Each year, as many as 200,000 clam diggers, beachcombers, fishers and sightseers use a winding, narrow gravel road to access the scenic beach at Clam Gulch. Most of them don't have any idea that before Per Osmar came along, there was no road. Even more don't know that before Osmar came along, there wasn't even a Clam Gulch.
At a special ceremony attended by a typically diverse Clam Gulch crowd last week, the beach access road Osmar built by hand back in 1948 was renamed in his honor. Now, anyone wishing to use the road now part of an Alaska state park will know the name of the man who built it.
The idea to rename the road came about as a way to recognize Osmar, who is credited not only with building the road, but with naming the town itself. "Brother Tom" Patmor, Clam Gulch's unofficial mayor, said he figured that since the town owed its existence to Osmar, the least it could do was name its most famous road in his honor.
"If it wasn't for him, half the rest of us wouldn't be here," Patmor said Wednesday afternoon while installing one of two new signs that will mark the newly christened road.
Patmor said it took about a year's worth of work before he was able to get the final go-ahead to rename the road. Since it passes through a number of different properties, including state, borough, private and federal land, it wasn't easy getting permission to go forward. But after jumping through more than a few hoops, Patmor was able to get the green light from State Parks officials to place signs at the beginning and end of the access road.
It wasn't always like that in Clam Gulch. In 1948, there were no government agencies to check with before doing anything on the west coast of the Kenai Peninsula, then a rugged, difficult place to live populated mainly by fishers, fox farmers and trappers.
Osmar, a Swedish immigrant and U.S. Army veteran, came to the area with his wife, Frances, following World War II. He homesteaded at Clam Gulch and decided to put a road through in order to get to the beach, which is home to some of the largest razor clam populations in the world.
Back in those days, there wasn't a lot for a man to work with besides what he had. What Osmar had was a couple buddies, some shovels and a strong back.
"We worked our butts off on this thing," he said, following the surprise ceremony to rename the road.
"It was all done with these," he said, holding up a pair of Alaska-tough 86-year-old hands.
Keeping Wednesday's ceremony secret from the town's founding father wasn't easy in a place where everyone knows everyone else. Patmor said he almost let the cat out of the bag a couple nights before the ceremony when Osmar caught him making some last-minute modifications to the existing road signs.
"(Per) came down and saw me. I said, 'Oh, I'm just helping out the state with these signs,'" Patmor said.
Osmar bought the ruse, and said he was thoroughly surprised by Wednesday's gala event which came complete with a ribbon cutting and champagne toast.
"This is the biggest surprise I've had in 500 years," he said.
The ceremony was attended by representatives from Alaska State Parks, the Kenai Peninsula Borough and a number of members of Osmar's large family, including son Dean, the 1984 Iditarod Sled Dog Race champion.
Dean Osmar said he was impressed with how the tight-knit community was able to keep such a big secret from his father.
"Everybody somehow kept this quiet," he said.
Osmar said his dad appeared quite pleased with the honor if not a little taken aback by the surprise.
"He's a little embarrassed but pretty happy," he said.
Indeed, Per appeared plenty pleased that his pet project from so many years ago was finally getting a proper title.
"I'm very proud of it," he said.
After the ceremony, the crowd retired to the Clam Gulch Lodge for cake and ice cream. But not before Per recalled a few bits of history from the famous road's past.
Before hopping into a warm truck and driving back to the party, he pointed to a creek that runs adjacent to the gravel track and told of what life was like in Clam Gulch back when he was building the road.
"I bathed in that S.O.B.," he said.
Was it cold?
"Hell yes, it was cold!"
That's just the way things were done back then, he said. So it's fitting that the road he built in that same "homesteader way," would be renamed for him.
As of last week's ceremony, anyone wishing to get to the beach will be taking Per's way literally because from now on, the road will be known to all who use it as Per Osmar's Way.
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