This February marks the seventieth anniversary of Chugiak-Eagle River’s founding. This year also is the Sesquicentennial of the purchase of Alaska in 1867. Both boast of a lot of history.
It was on February 17, 1947, that the community club made up of pioneer residents chose the name “Chugiak.” That name was chosen from many offered by the small crowd. The winning nomination was submitted by “Johnny” Johnson, one of the people claiming home sites along the Palmer Highway at about Mile 18.5.
Chugiak, Johnson is said to have explained, is the correct Dena’ina word for “Place of Many Places.” The name had been corrupted into “Chugach” by explorers who named the mountain range that backs the community, he claimed. (This writer has never investigated that statement, holding the belief that Johnson’s version is as good as any and does not need to be disputed. Athabaskan scholars are not known to have come forth with another explanation.) Chugiak indeed is a unique name: The Chugiak Post Office is the only one that comes up on the US Postal Service Website and the only place by that name that shows on a Google search.
Eagle River Valley was a link in the Iditarod Trail in Gold Rush days. The northwestern Alaska gold-bearing creeks were cut off from the outside world in winter. Dog teams were the only means of travel after the waterways froze over. Miners wanting to go south and needing a mail connection with the Outside demanded service. Freighters soon supplied that service, utilizing dog teams to pull heavy sleds over the route connecting camps in the Nome district with those stretching out to the east and south.
Knik, a summertime port, became a heavily populated settlement during winter months with miners and trappers gathering there. From that point, travelers and freighters crossed Knik Arm to enter Eagle River Valley where a roadhouse was situated to provide lodging, meals, and libations. Teams then traversed the Valley, crossing over Crow Pass to connect with mining camps at Bird Creek, Girdwood, Hope and Sunrise and eventually with the open-water seaport at Seward.
Cabin fever strong in February
February is festival time in Alaska, with increasing daylight beginning to be noticeable. To counter the effects of cabin fever, people gather for games and activities. Dog races are one form of entertainment—and betting on favorites. Even in this community’s early days, dog mushing was a favorite pastime. Trails were fashioned and are used today by mushers.
Chugiak dog mushers hold regular races at Beach Lake, following trails through the wooded area bordering Knik Arm. The trails have long been used for training dogs in preparation for the Fur Rendezvous dog races. The Eagle River Classic is an annual race sponsored by the Chugiak Dog Mushers Association.
When the Iditarod Trail Dog Sled Race was inaugurated in 1973, Eagle River became the first stop. Teams started off in Anchorage, then raced through Campbell Airstrip to the Glenn Highway which they traveled along to that checkpoint. An ice bridge was built over the Eagle River to facilitate the crossing, with the National Guard constructing the bridge. At Eagle River, the VFW Auxiliary served mushers and handlers a warm meal before they loaded dogs onto their trucks and headed north for the re-start.
The Eagle River checkpoint was eliminated after musher Susan Butcher suffered an injury in an encounter with a moose on the Ft. Richardson portion of the trail and others complained of various incidents making it unsafe. A “ceremonial” start was substituted, with seats on a racer’s trailing sled sold at auction to raise money for the purse. Mushers still start in downtown Anchorage on the First Saturday in March, but stop after a short distance and load up the dogs to move to the restart point.
Also in the 70s, a Snow Days February celebration was held in Chugiak-Eagle River for three years before being dropped.
After games, dog races, and other activities, a Snow Ball was held. A feature of the final Snow Days was the release of Big Foot. The event was the brainchild of barber Don Golden and accountant Gerald O’Connor. O’Connor had obtained from newly-elected Congressman Don Young a list of federal grants. The two pondered applying for a grant to search for Sasquatch, an event conjured up out of the clear sky. The local newspaper went along with the hoax, each week devoting space on its front page to describe the “search” for Big Foot. Although details were extremely exaggerated, readers eagerly followed the progress.
On the Saturday of the ball, Big Foot—represented by Joe Kapella in a costume made of fake fur—was in a cage towed through downtown on a flatbed trailer. During the ball, the fabled beast was led into the room and released by Miss Chugiak-Eagle River, free to return to the wilds.
Even though the extended search news reports included preposterous “facts,” such as footprints in the snow that were measured to thirty-seconds of an inch and Big Foot’s size calculations made by Golden, it was closely followed by local readers and those in far reaches. The editor received a threat of a lawsuit if the story proved to be false, and one subscription cancellation. It caused him to rethink the wisdom of printing fake news, regardless of the worthiness of the cause.
The area’s population was growing rapidly in the 70s, but there still was a dearth of activities to break the monotony of a long winter.
The Fire Lake Recreation Center (now the McDonald Center) had not yet been built, and hockey was played on outdoor rinks. Basketball was played in the Chugiak High School gymnasium, then still a multi-purpose room in the original building, with bleachers on only one side of the court. Those bleachers were packed with partisan fans on nights when the Mustangs were in action.
With today’s population over the 30,000 mark, there are many more indoor facilities to house activities, including the Mac Center with an Olympic-size sheet of ice and walking tracks. That facility, by the way, is named for Harry McDonald, Mustang hockey coach, and a popular teacher. He died when his small plane crashed in a remote area of Eagle River Valley in August of 1994.
Chugiak Dog Mushers Association continues to support mushing and care of dogs. Its annual Eagle River Classic was held at Beach Lake Trails this past weekend.
Two Chugiak residents are scheduled to take part in the 2017 Iditarod Trail race which gets underway March 4. Jim Lanier and Mike Suprenant both have participated in the past, with Lanier ending up in the money several times. Starting positions are to be determined by drawing shortly before the race start date.
The days are getting longer. Temperatures go up and down by several degrees from week to week—as can be expected from past experience.
February is the shortest month of the year. It can also be the most challenging. It is always exciting. Enjoy the rest it.
Lee Jordan has been an Alaskan since 1949, moved to Chugiak in 1962 and in 2016 moved back to Anchorage. An Alaska history buff, he enjoys writing about the place where he did not want to be sent, but came to love. He has written four books on Alaska history and has a blog at www.byleejordan.com.