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Outdoors/Adventure

Help write the history of Alaska’s second wave of newcomers, who lived and died in the backcountry

Camping out. We don’t know how to do that anymore.

Early Alaska explorers did. They traveled by foot, boat, dogsled and horse through our entire state. They wrote of their adventures and mapped their paths. They were tough, competent men.

However, most of the early expeditions were quite well-funded by the standards of the day. It’s the next generation or two of Alaska newcomers that are the most notable.

These folks were rarely endowed with money. Their chief assets were indomitable will and unbounded curiosity. They didn’t have four-wheelers and nylon tents. Polar fleece and synthetic fibers were unknown. Their version of a freeze-dried dinner was an old piece of dry-fish that had set out for a couple of winters.

These men and women did not think of themselves as settlers or explorers. They were looking for a new life in a fresh and exciting country. They wanted to be the first to see over the next hill.

The second wave was seldom prospectors looking for gold. They were trappers, hunters, fishermen and entrepreneurs. They lived and died in the backcountry of Alaska but they never lost their enthusiasm.

I have been fortunate enough to have met and talked with some of them. A few are still alive today, like Fred Pancrest, who, in his late 70s, asked me to help him get an old Terra-Track out of the hills. He had abandoned it 40 years earlier after it threw a track.

When I was young, I took over trapping an area that had been previously trapped by a guy named Ben French in the 1920s and later. He had been dead for a number of years, having fallen through rotten ice with his dog team on Dickey Lake one spring.

I found constant clues along my trapline of Ben’s life and eventually I came to know most of his trapline.

Ben ran his line with dogs. He must have been an aggressive, motivated trapper, because his cabins were few and far. He camped in his sled with a custom tarp tent that covered the entire thing. This was his precursor to today’s motorhome.

The construction he did was spruce logs pinned at the corners with willow dowels. There are no salmon runs anywhere along French’s lines, so he must have spent many hours catching and preserving whitefish and caribou for his dogs.

I thought I was a trapper, running several hundred miles of line on a Skidoo Elan. I might have been competent enough to skin for Ben.

We have forgotten “tough.”

Not all of the hard-bitten Alaskans were trappers, nor were they all men. Irving Kimball came to Alaska in the late 1800s and was involved in various trading activities from Seward to Nome. Eventually he and his wife Della settled in Anchorage and built Kimball’s General Store at 5th Ave. and E Street.

They gardened behind the store and sold some of their produce. From my research, it appears that Della brought the first dandelions into Alaska. Her memory is that she ordered the seeds from a catalog and sold dandelion greens by the dishpan-full for two bits.

Irving died in 1921 from the Spanish Flu. His grandson, Carl Andresen, was born in Anchorage in 1929 and can tell you some stories.

The stories of the old days and the old-timers who made Alaska what it is today are priceless. The problem is we are losing them. It isn’t that kids today aren’t interested — let’s not blame the loss of history on them. The blame is on those of us who have knowledge of the history but don’t take the time to tell of it.

Tyler Kuhn is new to Alaska. He came here from impoverished Pennslvania with the dream of becoming a guide, and he has succeeded in that. But like those early trappers and hunters, he will not rest.

He is passionate about things Alaskan, especially in the second generation of Alaskan explorers. He wants to write and publish the stories that Alaska history has not yet given up. Sure, some of the second-hand tales may be embellished a bit — but not necessarily. Early 1900s Alaska was larger than life. “There are hardships that nobody reckons; there are valleys unpeopled and still,” as Robert Service wrote.

If you have a piece of Alaska history that should not be lost, contact Tyler Kuhn at alaskanguide2017@gmail.com.

John Schandelmeier is a lifelong Alaskan who lives with his family near Paxson. He is a Bristol Bay commercial fisherman and a two-time winner of the Yukon Quest.


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