Saturday, March 31, 2012

Kantishna’s Busia cabin exudes Alaskan ambiance

Nestled at the base of tundra-covered mountains in Kantishna sits the small log cabin pictured in the accompanying drawing. Built by Johnny Busia (pronounced boo-shay)in the early 1900s, the cabin, with its moose antlers over the door and traps hanging on the wall, looks quintessentially Alaskan to me. 

You could also say that Busia was a quintessential Alaskan sourdough — a miner and trapper who spent over 40 years in the Kantishna area. He died in 1957. Busia was a close friend of another more well-known area resident, Fanny Quigley (buried in the Birch Hill Cemetery, by the way), and one of the few people who lived in Kantishna year-round. The mountain behind Busia’s cabin is named in his honor. 
Kantishna is a tiny isolated hamlet located north of Mount McKinley. Situated at the confluence of Eureka and Moose Creeks and three miles northwest of Wonder Lake, the community is 95 road-miles west of the Parks Highway and about as far west as you can travel by vehicle and still be connected to the U.S. continental road system. The hills and ridges are covered by alpine tundra, and the valleys by taiga forest.

When Johnny came into the country in 1918, Kantishna was already past its initial boom and bust. Thousands of gold seekers flooded the Kantishna River drainage in late-1905 after Joe Quigley and Jack Horn brought news to Fairbanks of rich diggings in the area. Several towns quickly sprang up.

Unfortunately, the “sunburnt” gold (lying close to the surface) concentrated in only a few creeks and was soon exhausted. The boom ended within six months. Most miners abandoned their claims, and communities became ghost towns almost overnight. By the summer of 1906 Kantishna, being closest to the rich diggings, was the sole surviving town, and only a few score of hardy miners remained. Even then it was only a summer town. Few of the miners stuck it out during the long harsh winters.

The fortunes of Kantishna have ebbed and surged several times, but the town has always remained small. Mount McKinley National Park was established just to the south in 1917, and when the park boundaries were expanded in 1980 the new park addition completely enveloped the private lands at Kantishna. Five years later all commercial mining activity within the park boundaries was halted by court order.

Much of the private property around Kantishna has been acquired by the National Park Service, including the Busia cabin. The Park Service restored the structure between 2006 and 2008. The moose antlers and traps are gone, but the building (which is eligible for the National Register of Historic Places) .still exudes Alaskan ambiance. Other inholdings were bought by back-country lodges, and Kantishna is now a magnet for tourists. 

I think it is slightly ironic. Since Kantishna’s inception, the mountaineers, hunters and other adventurers roaming the northern flanks of the Alaska Range have been drawn by the area’s natural wonders and have raved over the hospitality of Kantishna’s residents. At least that part of the Kantishna spirit lives on even today.

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