Shaping Alaska myth

Joyce drove a dog team from the Taku River to Fairbanks in the winter of 1936

Posted: Wednesday, November 27, 2002

Long before Gore-Tex and polypropylene were the outdoors enthusiasts' uniform of choice and decades prior to the feminist movement, several Alaska women helped shape the myth and reality of life in the Last Frontier.

From Barbara Washburn (the first woman to summit Denali in 1947) to Libby Riddles breaking the all-men's winners club of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in 1985, women have played an important role in Alaska's history.

Here in Southeast, Mary Joyce earned her fame by driving a dog team from the Taku River to Fairbanks in the winter of 1936. Joyce also owned and operated a successful wilderness lodge, and became the first woman radio telephone operator in the territory and one of the few women of that era who learned to fly.

Joyce's Alaska journey began in 1929 when a Mrs. Smith - as in the Smith of the Smith-Corona fortune - employed Joyce as a nurse to care for her alcoholic son, Hack Smith, while they ventured north from California on the family's private yacht. During the trip, Mrs. Smith bought the Twin Glacier Camp to keep her progeny out of the public eye as the family empire grew.

Located 40 miles south of Juneau on the Taku River, the camp became home to Joyce and the Smith heir - both of whom seemed to thrive in the Alaska wilderness. After Hack Smith's death from a heart attack, his family gave the property to Joyce, who promptly converted the camp into a tourist resort.

The newly named Taku Lodge was a success. Along with cooking all the meals and entertaining her guests, Joyce became the first female radio telephone operator in Alaska when Pacific Alaska Airways needed a communications station on the Taku for its run from Juneau to Fairbanks.

In 1935, Joyce began to consider running a dog team from the lodge to Fairbanks. Despite her ability to handle dogs, boats and guns with a skill that was rare even among men, her plans were met with skepticism. She was quoted as saying, "When I first got the idea of driving my dog team to Fairbanks, the people in Juneau said it would take me two years to drive to Fairbanks and that I would be pulling the dogs in. They also said that I would eat the dogs or the dogs would eat me."

Neither prediction came true. On Dec. 22, 1935, Joyce hitched five dogs to a sled and headed north with the idea that she would arrive in Fairbanks to attend the fledgling Ice Carnival in early March. Although she was known to be headstrong and confident, Joyce did not attempt the trip on her own. On every leg of her journey, except her triumphant ride into Fairbanks on March 26, 1936, a guide - most of whom were Alaska Natives - accompanied Joyce.

Upon her arrival in Fairbanks, Joyce learned that her 1,000-mile tour of Interior Alaska had piqued the interest of several newspapers from around the country. Joyce seemed pleased by, but unfazed with, her new celebrity status and told the press, "It was a gorgeous trip. I just wanted to see the country and experience some of the things the old-timers did. I just wanted to see if I could do it.''

After her record-setting journey, Joyce and her dogs returned to life on the Taku River, where she took up flying and became one of the first female pilots in Juneau.

Although she soloed after five hours, another unprecedented event for an Alaska woman, Joyce hung up her wings after a minor collision with a boat in Gastineau Channel. She then rerouted her interest in aviation into a career as a stewardess for Pan-Am and Northwest Air.

In the 1940s, Joyce and her dogs hauled radio equipment for the U.S. Navy, entertained tourists in Idaho, and eventually left the Taku River to move to Juneau. After working as a nurse at St. Ann's Hospital, Joyce bought the Top Hat Bar and then the Lucky Lady Saloon. During the next several decades, Joyce could be found behind the bar of her popular drinking establishment. In 1976, in the home of friends, Joyce died from a heart ailment.

Today, the back wall of the Lucky Lady sports several photographs, clippings and maps that follow the adventurous exploits of the bar's former owner. And the Taku Glacier Lodge, Joyce's former home complete with her dog sleds and other memorabilia, attracts more than 14,000 visitors a summer under the ownership of Ken and Michelle Ward.

But after all that has been written about her, it was one of Joyce's friends, quoted in a newspaper after her death, who said it best: "Mary Joyce was one hell of a woman and lived a life that any man could envy."

And she lived that life 30 years before the feminist movement and without polypropylene or Gore-Tex. Now, that's tough.

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