Seeking Solitude at Bear Creek
Remembering good times camping on Bear Creek in Seward as a teenager
by Michael Hankins
This story isn’t about climbing one of Alaska’s tallest peaks. It’s not about kayaking the state’s wildest rivers or surfing the Gulf of Alaska. The tale is about how easy it was for a group of Anchorage teenagers in the 1960s to have a little simplistic fun in the great outdoors.
Almost 50 years ago at an area where Bear Creek meets Salmon Creek, several miles north of Seward, a bluff overlooking the pristine waters of both creeks became a refuge of solitude for me and others. When school let out for summer I’d happily pilgrimage from Anchorage with tent, backpack, never-enough-food, fishing line, sinkers, and treble hooks. Fishing was illegal in the area but that didn’t concern me. My older brother Jim and a couple of friends, Jeff Cloud and Rod Sanborn, ventured with me on different occasions.
As teenagers we’d be dropped off by family or friends near the Salmon Creek Bridge. The only structure in the area at that time was a rustic log cabin belonging to a long-time Seward family.
The trail alongside Bear Creek bordered both private property and the creek. A vintage 1900s steel-wheeled Fordson tractor marked a starting point for the trail.
A most picturesque spot for camping was on ‘the bluff’ as we called it. We’d make sure our tent entrance faced outward towards the streams. At the bluff’s edge was a fairly large fire pit. It’d evidently been used hundreds of times over the years because it was fairly deep with large containment stones. Unbeknownst to us at the time, research showed this locale to be a favorite picnic area for early Seward pioneers. It was also one of the town’s most popular fishing holes before ‘No Fishing’ signs went up.
Residents and railroad personnel alike often made the short journey out of town to wet their lines and socialize. A small railway excursion car was generally utilized to make the trip. The train stopped there if need be. An archived photograph in the Seward Public Library appears to show several well-dressed residents picnicking at this site.
There was one particular trip where my pal, Rod Sanborn, and I elected to forego higher ground for water-front property. We pitched our tent on an island in the middle of Salmon Creek. Shortly after going to bed it started raining cats and dogs. Somewhere in the wee hours of morning Rod woke me with a shout. “I think the water is rising!” My buddy didn’t need to tell me!
Shining a flashlight into the misty cool air revealed we were surrounded by the wet stuff. A small newly formed tributary was already lapping at our metal tent stakes. Using the cloth and nylon dwelling as a large storage bag, Rod took off for shore with everything inside. Fortunately he had the size and stature to handle such. I stumbled along behind him sloshing through glacial currents. Rain continued to come down in torrents.
It took a while to get our little shelter back in place. When the project was complete we were soaked to the gills. An hour or so later a fire worthy of mention was snapping and popping. Golden embers danced upwards until rain drops quickly doused them. Wet wood has a way of making lots of smoke. There was plenty of burnt birch smell in our hair and clothes. As morning light began to reveal surrounding terrain, we immediately noticed our camping spot in the creek was completely under water. Thankfully we’d made it out safely without drowning. Hypothermia also escaped us.
Later on during that same trip a group of drunken loudmouths unexpectedly showed up. We heard their cursing and swearing before seeing any faces. They’d brought along plenty of beer with several fishing poles. When things began to get a bit too rambunctious for our liking, Rod pulled a toy sheriff’s badge from his pack. Pinning the ‘star’ on a faded Levi jacket, my pal moseyed on over to where the folks were partying. They saw ‘The Man’ coming before he got there. In a tizzy the rabble-rousers took off running with one fellow leaving a tackle box behind. For the rest of our expedition Rod sported his badge to help keep tranquility. I jokingly referred to him as, “Marshall Sanborn.”
On another trip, Jeff Cloud and I ate all of our food several days before we were to be picked up. We attempted to walk, and then hitchhike into Seward through pouring rain. We knew there was a diner in the middle of town. After several miles of hoofing it plus sticking out our thumbs, we gave up. No sane person would stop and give us a ride. I didn’t blame them. Jeff and I looked like a couple of deadbeats from who knows where. Because we were hungry and getting hungrier by the hour it became subsistence time. Back then we didn’t have a clue what subsistence meant. As my late Grandma Hankins from Alabama would say regarding our predicament, “Dem growin’ boys need ta eat!”
Tying 80 pound test monofilament fishing line onto a long stick plus adding a heavy lure, I snagged a silver salmon then yanked it in. A couple of blows to the head with a rock finished things off. Jeff was able to entice some good-sized Dolly Varden onto his hook using eggs obtained from my silver. Starting a fire at water’s edge we cooked the fish in foil before devouring every morsel. A Fish & Game officer came along at this time not saying a word. He took a long hard look, quickly turned around and left.
I suppose some folks would say we did wrong back then by poaching a few fish. Using a toy sheriff’s badge to intentionally misrepresent someone as a western lawman would definitely draw the ire of a few individuals, especially law enforcement. I’d tend to agree that what we did was wrong. On the other hand, doing such provided much needed food, plus helped scare off potential troublemakers. There has to be some merit in that. As naïve teens we saw our actions as harmless. Evidently one local game warden thought the same.
Several years ago I stopped in the area to show my wife our old stomping grounds. The Fordson tractor was long gone. A house now sits near the bluff where we camped. This place of solitude is forever lost except to those folks permanently living there. I’ve since discovered other places to relax and unwind. Thankfully a toy sheriff’s badge hasn’t been needed to help keep the peace!
If you enjoyed “Seeking Solitude at Bear Creek,” check out “Hope on a Rope – Memories of Hope, Alaska.”