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Fireside Lecture: 'Mary Joyce: An Extraordinary Alaskan Woman'

Posted: February 27, 2014 - 1:02am
Mary Joyce will be the focus of this week's Fireside Lecture at the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center, led by Mary Lou Gerbi.  Courtesy of Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center
Courtesy of Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center
Mary Joyce will be the focus of this week's Fireside Lecture at the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center, led by Mary Lou Gerbi.

This Friday’s Fireside Lecture will be “Mary Joyce: An Extraordinary Alaskan Woman,” led by Mary Lou Gerbi. The lecture will be presented twice, at 6:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. at the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center and is free.

Mary Joyce was a pioneer Southeast Alaska entrepreneur and adventurer. During the 1930s she owned and operated a remote wilderness lodge, became the first woman radio operator in the Territory of Alaska, made a thousand-mile sled-dog trip from Juneau to Fairbanks, and served as a hunting guide, bush pilot, flight attendant, nurse and candidate for Alaska Territorial Representative. She inspired news and magazine articles, poems, plays, books, movies, art, and songs, and last year was inducted into the Alaska Women’s Hall of Fame. Her award was accepted by Gerbi, who gave a version of this presentation at that time.

Joyce was born in Baraboo, Wisc. Graduating from Mercy Nursing School in Chicago, she moved to Hollywood in 1928 and to Alaska in 1929. Except for a short stay in Wisconsin in the 1940s, Joyce lived in the Juneau area until her death in 1976.

She arrived in Alaska after being hired as a private nurse for Leigh Hackley “Hack” Smith, a decorated French Foreign Legion veteran who suffered from morphine and alcohol addiction from injuries in World War I. Soon after their arrival, Hack purchased the Taku River hunting and fishing camp 40 miles northeast of Juneau, accessible only by floatplane or boat. Hack and Joyce added buildings, guided hunters, and raised Taku husky sled dogs until 1934 when Hack died on a Wrangell hunting trip. He was 38. His mother bought the property — 14 buildings, 15 sled dogs, and three head of cattle — and deeded it to Joyce, who renamed it the Taku Lodge. That winter Joyce operated a radio station at the lodge for Pacific Alaska Airways’ twice-weekly run from Juneau to Fairbanks. Joyce became the first female radio operator in Alaska.

In December 1935 Joyce embarked with five sled dogs on an overland trek across mostly unmapped territory to represent Juneau at the Fairbanks Winter Carnival. Later, because of her knowledge of the remote country, Joyce hauled radio equipment by dog team for the Navy as they built defenses during World War II, became a consultant for construction of the Alaska Canada Highway, taught Defense Department survival skills to troops, and helped develop a new air route from New York to Fairbanks.

One of the first female pilots in Juneau, and a certified nurse, she spent two years as a flight attendant for Pacific Alaska Airways, a subsidiary of Pan American Airways, traveling Alaska-Seattle-Montana routes.

Explorer Norman Dawn chose Joyce to co-star as Taku Mary in a film, “Orphans of the North” (1940), shot in the Taku River region. Another film, “The Flying Saucer” (1950), is loosely based on the lives of Joyce and Hack Smith.

Later, Joyce sold her lodge and moved to Juneau where she worked as a nurse at St. Ann’s Hospital and later purchased the Top Hat and Lucky Lady saloons. She led the 1950 statehood parade in Juneau and cut the ribbon for the reopening of the 1,000-mile Iditarod trail in 1973.

She is buried at Evergreen Cemetery.

For more on the Fireside Lecture series, visit http://www.fs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_DOCUMENTS/stelprdb5444981.pdf.

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