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The Good Old Days

My folks first came to Alaska in 1957 with 5 young sons in tow. My parents and my paternal grandmother homesteaded in an area now known as Big Lake. We lived about 5 miles from the road to Big Lake on the last and least of a small chain of lakes known as the Beaver Lakes, ours was Pup Lake (because beaver babies are called pups). This small lake died out after the Good Friday Earthquake in 1964, leaving a silt laden puddle that didn't even have fish in it.

We lived pretty rough and, other than trips to Texas (where everyone but me was born) to stock up on money, we were extremely poor. I don't remember any of us ever having snowsuits. If our school shoes didn't fit in the summer, we went barefoot. I was the first girl to come along after those 5 boys and most of my childhood clothes were my brothers' hand-me-downs. In 2nd grade I didn't even have boots and wore tennis shoes until December. Because of where we lived, there was no road maintenance, and for my older brothers to get to school, they had a 6 mile hike through deep snow because once it did start snowing, the roads would be impassable. The little school they attended didn't have a cafeteria so they had to take their lunch, for them that usually meant cold beans on biscuits.

The boys always cut across our lake to get to school. When the Good Friday Earthquake happened, if they had been in school that day, they would have been crossing the lake just about the time it hit. Even though I was only 3 at the time, I remember the lake ice cracking open and slamming back together, with geysers of silt and mud spraying up as the edges hit. The trees were whipping from side to side. In Anchorage, at the same time, the elementary school in Government Hill actually slid down the hill it was built on and if kids had been there it would have been an even worse tragedy. That earthquake wreaked havoc across the entire state with approximately 130 deaths. Seward and Valdez were seriously impacted by the quake and then by the tsunami. Seward's fuel storage tanks exploded and burned, the docks were gone, the roads out of town were blocked. "Old" Valdez (the original townsite) was wiped out, you can still see the remnants of the damage that was done. Fourth Avenue in downtown Anchorage kinda split down the middle and one side sank substantially. This is when we figured out that a good portion of the coastline around Anchorage has a special kind of clay known as Bootlegger's Cover clay formation. This is just normal clay up until it's shaken and then it becomes a liquid. Many houses slid into Cook Inlet. Sinkholes opened and then slammed shut again. Where we were there was much less damage, cracks in the pavement and downed trees, but nothing like the coastal areas.

My dad and brothers built our house beginning in 1959 or so. They had spent a winter in an Army style tent that first year. When my three oldest brothers were about 13, 12, and 11, my dad made them hand-dig our basement. It was approximately 15 feet x 30 feet and about 4 feet deep in hard, rocky soil. There was a brown bear den about 40 feet from the house, kind of a cave dug into the ground, and they fought with that bear for several years before she finally permanently moved on. When my dad started building the cabin on the basement, they cut down nearby trees; the largest logs were probably 9 inches in diameter. My dad was not a carpenter. It wasn't until I was an adult that I realized there was no insulation in the upstairs portion of our cabin (and not much in the basement), none in the ceiling, just the logs on the sides with rags used for chinking in the gaps, and the basement underneath. We were always cold in the winter.

Oldest 3 brothers, l-r, Mike, John, & Randy Me and dad. Small logs, big gaps.

No electricity. No telephone. No running water. No road access in the winter. Some winters we would block off the upstairs and all live in the basement, those were crowded but tolerable. Other winters we would block off the basement and live upstairs--that was always when it really got cold. We would sleep two to a bed, fully clothed, and still be freezing. Some winters, in addition to -50 degrees, we would get enormous dumps of snow. Nights were spent sleeping in shifts so the stove never ran low, two tanks only of fuel for the Coleman laterns, KYAK country music on the AM radio from 7 a.m. until they went off the air. Some years we didn't get lucky with a moose and it wasn't unusual to spend an entire winter with pretty much oatmeal and red beans and rice. I remember being really hungry a lot. Mainly it was cold.

But when I was a little kid and this was all I knew, it was just normal, you know. I didn't really realize we were poor and that we lived pretty hard, I guess I thought everyone lived the way we did. I remember a lot of fun times in the summer with freedom to roam anywhere we wanted, swimming in that gross little lake (ewww), building forts and treehouses. Days that seemed to last for weeks. My little sister and I being in the woods all day and nothing to really worry about, except moose and bears, that never gave us a problem. We were free to do those things from the time I was 7 and my sister 4. Crazy, huh? Winters when there had been a good wind that blew the snow off the lake and we could iceskate all over. Winters when my folks would wake us up on a cold night to watch the nothern lights in technicolor. Winters when we would hitch the St. Bernards to the toboggan and go to the "birch forest" to cut firewood and bring it back on the sled. Winters when I learned to love reading and read everything I could. Winters where the nights were so dark and the stars filled up the sky, you were forced to acknowledge your place in the universe. It was a helluva way to grow up. It sure makes me appreciate the luxuries I have now.

Driveway in the summer

The blue truck marks the trail to the Birch Forest where we got most of our firewood. It was also the trail to my grandmother's homestead. It's now known as "Old Toby Town". Yeah, my dad lost all of it to taxes.

Same driveway in the winter. Two youngest older brothers, David and Steven, and me and my little sister, Lori, on the sled. Tiny the St. Bernard pulling the toboggan.

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