If the Dyea dirt could talk, what a story it would tell. Back in 1897, this now-abandoned gold rush boom town nine miles out of Skagway supported 8,000 people and 150 businesses (including 48 hotels, 47 restaurants, 39 bars, 4 cemeteries and 2 newspapers), all thanks to its position at the base of the Chilkoot Trail, leading to the promise of gold. Very little evidence of this activity remains today, save for a few token ruins; the trees have grown over the townsite, and the Taiya River and the rain have washed the rest away.
Yet Dyea remains true to its history: it is still the starting point for travelers braving the 33-mile Chilkoot Trail, a role that extends back hundreds if not thousands of years. The area was traditionally used as a staging area for Tlingit traders who would travel up and over the Chilkoot Pass to meet interior Athabaskan tribes and exchange goods. The town’s name comes from the Tlingit word “deiyaa,” “to pack.”
Dyea’s history as a starting point for adventure and exploration make it a fitting site for a new project nearing completion: Alderworks Alaska Writers and Artists Retreat, which will begin accepting guests in 2016. But although Alderworks founders Jeff and Dorothy Brady are both very well acquainted with the area’s history — Jeff is a journalist and historian who has written a book on Skagway’s history (“Skagway: City of the New Century”) and Dorothy’s roots go back generations — they chose the site for more personal reasons, centered in family connections to the land and an appreciation for the natural beauty of the valley.
Dorothy’s aunt and uncle once owned the land on which the three Alderworks cabins now stand, and she vividly remembers playing in the garden and sleeping in the original structures. As she grew up, the land passed out of her family’s hands so when it came up for sale in 2011, she and her husband bought it back, with a dream of creating not only a home for themselves, but also a temporary home for writers and artists, people whose needs the Bradys understand very well; Dorothy is a watercolor artist and Jeff is a writer. Four years later, in partnership with the father-son company Hanson General Contracting, their dream is nearly ready to be shared.
This weekend, a group of Alaska’s best-known writers convened at the cabins for an informal housewarming party as part of the Northwords Writers Symposium, which Jeff has helped organize since 2010 (see related story by Clint Farr on page 19). Guests included Alaskan writers Christine Byl, Seth Kantner, Don Rearden, Leigh Newman, John Straley, Emily Wall, Dana Stabenow (who is also planning a writers retreat in Homer, see http://storyknife.org/) and visiting keynote speaker Mary Roach, who mingled with the 30 conference participants around a fire pit while Skagway band Windy Valley Boys played on the porch of one of the cabins. Some of the writers began planning return visits on the spot.
Standing in the middle of the three cabins during Saturday’s event, Dorothy said for her the site is just about perfect.
“I like remote, I like the woods, the mountains. I grew up on this property and since I was a kid I’ve wanted to come back here,” she said. “I love the first snow, I love the spring when the peaks start showing. It really gives you the detail of the crevasses and the dark and the light. I just love it. I figure when I get old we’ll probably move into that cabin.”
The Bradys live on the property part of the year in a house a short distance from the cabins, and spend the rest of the year in Skagway, where they own a bookstore, Skagway News Depot & Books, and a small press, Lynn Canal Publishing. For the past 37 years, Jeff has also been editor of Skagway’s newspaper, The Skagway News, but as the cabins neared completion, he sold the paper, giving him more time to devote to Alderworks and to his own writing projects.
“The timing was right for us to do something like this,” Jeff said.
He is also looking forward to working on his own writing projects, which include a novel and perhaps some poetry.
The three cabins are named after family members: Dorothy’s mother Bea, Jeff’s mother Margaret, and Dorothy’s aunt Mary Jane, the property’s original owner. Bea has already been occupied by a few writers on a trial basis but the cabins are still in the testing phase at this point, with the first real residencies scheduled for the summer of 2016. The Bradys plan to offer them in two four-to-six-week periods on an application basis, and said they would welcome all sorts of creative types — writers, artists and even musicians needing a quiet place to create.
Though described as rustic, a close look at both the interior and exterior of the cabins reveals that the builders, Steve and Orion Hanson, could be considered artists themselves. Materials from the original structures were used to create the remodeled cabins whenever possible, and many of the replacement boards were milled on site from local wood. Two of the log cabins are made of cottonwood that grew on the property and the third of spruce and the cabin’s original lodge pole pine. Salvaged wood sourced from Skagway was also used in the cabins’ construction, both inside and out.
“I tore down an old house in town that was condemned,” Dorothy said. “All of the old wood out of it was first-growth fir that probably came up during the gold rush.”
Dorothy’s family history also extends back to that time; her great grandfather was a faro card dealer in one of Skagway’s saloons in the 1890s. Some of the furniture in the Alderworks cabins comes from her family, such as the old dresser in the bathroom of the Mary Jane, which was salvaged from her grandparents house in Skagway and rebuilt to hold a sink by Steve Hanson.
Other elements are new, such as the stained glass windows created by the Hansons, birch counter tops in two of the cabins, and yellow cedar French doors leading to the bedroom in the Mary Jane. The Mary Jane also has a full bathroom, complete with soaking tub; guests in the Bea and Margaret cabins will use a log-cabin style bathhouse, also constructed by the Hansons.
Steve Hanson, who worked on the cabins over the past four summers with his family, said it involved an evolving artistic collaboration with the Bradys, making it a fun and rewarding project.
“I’ve been in the building business for a long time,” he said, “but what I really enjoyed about it is when you can design something and it comes to life like this. To take it from that idea, the paper state, and refine it and actually build it — there’s a real feeling of satisfaction that’s like no other.”
It’s an apt comment about a place that will soon house writers and artists working to bring their own constructions to life.
Find out more about Alderworks at http://alderworksalaska.com.
• Contact CCW Managing Editor Amy Fletcher at firstname.lastname@example.org.