Refuge Notebook: Historic log cabins provide timeline of settlement of the Kenai

Posted: Thursday, July 08, 2010

October 18, 1922, "Started down to Friman camp on our way to funny River to build a cabbin, Friday 20th Worked all day getting log and started to put up cabbin. Saturday 21 Not feeling well and did not do much to the cabbin. Sunday 22th was at work again at cabbin finished the walls. Monday 23 Krist and I splitting & putting on seeling. Tuesday 24th Put up ridgepole & started cutting scoops for water roof. Wednesday 25th finished water roof put in stove & windows, Thursday 26th Tok a walk over Funny River valley raining & snowing all day moved in to new cabbin calling it Lick House. "

Photo By Gary Titus
Photo By Gary Titus
Remnants of the Castle Inn cabin, one of trapper Andrew Berg's cabins along his trapline. The 9x9-foot cabin still had firewood stacked by the iron stove, and under the bed were placed an enamelware plate and cup, turned upside down and ready for their next use.

The above passage is from the diary of Andrew Berg, an early resident of the Kenai Peninsula. As part of his daily routine, he kept a journal which is where the above passage was found documenting the building of the Lick House cabin in 1922.

Berg arrived on the Kenai Peninsula in 1888 and settled on Tustumena Lake where he lived till his passing in 1939. During his time there, he built several trapping cabins in what is now known as the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge.

Historically, the lands of the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge were used for trapping, mining and big game hunting. Remnants of cabins associated with these activities can still be found today. At present, 113 cabins and ruins have been located and documented within the Refuge. Other cabins still need to be located and have been researched through interviews with old homesteaders, written accounts and old maps. Many "unknown" cabins will also be found by chance.

In 2005 the Refuge completed a Programmatic Agreement with the Alaska Office of History and Archaeology to interpret and record the remains of historic cabins scattered throughout the Refuge. My job, the part I enjoy the most, is to go out into remote locations on the refuge to discover the cabins I have documented.

One of these cabins was named Castle Inn by Andrew Berg. A friend and I backpacked into the area where I suspected the cabin would be located. After searching for several hours, we came across the ruins of a 9-by-9-foot cabin. We found log walls standing three to four logs high and the roof was completely gone. As I entered the cabin there was a wood stove made from an old mining pipe on the right. Rotten firewood was still stacked next to the stove. Along the back wall were the remains of a log bed. Located under the bed was an enamelware plate and cup, turned upside down and ready for their next use. As I documented the cabin, I imagined Andrew coming down the trail with his pack full of furs collected from along his trapline, happy to finally reach the cabin where he had a warm dry place to make a hot meal and rest.

During my search for cabins, I sometimes discover axe-cut stumps. Finding these stumps may lead me to the ruins of a cabin. When no cabin is found, they only raise questions, giving me yet another puzzle to solve. Other times, while hiking up a valley in search of a known cabin, I come across the ruins of a cabin I was not aware of existing. The discoveries of those unknown cabins are some of the most exciting finds.

The location of Lick House cabin mentioned above still remains a mystery. My friend and I have searched hard for this cabin. So far the search has only resulted in a false charge by a brown bear and some good exercise.

Over the past several years, the Refuge has carefully and accurately restored 16 historic log cabins, saving them for the next generations. Nine of these cabins are part of the Refuge's Public Use Cabin Reservation system and seven more are used for historical interpretation. Two cabins are listed on the National Register of Historic Places and preserve a visible remnant of the area's early inhabitants. These are only a few of the standing reminders of a time past that are now being enjoyed by the public. The remainder of the known historic cabins are too deteriorated to restore and will soon disappear.

Historic resources are nonrenewable, easily damaged, and with few exceptions, considered irreplaceable. Past natural events including wildfires and floods have removed signs of several cabins. The natural weathering process is also responsible for the disappearance of cabins. Undoubtedly the cultural resources remaining today have been reduced in numbers, condition, and quality by natural events. Also neglect, removal and even vandalism have all influenced the sites we find today. The challenge today is to locate as many of our historic cabins as possible before they are lost forever.

We need your help in locating and documenting every cabin and ruin on the Refuge. Old photographs and documents, as well as personal interviews, are needed to tell the story to help us understand and appreciate all of the Refuge's historic resources. These sites are representative of the "sourdough" lifestyle which is rapidly passing from the Alaska scene.

I would like to gather information or photographs of the Gene Lake cabin used by Emil Dolchok, the Sunrise Fork and Martin cabins located along the Swanson River, Beaver Lake cabin, Shoepack Lake cabin, Hidden Lake cabin or Swan Lake cabin. If you have any information regarding the cabins listed above, or any historic cabin on the Refuge, I would like to talk to you. Please give me a call at 907-262-7021 or stop by for a visit.

Gary Titus has been a Backcountry Ranger, Cabin Manager, and Historian at the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge since 2000. He has been hiking on the Kenai at every available opportunity since 1979.

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