been recruited to give both professional and public presentations on area history to thousands of people over the years, from school children to VIPs, such as Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter.

Retirement

At 70, Branson is still physically active, but his marathon hiking days are behind him, due to Crohn's disease and a colectomy he had in 2015. The surgery was followed by a prolapse and he thought for a time he would be forced to retire. But after a summer back at work, he felt better and he reconsidered retirement.

No one who knows Branson is surprised at this postponement. He still has two more books to finish before his park service career will feel complete. And editing and authoring books is a bit like marathon hiking — Branson knows where he wants to be and when he expects to be there.

Plus, it isn't like he is going to stop hiking. He plans to climb Roadhouse Mountain this spring and lead a team of park service anthropologists on a hike along a portion of the Telaquana Trail this summer. An educated guess would put his shotgun over his shoulder and the maps in his office.

Steve Kahn lives on the north shore of Lake Clark. He is the author of "The Hard Way Home: Alaska Stories of Adventure, Friendship and the Hunt."

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