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Authors strive to describe life and times of Alaska's first guide

Posted: Sunday, August 17, 2003

"Andrew used to go hunting all by himself at times. ... He'd tie a piece of bacon to a rope, and knot the other end of the rope around his leg. ... Pretty soon an old Brownie would come along sniffing around for something to eat. He'd find the bacon and take a bite. ... Andrew would pull the rope toward him, and the bear would follow the bacon. When the bear got up close, Andrew would shoot it. ... He got some mighty big bears that way!"

Story about Andrew Berg told to Katherine Bayou, a magazine writer, by "an old, old man from Kenai."

This story, whether fact or fiction, is one of many exciting tales in a new book written by Catherine Cassidy and Gary Titus titled "Alaska's No. 1 Guide the History and Journals of Andrew Berg 1869-1939."

"There is no other source for a picture of life on the peninsula during this period," Cassidy said of Berg's journals, which were found in his cabins. "It captures that time period and the essence of the wilderness lifestyle."

The two authors are not professional writers by trade, although both have been published prior to this book.

Cassidy is a commercial driftnet fisher out of Kasilof. She and her husband, Erik Huebsch, recently purchased and began renovating Tom Odale's old hunting lodge on Tustumena Lake where Andrew Berg was a frequent visitor.

Titus is a ranger and historian for the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. He also "recently joined the exclusive club of those who have been chewed on by a grizzly bear," he said of an incident in Lake Clark National Park.

It was the injuries sustained from the old brownie sow and the subsequent hiatus from work that led to Titus and Cassidy writing the book.

 

A group of hunters with their trophies, guides, packers and chef show how succesful hunting trips in Berg's time could be. Tom Odale, a friend of Berg's, is the second man from the right with his hands on his hips.

Photo courtesy of Wanda M. Griffin

"After Gary was mauled by the grizzly he was laid up," Cassidy said.

"He's generally so busy, but it gave us an opportunity to start working on something."

Titus added, "I was flat on my back for three months and it gave me time to get to work on the book."

Although the recuperation process was a good window of opportunity to finally write the book, the actual research and interest started long before Titus' run-in with the bear.

"I've been interested in the local history since I moved here in 1987," Cassidy said.

"I saw a photo display on the history of the area by Alan Boraas and Penny McLane and it hooked me."

Titus had been researching the area's history for 26 years but said his interest really piqued in the 1980s after a visit to Cottonwood Creek Lodge a building erected on the south shore of Skilak Lake in the 1930s.

"I wanted to learn more about it and the time period," he said.

 

Andrew Berg's cabin on Tustumena Lake, built in 1902, has a roof covered with small flat sheets of canning tin.

Photo courtesy of the Anchorage Museum of History and Art, Accession number B91-9-101B

"It went from a hobby to a passion. I had to hike the trails. I had to see what they saw. The more I learned and saw, the more I just had to know. It snowballed," he said.

His interests turned out to be too vast to fit in one book, however.

"Gary wanted to do a history of the hunting era," Cassidy said. "It was overwhelming, though, so we decided to start with a smaller project a biography."

Titus said, "We had to start somewhere. I chose Andrew Berg because he was the first."

So, who was Andrew Berg and what is so exciting about the Finnish immigrant who came to the Kenai Peninsula seeking wildlife and wilderness?

The book answers those question with the help of Berg himself, since the bulk of the material in the book is excerpts from his journal.

"Andrew did most of the work," Cassidy said.

 

Above is an example of a trophy bull moose shot by Slim Crocker's camera in the late 1920s. Berg was known for his prowess at hunting such creatures.

Photo courtesy of Betty A. Crocker

"He left an incredible journal with rich documentation about him and others."

Not all of the accounts in the book are written by Berg, however, which is a boon at times for the reader.

Some of Berg's most incredulous adventures and harrowing tales were so commonplace to him that he mentions them only in passing in his journal in a matter-of-fact way.

Fortunately, his accounts are followed in the book by first-hand descriptions of the same incidents by other party members who realized just how extraordinary some of the events were.

However, determining whose side of the stories is more accurate is difficult to say, according to Cassidy and Titus.

"He didn't have to make up much because his life was pretty exciting," said Cassidy. "He was a proud man, but not overfull of hubris. He didn't play anything up or have an ego."

Titus agreed, saying, "It was just everyday living to Berg."

According to Cassidy, his writing was low key.

"It was journalists that sensationalized his exploits," she said.

Some of the incredible stories include Berg's rescue of a moose stranded on a frozen pond by sliding a dog sled under it during the creature's attempt to stand. He then jumped on the moose's back and mushed the dogs attached to the sled to shore, riding the hapless herbivore the entire way.

"Can you imagine that?" Titus said. "It's amazing."

Another tale details a hunt for a brown bear in the dark.

After bagging the bruin, the frightened hunter Berg was guiding returned the next morning to find out his kill was 12 feet from nose to tail.

There also is a story of a close call Berg had with a bear while out with a friend on a day their rifles were left at home.

"... Two large brown bears in about two hundred yards distance. ... They saw us. ... They charged as a mad dog would. ... I jumped to the creek bank into a patch of young alder sprouts. ... The bear ran by me at the speed of a race horse. He evidently knew that he was being tricked, stopped with a bellow of rage and started back up stream to look for me. ..."

Andrew Berg, Aug. 18, 1928, journal entry.

It's hard to tell where facts end and fiction begins in some of the tall tales.

"You can't believe everything you read," he said.

 

Here, Berg is shown in his trekking gear. According to his journals, Berg could travel amazing distances in a day.

Photo courtesy of Fabian Carey Collection, Accession no. 75-209-24N, Archives and Manuscripts, Alaska and Polar Regions Dept., University of Alaska Fairbanks

Adding to the confusion is Berg's sense of humor.

"He definitely had a sense of humor," Titus said. "A dry one, but a sense of humor."

Both authors agreed that there is no debating Berg's physical prowess.

His physical abilities were impressive, particularly for a man who had the use of only one hand after accidentally shooting himself in the other.

But he never let his injury slow down his hunting, trapping, cabin building, cannery work or mining.

"It blows my mind how much he did," Cassidy said.

Not only were his physical abilities extraordinary, so too were the distances he would travel on foot.

Berg thought nothing of walking two days in the winter to check mail or walking from a friend's place in Homer to his home in Kasilof before there were roads and bridges spanning rivers and connecting many locations.

"He would walk 10 miles just to visit a guy for lunch," Cassidy said. "It's just not done today."

Titus is no novice to long distance trekking. He used to hike 1,000 miles a year before his brush is the brown bear, yet he was equally impressed by Berg's foot travel.

"I'm pretty fast, too," Titus said. "But we know how long it took him from his journals and his speed in walking was impressive. He covered some incredible distances."

The book appeals to hunters, hikers, history buffs and general backwoods types and holds some interest for conservationists as well.

"Berg recognized conservation issues during a different time when it wasn't as widely accepted as it is today," Cassidy said. "He was one of the first people to bring the argument to bare of moose conservation on the peninsula."

Berg's writings are an example of this, according to Titus.

"Through Berg's journals you can see the things he saw," he said. "You can see his love for the game and the land. You can see it through his eyes, and those sheep, moose, bears, lynx, etc., are still here today."

The authors are pleased with how the self-published book turned out.

They said the book has been selling well, although they didn't write it for the money.

"We did it to share with the community," Cassidy said. "Most of us came here after World War II and many think that's when the history of this area started. But I want to get out the rich account of the history and exciting adventures that came before the big homestead push and oil boom."

For Titus, it's also satisfying to see so much work over such a long period of time coalesce into such a meaningful project.

"It's great to see all the years of research put together for people to read," he said.

"We hope it appeals to visitors," Cassidy said."But we wrote it primarily for Southcentral Alaskans. We wanted to share the contents of the files and we think literally our neighbors will get the most out of it."

Titus also said there is so much more about Berg that he would like to know.

"There's more out there and we hope more people come forward with information," he said.



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