June 2011: End of the Trail

John Haines

Homestead Writer

Lin Mitchell/Anchorage Daily News/AP  

John Haines is known for two things: his abrasive, curmudgeonly demeanor, and his nationally acclaimed poetry and prose. He will be remembered for his writing, a source of pride for Alaska. He died March 2 at the age of 86.

Haines was born in 1924 in Norfolk, Va. He enlisted in the U.S. Navy before finishing high school, but received a graduation diploma because of his service. After his discharge, Haines studied painting in Washington and New York. 

He drove to Alaska in 1947 to pursue an art career. After buying a 160-acre homestead 80 miles southeast of Fairbanks, he salvaged wood from an unused bridge over Gasoline Creek to build his 12-by-16-foot, two-room cabin. He homesteaded there for 20 years.


Haines quickly gave up painting because his medium kept freezing, and began to write instead. It wasn’t long before his poems were published in literary journals. In 1966 he published his first book, Winter News, which is still considered by many to be his best book. He later published essays, a memoir, and more than 10 collections of poetry.

Haines made his living by writing, but struggled to find an academic job in Alaska, so he had to look Outside for opportunities.

Haines sold his homestead in 1969 and lived in several cities in the Lower 48 before returning to rent his homestead cabin. He later moved to Anchorage, then Fairbanks.

Haines was married five times and had several girlfriends, but one reviewer noted that his literary works revealed more about his sled dogs than his wives.

Haines was dedicated to his craft, and many consider him to be Alaska’s best poet, above writers like Robert Service or Jack London. Unlike them, he stayed in Alaska and lived a subsistence life; clearing forests, building cabins, planting gardens, chopping wood, cutting trails, traveling by snowshoe and dogsled, trapping lynx and marten, weaving nets for salmon fishing, and encountering wild animals like grizzlies.

He was inspired by his surroundings and experiences in Alaska. He used his experience surviving in the Alaska wilderness to develop his subject matter about the cold, wildlife, subsistence, and the human condition while living on the Last Frontier.

He won a lifetime achievement award from the Library of Congress, was named a Fellow by the Academy of American Poets, won two Guggenheim Fellowships, and was named Alaska poet laureate, in addition to many other national literary awards. He was Alaska’s first acclaimed writer.

Vesta J. (Downing) Anderson, 84, died Nov. 24. She was born and raised in Cordova. She married Valdemar Anderson, and the couple raised two daughters and one son. They lived in Fairbanks, Anchorage and Seward.

Ed E. Bilderback, 84, died Jan. 30. As a child he helped his father with an independent logging operation in Ketchikan. After serving in World War II, he began commercial fishing. He also used the boat for seal hunting, charters, mail delivery, big game guiding as a base for trapping for fur and live animals for zoos in the Lower 48, Exxon Valdez clean-up, and trips to and from Hawaii. He spent his later years mining out of Cape Yakataga.

Andrew H. Busek, 74, died March 16. He lived in Alaska for 42 years working as an electrician. Busek was a member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers for 50 years. He enjoyed traveling, gardening and reading.

Evelyn Geraldine Gratias, 94, died March 5. In 1949, she moved to a rustic east Anchorage cabin with her family. As a communications engineering specialist, Gratias worked on remote construction projects for the Defense Communications Agency. In 1957, she and her family started the Gracious House, a roadhouse and guide service on the Denali Highway. Gratias also worked for David Green Furriers designing and constructing fur parkas. She enjoyed family, sewing, music and traveling.

Teresa Kathleen Hamilton Dean, 60, died Feb. 27. She was raised in Ketchikan. After high school, she married Kenneth and moved to Juneau where the couple remained for the rest of her life. Dean promoted her Haida culture and language. She worked for the State of Alaska Department of Fish and Game and the University of Alaska Chancellor’s Office. The couple founded and maintained the Juneau chapter of Parents, Family and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, and contributed community service to the MS Society Support Group, Douglas Lions and Lioness Clubs, and were instrumental in creating the first handicapped accessible trail in Juneau.

Mary Aniska (Edwards) Flood, 76, died Aug. 11. She was an Alaska Native from Holy Cross, who moved to Lake Minchumina in 1959. She lived a subsistence lifestyle—trapping, hunting, dog mushing, gardening and skin sewing. Flood was a postmaster from 1972 to 1992.

Glenn Gregory, 85, died Sept. 15. He was a pilot, mechanic, trapper, hunter, fisherman, heavy equipment operator, carpenter, loving husband and father of eight. He wrote a series of books about his life in Alaska, including a volume of poetry.

Jay Clifford Hudson, 52, died Dec. 2. He was the oldest of four children born in Palmer and raised in Talkeetna. He learned to fly from his father’s lap and soloed at 16 years old, the youngest in Alaska at the time. He owned Hudson Air Service in Talkeetna and participated in many Denali mountain rescues and was awarded for his services, safety and concern for those in need.

Patrick Karl Lynn, 75, died Feb. 5. In 1981 he became news director and anchorman at KTVA Channel 11 in Anchorage. Later, he moved to Valdez where he became owner of local radio station KVAK, which played an important role as ABC’s closest affiliate to the Exxon Valdez oil spill.  Lynn also started the Valdez Star, the city’s only newspaper.

Ralph “Mac” McDonald, 85,  died March 2. In 1957, he moved to the Territory of Alaska as an employee of the Civil Aeronautics Agency, now the Federal Aviation Administration. McDonald and his family lived in Unalakleet, McGraph, Moses Point, King Salmon, Galena, Nome, Farewell and Anchorage.

Robert Kendle “Bob” Mc­Kirgan, 84, died Oct. 9. In 1960 he moved to Alaska with his family. McKirgan became an avid pilot and enjoyed hunting and fishing. He had many jobs, and eventually retired from the Plumbers and Steamfitters Union Local 375.

Toivo Rosander, 94, died Dec. 24. His mining career began when he moved to Alaska to work with his uncle, and lasted most of his life. Rosander worked with many partners, including his sons Ken and Ron.  He took some time off to pilot B-24s in the U.S. Air Force.

K. Olin “Ole” Rude, 90, died in July 2010. Rude and his wife moved in 1942 to Anchorage, where they owned and operated Anchorage Radio and Television. They were involved in commercial electronics, and played a key role in expanding communication networks from Southeast to the North Slope.

Ann Baackes Sassara, 77, died Dec. 9. She operated the Yacht Club at Big Lake, and later homesteaded in Knik with her family. Sassara was integral in building the first road from Big Lake to Knik. In 1962, Sassara moved to Anchorage, where she was a pioneer member of the Anchorage Women’s Club, the Democratic Party and Alaska Junior Theatre. Later, she lived in Girdwood where she operated the town’s first licensed bed and breakfast.

Florence Shellhorn, 91, died Feb. 17. She moved to Cordova in 1937 to watch her brother’s children while he fished. She met and married Don Shellhorn, and the couple had four children. They enjoyed outdoor activities like picnicking, camping, picking berries and swimming.

Helen Thomas, 96, died Feb. 19. She came to Alaska in the early 1950s and managed the Sears Roebuck catalog stores, first in Anchorage, then Fairbanks, and finally in Kenai, where she retired. Thomas enjoyed many years at her cabin in Cooper Landing.

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