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Sidney Huntington learned leadership and survival at age 5

  • Author: Dermot Cole
    | Opinion
  • Updated: July 7, 2016
  • Published December 12, 2015

Sidney Huntington, who lived 100 years, learned one of his hardest lessons at age 5, when he was forced by tragedy to take care of himself, his 3-year-old brother and his 18-month-old sister for two weeks at his family's small trading post near the Koyukuk River.

It happened 95 years ago, when Sidney's mother, Anna, fell ill at their cabin, perhaps because she had eaten some bad fish. The last thing he remembered her telling him was that she was not feeling well and he should go upstairs to bed with his younger brother Jimmy and his little sister Marion, who was still in diapers.

Anna's husband and the children's father, James Huntington, had left earlier that day on a two-week boat trip to Anvik on the Yukon River to retrieve two older Huntington children then attending a mission school. There were no other adults near their remote cabin where the Hog River meets the Koyukuk, about 90 miles downstream from Hughes.

Awakened late at night by Marion's crying and pestered by mosquitoes, Sidney said he went downstairs and tried to rouse his mother, who was still on the floor, her legs extending out of the doorway, as she had been earlier that night when the kids went to sleep. He and Jimmy tried to wake her for hours, but she didn't respond.

Recounting this event as he neared the age of 80, Sidney said that Marion was crying and they were all hungry. He started a fire in the woodstove and heated some canned milk, remembering how his mother did it. He burned some oatmeal and it didn't taste good, but he and Jimmy managed to get it down.

With the door open, the mosquitoes had become a menace, so Sidney and Jimmy struggled to get their mother inside the cabin. Jimmy, writing in 1966, said he and Sidney probably realized their mother was dead, "but I think we both felt that as long as we didn't mention it, she might still wake up."

The full story is recounted in two important books about Alaska by the Huntingtons, both collaborative works with experienced writers. Jimmy, dubbed the Huslia Hustler for his dog mushing skills in the 1950s, and Lawrence Elliott created "On the Edge of Nowhere" in 1966, while Sidney and Jim Rearden wrote "Shadows on the Koyukuk," an excellent book published in 1993.

Jimmy, who died in 1987 at 69, and Sidney, who died Tuesday at 100, had vivid memories of the two weeks after their mother's death when the children had to take care of each other.

Sidney wrote that Marion cried almost constantly from hunger, diarrhea, diaper rash and bug bites. They had been forbidden from going into the family trading post store near their house without an adult, but he disobeyed that order to get cans of milk and other food. He couldn't work a can opener, so he used a child's ax, spilling some of the milk every time he cracked open a can. The boys drank milk, supplemented with river water, fed it to the baby in her bottle and ate crackers, candy, cookies and whatever else they could find.

The smell in the house soon became overpowering, so they slept outside under a tarp that their mother had spread near the riverbank where she had cleaned fish. Sidney said he would not let Jimmy look inside the house.

The five dogs chained in the yard howled and the children fed and watered them. As the days passed, Sidney said, they had vague ideas about whether their dad would ever return and when.

Sidney said he decided to put his brother and sister in their boat and float downstream to find help, but the boat got caught in eddies as he was not strong enough to paddle or steer. "We had spent hours in the boat, but traveled only about a mile downstream," Sidney wrote in his book. "Then a hard spring rainstorm struck and we quickly became soaked."

They decided to walk back to the cabin with the baby, which took many more hours because he had to carry Marion about 20 to 30 steps at a time. When they returned, they were exhausted, filthy and covered with bites. He said he started to cry and "for the first time I felt beaten."

After two weeks, the steamer Teddy H stopped at the trading post, but the children hid in the store cellar. "We had become terribly afraid and insecure during that terrible time," Sidney wrote. When the adults did find the three children, they reassured them, cleaned them up, took them aboard and fed them cake.

About six miles downstream, the steamer encountered James Huntington on his way back to his trading post. Sidney said he didn't remember much about that rendezvous except "I sobbed and hugged Dad a lot."

Sidney's formal schooling ended in the third grade, but he taught himself carpentry, served a quarter-century on the Galena School Board and two decades on the Alaska Board of Game, built hundreds of boats, started two salmon processing businesses, raised 20 children with his wife, Angela, and became a community and state leader in every sense of the word.

He wrote that the loss of his mother was a "blow from which our family never recovered," but life went on and he persevered.

Most of the residents of Galena, along with friends from elsewhere in Alaska, attended the funeral for "Grandpa Sid" on Friday in the village about 270 miles west of Fairbanks. "Given how many times he almost died and pulled through, whether it was in the hospital or on the trapline, I don't think anybody can conclude that he wasn't a blessed man," said eulogist Tim Bodony, the news director of KIYU in Galena.

As far as the blessing of surviving their mother's death, there is one notable difference in the way that Jimmy and Sidney relayed the haunting memories of those two weeks from June 1920. In Jimmy's book, the ages of the children are given as 7, 5 and "not quite 2."

"The editors chose not to print our real ages," Sidney wrote with Rearden in his 1993 book, "claiming that readers wouldn't believe the story. To set the record straight, I was born on May 10, 1915, and was 5; Jimmy, born Aug. 14, 1916, was 3; and Marion, born Dec. 2, 1918, was a year-and-a-half."

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.

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