Alaska Chapter 2
©2009
by Jean Binns Smith
     

      When I wrote the first article, I thought our Alaskan adventure was finished. However there continued it be more surprises. My father had introduced me to Jack London’s “Call of the Wild " and “White Fang, and I discovered Robert Services’s poetry in high school when the band I played in, accompanied the reading of “ The Shooting of Dangerous Dan McGrew” with appropriate music. Wanting something to read on the long plane trip , I bought the only other Alaskan book I knew of, James Mitchner’s “Alaska.” It is a thick book and sometimes requires careful reading to keep track of the many characters. I didn’t finish it on the trip. About a month later, I had progressed in the book to Alaska in the 1930’s. Imagine my surprise when I read the following sentences. “In the bitterly cold winter of January 1935, the small towns in the vicinity of Thief River Falls, in western Minnesota, close to the Canadian border, were experiencing the full terror of the Great Depression. In Solway, John and Rose Kirsch, with their three children were existing on one meal a day. “ I read them through three times to be sure I was reading what I thought I had read, before telling my husband to turn the TV off and listen to this! Dave ,who was born in Alaska, had told us earlier his parents had come up to Alaska from North Dakota , with his three older brothers as part of Roosevelt’s plan to settle the Matanuska Valley, but no one in the family knew his parents were mentioned in Mitchner’s book. Till then Gene and I were poorly informed of the plan to move families in poverty stricken areas of Minnesota and North Dakota to settle in Alaska during the depression. The book told how they were transported by train to San Francisco and then taken by boat to Alaska. At first they lived in tents, till they could build log cabins. John and Dave each got a copy of “Alaska” from us for a Christmas present that year.

      As I mentioned earlier, when we visited the Kirsch homestead, where J .V. was buried, there was no marker. In talking with the owner’s wife she said she had wondered about getting a headstone, but felt they should ask permission of the sons. I think J.V. Kirsch was a father figure to my husband and one of his friends. During the early years of our marriage I had heard much about him from both of them. I’m not sure who thought of it first, but we decided we should get a marker for J.V. Kirsch’s grave. Dave and his older brother, now living with a daughter in Idaho , had no objections nor did the present owners of the homestead property. Gene talked to Dave and John and told them to find a monument company and make the arrangements and we would pay for it. Familiar with the marble markers in the cemeteries around here, that was what we were envisioning. We also figured shipping the marker to Alaska would cost much more than the stone itself. We were in for a surprise. After talking to the engraver in Huston , Ak, , John and Dave went to the homestead and got large oblong shaped smooth bolder from the glacier fed creek on the property, took it back to Huston and had it engraved, with

John V. Kirsch
1902-1960,
We Remember

and included the names of his four sons on the back. It was a much more appropriate marker placed in a clearing in the Alaskan wilderness area, than the tombstone we were picturing.

      Naturally we had to go back to Alaska and the homestead to see the marker the next year. Again, daughter Kathi came from California to spend a few days with us , and our middle daughter, Lorraine, came up for a few days before going home with us. Most of the trip we stayed in a bed and breakfast in Wasilla, Sarah Palin’s home town.

      The highlight for Kathi and me came when Gene, ever the bargain hunter, read a line on a menu that said “mention this ad and get $20.00 dollars off a plane trip to Ruth Glacier below Mt. McKInley.” Did Kathi and I want to go? “Yes!” We knew Gene couldn’t go because of his need to use his oxygen machine in the higher altitudes. Kathi called and made reservations and then asked me “ You did want to get out of the plane and walk on the glacier didn’t you? “I never thought twice before sayng ”Yes”. It cost Gene four hundred and sixty dollars to save forty.

      The plane was a 6 passenger Beaver and at 77, I was the oldest woman that pilot had flown to the glacier. The view of the river valley below was a beautiful contrast before we reached the sheer black rock and icy white surface of the glacier. It reminded me of something out of a science fiction program. The glacier is 3,800 feet deep and is about 40 miles long. There was a thin covering of snow on the glacier which made walking less slippery on the glacier with the special boots provided by the company.

      Two days later we were headed south to Homer, a fishing village along the Kachemak Bay . Gene wanted to go halibut fishing. Not a fisherman, I bought a license and went along for the ride. They caught the limit of two halibut per person and two cod fish. I saw sea otters and watched a mountain with a cloud over it that never moved. Finally realized it was my first sighting of a volcano, Mt Redoubt, that erupted the following year. We meet with John and Dave back in Anchorage for a farewell dinner before boarding the plane to take us home to Pennsylvania.

      That was to be our last trip to Alaska, but last June we returned. Gene’s health was not as good and this time we spent seeing the area around Wasilla and visiting with John and Dave. The one exception was a trip to Valdez. Every time I go to Alaska I find a new favorite place. On the way to Valdez, we saw the Alaskan pipe line, numerous glaciers and beautiful waterfalls. At Valdez, we took a 6 hour ride in the Prince William Sound seeing, sea lions, seals, sea otters, whales and dolphins. To the unfamiliar eye, the damage from the oil spill was hidden after 20 years.

      John and Dave had talked of visting us in Pennsylvania to see the fall and October 9th they arrived, much awed by the fall colors. Seems they were expecting flat county and while they had seen pictures of fall colored trees, they were not expecting to see mountain after mountain side of continuing beautifully colored trees. Canaan Valley State Park is one of our favorite West Virginia retreats. After visiting areas around central Pa., we made a quick trip there, seeing the spectacular scenery as we traveling over Route #50, my favorite W.VA road. John and Dave are familiar with moose and bear, but not the almost tame white tailed deer at Cannan Valley. Quiet 57 year old John, who worked on the Alaskan Pipe Line on the North Slope of Alaska in his early 20’s and now commutes by plane to work at a power plant in the cold western side of Cook Inlet, understands the hardships of Alaskan life. He suddenly became as excited as a little boy when two deer ate apples out of his hands.

      We closed the West Virginia trip with a visit to Dolly Sods. I had seen many beautiful areas of Alaska, I wanted to share this equally special area of West Virginia with our friends.



Alaskian Fair visited on our trip to Alaska.

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