Book gives glimpse of early challenges for homesteader

Posted: Thursday, January 17, 2002

"Kachemak Bay Years:

An Alaska Homesteader's Memoir"

By Elsa Pedersen

Hardscratch Press

205 pages, $18.50

Honoring and trusting the reader with a peek behind the looking glass, "Kachemak Bay Years: An Alaska Homesteader's Memoir" is an honest, yet gentle, description of the challenges faced by author Elsa Pedersen after arriving on the southern Kenai Peninsula in 1944 -- challenges far removed from a Kachemak Bay of espresso stands and art galleries, paved highways and Internet connections.

There is no rush of fishing charter boats heading out of the bay in the morning or regularly scheduled daily commutes by air to other parts of the country. No television or radio to bring in news from the rest of the world. No telephone for a friendly chat with a neighbor. In fact, there are seldom neighbors.

Even more astonishing for readers who live in thickly insulated homes and are kept warmed by thermostatically controlled heat, are Pedersen's descriptions of the years spent living in tents that heavy snows threatened to collapse and stoves did little to heat.

On the first page, she opens the door to a world of isolation and hard work in the scarcely populated wilderness.

"We stood on the beach to watch the boat pull away and disappear around Moose Point. For long moments the throb of the engine beat against the hills surrounding Bear Cove, reverberating from ridge to ridge until swallowed by

the wooded slopes. In the renewed silence of the wilderness we turned away from the mound of freight heaped on the beach."

Adult readers will remember having their imaginations stirred by the novels Pedersen wrote for children in the mid-1900s. Her young characters brought to life with a child's innocence and wonder Alaska's tree-covered mountains and sparkling glaciers that the Salt Lake City-born author had adopted as her own.

In "Cook Inlet Decision," the main character, Gregor, and his family and friends introduced a young readership to the Seldovia countryside and commercial fishing on the dangerous waters of Cook Inlet. The book's popularity earned mention by the New York Times.

In her first book -- "Victory at Bear Cove" -- and through the eyes of Pete Kalgin, Pedersen described the country surrounding her homestead. The sights and sounds of the forest, the encounters with wildlife and the thrill of sleeping under a star-filled sky are the attractive bait that lured both young and old.

Young readers could feel the twinges of conflict between a longing for solitude and the need for human contact. The immeasurable skills necessary to survive in such a remote setting and the hunger for news of a world beyond the cove's confines. The attraction to a sparse, no-frills lifestyle and the comforting warmth of freshly baked bread and curtained windows.

"Kachemak Bay Years" is a recounting of Pedersen's personal struggle and eventual victory, told in greater depth and detail than in her novels for children. This is a book for adult readers in which the geography of Kachemak Bay and the details of a changing Alaska are the backdrop against which the true costs of homesteading are disclosed.

First impressions of the two-tent home Pedersen and her husband, Ted, constructed -- "I was delighted with the clean airiness and light of our home" -- were tested by storms that caused her to cower in her bed, frightened the canvas walls would be ripped away by forceful winds.

In an attempt to fight off Alaska's infamous biting insects that caused egg-sized lumps on her arms and legs and brought on fits of scratching, she discovered that the cure offered by a well-meaning neighbor was worse than the bite.

Laundering the heavy bedding and clothes needed to stay warm was a monstrous chore that required the hauling and heating of water for washing and the icy cold water of a nearby stream for rinsing.

Cooking on the small wood stove became a creative endeavor, paired with the struggle to put meat on the table. Pedersen roamed the woods several times a week in search of rabbits and spruce hens, careful to stay near the home site in order to not become lost in the unfamiliar forest.

"We ate rabbit stew, rabbit fricassee, rabbit spaghetti, beans with rabbit. Rabbit was almost our only source of meat and I never enjoyed it again."

Neighbors were few and far between. The company of other women was even less frequent and highly valued.

There was Jo, who raised blue foxes on Nuka Island, had her own commercial fishing license and fiercely guarded her personal territory. Her home, which seldom saw the company of guests, was "cluttered with the accumulation of years of mail order shopping," filled with china cabinets, ornaments, photos, paintings, handmade rugs and doilies. And Pedersen writes, "In my mind she has become the epitome of a lonely wilderness women."

And there is Gertie, the mother of two small children who became the author's best friend at Bear Cove. Their experiences together included the expectation that Gertie and Pedersen -- "who had never even changed a baby's diaper" -- would deliver another woman's baby.

The author also shares the loss of this valued friendship when her friend succumbs to the demands of homestead life.

"For some women, living in wilderness Alaska was a matter of quiet endurance."

Pedersen also relates the impact on her life and the relationship with her husband. For nearly 30 years, armed with the same strength and determination that fueled her resolve to overcome the struggles Alaska presented, she approached the obstacles growing between her and Ted. Realizing that their individual responses to those challenges had taken them in separate directions, Pedersen bid Bear Cove and Ted goodbye.

His parting wish for her: "I hope the life you make for yourself will be as beautiful as that sky."

In November 2001, only weeks before publication of "Kachemak Bay Years," Pedersen died at age 86, at her home in Sterling. In the obituary she penned, the author claimed having "lived happily for the rest of her life."

She leaves her readers with descriptions of the beauty and demands of the Alaska that became her home. And in her last book, we are permitted an unveiled glimpse at the people and country that were her inspiration.

McKibben Jackinsky is a free-lance writer who lives in Ninilchik.

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