Sense of Adventure

History buff finds calling on the Kenai

Posted: Sunday, February 04, 2001

From Gettysburg to glaciers

Pearce's parents were interested in history. They took college classes for fun and often took their two children touring famous sites for family vacations.

She has early memories of Gettysburg, where Civil War memorials dot the hillsides, and of Valley Forge, where George Washington's army fought cold and hunger as well as the British.

"I think the interest developed through travel," she said.

"I think the humanity of it has always drawn me."

Pearce was 9 when her family pulled up stakes from the Lower 48 and moved to Anchorage.

Her father had fallen in love with Alaska reading articles about it in "National Geographic." As soon as he retired from his career as an Air Force officer, he followed his dream north.


Pearce teaches a variety of history courses at KPC.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

Pearce grew up as an Alaska girl. Her family camped, fished and boated out of Seward. Fond of animals, she began a lifelong interest in handling dogs.

"I got into dogs because I couldn't get a horse," she said.

She joined a dog obedience club and, at age 14, began showing her purebred Siberian husky.

"That was pre-pipeline era," she said. "(Anchorage) has changed amazingly."

After graduating from East High in 1980, Pearce worked summers for the U.S. Forest Service. She worked at the Portage visitors' center and on the Alaska Marine Highway route between Whittier and Valdez.

"It was a wonderful job," she said.

"We did ice worm hunts. Those were just a blast.

"The best part of the job was working weekends on the state ferry Bartlett."

Pearce guided nature walks, made educational displays and gave talks on glaciers, marine mammals and area history. She dealt with the occasionally eccentric antics of visitors, dispelled misconceptions about Alaska and read a lot to prepare herself to answer questions.

"The main question was, 'Why is the ice blue?'" she said.

In the process, the shy, quiet girl who seldom had talked in class learned to stand in front of a room and address a group. The experience prepared her to become the lecturer she is now, she said.

Love of learning

Pearce started her higher education at Anchorage Community College, where she finished off prerequisites and earned an associate degree in history before transferring to the University of Alaska at Fairbanks.

She vacillated between majoring in biology and history. Although she changed her major several times, she found she kept coming back to history. She ended up earning a bachelor's degree in history with a minor in anthropology.

Her studies were diverse, with a general focus on the North and a special leaning toward British and Alaska history. Her senior projects were on English history and on the Gold Rush in Fairbanks.

She took a job working for the visitors' and convention bureau in Fairbanks, where her specialty was giving history tours of the community.

After dabbling a bit, she returned to the university and earned a masters of education degree in college student personnel administration. It included topics such as student services, counseling and legal aspects of running a school. Just when she graduated in the late 1980s, the Alaska university system restructured and down-sized. She had thought of becoming a college administrator, but instead found herself teaching history classes at the University of Alaska Anchorage as an adjunct instructor.

In 1991, she decided to go back to school for a second master's degree -- in history.

She enrolled as a foreign student at the University of Victoria in British Columbia.

"They treated me well," she said. "People are wonderful there."

In Victoria, she began formal study of maritime history, a topic that had fascinated her since her Prince William Sound trips on the ferry.

One highlight was attending a conference marking the 200th anniversary of Vancouver's voyage of discovery in the Northwest.

"I was a bit concerned, because it seemed like everyone in the field was retired Royal Navy. I wasn't sure how I would fit in," she said.

Pearce is especially intrigued by the social history and working conditions of the men and rare women who went to sea in the north in centuries past. Her graduate research topic was the Hudson Bay Company's coastal trade and ship building ventures.

The Hudson Bay traders faced chronic problems recruiting good workers for their harsh trips, incessant hazards to navigation and a deep fear that Native Americans would kill them if they wrecked on the shore. In small ships far from home, personality issues like stress and alcoholism loomed large.

"They ended up having kind of a love-hate relationship with the Russian American Company," she said.

"I could have just written pages and pages more."

The Old Country

Pearce's travels have gone beyond the Americas, back to the lands she loved to read about.

In 1982 she made her first trip to the British Isles with a high school friend, touring Cornwall and the Scottish Highlands.

"We rented a car and stayed at lots of bed and breakfasts, collecting lots of 'mothers' along the way."

She has gone back to Britain numerous times since.

On one trip she bought a registered English cocker spaniel. She now has three of that dog's descendants, all rated as champions in both Canada and the United States. However, the dogs are not the only allure.

"I go back any chance I can get," she said.

"I find it beautiful. And of course, you have all the layers of history.

"It is fascinating to be in a place where you know you have generations of ancestors."

The Great Land

After graduating from the Canadian university in 1993, Pearce returned to Anchorage and to UAA, where she taught history of Alaska and Western civilization. Alaska studies are required for many teachers, so the courses always were well attended. She found herself teaching large classes in Anchorage, the Matanuska Valley and Eagle River.

"It was just humongous," she said.

"I have always loved the topic. I've always gotten really good feedback from the students."

People have come up to her in restaurants and other public places to say they took Alaska history from her years ago and retain fond memories of the class, she said.

Alaska is a special place with a special history.

It has Native and Russian influences unique in the United States. Alaska's people are varied. As a frontier area, it combines much that is fairly new with a great expanse of time, she said.

"I think students come in not knowing what a depth of history we have here and how diverse our history is," she said.

Kenai Peninsula College was looking for an Alaska history teacher, too. In 1995, Pearce started flying down once a week to teach at the Soldotna campus.

When the college decided to hire a full-time history professor, they requested someone able to teach Alaska history.

"So that was very much in my favor," she said.

Alan Boraas, professor of anthropology and a senior faculty member at the college, said Pearce is a major asset.

"The real plus for the college is she is an Alaskan," he said.

It is difficult to find someone who is so qualified, focused on Alaska and available to teach here, he said.

"I like having a colleague here," he said. "We can gain clarity by bouncing ideas off each other."

Pearce's presence also allows KPC students to take their required history classes on the campus. More students, especially in education, are looking at minoring in history, although the school cannot offer a major with only one professor in the department, she said.

This semester, Pearce is teaching four courses and spending every Friday at administrative meetings in Anchorage.

Officially an assistant professor, she is under review for promotion to the status of associate professor.

Plenty of history's mysteries close to home

Pearce views the Kenai Peninsula as rich ground for historical inquiry.

She said she brings local history into her classes, and students often pick projects with a peninsula angle, such as Dena'ina culture.

"We really don't get into the depth I would like to, because of time constraints," she said.

She pointed out that Boraas also covers related peninsula topics through his anthropology and archeology classes. They are considering starting a class on Russian America, which would allow exploration of additional aspects of the region.

No ivory tower academic, Pearce goes out into the community and is active with area history groups.

She has worked to establish a local history archive at the KPC library and is a member of the Kasilof, Soldotna, Hope-Sunrise and Kenai Peninsula historical societies.

"All the stuff needs to be put together," she said. "There is tons more to do."

Exploration, in the modern academic manner

The heavy teaching load, travel and other obligations leave Pearce with little time for her own projects except in the summer.

"I have to be kind of a jack of all trades. I don't really have the time to do research," she said.

Pearce's pet project is on seafaring women.

"As part of that, I am working on transcribing the diaries of Mary Healy," she said.

Mary was the wife of the famous and notorious "Hell-Roaring Mike" Healy (1839-1904), who was captain of the Revenue Cutter Bear around 1890. She accompanied her husband on voyages to the Bering Sea and Arctic Ocean and kept a journal along the way.

Pearce covets spare minutes to slip away to the UAA reference library archives, where she can read Mary's memoirs on microfilm and transcribe them into a computer.

"I'm getting a lot better at reading her writing now," she said. "During storms it can get bad."

Ultimately, she wants to put together an article and presentation about Mary Healy's adventures.

Pearce also is researching shipping in Cook Inlet. In our era, dominated by automobiles and the road system, it is easy to forget how vital ships were to the Kenai Peninsula, she said.

"It was really built up during the Gold Rush. I'm looking at the 1920s and back," she said.

The research involves digging through old newspapers and scanning microfilm. It is a frustrating process.

"A lot of our Alaska maritime records are elsewhere," she said. "That is one of the frustrations of living here and trying to do research. It takes time and money.

"Sometimes you only get two articles, and you've been there for four hours. ... It's just like gold prospecting."

Pearce hopes that some day historical documents now preserved on awkward microfilm or languishing in archives on the far flung corners of the world will be posted on the Internet for all to access. But she doubts that will happen any time soon.

Pursuing excellence

Pearce is toying with the idea of becoming a student yet again and going for a doctoral degree. This time, she would go to Britain and pursue maritime history from that vantage.

She already has a potential thesis topic in mind: Capt. Charles Clark, who served as second in command on Captain Cook's voyages exploring the Pacific, including Cook Inlet. Clark died sailing the Bering Sea and is buried at Petropavlovsk. Other sources suggested that everyone who worked with Clark admired him, she said.

Other seamen who plied Alaska's waters left behind records that have never been published, and she is itching to bring them to public attention.

Boraas said he admires Pearce's interest in asking questions and furthering her own education.

"She is dynamic in that regard. I give her points for that," he said.

If Pearce takes a sabbatical to study in Britain, she will be missed at KPC, Boraas said.

"But when she comes back, so much the better," he said.

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