Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Jeff Brady: Alderworks Alaska – using the quiet power of Dyea to inspire writers and artists

Leigh Newman spent August in the Mary Jane cabin.  Photo by Elise Giordano
In August 1897, Alaska’s first literary icon landed on the beach in Dyea at the beginning of his overland journey to the Yukon gold fields.  Jack London, then a 21-year-old adventure-seeker, found among Dyea’s clustered beach of dogs and humanity the beginnings of a story, and then headed up the Chilkoot Trail to more stories that would ignite a writing career.

The most famous canine in literature, Buck of The Call of the Wild, found the beach scene a “nightmare” with “neither peace, nor rest, nor a moment’s safety.” From the human point of view, character Jack Tarwater in the story “Like Argus of the Ancient Times” described it this way: “The beach was screaming bedlam. Ten thousand tons of outfits lay heaped and scattered, and twice ten thousand men struggled with it and clamoured about it.” The nearly penniless old man found it more peaceful further up the trail where he camped by the river, saved a man from drowning, and found a partner to help him carry on.

Dyea (pronounced die-ee, Tlingit for “to pack”) and the Chilkoot still have that kind of power to inspire stories and partnerships, despite changes brought to the valley over the years.

The Bea cabin with its signature curled beams on West Creek. Photo by Jeff Brady
Transformed from a centuries-old Tlingit fishing and trading village into a “city” of thousands, Dyea boomed and busted in less than a year. The Tlingit, while profiting from carrying gear over the pass, found that their land would never be the same. Nearly every tree in the valley had been cut down to build the town. After the stampede, the buildings were either moved over to nearby rival Skagway, which had survived as a railroad town, or were left to fall down and be taken over by fast-growing alders, willows and cottonwoods.

Dyea was mostly abandoned, except for just a few white and Native homesteaders. In time, the area would discover a new life as a favorite picnic and recreation area for Skagwayites who first traveled over by boat. Many more visitors came after a coastal road was built to the ghost town in the 1940s. Talk of protecting Dyea and the Chilkoot culminated in the area becoming part of Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park in 1976.

These days, much of the land is as it was before the gold rush. Spruce and hemlock forests that were leveled during the gold rush have come back strong. Visitors to Dyea enjoy seeing the seals, otters and salmon swimming the river, eagles and herons on the flats, and the occasional bear. Locals still drive over to run their dogs on the tide flats. Back in the trees live a dozen or so residents, serving more like caretakers to their surroundings.

My wife Dorothy and I love the quiet of Dyea, but property in the valley rarely comes up for sale.  So when we found out that the owner of her aunt and uncle’s old 1950s homestead along West Creek was thinking about selling, Dorothy arranged to caretake the place. After we lived there for a summer, we made an offer and purchased the property in 2011.

I had been searching for a place to help restore my writing creativity after running a newspaper for three decades, and Dorothy had certainly found her landscape as a watercolor artist and gardener.  But there was so much to be done.

The cabins were filled with more than a foot of silt from the 2002 West Creek Glacier flood event. Seven miles up the valley, a lateral moraine had been undercut on its back slope, causing it to fail and slough into the lake at the foot of the glacier. On a beautiful July morning, a wall of water tore down the canyon to Dyea, and the West Creek property was the first hit. One cabin was spun off its foundation and carried a couple hundred feet. The others survived, but after a decade, there was significant rot in logs that had been submerged under four feet of water for days, and no one had dealt with the silt.

We could have torn the old cabins down, but we appreciated their history too much. Dorothy’s mom remembered bringing the kids out on weekends to stay in the cabin by the creek. We would call that one Bea, after her.  There were photos of parties in the Sixties at Dorothy’s aunt and uncle’s cabin across the meadow. We would call that one Mary Jane, after her aunt. Her Uncle Ed’s small workshop would be better if it were made livable and moved to a clearing by the garden, but we would call it Margaret, after my mom. Then, what to do with them after we shoveled them out?

About this time, the North Words Writers Symposium had germinated in Skagway, and I was part of the organizing faculty. The buzz around North Words and the emergence of wonderful new work by Alaskan writers was amazing. This spawned an idea for something more, turning the cabins into a retreat for writers.

There are many wonderful artists and musicians working in our region, so we also wanted to see the cabins available for those crafts. Dorothy’s watercolors were sold under the name Alderworks, stemming from her days of making furniture from alder branches. We liked the name and just added to it.

We called home the father-son log construction team of Steve and Orion Hanson to restore the cabins for summer residencies by writers and artists. A bath house was also constructed from cottonwood and spruce logs on the property.  The project took three summers. Each cabin has its own character, and they are simple and functional. Put to use by a few Alaska and Yukon writing friends over the past year, the cabins have passed the test and are now ready for next summer’s residencies.

We decided to have two residency periods of 4-6 weeks each to give people plenty of time to get settled and do quality work, and we have kept the fees low to make staying at Alderworks affordable. We view it as a creative partnership.

“The idea is simple enough,” says our vision statement:  “give writers and artists a quiet, beautiful spot to create or enhance their works, and wonderful things will happen.”

The application period opened on November 15 and will conclude on January 15. There is no fee to apply, so we hope to see a lot of interest from Alaska, the Yukon and elsewhere. Testimonials, cabin photos and descriptions, residency guidelines, and information about how to apply online may be viewed at www.alderworksalaska.com.

Jeff Brady is a writer, editor, publisher, bookseller, and cabin caretaker from Skagway and Dyea.


Lynn Lovegreen said...

I saw the cabins while they were being finished, and this is a beautiful, serene place to write. I highly recommend it!

Alderworks Alaska said...

Please note that the application deadline has been extended to February 15, 2016.