Sourdough's memoir brings past to life

Posted: Thursday, September 18, 2003

Alaska's old-time "sourdoughs" have become the stuff of legend. Through the passage of time and myth making, our modern understanding of their lives has gotten pretty vague.

A new book, "Alaska's No. 1 Guide," presents Andrew Berg, a man once called "sourdough of sourdoughs." Through the lens of Berg's life, Alaska's era of rugged woodsmen comes back into focus.

Berg was born in Finland and moved to Alaska as a teenager in 1888. By 1900, he was naturalized and knew how to read and write good English. He prospected for gold, fished for the canneries in the summer, guided hunters in the fall and trapped furs in the winter. When the territory began regulating guides in 1908, Berg signed up for the first license issued.

His lifestyle was not unique, but he was well-known during his lifetime. What really sets Berg apart in retrospect is that he left detailed records and enduring handiwork.

The book provides a biography of Berg, the historical background of his time and place, and the full text of his journal covering nearly 20 years living in a cabin on the shore of Lake Tustumena on the Kenai Peninsula.

The authors, Catherine Cassidy and Gary Titus, spent years digging into archives, interviewing old-timers and transcribing Berg's journal. They are the perfect people to tell his story. Cassidy lives seasonally at Tustumena in a restored lodge Berg knew, and Titus is the resident historian of the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, which now encompasses Tustumena. They know the area intimately and literally have walked in Berg's footsteps.

"Our intent is not to portray a hero but simply present his story in the extraordinary context of his time and place on America's last frontier," they write in their introduction.

Berg's fame began in 1897, when Dall DeWeese, a wealthy hunter and outdoor writer traveled to Cook Inlet in search of trophy moose and a guide to locate them. Those in the know referred him to Berg, and they began a productive partnership in the field.

DeWeese later wrote about his trip, describing Berg as 26 years old, six feet tall and one of the strongest men he had ever met.

Berg was involved in the early stages of Alaska's hunting tourism and conservation movements. He and men he guided wrote to influential people decrying wasteful hunting and seeking protection for the territory's animal resources. Later in his life, he worked as a game warden and, when the territory began managing salmon fisheries, as an enforcer of fishing seasons and stream counter.

He also had a front-row seat to the rise and fall of, first, gold prospecting and, later, the fur industry.

When he first came to Tust-umena, no one lived there. By the time he died in 1939, a community of trappers lived in cabins dotting its shores and floatplanes brought hunters and tourists to lodges in the area.

Berg's surviving journal starts in October 1920 and continues until 1938 with almost daily entries during the fall, winter and some spring months when he was at the lake. We have no journals for his summer months spent in Kenai (then a Native village), Kasilof and traveling around Cook Inlet on business.

Unfortunately, Berg is not a great diarist. Seldom does he chronicle what could be called adventures. His brief entries talk about the weather but not his thoughts, the animals he traps but not the lives of his neighbors, the ice conditions but not the changing social conditions. Reading 18 years of notations about snowfall and bread baking can be less than gripping.

However, his journal does have charm and content. Between the lines, it reveals changing times, wildlife trends and the personality of a quiet, solitary man with a kind heart, dry wit and deep knowledge of nature. He wrote in a graceful penmanship with scant punctuation and erratic spelling laced with Scandinavianisms such as "t" instead of "th," confusing "w" and "v" and using the word "to" where a born English speaker would use the word "until."

Here's a sample entry from March 18, 1926:

"At home raining and high wind not fit to go out in not even to please on's mother in law had the hardest rain fall I seen since last fall at Seward when you could have road a sciff down the guter each side of that steap main street"

The journal reveals how the sourdoughs, far from being hermits, had an active social life visiting each other for haircuts, pinochle and trapping gossip. It also provides a rare narrative of daily chores necessary for such a self-sufficient life, such as netting trout from a stream, making homemade knives and cutting roof shingles.

The strength of this book is how, by looking through Berg's eyes, it conjures up life in Southcentral Alaska during the early years of the 20th century. Complementing Berg's narrative, the authors include photos, excerpts from correspondence and newspapers, and the memoirs of a Kasilof homestead wife that serve as a perfect counterpoint to Berg's masculine, backwoods life.

The book is plainly a labor of love. The authors have produced a work with more information and accuracy than many issued by larger publishers. "Alaska's No. 1 Guide" shows how local historians, through hard work and passion for their subjects, can make valuable contributions to documenting Alaska's fascinating past.

Shana Loshbaugh is a writer and former Peninsula Clarion reporter who now lives near Fairbanks.

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