From the bookshelf: History focuses on slice of Alaska

Posted: Thursday, November 03, 2005


  'Trails Across Time: History of an Alaska Mountain Corridor,' by Kaylene Johnson

'Trails Across Time: History of an Alaska Mountain Corridor,' by Kaylene Johnson

Trails Across Time: History of an Alaska Mountain Corridor

By Kaylene Johnson

Published by the Kenai Mountains-Turnagain Arm Corridor Communities


112 pages


$19.95 (softcover)

For all its wild vastness, Alaska is full of small byways and hamlets chock full of fascinating stories — mostly untold.

The area from Seward north to Turnagain Arm has been proposed for designation as a National Heritage Area due to its historic significance. The legislation remains pending in Congress. The Kenai Mountains-Turnagain Arm Corridor Communities Association organized several years ago to document and publicize the area's unique heritage. Now the project has produced "Trails Across Time," an attractive book that combines history and travelogue.

"From the glittering waters of Resurrection Bay to the breathtaking Chugach Mountains along Turnagain Arm, the Kenai Mountains -Turnagain Arm Corridor cradles one of the most interesting regions of Alaska history," author Kaylene Johnson writes in her introduction.

Glitter and breathlessness aside, the last part of her statement is, arguably, valid. How true, the rest of the book just begins to describe.

The region is, in many ways, a microcosm of Alaska's history. Geologically, it remains a hot spot. It served as home to two Native cultures, attracted early European explorers and Russian colonists, and hosted its own gold rush. In more recent years, railroads and highways have shaped its settlement and bolstered its economy.

Johnson wisely chose to use transportation as a linking theme for this saga. Portage Pass, before the railroad era, served as a transit between Prince William Sound and upper Cook Inlet, while Seward, still called "The Gateway City" was the ice-free, deep-water port that provided access to Alaska's interior. When gold fever drew ambitious men north, the corridor became a center of activity and the United States invested in the region's infrastructure.

The region's history is full of surprising and intriguing nuggets of information. For example, at the peak of the 1898 gold rush, Sunrise (now a vanished ghost town) was, briefly, the largest town in the Alaska Territory. Another quirky tale tells how railroad engineers, frustrated by the daunting landscape of mountains and glaciers, built a four-story wooden trestle loop at the foot of Bartlett Glacier to get their track to Turnagain Arm. This author also shares the stories behind place names such as Bertha Creek and Blackstone Glacier.

The book enlivens these narratives with maps, biographical sketches and numerous handsome photographs, modern and historical.

The biographies include well-known figures such as "Alaska Nellie" Lawing, Benny Benson and early guide Andy Simons, but also intriguing and less-known figures such as Creole miner Polly Renner and sourdough photographer Harry Johnson.

The antique images and the biographies convey a real feel for what life was like during Alaska's rugged past.

Each chapter contains a listing and explanation of historically significant sites people can visit. The book concludes with a section describing the modern communities in the area.

That information, combined with the high-quality maps, make this an appropriate book for anyone traveling in the region.

Johnson obviously put a lot of effort into researching the text. She includes lists of recommended readings, plus cites input from local experts such as University of Alaska anthropologist Alan Boraas, Soldotna geologist Richard Reger and Cooper Landing historian Mona Painter.

Despite that effort, Johnson's prose sometimes comes up short. She writes in a breezy, accessible style, but in a few places errors or repetitions slip in or a sentence gets so clever that it sacrifices simplicity for the sake of drama.

The author paints the present in the glowing terms of a tourism promoter. For example, the spruce-bark beetle infestation and "Exxon Valdez" oil spill never come up, and her description of the Begich-Boggs Visitor Center at Portage neglects to mention that the glacier is no longer visible from the site.

But it is easy to forgive such minor lapses in such a charming volume. "Trails Across Time" is an easy but substantive read, packaged in a professional and handsome volume. Page for page, it has a lot to offer.

The Kenai Mountains-Turnagain Arm corridor remains one of the most heavily traveled in Alaska, with the highway, railroad and such popular hiking destinations as the Resurrection Trail.

This book is a real asset to anyone who spends time in the area, whether a permanent resident or a curious tourist.

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

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