Sunday, June 28, 2015

Is that a fledgling Lincoln's Sparrow on my truck?

I was planning to drive somewhere but when I went out to get into my truck I found this little fellow sitting on the windshield wiper, chirping away. I couldn't bear forcing it to move so I went for a walk instead. I think it's a fledgling Lincoln's Sparrow, but I'm not really sure.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Meier's Lake - A roadhouse chapel and a wife's civilizing influence

Meier's Lake Chapel in 2014

Charles Meier got his start in the roadhouse business working for Alvin Paxson. Meier, a mail carrier between Valdez and the Interior, hired on as cook when Paxson opened Timberline Roadhouse in early winter of 1905.

Timberline was located on the upper Gakona River near Isabel Pass, along the original route of the Valdez-Fairbanks Trail. In 1906 the Alaska Road Commission rerouted the trail up the Gulkana instead of the Gakona River, so after only one winter’s use, Paxson built a new roadhouse along the upper Gulkana in 1906.

Meier built his own roadhouse that same year near a small lake along the trail about 20 miles south of Paxson's.  The roadhouse was on the east side of the trail, across from where Meier’s Lake Roadhouse is now located.

According to the book, Roadhouses of the Richardson Highway, the long one-story log roadhouse he erected initially had room for 29 guests, but by 1910 had expanded to accommodate about 50 travelers. Hallock Bundy’s 1910 guide for the trail reported the roadhouse provided comfortable accommodations.  But then, Bundy had glowing recommendations for most of the roadhouses he described. 

Frank Glaser, who hiked from Valdez to Fairbanks in May of 1915, was less favorably impressed. A biography of Glaser records him as saying, "the bedding in the roadhouse was so dirty it looked shellacked." During his stay at the roadhouse Glaser slept outside using his own blankets. 

Meier also developed a homestead at the south end of the lake, and raised vegetables to feed his guests, advertising “fresh vegetables entire winter.” He also grew hay for his own animals and those of packers and stage drivers passing through. Bundy’s trail guide reported that Meier harvested five tons of hay and three tons of vegetables in 1909. Photos from this period show the roadhouse, a barn and corral, several outbuildings, the garden and a large hayfield.

The roadhouse location proved to be fortuitous, since it was a convenient take-off point for pack trains heading west to the Valdez Creek Mining District. The pack trains ascended the Middle Fork of the Gulkana River and Lake Creek to Tangle Lakes, then turned westward towards Valdez Creek. Meier maintained a small inventory of merchandise at the roadhouse for miners and other passing through, and also rented pack animals and provided guiding services.

Accounts of the roadhouse appearing during the first two decades of the 1900s just mention Charles Meier as proprietor. However, by the 1920s he was married, (although his wife’s first name is never mentioned).  William Beach, in his book, In the Shadow of Mt. McKinley, wrote about a 1922 trip up the Richardson Highway, and of staying at Meier’s Roadhouse. He did mention Mrs. Meier as a gracious hostess, saying the food was excellent and the beds clean and comfortable. His party whiled away an evening’s stay listening to opera and jazz on the phonograph, and enjoying Charles’ tales of his Alaska adventures.

The drawing shows the tiny log chapel, about 24’ long by 16’ wide with a low-pitch shed roof, located across the highway from the present roadhouse. According to the Meier’s Lake Roadhouse website, the single-room chapel, which is still there, was built in about 1920.  Perhaps Mrs. Meier’s civilizing influence not only improved the decorum of the roadhouse, but also prompted the chapel’s construction.

The Meiers were Catholic, but Jim Murray, who has cooked at Meier’s Lake Roadhouse since 1989, told me the chapel eventually became non-denominational. The chapel is still used for occasional services, and for special events such as weddings.

The roadhouse was razed in a 1925 fire, but the Meiers rebuilt. Later it was operated by Al Norwood, a local trapper and renowned moonshiner, and then by Harry Newman. Adler and Maude Tatro ran it from 1943 until 1950 when it was once-again destroyed by fire.

The site then remained vacant until the new Meier’s Lake Roadhouse was built in the early 1980s by Galen Atwater. It is now owned by Harvel Young, and still offers hospitality to highway travelers. 

  • Alaska’s Wolf Man; The 1915-55 Wilderness Adventures of Frank Glaser. Jim Rearden. Pictorial Histories. 1998
  • Conversation with Jim Murray, longtime cook at Meier’s Lake Roadhouse
  • Roadhouses of the Richardson Highway. Walter Phillips. Alaska Historical Commission. 1984
  • The Trail, the Story of the Historic Valdez-Fairbanks Trail. Kenneth Marsh. Trapper Creek Museum. 2008
  • In the Shadow of Mount McKinley. William N. Beach. The Derrydale Press. 1931
  • The Broad Pass Region, Alaska. Fred H. Moffit. U.S.G.S. 1915
  • The Valdez-Fairbanks Trail : the story of a great highway. Hallock Bundy. Alaska Publishing Company. 1910


Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Chitina dip-netting, June 2015

     This past Sunday I drove down to Chitina with my son-in-law, Brian Lotze, to go dip-netting for salmon. Our destination was O'Brien Creek, about 2 miles south of Chitina along the old Copper River and Northwestern Railroad right-of-way. The photo above is a panorama looking upriver from just south of O'Brien Creek.

     This is O'Brien Creek looking towards the Copper River. There is a large relatively level gravel area here for parking and camping. You can see the creek to the right. Straight ahead is where the charter boats pick up and drop off their clients.

     This is the road down to O'Brien Creek. The level of the old railroad grade can be seen at the upper right. There used to be a wooden railroad bridge spanning the creek.


     This view is looking south across O'Brien Creek. Twenty or so years ago when I came down to go dip-netting there was a vehicle bridge across the creek and a 4-wheel-drive truck could make it to Haley Creek, five miles beyond. Unfortunately, the old railroad grade has an unfortunate and incurable habit of trying to slide down the canyon into the Copper River. Now, only ATVs, bicycles and foot-traffic can go beyond.

     There are no electric lines to O'Brien Creek. Everything must be hauled in and hauled out. Any electricity must be generated on-site with small generators. But, O'Brien Creek does have an espresso stand!

     This was my salmon fishing rig--a mountain bike to get to the the fishing site 1.25 miles beyond O'Brien Creek, a pack for hauling supplies to the site and hauling fish back in, and a dip-net with 20' pole. Have you ever ridden a bike along a bumpy mountain trail while wearing a pack and hanging on to a long pole. And the pole had to be pointed straight ahead so it didn't get tangled in the brush along the trail. The Wallendas have nothing on us mountain-biking dip-netters! We were in the minority though. Including Brian and myself there were only five mountain bike to be seen. There were some hikers, but most people appeared to using ATVs. Of course that doesn't count the people taking charters on jet boats.

     This is a nice section of the former road (now trail) just beyond O'Brien Creek. It got progressively worse, with large rocks sticking up through the dirt and gravel in sections, other sections slowly sliding down the mountain, rock-falls from the slopes above, and brush encroaching from the sides.

     One of the lovelier panoramas from a section of trail, looking downriver. Don't let the gentle grassy slope fool you. Just beyond is a drop-off to the river below. The old railroad grade is several hundred steep feet above the river along most of the route.

     Looking down to the river from the trail above our fishing spot. We left our bikes here and hiked/climbed/descended a steep trail to the right in the photo.. Remember, we had to haul the fish back up this slope!

     This is another view of out fishing spot a little further along the trail. That tiny dot in the center of the circle is Brian, already dip-netting at the river's edge.

     Looking upriver from our fishing spot at river's edge.

     Looking downriver from our fishing spot.

     Brian dip-netting at our "hot spot." The Copper is a swift river, pretty much impossible to hold a dip-net steady in unless you can find a back-eddy. At this location if you stuck you pole down about 6-8 feet there was a back eddy you could hold your pole steady in.

     We only stayed overnight--fished about 12-13 hours, and came back with 24 salmon. Not a fantastic haul, but a lot better than getting skunked. You never know how the fishing is going to be.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Sandpiper, Mallards at Chena River lagoon - 6-12-15

Walked down to the lagoon behind my house at the end of  Hamilton Avenue. Had a lovely time watching the sandpipers chase each other around, the ducks sunning themselves and paddling around the lagoon, and the swallows flitting around chasing bugs. Here are a couple of photos I took of a Spotted Sandpiper, and a Mallard mama with here duckings. (The swallows were just to fast to photograph.)

Spotted Sandpiper (Actitis macularius)

Female Mallard Duck Anas platyrhynchos)

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Modern birch-bark canoe at Morris Thompson Cultural and Visitors Center evokes traditional Athabascan culture

This traditional Athabascan birch-bark canoe is on display at the Morris Thompson Cultural & Visitors Center in Fairbanks. It was constructed in 2013 by a Folk School Fairbanks class.

The boreal forest (also referred to as taiga) stretches across northern North America, covering much of Alaska and Canada. Paper Birch is one of its signature species, and the region’s inhabitants have become adept at using birch bark to construct a variety of implements. Their skills reach a zenith in building canoes.

Both Natives and non-natives constructed birch-bark canoes during the 1800s. The most well-known type of canoe was perhaps the "eastern style," adapted by French-Canadian voyageurs for the fur trade. Similar to modern canoes, they were relatively wide, with slightly rounded bottoms and sides, and curved bow and stern.

Athabascan Indians of the McKenzie and Yukon River drainages by contrast built "kayak-style" canoes with narrow flat bottoms, low flaring sides and angled bow and stern. This type of canoe was well-suited to the region’s swift rivers and also required less birch-bark covering—an advantage in Northwestern North America with its typically smaller trees.

These craft had spruce wood frames covered with strips of birch-bark. Split spruce-root lashing held the frame together, and spruce roots were also used to stitch together the bark covering. Seams were sealed with spruce pitch mixed with animal fat.

According to Robert McKennan’s ethnographic study, The Upper Tanana Indians, most men owned a "hunting" canoe, which was typically 12-16’ long, about 24” wide, and very shallow. Canoes across the region usually had birch-bark “decking” across the forward end, however, canoes along the Upper Tanana also featured aft decking.

These canoes weighed about 35 pounds and were easily portaged. They were usually propelled with single-bladed paddles or by poling. Poling wasn’t done while standing though. Photos from the early 1900s show seated canoeists working their craft upstream utilizing a pair of long slender staffs—one gripped in each hand.

Athabascans also constructed larger canoes (up to 25' long) for transporting families and cargo. These cargo canoes were similar to hunting canoes, but often lacked top decking.         

U.S, Army Captain Charles Raymond, who reconnoitered the lower Yukon River in 1869, also ascended the Anvik River using Native canoes. He wrote that the kayak-style canoes were "admirably adapted to river travel. They are light and draw very little water, and though easily injured they are quickly repaired. In the bow of each canoe a little pitch and birch bark are always kept [for repairs]....The natives make these repairs very rapidly and skillfully, so that an accident ordinarily causes a delay of a few minutes only.”

While they were well-matched to their task, Athabascan canoes were finely balanced and took skill to use. Another Army representative, Lieutenant Joseph Castner, wrote in 1896 that he “rode 400 miles in one, but did not feel very secure in any position. It seemed like taking a voyage in a peanut shell.”

In the early 1900s canvas began replacing birch bark as a canoe covering but the basic structure remained the same. These canoes were commonly called “ratting boats” since they were used to hunt muskrats. As the ratting boat superceded the birch-bark canoe, so too aluminum canoes eventually replaced ratting boats.

The birch-bark canoe shown in the drawing, which is 18 feet long, 35” wide, and stands 11.5” high, is a modern re-creation of a traditional kayak-style canoe. It was constructed in 2013 (with locally-harvested materials) in a class sponsored by The Folk School Fairbanks. The class was taught by local resident, Randy Brown, who has constructed eight birch-bark canoes in both the eastern and kayak styles. Brown told me that with the myriad variations in canoe building across the region, his did not represent a particular area, but is typical of kayak-style canoes in general. The canoe is now on permanent display in the Morris Thompson Cultural & Visitors Center, at 101 Dunkel Street  in Fairbanks.



  • “A Story of Hardship and Suffering in Alaska.” Lieutenant Joseph C. Caster  (1886).  In Compilation of Narratives of Explorations in Alaska. U.S. Government Printing Office. 1900

  • “Class teaches students the art of traditional birch bark construction.” Tim Mowry. In Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. 8-15-2013

  • Conversation with Randy Brown, instructor for Folk School Fairbanks birch-bark canoe class
  • Photos of kayak-style canoes in early 1900s. Clarence L. Andrews Photograph Collection, Alaska State Library Historical Collections
  •  “Reconnaisance of the Yukon River.”  Captain Charles P. Raymond, Engineer Corps (1869). In Compilation of Narratives of Explorations in Alaska. U.S. Government Printing Office. 1900
  •  The Upper Tanana Indians. Robert McKennan. Yale University. 1959