Peninsula Reflections

Posted: Monday, January 22, 2007


  Marnie Elwell is shown in this undated photo with bear cubs. She and her husband, Luke, captured young bear, moose, and Dall sheep for collectors. Submitted photo

Marnie Elwell is shown in this undated photo with bear cubs. She and her husband, Luke, captured young bear, moose, and Dall sheep for collectors.

Submitted photo

Betty Fuller gave me a recipe recently that set me thinking again about Mamie Elwell. Mamie gave Betty the recipe for Hawaiian rice when Betty and Bill Fuller enjoyed the dish after skiing to Mamie and Luke Elwell’s lodge at Upper Russian Lake in Feb. 1957.

We have Elwell pictures and memorabilia in the Cooper Landing Museum having mostly to do with their lodge, Luke’s years as a hunting and fishing guide and Mamie’s prolific writing career.

Guests and visitors to the Elwell’s often remarked on the meals she served. Catherine Coppock, Katie to her Cooper Landing neighbors, wrote an article in 1957 for The Christian Science Monitor in the Women Today section: “Living Lively in Far North.” The Coppock family flew in for a day and a night with the Elwells. Katie described Mamie dressed in khaki pants and a purple blouse with a lavender apron preparing dinner in “her gay kitchen. ‘This is Monday, so you’re getting leftovers,’ Mamie warned us as we sat down to dine. But what leftovers! Barbecued chicken, roast beef, hot rolls, potato salad, radishes and leaf lettuce salad from Mamie’s hotbed; and rhubarb pie for dessert. Among her other accomplishments she is famous for her cooking. To preserve the food flown in by bush-pilots, Luke has put up lake ice in sawdust. All supplies as well as visitors are flown in.”

Mamie Elwell’s other accomplishments included vegetable gardening and horticulture. Her Upper Russian Lake garden contained potatoes, cabbage, kale, rutabagas, peas, celery, endive, and much more. Rock gardens were filled with pansies, poppies, and candytuft. She started seeds in tin cans. Native flowers were of particular interest and she collected seeds and specimens and exchanged them with horticulturists at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew, Surrey as well as with other American collectors.

Trapping beaver, mink and other furbearers kept Mamie outside and active during the long winters on the lake. She told me about falling on the rough lake ice and breaking her nose when she was snowshoeing home after checking her trapline one day. It was healing well until the night Luke turned over in bed and hit her nose with his elbow.

Luke and Mamie started their Upper Russian Lake lodge in 1939 and for the next 20 years it was home. It was called an “airplane dude ranch” by some. Mamie kept journals and her great-niece Abby Tignor sent copies of her letters. In December 1946, she described in a letter to her brother the surprise party they enjoyed when nine people flew in six planes from Seward to spend Christmas day with the Elwells.

Mamie had strong criticism for some pilots. She wrote: “the mountain sheep got so scarce on our range that the Game Comm. closed down indefinitely on it. The coyotes hounded them to death. And the Aircorps boys had peppered the herds with machine gun bullets during the first years of the war. The moose herds on the Kenai are thinning out too in many places. Down where you (her brother) hunted below Skilak lake, there are very few moose left. We still have moose in the Russian River valley but they are as scary as jackrabbits. The airplanes have circled and dove at they so much, that they travel only in the dark of the night, and go in the thick green timer by day, and bed down somewhere no one can see them. The snow has been so frozen and crusty that you can hardly get in shooting range of a moose because they can hear you coming, a mile away...”

Luke died in 1967 and Mamie in 1978. They are buried in the Cooper Landing Cemetery.

This column was provided by Mona Painter for the Cooper Landing Historical Society and Museum.

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