Book review: Elsa Pedersen’s reprinted memoir is a welcome return to both personal and Alaska history

“Kachemak Bay Years: An Alaska Homesteader’s Memoir”

By Elsa Pedersen; Hardscratch Press, 2023; 196 pages; $18.50.

Elsa Pedersen was the author of 13 well-regarded books for children and young people as well as co-editor with her second husband, Walt Pedersen, of “A Small History of the Western Kenai” and “A Larger History of the Kenai Peninsula.” She also authored dozens of magazine articles and stories and for many years wrote regular columns for the Anchorage Daily News. Her last book, a memoir of the years 1944-1971 on and around Kachemak Bay, was donated in manuscript form to the Resurrection Bay Historical Society and published by Hardscratch Press shortly after the author’s death in 2001. It was out of print for years until being reprinted in November.

The return of “Kachemak Bay Years” should be heartily welcomed by today’s Alaskans and anybody interested in Alaskan history or adventure. This beautifully written and honest story of one woman’s experience homesteading in a remote corner of Kachemak Bay convincingly details the joys and challenges of living through two winters in a tent, clearing the land of its ancient spruces, building and caring for a cabin, and visiting with far-between neighbors. In her telling, idealism and impractical dreams eventually give way to cold reality.

Elsa met her first husband, Ted Pedersen, the son of a sea captain and a member of the U.S. Lighthouse Service, in San Francisco when she was a young office worker. Ted had previously served in Alaska and was eager to return. Elsa joined him in his dream of homesteading near the head of Kachemak Bay, where they cut trees with a crosscut saw and battled snowstorms and an iced-in cove during winters that dropped to minus 30 degrees. The story Elsa tells represents much of the Alaska homesteading experience for women; it was a lonely time of being confined to the homestead and its chores while men were off hunting, fishing, going to town, and working for pay during the summer months.

Over the years, other people arrived at Bear Cove and the surrounding area and almost as quickly departed. One neighbor woman, with two small children, had to be carried away after a mental breakdown. Another group succeeded in growing tomatoes and cucumbers in greenhouses but couldn’t market them and abandoned the project and land. What had been the last operating fox farm in the area changed hands multiple times, became someone’s idea for a tourist lodge, and burned to the ground. Older Alaskans may remember some of the people mentioned, or will at least recall their names.

The description of one of the last fox farmers, Paddy Patterson, is typically exact and telling: “His hair straggled out from under a cap he made from the leg of denim overalls, with a visor cut from the top of a leather boot. His amiable smile exposed gaps in his teeth, and pale eyes blinked through round, steel-rimmed glasses spattered with moose blood, fish gurry and smears from his fingers.”


Within a few years of their homestead start, Elsa was working as a bookkeeper at a Seldovia cannery while Ted took on tendering, freighting, fishing, and marine piloting jobs. (He at one point operated a boat that towed a scow that was drilling into the seafloor of Turnagain Arm for a proposed causeway; the project was abandoned when no bedrock was found below the mud.) The couple’s time at the homestead dwindled, as did their relationship. Elsa powered through early rejections of her stories and succeeded in publishing one book after another, from 1959 to 1969. She left Ted in 1971 and married his half-brother Walt. Elsa and Walt lived out their later years at a home they built in Sterling.

Along with the personal story, “Kachemak Bay Years” brings to life a great deal of fascinating Alaska history. Readers will learn about the “good old days” before chainsaws, television, and most telephones when the fastest communication was by mail a neighbor might pick up on a rare town trip. Winters then actually got cold; in the late 1940s not only Kachemak Bay’s coves froze up, but it was possible to cross the upper bay on ice. Clams and shrimp were bountiful, seals gathered on sandbars by the hundreds, moose killed in and out of season provided most homesteading protein, and trappers snared dozens of wolverines and minks.

Seldovia in those decades was a bustling seasonal community, with four salmon canneries, a cold storage plant that processed halibut, and a reduction plant that made fish meal. There were also three bars and two liquor stores. The big herring fisheries had already come and gone, salmon were the center of attention, and the king crab bonanza was yet to come.

One of the most descriptive and informative chapters here concerns the 1964 earthquake and tsunami. Elsa describes the long shaking, the evacuations to higher ground, and the indecision of fishermen about what to do with their boats. Here she describes some of the turmoil in the harbor: “A large shrimp boat wrenched loose and dragged tons of debris with it. The pilings broke off with sounds like gunshots, and the 10-inch-square timbers that supported the floats in long walkways splintered into short sections. Floats, fishing boats and broken pilings all were adrift in a mass of rubble.”

Communications after the earthquake were cut off, with only short-band radios delivering sporadic news from the rest of the state. Eventually, Elsa learned that Ted had been on the Seward dock at the time and had broken both legs. On her chartered flight to Seward, she personally witnessed the “awesome” damage — landslides, shattered lake ice, rolling waves of snow-covered hills. She learned that Ted had been evacuated, but it was some days before he called from Homer, where he was hospitalized. He was a long time healing from his trauma.

Although Seldovia was spared the tsunami destruction suffered by Kodiak, Seward, and other coastal communities, the waterfront dropped and flooded. At first, residents thought the continued flooding was just related to unusual tides, but eventually they realized the truth of the subsidence. In subsequent chapters Elsa recounts some of the controversy surrounding the town’s “urban renewal,” the exodus of canneries and families, and the bitterness that settled in.

Many old-time Alaskans have written memoirs, but few besides Elsa Pedersen have had the writing skills to bring their lives and times into such readable literary form. Illustrative wood engravings by Sitka artist Rebecca Poulson are a bonus. The reprinted “Kachemak Bay Years” should both bring renewed interest in those pivotal years of Alaska’s history and earn Pedersen more readership. Although her books for young people — all but one set in Alaska — are out of print, they can be found used and in Alaska libraries.

[A nostalgic memoir recounts a fishing life, from Southeast Alaska to Bristol Bay]

[With her publishing company, Helen Hegener brings Alaska history (and more) to readers]

[Book review: Stan Jones, a master of the northern mystery, takes the genre to California with a co-written detective novel]

Nancy Lord

Nancy Lord is a Homer-based writer and former Alaska writer laureate. Her books include "Fishcamp," "Beluga Days," and "Early Warming." Her latest book is "pH: A Novel."