It was about one month before Thanksgiving in the late 1960s. I was living in a one-room cabin with sleeping loft on Kodiak Island, Alaska and I was wondering how my “sourdough” (long-time Alaskan) friend, Jon Tollefson, was doing at his two-and-a-half-room cabin along Question Lake near Talkeetna some 439 miles to the north.
Jon was in his early 70s when we first met. He was a long-retired Alaska Railroad worker who had settled in Talkeetna’s outskirts after raising two sons and after the loss of his wife. I was still a wet-behind-the-ears Cheechako (relatively new Alaskan) and nearly 50 years his junior.
We had met a couple of years earlier at Question Lake—a lake sort of shaped like a question mark—hence the name. Jon lived off a small pension and trapped the surrounding miles of mostly federal and state lands primarily for mink, marten and beaver to earn a little extra cash.
His cabin was situated about seven miles out of town on the Talkeetna Turnoff Road. We met by chance one day as I was a bit lost attempting to find the abandoned (off-the-road) homestead (that had not been “proved up” as required for ownership) that I had recently agreed to purchase from the State of Alaska. Jon guided me around the fairly large lake to a place in the dense tree-line where he pointed at and said “Through there about a quarter mile.”
When he realized that I had come only partially prepared for my adventure, with only a topography map and a compass, he handed me his .44-cal long-barrel pistol, holster and belt and said “You might need this. It’s called bear insurance. You do know how to use it, right?”
I avoided eye contact and said “Yes.” I just couldn’t look him in the eye and say that. I’m sure he knew that this young city-slicker probably hadn’t ever fired a .44-cal before. A gun best described as a “small hand-held cannon” that will usually stop a hungry Alaska Grizzly bear in its tracks—that is with an “accurate” shot.
With no bear sightings, and without firing a round, I later made it back to Jon’s cabin where he greeted me with a cup of fresh coffee, some sourdough pancakes hot off the griddle—and a welcoming life-long friendship.
After I had moved to Kodiak Island, our face-to-face friendship evolved into a pen-pal relationship with a letter here and there back and forth every couple of months. Jon had become sort of a grandfather figure in my life.
I was very excited that chilly October afternoon when I opened my small post office box on Kodiak Island to find a letter postmarked from Talkeetna. I knew it had to be from Jon.
After a brief local update about how the snow was starting to gather around Talkeetna and how the lake would be freezing over soon, Jon invited me to have Thanksgiving dinner with him in Talkeetna that year. He noted that his remaining Alaska family members would all be out of state for Thanksgiving—and he knew that I was in the same boat.
Jon explained that a few people from town were getting together to have a “real” Alaskan Thanksgiving dinner—with all the “Alaska” trimmings. I could taste the sliced caribou rump roast already!
I quickly wrote him back with a big “Yes!” response and started to make plans for the trip from Kodiak to Talkeetna.
My old Ford was in fact “old” … but very reliable. Hopefully as reliable as the Alaska Marine Highway System’s ferry boat the M/V Tustumena. The ferry boat would be the first leg of the trip (13+ hours) across 200+ miles of open ocean to Seward. From there it would be easy sailing along the “sometimes” icy highway to Anchorage and then on through Wasilla and finally arriving in frequently snowy Talkeetna.
With typical Thanksgiving weather (freezing cold and snowing) closing in quickly, the trip surprisingly took only two days to complete even allowing for an over-night rest stop in Anchorage.
When I arrived at Jon’s cabin the day before Thanksgiving, I was greeted with Jon’s always warm welcome. I stashed my back-pack and bed-roll in Jon’s “one-half” room—usually used for storage or in this case the “guest room” for the visitor from afar.
Shortly after noon the next day, Thanksgiving day, we drove into Talkeetna for a truly Alaskan Thanksgiving dinner at the community center.
The dinner began with a visiting Roman Catholic Priest offering profound thanks for our very existence and pronouncing a blessing on the food and asking for a blessing of safety for all of the visiting travelers—a reminder of just how dangerous some Alaskan travel can be during the late-fall and winter months.
There were about 50 Talkeetna “family” members now seated at large round tables and we were all about to begin the treat of a lifetime—or the “annual” treat if you were a full-time Alaskan living out in the Alaska “bush” country.
Being served by local volunteers, and eating family-style, the all-Alaskan Thanksgiving meal began. The tables were set with baskets full of fresh “warm” sourdough French bread and cold butter ready for the taking. We started the feeding frenzy with generous helpings of Fiddlehead (like wild asparagus) salad with a vinaigrette dressing. Next came the cream of chives soup with sautéed “puffball” mushrooms on the side. Choices of main entrees included baked halibut with shrimp sauce, grilled salmon, baked Ptarmigan with sourdough bread stuffing, caribou rump roast, sweet and sour black bear and chicken-fried moose steak. If you preferred, and if you had the room, you could sample it all.
Of course, sides included an assortment of such favorites as double-baked Palmer (Alaska) potatoes, new potatoes with chives, Alaska peas in cream sauce, and goosetongue greens (like spinach).
And, if there was any room left for desserts, you had your choice of wild raspberry cake, blueberry custard, cranberry bread, or candied rose hips—or a little of each.
After thoroughly enjoying the meal, helping a bit with the clean-up, and thanking the Talkeetna “family” members for their fine hospitality, Jon and I headed back down the road towards Question Lake.
On the way back to Jon’s cabin, I couldn’t help but laugh when Jon asked me how I enjoyed the special Alaskan Thanksgiving dinner. I then described for Jon my Thanksgiving dinner from the previous year—a turkey TV dinner heated on top of my Kodiak cabin’s wood stove.
Jon’s quick response, with a knowing smile, was “Maybe you’d like to visit again next Thanksgiving?” Like a real grandfather, he already knew the answer!
© Submitted by Bob Grafe for publication on Thursday, November 27, 2008.