Staying home

Monday, April 1, 2013 - 06:46
Eagle River woman perseveres despite obstacles
Mary Sundt stands atop Bodenburg Butte in 2011. The longtime Eagle River resident suffers from an incurable nerve disease that’s taken her voice — but not her spirit.

Construction in the Eagle River Valley is booming. Even before spring break-up, crews were already busy framing houses in the tightly packed residential neighborhoods clinging to the valley walls — foreshadowing another hectic construction season in one of the Anchorage area’s few remaining buildable areas.

Hidden within earshot of the hammers sits a wooded five-acre plot that for the past 51 years has been home to one of the last of a dying breed of old-timers, a strong-willed woman with no intention of giving in to the city’s incessant growth.

“The developers have been salivating over this,” she says. “Too bad.”

Sitting on a leather recliner inside her bright red homesteader’s cabin, the 78-year-old woman can no longer speak for herself. Instead, her speech comes through an iPad, a device that’s vocalized her thoughts ever since a nerve disease took her voice more than a year ago.

Mary Sundt may be dying, but she’s not going quietly.


Laughter and tears

Sundt was diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) two years ago. Commonly known as Lou Gherig’s Disease, the incurable affliction has stolen her voice and the ability to swallow. She’s down to about 15 percent of her lung capacity, and doctors tell her she’ll soon lose control of her arms and legs. It’s not something she’s happy about.

“I’m pissed off,” she says during an interview from her cozy, sun-filled living room. “I can’t talk, swallow, eat or drive.”

But she’s not complaining. Instead, Sundt uses her growing list of disabilities to illustrate how lucky she feels to have people who care about her.

“I have good friends,” she says.

To prove the point, Sundt hands over the iPad to show a recent email from a friend. In the email, the woman informs Sundt she plans to run her first triathlon this summer in Sundt’s honor. Sundt gives a thumbs-up sign with both hands, then dabs the corners of her eyes before typing a few words on the iPad.

“I laugh and I cry very easily now,” says the computerized voice. Sundt’s eyes provide the emotion.


Crossing the country to come home

Mary and Art Sundt arrived in the Eagle River Valley in 1962 by way of California, although Mary — a first-generation American of Greek descent — grew up on Long Island.

“I’m from the Big Apple,” she said. “If I could still speak you’d know it.”

The Sundts came to Alaska after Art got a job as a forester. The couple drove their station wagon over 1,100 miles of gravel highway with two small children, Eric and Karen, in tow. Shortly after their arrival, the family ran across a homesteader who offered to let them live in his cabin in exchange for “keeping an eye on the place.” The next year, Mary and Art bought the tiny red cabin and five acres of forest for $5,000.

It wasn’t exactly the Ritz-Carlton. When Art went down into the cabin’s well to check out the water, he returned “green in the face,” according to Mary. He had good reason. Floating atop the water was a layer of dead shrews.

In those early days, hardship was the norm. So the Sundts improvised by re-routing the small creek running across their property and — at least before freeze-up — managed to have running water.

Although she grew up in New York City, Sundt was quickly taken by the frontier lifestyle. She found people in Alaska friendlier and more open to different cultures than they were back home.

“We were all Archie Bunkers — including me,” she admits.

The slower pace of life also appealed to her.

“People are friendlier and there’s no crowds.”


Life in the woods

Eventually, the family learned to prosper in their homestead cabin. Despite a lack of construction skills, Art (who died in 2009) added onto the original building, installing a skylit living room from which Mary can watch passing wildlife.

“My husband didn’t know much about construction,” she says. “Lots of new curse words were invented.”

Getting up the steep driveway leading to the homestead was never easy. When the road flooded in spring, Mary often had to make multiple attempts to get the family’s Land Rover up the hill.

“Break-up was unreal,” she recalls. “But you do what you have to do, and in retrospect it was always worse.”

Although the once-isolated property is now besieged by new development, moose and bear still occasionally frequent Sundt’s property in summer — as does a troublesome squirrel who frequently raids her bird feeder.

“I call him the Gestappo,” she says.

Sitting in her cozy living room, Sundt is surrounded by mementos of her life in Alaska. Tacked to the wall or attached to wooden rafters are dozens of unique items collected over the years — old lanterns, Eskimo masks, a “Wild About Anchorage” pin, an old-fashioned iron. The memories of living in an untamed Alaska keep her going now that she’s battling illness — and what make her so adamant about staying put until the end.

“I won’t last until next winter and I don’t want to miss this summer,” she says.


One last summer

Although her disease is slowly robbing her strength, Sundt has no intention of slowing down. She walks with a group of friends twice a week at the McDonald Center in Eagle River and even works out weekly at a local gym.

Eagle River’s Sheri Boggs walks with Sundt at the Mac. Boggs said she’s met few people with Sundt’s positive outlook on life.

“In spite of her diagnosis, she continues to be active,” Boggs says.

One thing ALS can’t take from Sundt is her wit. Despite having to type everything she wants to say, her sense of humor comes through loud and clear — like when she makes an off-color remark about a friend’s pig or jokes about her iPad assistant’s speech pattern.

“I wanted a mafioso’s voice,” she says.

She’s not kidding. For many years Sundt worked as a Teamster, riding school buses from Eklutna to Anchorage.

“And I know where Jimmy Hoffa is buried,” she jokes.

Boggs says she has learned much from Sundt’s attitude in the face of a terminal disease.

“Such an inspiration,” she says.

Sundt is in the process of selling her property to a buyer who has promised not to build new houses on the land. That makes her smile. She knows she doesn’t have much time left, and says she’s comforted to know her home will remain much as it has for the past five decades. The sale won’t be final until Sundt vacates the property, and she doesn’t want to spend her last days in a nursing home. She says she’ll hire a caretaker to provide 24-hour in-home care if she has to.

In the mean time, she’s going to spend her days basking in the warm spring sunshine that pours through her skylights, chatting with good friends and enjoying the home she’s grown to love over five decades of living in the Last Frontier.

“I’m staying.”


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