If there’s one thing I missed out on, it was a chance to go homesteading in Alaska in 1956. That was the year I got married, and my new husband thought that it would be a great adventure. The idea appealed to me in one way– the long summer days and gardens that soaked up sunshine 21 hours a day. Cabbages so big that one would fill a wheelbarrow. Carrots so big you couldn’t fit one into a quart jar.
Those were some of the tales passed on by my great-uncle who lived near Fairbanks. We’d all heard about the Alaska gold rush, but that was similar to the California gold rush, in that the adventurers were mostly men who set out to get their share of the easy pickings and go back home, newly rich men with stories to tell. For most of them, the dream was only just that– a dream. Many stayed, however, enchanted by the wonders of that wild, beautiful, spacious, and exciting place.
The homesteaders were a different breed. They were determined, hard-working people who were willing to undertake the hardships of subduing one hundred and sixty acres of pure nature. They, like their hardy ancestors who had conquered and populated most of the lower United States, accepted the challenge of establishing a home, clearing and cultivating the required acres within a very few years. Rather than dealing with covered wagons and oxen, these new pioneers dealt with bulldozers and permafrost. Glaciers encroached on roadways, ice dams formed huge lakes that, subsequently disappeared when the ice broke up each summer. Marauding moose wiped out gardens overnight, peeked in windows, and leaned against buildings for warmth on cold winter days, shaking the houses like small earthquakes.
Technology and modern equipment helped make the challenges different from those of past settlers, but when the tractor broke down, or the fuel oil congealed from the cold, men and women were compelled to improvise and deal with the problems on their own. With fifty-below winter nights, one couldn’t wait for three days for a repairman to show up.
One of my high school classmates who lives in Fairbanks gave me a book by Martha Markey, a young bride in 1951, who along with her husband Bob set out to settle in Alaska. Vehicles and housing were known to be scarce there, so they started out with a sixteen-foot trailer and a half-ton pickup truck. Just getting there was more of a challenge than I could have faced at that age. Many roads were poor or non-existent, bridges were out– they had to traverse makeshift bridges of plank or log tracks just wide enough for the trailer tires.
In 1956, the same year that we were married and daydreaming about homesteading there, the young Markeys received permission to move onto a 160-acre homestead. Martha’s book, “Alaska’s Homesteaders”, describing their adventures and hardships, wasn’t written until fifty years later, but had it been available for me to read, I’d have never dared to even consider doing such a thing.
The Markeys lived in the trailer while they constructed a one-room house from sections of a floor-less military surplus Quonset hut. Recycling and improvising were a way of life. At one time, Martha used an abandoned car for a greenhouse so she could get a head-start on the short growing season. After removing the seats, they built a box of old boards, filled it with soil, and started their garden plants. They controlled the temperature by rolling the windows up or down.
While winters are cold in Alaska, the air is extremely dry, and the cold, while it can be dangerous, is not as penetrating as in more humid climates. A glass of water tossed into the cold air on a winter day does not, as you might expect, turn to ice pellets. Rather, it vaporizes, totally disappearing before it can hit the ground.
For over 10 years, my husband and I enjoyed camping. We started before Sugar Bottom near North Liberty was developed as a campground. I find it hard to believe that, many weekends, we had the whole place to ourselves. We had a 10 by 12 foot cabin tent that we’d ordered through Wilson’s sporting goods store (one couldn’t just buy camping equipment in stores at that time), sleeping bags, a neat set of aluminum cooking utensils that packed into one large kettle, and included four plates, a coffee pot, plastic cups, a smaller pan with a handle like a pail, and a detachable handle that fit onto the kettle cover to make a skillet. Although I could cook most things over a fire, we soon added a gas stove, two gas lanterns, and a catalytic heater. We camped with more conveniences and in greater luxury than Martha and Bob lived with year round. I’m pretty sure we wouldn’t have survived as homesteaders in Alaska.