Seeking the Wilderness
It was the winter of 1970-71 and my new teaching buddies and I sat around the table in the Service-Hanshew JSHS faculty lounge, newly built in Anchorage. We were discussing how we wanted to experience the wilderness of Alaska. We were all newly hired to meet the educational demands of a large influx of children, coming to us because of the birth of the Alyeska Pipeline and the boom-time jobs that were being offered.
Exploring my new world, I drove north from Anchorage to McKinley Park (Denali now!) with my wife and baby, tent camping halfway into the park. Park rangers stood watch for undesirable wild life… mostly big brown bears. After one night, we drove to Wonder Lake and out. On the way back toward Anchorage, we did a 24 mile dirt road side trip into a lodge on Peter’s Creek Road. South of Denali, it was in God’s country. The road, deeply rutted and rocky, was barely passable with our Dodge station wagon. The road dead-ended at the lodge, a large two story log structure which wasn’t open at the time. A burbling trout stream sat at the dirt circle parking lot beside the building, with a few 50 gallon drum containers meant to hold refuse from fishermen who often frequented the spot. I tried my hand with a small lure, but it was late and fishing was not on the agenda that trip. No fish bit in the short time I cast into the rocky waters.
We were alone this time and enjoying the peace and quiet, only occasionally punctuated by Baby David’s presence. As the sun lowered behind the mountains, my wife looked around and said “I don’t want to sleep in a tent. There might be bears around and there are no Rangers!” While I wasn’t as fearful, I heeded her distress. We set up our tent, moved all the gear into it, put the baby in a laundry basket on the front seat of our Dodge station wagon, laid out a mattress in the back, and bedded down in our sleeping bags for the night.
Sure enough, there was bear. He was a medium-sized black bear, interested in the contents of the barrels outside. He muddled and snuffled around a bit, took a sniff at our car (“Canned people” was my wife's comment!) and left the area, probably still hungry.
I was thankful I heeded my wife’s warning. But… she refused to tent camp again.
So I entered the above discussion with one thing in mind: a cabin. Several of my fellow teachers also liked that idea.
The State of Alaska, only 12 years old at the time, decided to assist its residents. All we needed to do was to look in certain State-designated areas, travel to a chosen spot, put down stakes in four corners, and we could then file to own up to 20 acres of free land. Called Open to Entry, this program appealed to us as one answer to “Where?”
Our first mapping exploration located a beautiful lake halfway to Denali. It was an easy hike off the Alaska Railroad, which would stop for travelers living in such places. Several of us were ready to make a pilgrimage to the spot, but as we inquired, we discovered that the upper, dry side of the lake, was partially staked already. Further discussion with State officials revealed that the parties claiming that property were NOT friendly. They had staked enough area to “own” the whole lake and had reportedly fired warning rifle shots toward would-be participants in the Open to Entry program.
We abandoned that plan.
One of our group later staked a claim nearer to Willow, famous for housing Sarah Palin’s family.
However, in early spring, he discovered it was largely swampland, not suitable for building. He abandoned his claim.
Meanwhile, I found a source through the Federal Government, an entity that owned most of Alaska. The U.S. Forest Service maintained the Chugach National Forest area on the Kenai Peninsula, an area with its northernmost section adjacent to a small community called Hope, Alaska. This area was reachable by dirt road and included a group of about 30 one-acre lots that could be leased for $99 a year on a one-hundred-year lease. The lease could be obtained by signing a contract that involved Federal approval of plans for building a cabin on the lot. The Government provided covenants and rules for the owners that meant keeping the area as pristine as possible. I liked that since it meant we would not be butt up against yahoos with rusty garbage cans filled with alcohol containers and junk cars beside shacks. There were some controls.
I met with one of my lounge friends who happened to be the shop teacher in our high school. Wayne was a talented carpenter and had been a California contractor in his past. We discussed what I needed, and Wayne not only designed a plan for a small, modified A-frame cabin, but he also assigned his students to build a scale-model of it so I would understand the structure and what would be needed to build it. I took Wayne’s plan and completed a ream of Federal paperwork. The model was perfect!
The plan was submitted and approved. I now “owned” the property in the forest just outside of Hope Alaska!
But it needed to become a reality.