Story last updated at 1:19 p.m. Saturday, August 31, 2002

Old-timer experiences fill Bushell book
by Carey James
Staff Writer

photo: entertainment
Reclining in a chair with a copy of Sharon Bushell's compilation "We Alaskans" is like sitting down and chatting with 49 sourdoughs.

Some ramble a little. Others get bogged down in detail, forsaking the emotive side of the stories. But with all their combined knowledge and experience, if you can't find humor, insight and amazement in more than a few of these tales, you aren't reading closely enough.

Faithful readers of Bushell's Sunday Anchorage Daily News column may find many of these stories familiar and her format the same. Rather than interjecting paraphrase into the stories, they are told entirely in the words of the subjects, many of whom hail from Homer.

The result is an honest and striking look back into the past when moving to Alaska took a good deal more tenacity than modern-day Alaskans might imagine.

"From the beginning, Alaskans intrigued me," wrote Bushell in her preface to the book. "There was something unique about them. I couldn't put my finger on it, but it was undeniable. To solve this mystery, I went directly to the source: the old-timers. I asked endless questions, and wouldn't go away until they were answered. My elders indulged me, for they could see that I was hungry for their stories, their humor, their wisdom."

Helen March, Bushell's next-door-neighbor, leads the book with the story of her life as a third-generation Alaska homesteader. March accompanied her husband to various job sites, some of which were remote, living in tents while attempting to hold up her end of the domestic responsibilities.

"Running water came from the creek, if I chose to run," March said in a description of life at a dredging operation in the late '30s. "I thought a home economics course qualified me for anything, though the old miners who often stopped in obviously had their doubts. One time I made a blueberry pie for lunch. Jim (March) took one bite then rushed outdoors to spit it out. I was crushed and wouldn't listen to him until I took a taste. I used unmarked butter tins as canisters and had put in a cup of salt instead of sugar. It took me quite a while to live that down."

Another Homer resident, Daisy Lee Bitter, shares her stories of life in Alaska after moving to the Last Frontier with her husband, Connie, in 1954. Bitter taught at several elementary schools in the Anchorage area, an occupation that was obviously a passion of hers if her lengthy description in the book on ways to enthuse her students, especially when it came to natural science, is any indication.

"I kept my expectations high and tried to approach learning as creatively as I could, and to use methods that were proven to work as well," she said. "Instead of telling students how something works, you set up a situation where they have to figure it out for themselves."

While some of the participants in Bushell's compilation lived in relative comfort, others, like former Talkeetna resident John Ireland, who later moved to Homer, took a tougher route.

"In 1966 I got pretty disgusted with the antics of humanity and tried to find a more congenial lifestyle alone in the wilderness," Ireland said.

Ireland, who lived in a small cabin on Murder Lake, tooled leather goods to pay for his supplies, which he got from Talkeetna twice a year.

"I was living on $600 or $700 a year," he said. "It's like the Vermont farmer who says he doesn't live on income, he lives on lack of expense. It was unbelievably economical living."

Bushell's book also unveils the incredible spirit of Alaska's pioneer women, including Ella Hitz Wallace, who biked to Alaska in 1957, Helena Ashby, a Native Alaskan born near Kotzebue who was blinded as a child, and Emely DuBeau, who lived in almost complete isolation in Herendeen Bay starting in 1937.

Among the stories are many familiar faces to Homer, but others hail from Anchorage, Seward and the central peninsula. Each had their own ways for handling the hardships Alaska presented, but many shared the common impact of W.W.II. Bushell sums up each portrait with a bit of reflection, and while many said they could have chosen easier lives, few had regrets.

As Lorene Harrison put it, "There was so much to be done here; it just seemed natural, to start doing it. I've lived a fairy tale life, and here I am at 97 years old, still going."

"We Alaskans" is on sale at the Homer Bookstore.

Carey James can be reached at