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Bella Hammond: A reclusive, no-nonsense activist

  • Author: Steve Kahn
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published May 31, 2015

LAKE CLARK -- Bella Hammond is seated in her favorite dining room chair, stone wall to one side, birds and squirrels beating paths through air and turf to the feeder outside the window.

When the bird clock above her head strikes the top of the hour, she talks on through the "cheep, cheep" without pause, as if she is merely one member of a flock. All attributes one would associate with a former First Lady of a frontier state are there: dignity, intelligence, principled resolve. But there is much more.

The widow of former Gov. Jay Hammond is now 82 and still living on the north shore of Lake Clark in Southwest Alaska, in the home that she and Jay built and shared for many years.

When I ask about her greatest challenges of living in a remote place, she makes little fuss about finicky generators, the insatiable hunger of wood stoves, frozen pipes, bad weather and wild animals. Not until I suggest that isolation might be hard for her does her demeanor change, and it isn't the expected furrowing of the brow. She rocks back in her chair as if astounded that I would include isolation with a list of negatives. Her eyes sparkle.

"Isolation doesn't bother me a bit. I enjoy it, I relish it because I feel so fortunate being able to live the way I want to. I've had a few problems, but overall, it's wonderful." Then her voice ratchets down a notch. "I don't want that to change."

Early years

Bella grew up in the village of Kanakanak about 6 miles out of Dillingham. She attended a one-room school there and later her family lived in Dillingham for several years when she was in high school.

"It was a simple and good life. I had my little steel runner sled that I used a lot. I'd give my teacher a ride to school when I liked her -- sometimes I didn't like her and she'd walk." Already, it seems, Bella wasn't prone to equivocation. She's the fourth of seven children born to a Scottish father and a Yupik mother. One of her siblings passed away as an infant before Bella was born and the remaining six all grew up in Kanakanak, with fishing an important part of their lifestyle.

When Bella was 11 or 12, a territorial school teacher in Aleknagik asked Bella's parents if she could spend the winter with her. The teacher suffered from a heart condition and needed help. Bella had been a constant baby sitter for her two spirited younger brothers, so responsibility was a well-established part of her character, even at that age.

She enjoyed the winter there, skating and nurturing her love of canines by running a dog team on weekends. "The dogs were so anxious to run I would get knocked off the sled, but I always knew where to find them," she says. "They'd run up the trail and get caught in the brush."

Parental influences

Bella's father never spoke about why he emigrated from Scotland and he didn't keep track of his family across the pond once he left. In Alaska, he prospected, carried mail by dog team and fished for salmon in one of the iconic Bristol Bay double-ender sailboats. During the war, he was a guard at night.

"It was kind of a spooky time," Bella recalls. Her father would leave the house to stand guard and the family would cover the windows to keep light from getting out. Her father had strong sense of what was right and wrong in the world and was prone to lecturing. She remembers once when he went into a tirade about red fingernail polish and how awful he thought it was. "So," she says, "I thought if I can't put it on my fingernails I'll paint my toes."

Then she stepped on a nail. Dad took charge. "Take your shoe off," he said. "I've got to see what happened." She expected a big lecture because anytime she'd disobey him, she'd get in trouble, but he never said a word. "I think he just felt badly about me doing that," Bella tells me. But I wonder if her father didn't respect her spark of subversive creativity.

Bella's maternal grandparents died in the flu pandemic that devastated the region in 1919, and her mother was raised in the orphanage in Kanakanak.

Bella recalls that her mother always had very good things to say about the care she got at the orphanage. Her mother loved a simple, rural lifestyle and moved to Aleknagik after her husband passed away. That "no frills" attitude was adopted by her daughter and is in keeping with Bella's choice to continue living in a modest home with a wood cookstove at the kitchen center.

In her element

Bella says that one of the greatest pleasures of her life is living at Lake Clark in the home that Jay worked so hard to build before serving as Alaska's fourth governor from 1974-82.

"It was a long process, building here, settling in," she says. "We couldn't always live here when we wanted to, because we had to make a living." Bella has been steadfast in her resolve to stay as long as she can manage at her homestead.

She prefers solitude and quiet to living in a big town or city, and she detests the way the Christmas holiday has become so commercialized and she "doesn't care much for shopping."

Most years, she spends time with family in Anchorage during the core of winter, weaving in a few doctors' visits and touching base with old friends.

Happier at home

I remember a dozen or more years ago stopping at the Hammonds' home on a return trip from the Port Alsworth Post Office. After being welcomed in, offered hot tea, and thanked profusely for bringing the mail, Jay said, "Hey, I have something for you to sign!"

He needed a witness for the yearly application required by Alaska Pioneer Homes to remain on their waiting list. After I signed and dated the form, I glanced at Bella. She raised her glasses, peered suspiciously at the paper and set her jaw.

"They're not going to put me in there!" she announced. She was quick to add that the Pioneer Home is a fine and valuable facility, just "not for her."

Bella is the matriarch of a loose community of residents living full or part time along the north shore of Lake Clark. She is always an honored guest at neighborhood parties. Being Bella's closest neighbors for many years, my wife and I have given her rides to and from many get-togethers.

Because I think she should have nicer accommodations than what our open skiff can offer, I'll rig up a seatback and a float cushion in the bottom of the boat. Though she's not as nimble getting in and out of the skiff as she used to be, once settled in she looks at home as the bow splits water and the wind whips strands of gray hair around her face. She nestles in for the ride with a freshly baked rhubarb crisp at her side, never complaining -- unless I take a wave wrong and the boat slams down. Then her eyes flash disapproval that makes me instantly back off on the throttle.

She's a good neighbor. I want to stay on her good side.

Critters, domestic and wild

Jay Hammond described the dogs devoted to Bella as "a menagerie of small beasts." Indeed, visitors to the homestead are typically met by a whirlwind of dogs barking and bouncing around. Tom Gage and Sue Goodglick recall their first stint as winter caretakers for the Hammonds, when they naively inquired whether the dogs were allowed inside. Bella's daughter, Heidi, laughed heartily.

"Oh yes," she assured them. "We quickly learned," Goodglick said, "that Bella was an avid animal lover with spoiled-rotten dogs."

Over the years the Hammonds have lost pets to wolves and bears, and Bella has been terrorized by a rogue bear herself. Still, she's compelled to live at the edge of the wilderness, something she sees as a privilege.

She recalls years ago when a dozen wolves suddenly appeared and circled stealthily around buildings and trees. She thought, "How many people in the world can look out their window and see 12 wolves in their yard?"

In the Bush, not out of touch

Bella has not shied away from a responsibility she feels to speak out in protection of Alaska, whether testifying at hearings, endorsing candidates or scrutinizing the nearby Pebble project. "I've been vocal about things and I feel more people should speak out on what they want changed, especially to protect the environment," she says.

When I ask if her perspective toward politics has changed in the past decade, she is defiant. "Yes, I'm thoroughly disgusted with the Republican Party," she says of the party of her late husband. "I've been unhappy with their attitudes on the environment and suppressing the vote."

In Jay Hammond's autobiography, "Tales of Alaska's Bush Rat Governor," Jay writes of Bella, "Among her attributes is an uncanny knack for flushing out phonies, with which, of course, the political world is overpopulated. Bella often detected character blemishes long before her husband saw past the cosmetic charisma and social flair with which some politicians powder their public persona."

These days, Bella remains involved in a lawsuit involving the Pebble project that hasn't been settled. Bella, Alaska constitutional delegate Vic Fischer and their co-plaintiffs face the prospect of having to pay almost $1 million in lawyer fees and costs that the state and Pebble Limited Partnership say they are owed. The Pebble opponents sued the state over the public's right to know in advance about Pebble mine exploration work and lost.

"It was a public-interest lawsuit and my presumption was that the issue of fees would never even come up," Fischer said two years ago. "I was actually appalled. So far as I am concerned, this whole effort is to try and stymie any kind of public-interest litigation."

Bella agrees.

"I think it's grossly unfair that people should be penalized when they have an issue and want to speak out," she declares.

Support network

Living in the Bush at any age is a challenge but doing so as an octogenarian requires a support network of family and friends. Bella's daughter, Heidi, as well as her grandchildren, Lauren and Jay Stanford, and her nephew, David McRae, all spend as much time at Lake Clark as possible -- cutting firewood, helping with the garden, canning and smoking salmon, hauling fuel, keeping generators humming and helping with equipment and maintenance. Bella's daughter, Dana, phones her almost every day from Naknek. Friends send care packages and locals often pick up and deliver her mail; neighbors drop by on occasion to help.

Bella is always quick to thank others for help yet quicker to offer some of her own. Over the years, I have used her ATV, canoe, airstrip and phone -- and in a pinch, space in her freezer. "Anytime," she always says.

A decade gone

This fall will mark the 10th anniversary of Jay's passing at age 83, and the only part of living at Lake Clark that nags at Bella is that "Jay isn't here to enjoy it." And she's certain that if Jay were around today he'd be as involved as ever in Alaska's political landscape.

A recent effort in Congress to name the wilderness area of Lake Clark National Park and Preserve for Jay Hammond has the support of Bella and her family. Initially the family didn't want anything renamed in honor of Jay, but since the wilderness area has no name attached to it, Bella believes it's the best choice yet put on the table.

Humor and berries

Bella is smart, independent and determined, yet the two aspects of her personality that most define her might be her inherent humor and a love of berries.

Though Bella may strike people as pragmatic and often stoic, with a no-nonsense approach to life firmly cemented in her genetic makeup, a terrific sense of humor that can either rock her head back with a laugh or fly in dryly just under the radar surfaces from time to time. She enjoys both ends of a good tease, giving and taking equally. She seems to relish harassing me about the 5-gallon plastic bucket "purse" I carry to parties. "I have them in different colors to go with my outfit," I tell her. She smirks, and I brace for the rebuttal.

And berries: She loves to pick them, eat them, bake with them. The mere mention of berries of almost any kind elicits an immediate sparkle in her eyes and she glows with excitement. Share with her even a small bowl of blueberries and it's as if she's just been gifted with gold. Many would agree with former Hammond caretaker Lee Fink, who says, "Few things put a bigger smile on her face than receiving fresh salmonberries or even a frozen king head, items that would really not impress the vast majority."

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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