Alaska – a place of firsts

Wednesday, March 7, 2012 - 20:00

Alaska is such a unique place that it isn’t difficult to compile a list of firsts — one-of-a-kind achievements — especially with our comparatively young, vibrant and restless population. Rummaging through some back issues of Alaska magazine, we came up with some rather compelling firsts.

Here’s a first in beauty pageant lore: In 1936, Miss Juneau, Mary Joyce, drove a dog team more than a thousand miles north toward Fairbanks in the dead of winter to enter the Miss Alaska contest. She left Juneau Dec. 22 with an Indian guide and arrived at Tanacross after 52 days on the trail. Realizing she wasn’t going to make it to Fairbanks in time for the contest, she flew the rest of the way with bush pilot Herman Lerdahl. She didn’t win the contest, but Fairbanksans were so impressed that they made her an honorary member of the Pioneer Women of Alaska. When the contest was over, Joyce returned to Tanacross, retrieved her dog team and finished the trip over the trail to Fairbanks.

A person of firsts in Alaska who towers above the highest broadcast antenna is of course A.G. “Augie” Hiebert, known as the father of Alaska television. Hiebert is also the father of radio in Alaska. In 1939 he brought the territory its first commercial radio station, KFAR, in Fairbanks. In 1948 he helped design and build KENI radio in Anchorage, and early in the 1950s launched Alaska first television stations, KTVA in Anchorage and KTVF in Fairbanks. He also launched the first FM radio station in Alaska, KNIK in Anchorage, part of his Northern Television network. The pioneer broadcaster died in 2007 and is among a few noted Alaskans in the Alaska Broadcasters Hall of Fame.

In October 1944 the first woman truck driver in Alaska, Mrs. Russell Dow, a red-headed woman better known as “Rusty,” was the first woman over the newly constructed Glenn Highway. She was also the first woman to drive through the newly drilled Whittier Tunnel, and finally, the first woman to drive over the Alaska-Canada (Alcan) Highway. She made the trip from Fairbanks to Dawson Creek, British Columbia, with five tons of cement in a 10-wheel U.S. Army truck.

It was May 1948 — three years after the end of World War II — but U.S. Army and Air Force Twin Mustangs from Ladd Field in Fairbanks and bombers from Elmendorf Air Force Base in Anchorage made bombing runs on the Yukon, Kuskokwim and Tanana Rivers in Interior Alaska. In this case the enemy was ice — jammed up in the rivers and causing severe flooding. Ice jams on the lower Kuskokwim River had backed up water along the entire course of the river, causing the worst flooding in known history, while heavy rains exacerbated the situation. A C-47 aircraft dropped food, blankets, medical supplies and other items to stranded villagers.

On March 8, 1960, the Nenana Ice Classic and Chena River ice breakup lottery and other nonprofit gambling activities were made legal by a law passed in a joint session of the Alaska Legislature — over Gov. Egan’s veto. The Nenana Ice Classic actually began in 1917 and by 1960 involved about $160,000 in prize money. Opposition to legalizing these activities by Governor Egan and about 17 senators who backed his veto was not based on a desire to kill these traditional activities, but the belief that the law as written could open the door to other gambling in the young state.

In late April 1968, the first successful crossing of the massive Harding Ice Field on the Kenai Peninsula was made by Vin Hoeman, Dave Johnston and Bill Babcock of Anchorage, as well as Yule Kilcher of Homer. During their nine-day, 90-mile journey that began at the head of Kachemak Bay and ended at Seward, they encountered a three-day snowstorm and 60 MPH winds.

Endless Alaska firsts: Construction of the Alcan Highway, the trans Alaska pipeline, establishment of the Iditarod sled dog race, the annual spring golf tournament up Kodiak’s Pillar Mountain, the Anchorage Fur Rendezvous, The Talkeetna Moose Dropping Festival, the Annual Seward Mt. Marathon Race — the list goes on and on.

But with due modesty, I must claim a first of my own that can’t be found in Alaska magazine archives. In 1960 I attempted a unique winter sport that I believe has never been duplicated. In late October of that year, Nancy Lake was frozen solid with ice as smooth as glass. Before overturning the canoe on the shore for the winter, I took it out on the lake. By hanging one leg outside of the canoe, I pushed it across the lake and built up some respectable speed. I called my new winter sport “canoe ice skootering.”

Hearing about my innovative, groundbreaking winter sport, my friends categorically chimed: “Why?”

“Because the ice and canoe were there,” I replied.


Frank Baker is a freelance writer from Eagle River.

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