Kenai couple turns peninsula life into treasured time

A lifetime of memories

Posted: Sunday, January 20, 2002

Through the telescope strategically placed in their Kenai living room, Phil and Betty Ames watch ships sailing up and down Cook Inlet.

"It can almost put you on board one of those tankers," Phil said.

His familiarity with inlet traffic was obvious as he looked toward the horizon.

"We're about due to see one this afternoon."

The telescope's strength allowed the couple to witness a landslide on an island near the inlet's opposite shore. Its far-reaching capabilities offer sightings of the moon's craters and Saturn's rings.

But the telescope pales in comparison to what this couple has experienced since coming to Alaska as children.

In 1923, when Phil was 3 years old, his family moved from Idaho to Alaska. Their new home was within 25 miles of the smoldering Mount Katmai, a volcano whose dramatic eruption in 1912 measured nearly 30 times that of the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens in Washington.

As the family went about the business of settling in, the volcano's high-temperatures continued to attract the attention of scientists worldwide.

"We couldn't see the volcano from (where we lived), but there was still ash all over the country," Phil said.

In the late 1920s, the Ames family moved to Anchorage, a booming city of 1,900. The plan was for the children to enter school. However, Phil's two older brothers were too busy hunting and trapping with their father to attend classes. Phil, his older sister and a brother who was born in Anchorage were the only ones to take advantage of the city's elementary school and high school.

One of his schoolmates was John Bagoy, whose family became well known in Anchorage for its flower shops. Bagoy's soon-to-be-released book, "Anchorage Legends and Legacies -- Remembering Our Buried Past," describes Anchorage during the period of 1910 to 1935.

"Phil and I used to do some rabbit hunting together," said Bagoy. "And we hunted sheep a couple of times but weren't successful. On a trip up Peters Creek Canyon I think we got run off by a brown bear."

While researching his book, Bagoy came across a 1935 clipping from the Anchorage Daily Times that documents one of Ames' hunting experiences with classmate Stanley Aho, who now lives on Funny River Road. According to the article, the two 14-year-old duck hunters had climbed onto a large log in a slough to keep out of the mud, only to find themselves and the log being carried away from shore by the receding tide.

During the chilly hours of night, the youngsters shook hands and told each other goodbye, certain they would not survive the ordeal.

However, the tide brought the log back to shore the following morning, depositing the boys safely on land just as duck hunting season came to a sudden close.

"As far as Philip is concerned, the duck season for him is closed by my decree," his mother announced.

Harry Bartels Sr. of Tyonek was another of Phil's boyhood hunting partners. He described himself as "one of the bad boys in Anchorage" compared to Phil and his brothers, "who were brought up with tender loving care. I don't remember him ever getting into trouble like I did."

Bartels' father carried freight and hunters aboard his homemade 50-foot boat, the Sea Lion. Among the Bartels' guests was artist Sydney Lawrence, who became famous for his paintings of Alaska landscapes.

Hunting wasn't the only activity occupying Phil's youth. He helped his family run a scale near the Anchorage city dock. Ernie Amundsen, a friend of Phil's who now lives in Idaho, remembered an occasion when he was 16 years old and had a job driving trucks loaded with coal.

"I was just driving up to the scale and a good-looking gal came by," Amundsen remembered. "Apparently I wasn't watching where I was going because I ran over the railroad tracks and my boss just about fired me."

Phil also had his eyes on a good looking gal -- Betty, the daughter of Ron and Annie Woods, who came to Alaska from Colorado in 1941. Traveling by steam-ship, they lived first in Kodiak and finally relocated to Anchorage.

Phil and Betty were introduced by mutual friends and married Dec. 1, 1946, with their friends, Gordon and Connie Nelson, serving as witnesses. Six months later, Gordon and Connie themselves were married, while Phil and Betty looked on.

"Gordon and Phil met in the woods somewhere," Connie Nelson said. "As the story goes, one was hunting moose and one was hunting rabbits and they both thought the other was crazy. And they still think each other's crazy."

Within five years, Phil and Betty were the proud parents of five children -- Bradley, Marty, Warren, Kathy and Brannon.

And for a five-year period, Betty frequently kept the home fires burning while Phil's assignments with the territorial Alaska Highway Patrol kept him moving around the state.

A photo taken in 1949 shows a uniformed Phil proudly displaying badge No. 12. Phil served with Emmett M. Botelho, the father of Alaska Attorney General Bruce Botelho. And he was with the highway patrol when its members were deputized as Special Deputy U.S. Marshals.

Phil's friend Gordon often tagged along to provide company. Eventually Gordon enlisted and served a 21-year career in law enforcement, retiring from the Alaska State Troopers in the early 1970s.

While Phil was with the highway patrol, a friend of his was attacked by a brown bear. The man was rushed to a military hospital in Anchorage after the bear removed half his face and his entire scalp. However, the scalp was recovered and Phil "broke all speed records" in an effort to deliver it to the medical facility.

It was carefully transported in a saline solution in hopes of keeping the tissue alive, but when a lab tech removed it from the solution and put it in alcohol, any possibility of successfully reattaching the scalp was erased.

"I was very nearly court marshaled that day," Phil said of his reaction to the lab tech's error.

In 1951, Phil, Betty and their children moved to the Kenai area.

Earl Towner recalled meeting Phil while the two were at the Distant Early Warning site at Cape Prince of Wales.

"Phil never lost an opportunity to proclaim the Kenai Peninsula to be the most beautiful of any place in Alaska. Kenai never had a more sincere booster," Towner wrote in "Once Upon the Kenai -- Stories From the People."

The Ameses' first home was near Kenai's Russian Orthodox Church. Later, they homesteaded where Beaver Creek flows into the Kenai River, an area where Phil felt certain he could provide plenty of fish to feed his family.

"Fishing wasn't a sport; it was part of our life," said daughter Marty Ellis. "It wasn't a game. It was something we did to eat, but it was fun at the same time. We always had fun together."

Marty said life was great along the shores of the river.

"It was a wonderful, wonderful childhood. We were always doing stuff outside. We were a team."

That teamwork carried over when Phil was away with the patrol, and Betty dealt single-handedly with their children's mishaps.

"I'd like to say that my dad is all the backbone of the family, but that's not true," oldest son, Brad Ames, said, referring to the role his mother played.

"She was 98 pounds soaking wet when she got married, raised five kids and put up with an outdoorsman, which is tough."

Brad has the scars to prove it. Specifically those resulting from his attempt to learn how to trap, when his finger became caught in a coyote trap.

"I couldn't get it off so I came home wearing it," he said. Laughing, he added, "Sometimes I kind of forget some of the trauma we put her through."

In "Once Upon the Kenai," Anne Wells Thibodeau recalled becoming best friends with Marty in the first grade and visiting the family's homestead.

"... When I went to play at Marty's house, it was a great adventure to go out in a boat or watch her mother in the garden. We 'town kids' didn't know much about gardens or fresh vegetables. I had never tasted fresh cauliflower till Marty brought some to school in her lunch, and I couldn't figure out how her mom cooked it to make it crunchy."

In 1957, Phil, who had a pilot's license, helped revitalize the Civil Air Patrol's Kenai Squadron. Meanwhile, Betty organized the Homemaker's Club and served as the group's treasurer. With Clarice Kipp, Betty was a founding member of the Kenai Art Guild.

"I remember her sitting around the table always making something in the middle of the chaos of five children," said daughter Kathy Stewart, who lives in Bellingham, Wash., and is an artist, painting with pastels.

Betty's artistic voice found expression through painting, ceramics and quilting. One room in the couple's home is filled with completed quilts, quilts in progress and stacks of fabric awaiting her touch. A wall covered with flannel allows Betty to create designs that combine her quilting expertise and her artist's eye. A "bookshelf quilt" hangs on another wall, giving the impression of shelves filled with books.

"I told my mom that someday I'd make a quilt," Betty said.

To date she's made more than 100. Some have become gifts to family and friends; some have been coveted objects in local fund-raising efforts. Others have won awards. Photographs and notations documenting the destination of each quilt are carefully recorded in a notebook. A quilt made by her grandmother is featured in the book "Quilts of Alaska" and will appear in a February Kenai quilt show.

On July 15, 1973, Phil and Betty's son, Warren, who was 22, drowned in the Kenai River while kayaking with a friend. The Warren Ames Bridge, that spans the Kenai River on Bridge Access Road, bears his name.

Shortly after Warren's death, Phil and Betty left their riverside home and moved to the corner of the Spur Highway and Beaver Loop where they operated The Beaver House, a combination boat repair shop, museum and gift shop. And in 1999, they moved into their current home north of Kenai, on the bluff above Cook Inlet.

"I wouldn't trade this place for any place else," Phil said.

The home provides a kitchen big enough for the couple's growing family and a view for Phil's telescope.

Throughout the house are reminders of the Alaska they've seen and the changes they've witnessed. Artifacts. Newspaper clippings. Paintings of a lone boat -- Phil's -- on the Kenai River. The canoe the couple used on a 17-day float on the Koyukuk and Yukon rivers. A wall of photographs that trace the family's growth to include 10 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

One of the least welcome changes the couple has witnessed is Alaska's growing population and the number of visitors. Specifically, visitors "that trash our beautiful beach" offend Betty.

Phil is strongly opposed to efforts that divide Alaska residents into categories, such as commercial, sport, subsistence and personal-use fishers.

Two of the better changes they've witnessed are an increase in quality medical care and increased educational opportunities.

Remaining constant in the midst of Alaska's ebb and flow are friendships forged during the years Phil and Betty were youngsters in Anchorage. One of Betty's quilts hangs in the Nelsons' Wasilla home and Connie's needlework hangs in Betty's kitchen. A gathering of friends recently celebrated Stanley Aho's 80th birthday.

"What else would friends do?" Connie Nelson asked.

On Dec. 1, 2001, the Ames celebrated 55 years of marriage. Momentarily turning their focus inward, they shared their secret for a long life together.

"Give and take," Phil said. "I certainly haven't won all my arguments with her, and she hasn't won all of hers with me."

"Compromise," Betty said. "I guess that's the same as give and take."

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

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