Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Old cabin at Byers Lake is a reminder of Alaska's trapping heritage

Red amd Marydith Beeman's cabin at Byers Lake in 2011

Just a few minutes walk from Byers Lake campground near Mile 138 of the Parks Highway lies the picturesque remains of an old two-room cabin. From 1959 to the early 1970s, this was the headquarters site for trapper Edward “Red” Beeman.

Red came to Alaska in 1951 courtesy of the U.S. Air Force. He fell in love with Alaska and lingered after his discharge. In summer 1954, he began fishing commercially for salmon in Cook Inlet using set nets, which are gillnets anchored or “set” in one location.

Commercial fishing, like many Alaska occupations, is a seasonal activity. Consequently, Red also took on guiding hunters in autumn and trapping during winter. In an interview in Randy Zarnke’s book, Alaska Tracks: Life Stories from Hunters,Fishermen & Trappers of Alaska, Red says, “ ... that’s what I’ve done. Fish in the summer, guide in the fall, trap in the winter. It’s been a good life.”

His first few years of trapping were along Eagle River outside Anchorage and in various locations in the Talkeetna Mountains to the north of the Matanuska Valley. By the end of the 1950s, he had moved his trapline to Byers Lake on the western flank of the Talkeetnas.

Red also found time to woo a Chugiak school teacher, Marydith West. The two married in 1959, and Red whisked his new bride off to Byers Lake where they built a small cabin that same year a few hundred feet from the lake’s north shore. The original section of the cabin, about 10 feet by 16 feet, is constructed of unpeeled spruce logs with saddle-notched corners. The gabled roof has metal sheathing.

Later, the two added a 10-foot by 8-foot log-walled bedroom on the cabin’s north side, built into the hillside. That room was much needed after son Eric and daughter Susan were born.

The cabin has low side walls (about 5-feet high) and the middle of the main room underneath the ridgepole is only about 7-feet high. Susan Beeman, in an essay about the cabin in the book, Travelers’ Tales Alaska, writes of the doorway between the main room and bedroom, “ ... the doorway where my parents stapled a cut-out magazine photo of a mallard so they wouldn’t forget to duck.”

Marydith told me that she and Red spent winters at Byers Lake in 1959-60 and 1960-61, but after the children were born the family only visited the cabin. Byers Lake is about 40 miles beyond Talkeetna, and in the 1960s had no road access. The only way in would have been either hiking from the Alaska Railroad nine miles away or by small plane.

The Beeman cabin was not the only dwelling at the lake. Bureau of Land Management records show that two other cabins were located there. One of those cabins was situated about where Byers Lake public-use cabin No. 3 is now.

Red gained patent to his cabin and the 4.87 acres it sits on in February 1970. However, with the creation of Denali State Park (which surrounds Byers Lake) in 1970, and the completion of the Parks Highway in 1972, Red could feel civilization creeping in. He sold the Byers Lake property to the state and moved his family and trapping operations to the McGrath area in 1973.

The state has developed a campground and other recreation facilities at Byers Lake, including a trail around the lake. It has left the Beeman cabin untouched, though. The cabin’s windows are long gone, a porch at the far end of the cabin has collapsed, and a small stand of trees has taken root in deep moss covering the bedroom roof. Inside, the flooring over the root cellar beneath the middle of the front room has rotted away. Visitors can peer into the cabin’s dim interior through the vacant windows, but a sign warns the curious not to enter the dilapidated structure.

Red retired from trapping in 2003 and from guiding in 2007, but he still fishes commercially. He and Marydith now live in Chugiak.

  •  Alaska Tracks: Life stories from Hunters, Fishermen & Trappers of Alaska. Randy Zarnke. Publication Consultants. 2013
  • Correspondence with Red and Marydith Beeman. 2015
  • Cook Inlet Country. Alaska Geographic. Vol. 5, No. 1. 1977
  • Denali State Park Management Plan. Alaska Department of Natural Resources. 2006
  • “From Scratch.” Susan Beeman. in Travelers’ Tales Alaska. Travelers’ Tales. 2003
  • “Teachers revisit the early days of teaching in Chugiak School.” Chris Lundgren. in The Alaska Star. 2-15-2007
  • U.S. Bureau of Land Management records

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