Nikiski and Eagle River
Labor Days in Alaska meant a lot of things but most of all getting together with family and old friends before winter sets in. It also means the winding down of fishing, the beginning of moose hunting and kids going back to school.
The first memorable Labor Day picnic in Alaska was in 1969. It was a very warm fall day so we met a lot of our friends at our fishing sites on the beach south of Arness dock. We built a big bonfire outside our A-frame cabin and friends who had become our family sat on logs and told stories and laughed and giggled way into the night. Everyone brought a pot luck, moose pot roast, moose and beans, moose ribs and moose steaks that were fried quickly in a hot cast-iron skillet with no fancy barbecue sauces — just salt and pepper. Oh my ... those were good!
Of course there were various prepared types of salmon, baked or smoked that was shared. My first taste of smoked salmon in Alaska was like biting into a little piece of heaven. Labor-intensive and prepared so precisely, a little sweet and a little smoky — it was the best. Betty Coulter always made her famous coleslaw in a big stainless steel bowl. Someone always made potato salad and always chocolate cake or rhubarb pie. Nothing fancy, not even paper plates, usually pie plates or various dishes and silverware provided by each family.
The cabbage and potatoes came from our garden, the moose from God’s garden. Salmon was freshly caught that summer from the plentiful ocean by our hard working hands, the very ocean we were sitting beside celebrating the last days of a warm summer, making plans for the beginning of fall, preparing our kids for school and getting ready for winter.
As we sang songs around a roaring camp fire into the middle of the night, we watched the sunset across the Inlet and behind the mountains. What a perfect ending to a perfect summer!
We moved to Eagle River in the early 70s, built a house, started a construction business and owned a bar and restaurant. Labor Day was huge in Eagle River-Chugiak, as there was the Jerry Lewis Muscular Dystrophy Telethon. In conjunction with Tips Bar, a big pig was roasted in a fire pit that was started two days before the celebration. I was very busy with the food end and made huge salads, tons of garlic bread. Everyone pitched in and brought salads or a hot dish and much money was raised by generous, compassionate neighbors and friends. If strange faces appeared they were welcomed also and soon became our friends, some for a lifetime. The next day friends, neighbors and strangers showed up for the cleanup. We always were so grateful!
Fast foreword to Nikiski in 1986. Our first Labor Day picnic bonfire started below the cabin where we lived, on the edge of the lake. Bob had spent the summer clearing out trees, brush and garbage, cans and bottles. Then like magic a big fire ring appeared and we had an ongoing fire going in the pit most of the summer and into the fall. Our neighbors in the area and friends came to sit by the bonfire and share stories of the summer, that was scooting into cool weather and fall moose hunting. Tales were told about fishing, work on the platforms and in the welding shops. All our hard-working men were associated with the oil field in one way or the other and most of their work was hard dirty and grueling. A chance to gather around a big roaring bonfire with smiling faces, gave them my chance to relax and enjoy the day. Talk was about preparing for winter and plans for the future.
A lot of the guys around Bob’s bonfire were single men with not too much attachment to anything but their work. So we dubbed them our Orphan Friends. Always grateful for homemade meals and friendship, we formed bonds for life. I cooked and planned, cooked and cooked for them. Good thing I worked at the grocery store! Other friends and family brought hot dishes and salads. We enjoyed fine company, setting around singing to someone strumming the guitar, with a hootie owl joining in from time to time. Occasionally a moose would wander through the side of the yard, go down to the lake, take long sips of water and gradually step into the lake and swim off into the night. The bonfire roared into the early morning. Glowing embers and a few of our Orphan Friends were still in the same spot, snoozing.
In 1995, we bought land on the same lake, cleared a spot, built a house and Bob continued his roaring bonfires through the years. We had larger Labor Day celebrations with neighbor and community friends gathering for our big fish fries. The first year on Labor Day, our bonfire was much like it is this year, rainy and overcast. That did not bother our friends who showed up in raincoats and rubber boots with food in hand to gather around a larger than ever bonfire. The first year the mud was terrible but it did not seem to bother anyone but me!
Through the years Bob hauled in tons and tons of gravel by pickup, shoveling gravel on after work from an abandoned gravel pit and scattering in our yard. It became a beautiful grassy place to gather for our annual Labor Day picnics. We had evolved into large tents, beautiful picnic tables that Bob built in a yard full of grass and beautiful flowers. Two years ago we had 78 people on a warm sunny afternoon enjoying wonderful friends and neighbors and great food. We announced that that was our last year of Labor Day picnics. We have gotten older and although we cherish all our friends we decided that it I was time to pass Labor Day picnics onto others. We miss our friends, our bonfires, but not the weeks of planning and work involved. I think back on those times and will cherish all our memories forever. Thank you friends and neighbors. I hope you had a happy Labor Day.
Ann “Grannie Annie” Berg is a 44-year resident of Nikiski. Ann shares her collections of recipes from family and friends. She has gathered recipes for more that 50 years. Some are her own creation. Her love of recipes and food came from her Mother, a self taught wonderful cook.
She hopes you enjoy the recipes and that the stories will bring a smile to your day.
Grannie Annie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org