By Jim Madonna
A.P. Publishing, 2005
We are a product of what happened before we were born; our lives have been shaped by those who blazed the trail ahead of us.
Alaska has an incredible past that lends itself to great stories, which, after all, is what history is: the story of the people before. And Alaskans seem to really enjoy listening to their elders and pioneers recall their exploits and experiences.
Jim Madonna, professor emeritus of mining extension at the University of Alaska, understands this. In the late 1980s, he hosted a radio show in Fairbanks featuring Alaskan pioneers, who spent an hour each week sharing their frontier adventures.
Madonna has since put his interview into a series of books called “Alaska Gold Trails.”
“The Pioneers,” volume three in the series, features such Alaskan notables as Ray Lester; Sandra Stillion; and Arnold “Swede” Wasvick.
From the beginning, Madonna makes no secret of his admiration and respect for the subjects of his interviews. “There are always challenges we dream of facing in our lives, but for some reason, known only to us personally, we never quite get around to them. … Fortunately. those of us interested in the rugged outdoor adventure associated with Alaska’s vast wilderness can live some of our dreams through the lives and experiences of the early frontiersmen and settling pioneers.”
There will be no ambush interviews, Madonna is teling the reader, no gleeful digging into secrets, no revelation of embarrassing or criminal pasts. Just a recounting of adventures, in the adventurer’s own words.
The format is strictly transcription from the taped interviews, exactly as heard on the radio shows. Madonna talks of the efforts made by his wife, Leah, in taping the shows and helping with guest selection. Friend Sharon Kessey transcribed the tapes, he continues, acknowledging the “long hours” she spent in the task.
But the real stars are the pioneers, telling their stories and showing Alaskans how this state was settled. Madonna introduces each player briefly in the introduction, giving just a hint of what the reader can expect. And he gets the adventurous juices flowing with this: “As you read these accounts of their colorful frontier lives and the obstacles they faced … perhaps one of their experiences will stir your restless spirit and spark an unresistable [sic] challenge that forces you to take the first step down the trail to that one last big frontier adventure—the fulfillment of you destiny.”
These are fascinating people, who came to Alaska before it was a state, who thrived through harsh winters. Miners, pilots, hunters, farmers—most came to Alaska from Outside, whether through the military or a thirst for adventure, and never left, having been bitten by the Alaskan spirit.
Their backgrounds are as varied as their experiences: Ed Ashby came up with his cousins in a 24-foot boat with a 1926 Dodge motor, the trip taking 29 days from Seattle to Ketchikan. He talks of the struggle, running out of food, having an error-filled chart and scrounging fish and deer along the way. Bob Jacobs, born in West Chester, Penn., found his way here through an ad in Alaska Life magazine. Janet Cowgill migrated from Tennessee, after working in Chicago as a “Rosie (the Riveter)” for Hudson Motor Co.
Experiences range from wolf and walrus hunts to placer mining to living out in the Bush during the diphtheria crisis.
If I have any nitpicks with this book at all, it is that Madonna never really introduces his guests thoroughly. For someone new to Alaska, the names aren’t familiar, and the interviews don’t often lead to a clear understanding of the interviewee’s place in Alaska history. Madonna provides a brief glimpse of their lives after the radio show at the end, but it’s not enough for those true history buffs who want to know more.
I have to wonder if it was a deliberate omission on his part, giving those with a real interest a nudge to research and discover more about the early pioneers.
Whatever. This is a fascinating book, central to the understanding of what makes Alaska such a unique place. I highly recommend it.