Man hopes to find acquaintances in time for International Sourdough Reunion

Canadian searches for Alaska family

Posted: Tuesday, September 05, 2000

Call it sentimental. Call it a long shot. Call it both.

Jake Melnychuk doesn't care.

Melnychuk, who lives in Kelowna, B.C., is hoping to find a family he believes homesteaded in the Kenai area.

He doesn't have many clues to help him in his search. He remembers the family's name as Johnson or Johnston. The family had six children and traveled from Apple Valley, Calif., to Alaska during the winter of 1958-59.

The family's path crossed Melnychuk's somewhere around Mile 733 of the Alaska Highway, a maintenance camp called Swift River, where Melnychuk lived with his family.

"At 8 one evening, temperature 50 below, we had a knock on our door. ... (It) was a man a wife in a very distressed state. They told us that they had two boys in the pickup crying from pain in their feet. I brought the boys in and took their socks off. ... Their feet were frost bitten, " Melnychuk recalls in a recent letter to the Peninsula Clarion, seeking help in locating the family.

"I ran over to the Army shop and got the ambulance, put the wife and boys in the ambulance and headed for the hospital in Whitehorse, 185 miles away," said Melnychuk, who at the time was working on the Alaska Highway as a bridge foreman for Canada's Department of National Defense.

Melnychuk would like to find those two boys, now men, in time for the International Sourdough Reunion in Fairbanks Sept. 19-23.

"I thought that it would be a real reunion if I could have the two boys as my guests at the banquet in Fairbanks," writes Melnychuk, who as president of The Okanagan Yukoners, has been asked to present the Canadian flag during the reunion.

Melnychuk remembers the following about the family:

They were from Apple Valley, Calif., and on their way to Alaska for some homestead land. They had bought an old five-ton flatbed truck and had built a box on it. The box held their bedding, clothing, furniture and other belongings, as well as a cow and calf, some hay and gardening equipment. The man had taken out the back window of the truck's cab and built a canvas tunnel to the area of the bedding. This is where the six children slept and rode. They were traveling with another family who had a pickup, house trailer and five children.

At Mile 687, their truck broke down. While waiting for parts, the two older boys -- Melnychuk estimates their ages were about 9 and 11 -- froze their feet. The boys' parents borrowed their friends' pickup and headed north looking for help. That's how they got to Melnychuk's door.

"The doctors in Whitehorse saved the boys' feet. I do believe that one boy lost some toes and skin and the other just lost a lot of skin," says Melnychuk, who saw the family again about a week later when they stopped by to say thanks.

"They had just milked the cow and had the bucket of milk which they gave us in appreciation. They then took off for Alaska," he writes.

Two years later, the family again showed up at Melnychuk's door.

"They told us that they had got to Alaska, got their homestead land, built a barn for the cow and calf and a house for them. The husband had a job with the highway department, and they were very happy and never wanted to go back to California to live again. The next morning we had breakfast and they left. I have never heard of these people since," writes Melnychuk, who lived in the Yukon from June 4, 1954, to June 3, 1994.

Anyone who might know the Johnson or Johnston family and the rest of the story is asked to contact Melnychuk, also known as Yukon Jake, by phone at (250) 861-5023 or fax at (250) 868-9214.

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