The Kenai Peninsula comes alive during summer. Tourists, fishermen, seasonal workers and year-round residents share highways and harbors from Homer to Seward. ADN's Tegan Hanlon and Marc Lester recently spent a week meeting some of the people who make the Peninsula unique. Here are some of their stories.
SOLDOTNA — Tom Cooper has spent decades carving in a chair in a tiny, cluttered room in the back of his shop. He's worn through the furniture and even the floor.
"I've gone through three layers of plywood here and about seven chairs over the past 10 or 15 years," Cooper said as he sat in his latest chair.
With his wild white hair, big-framed glasses and thick plaid shirt, Cooper looks like a cross between a mad scientist and a prospector out of Alaska's gold rush era. Really, he's an artist. He carves into an array of materials including moose antlers, musk ox horns and fossil walrus ivory.
On this weekday afternoon, he picked up a Dall sheep horn that had rested between moose antlers and walrus tusks on the floor. He had started carving the intricate images of three sheep into it. From start to finish, a piece that size takes him about a week to complete.
"Sheep horns are nice because they're translucent," he said as he inspected his work.
Cooper learned to carve from a neighbor in Sterling in the 1980s. He couldn't get enough of it.
"I fell in love with carving. I couldn't quit it," he said. "I guess it's the gratification from seeing what I could do with a raw piece of antler and people actually liking it."
Cooper left his job at a local fish plant. He opened a carving shop in a shed behind his house in 1983. He had no heat in that tiny building, he said, so he wore bunny boots and coveralls. To stay warm, he took breaks from carving to run for 15 minutes in the driveway.
About four years later, Cooper opened his business, Alaska Horn and Antler, in the large building off the Sterling Highway where it remains today. His bounty of inventory now includes stacks of antlers, boxes of $5 rocks, a mammoth tooth, detailed carvings and much more.
Cooper said he earns a bulk of his income during the summer, a season brimming with tourists who want to buy a piece of Alaska.
"A lot of people shop on the internet, but they do appreciate when they see handmade things," he said. "Visitors want to take home something that's real."