Old friends ... 55 years later

Men who journeyed to state in 1948 reunite to celebrate birthday

Posted: Monday, October 06, 2003

In 1948, a small but ambitious group of young men set off on the adventure of a lifetime, to move and establish homesteads for themselves and their families in a remote area of the north called Alaska.

They landed at Clam Gulch and found exactly what they had come for -- nothing.

Nothing, that is, except wide open spaces, abundant wildlife and no people.

One of the men, Per Osmar, stuck it out and since then has contributed to the history of the local area in innumerable ways.

Don Dandrow only stayed for a brief period and then returned to the Lower 48. He had hoped to come back but never did until last week when, after 55 years, these two old-timers got together to celebrate Osmar's 86th birthday and have a reunion.

"It was a nice birthday gift," said Osmar.

The two have been catching up, but said they have been talking a lot more about what they did back in '48, than what they've done over the last 55 years.

Osmar said the impetus to move to Alaska was that he had hoped to own land and raise crops.

"It was a half-assed operation," admitted Osmar. "We thought we would move up here and be farmers. We had all the equipment but hadn't considered there were no roads to get any food (we would grow) anywhere."

Dandrow had no real interest in farming.

"I just always wanted to go to Alaska," he said. "So when I heard (Osmar) was going, I asked if I could join the team. He and the other guys said sure, because they needed someone to help drive the trucks."

The trucks he was referring to were, as Osmar describes them, "loaded to the gills."

He said they had a John Deere tractor and other farm equipment, a portable saw mill, a generator, stoves, windows, building supplies and lots and lots of canned goods.

"We slept in the trucks and ate in the trucks and we made it here in 30 days," Dandrow said.

He said the trip up wasn't without incident, though.

"I remember once in Canada, the temperature had dropped so far below zero we had to build a fire under the oil pan just so that the truck would start."

Osmar added, "Another time we broke down and used a piece of bacon for a rod bearing so we could keep going."

Osmar's hometown newspaper even did a story on the move to Alaska. The article referred to him as "Sparkplug" and had him quoted as saying he would have his wife and three children with him by the end of summer. It was a promise he made good on.

"I came to do the dirty work," Osmar said. "I got it done. I remember we even used a bow saw to fell the first 20 trees." The lumber was used to build the first house.

As to why he stuck it out all these years after being joined by his family, Osmar was modest. He simply stated, "We decided this was going to be it, and we survived."

Dandrow helped Osmar with the first house then traveled to the Aleutians for work. He also traveled to Anchorage and returned to Kasilof to gillnet fish before he finally returned home to Michigan for the holidays.

"I had every intention of coming back," Dandrow said, "but then I met my wife, and she's not much for traveling, so I stayed pretty grounded after that."

Dandrow currently operates a "U-pick" farm for raspberries in Grandville, Mich., which created a bit of confusion for an old sourdough like Osmar.

"I thought he said Yup'ik," Osmar said. "I thought he meant Eskimos, so I couldn't figure out what the hell he was talking about at first."

The two also had a good laugh remembering one of their first meals after arriving -- what else, but razor clams.

"(Osmar) said he knew how to cook them," Dandrow said. "But instead of lightly steaming them, he cooked the hell out of them. They came out like rubber bands."

Osmar's only rebuttal was, "You love to tell that story, don't you?"

In addition to reminiscing about the old days. Osmar took Dandrow to Homer, Seward and several other places.

"There are roads to them now," said Dandrow, almost in disbelief.

He said that is one of the biggest changes, since the last time he was here.

"That and there are far more people," he added.

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