Authors describe life of Alaska's first guide

Posted: Sunday, September 21, 2003

KENAI - "Andrew used to go hunting all by himself at times. ... He'd tie a piece of bacon to a rope, and knot the other end of the rope around his leg. ... Pretty soon an old Brownie would come along sniffing around for something to eat. He'd find the bacon and take a bite. ... Andrew would pull the rope toward him, and the bear would follow the bacon. When the bear got up close, Andrew would shoot it. ... He got some mighty big bears that way!"

- Story about Andrew Berg told to Katherine Bayou, a magazine writer, by "an old, old man from Kenai."

This story, whether fact or fiction, is one of many exciting tales in a new book written by Catherine Cassidy and Gary Titus titled "Alaska's No. 1 Guide - the History and Journals of Andrew Berg 1869-1939."

"There is no other source for a picture of life on the peninsula during this period," Cassidy said of Berg's journals, which were found in his cabins. "It captures that time period and the essence of the wilderness lifestyle."

The two authors are not professional writers by trade, although both have been published before this book.

Cassidy is a commercial driftnet fisher out of Kasilof. She and her husband, Erik Huebsch, recently purchased and began renovating Tom Odale's old hunting lodge on Tustumena Lake where Andrew Berg was a frequent visitor.

Titus is a ranger and historian for the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. He also "recently joined the exclusive club of those who have been chewed on by a grizzly bear," he said of an incident in Lake Clark National Park.

It was the injuries sustained from the old brownie sow and the subsequent hiatus from work that led to Titus and Cassidy writing the book.

Although the recuperation process was a good window of opportunity to finally write the book, the actual research and interest started long before Titus' run-in with the bear.

"I've been interested in the local history since I moved here in 1987," Cassidy said. "I saw a photo display on the history of the area by Alan Boraas and Penny McLane and it hooked me."

Titus had been researching the area's history for 26 years but said his interest really piqued in the 1980s after a visit to Cottonwood Creek Lodge - a building erected on the south shore of Skilak Lake in the 1930s.

"I wanted to learn more about it and the time period," he said. "It went from a hobby to a passion. I had to hike the trails. I had to see what they saw. The more I learned and saw, the more I just had to know. It snowballed."

The bulk of the material in the book is excerpts from his journal. Some of Berg's most incredulous adventures and harrowing tales were so commonplace to him that he mentions them only in passing in his journal in a matter-of-fact way.

Fortunately, his accounts are followed in the book by firsthand descriptions of the same incidents by other party members who realized just how extraordinary some of the events were.

Some of the incredible stories include Berg's rescue of a moose stranded on a frozen pond by sliding a dog sled under it during the creature's attempt to stand. He then jumped on the moose's back and mushed the dogs attached to the sled to shore, riding the hapless herbivore the entire way.

Another tale details a hunt for a brown bear in the dark. After bagging the bruin, the frightened hunter Berg was guiding returned the next morning to find out his kill was 12 feet from nose to tail.

There also is a story of a close call Berg had with a bear while out with a friend on a day their rifles were left at home.

"... Two large brown bears in about two hundred yards distance. ... They saw us. ... They charged as a mad dog would. ... I jumped to the creek bank into a patch of young alder sprouts. ... The bear ran by me at the speed of a race horse. He evidently knew that he was being tricked, stopped with a bellow of rage and started back up stream to look for me. ..."

- Andrew Berg, Aug. 18, 1928, journal entry.

Both authors agreed that there is no debating Berg's physical prowess. His physical abilities were impressive, particularly for a man who had the use of only one hand after accidentally shooting himself in the other.

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