In 1968 a small Cessna 180 dropped a man on the edge of a
remote lake deep within the interior of Alaska. He methodically set about
crafting the trees of the nearby woods into a home. Sawdust grew thick below
his feet as walls of stacked logs rose, one man’s castle, in one man’s
Dick Proenneke was retiring, or rather that is what he
called his self-imposed exile at 52 years old. He planned on hunting and
fishing as much as possible, searching the hillsides for wild plants, and supplementing this natural garden with a humble garden of his own. He wanted to
live in the Spirit of the Woodsman and live as simply as possible.
Babe Alsworth, a local bush pilot, had flown Dick and his
supplies to the new building site. His wife Mary had sent caribou sandwiches,
but she had also sent something far more important; she had given Dick some of
her sourdough starter.
He lovingly guarded the small pot of sourdough over the
rough trail to Twin Lakes, knowing it represented not only a profound
friendship, but the basis to most of the meals in the upcoming year, if not the
rest of his life.
From the earliest days in the exploration of Alaska, sourdough had been the most important ingredient in a pioneer's larder. Pinch biscuits,
pound cakes, powdered doughnuts, the famous hotcakes – all began each day as a
mixture of flour, water and wild yeast – bubbling away in a cherished pot.
Commercial baking yeasts were not available in the remote corners of the north
country, so the early explorers cultivated a wild yeast that they kept ever
ready in crocks warmed by camp fires, tin wood stoves or even their own body
If the starter was allowed to get cold – which was easy in
a country that often boasted temperatures of 40, 50 below zero – then the yeast
would go dormant, the lactobacilli slowing to a halt, unable to rise. Thus if
no warm hearth was available, the pioneer would keep a small portion close to
their body, guarded within the deep folds of their heavy garments until time to
cook the next meal. The term Sourdough these days often refers to someone who
has over-wintered in the North Country, but the nickname comes from when folks
often stored their wild yeast like a mother cradles her newborn to her breast.
In 1944 Babe and Mary Alsworth
homesteaded in a cove of the Lake Clark region, a wild country 170 miles due
west of Anchorage. Hardenburg Bay soon became known as Port Alsworth, as the
secluded spot became a refuge for stranded travelers and the reputation of the
Alsworths’ famous hospitality spread.
Good cooking contrasted the harsh environment. Fragrant
baked treasures born from the quiet bubbling of the Sourdough Pot, cheered many
a weary pioneer. If a traveler did not carry
his own starter, his host would share, and it was truly a gift that kept giving. Even a tablespoon of the yeasty
stuff could be carried to the next hearth and with a good feeding of flour would multiply into a healthy batter. The starter could be kept alive
indefinitely, passed down for generations, shared with countless friends and
strangers alike. It was a precious thread in the weave of the country’s
When Mary gave Dick a jar containing some of her ageless
sourdough starter, it was in the first load of gear he carried on his back to
the spot he had chosen to build a log cabin. For the next thirty years Dick
made the mountains, the valleys, the streams of the Twin Lakes his home. From
those first days, when his cabin still stood as trees in the woods, until he
left the area in his eighties – his sourdough pot was a key to not only his
survival, but a source of great joy.
Nearly every day began with sourdough flapjacks, and golden
brown sourdough biscuits accompanied nearly every meal. Dick carried flapjack
sandwiches of peanut butter and onions in his pockets as he roamed the
countryside and canoed the waterways. He found great contentment watching the
biscuits brown near the fireplace he had carefully crafted of stones carried from
nearby beaches - lovingly even photographing them!
Thanksgiving was crowned with sourdough shortcake;
Christmas was celebrated with the arrival of 50 more pounds of flour. In April
he picked cranberries that had over-wintered and made a sauce to compliment his
breakfast. “Now those sourdoughs would have an elegant topping in the morning,”
he wrote in his journal.
Dick Proenneke passed away in 2003 and his cabin was
absorbed into the Lake Clark National Park, becoming a remote mecca for many
who have read the beloved book on his first year in the area, One Man’s
Wilderness. But the story of his sourdough starter did not end at this
point, as he, like Mary, had shared his starter with others.
In the late fifties Jerre
Wills came North with $80 to his name and 3 children to
feed. He pinned his hopes on homesteading on the Kenai Peninsula. With help
from a fellow homesteader named Perre Osmar, he soon began carving his niche in
Alaska – building a log home and finding various ways to keep his family fed.
He turned to commercial fishing and for years chased crab, herring and salmon
around the Gulf of Alaska.
In the early sixties Jerre began looking for a way to make
a living between seasons of the sea. The ominous mountain range west of his
homestead had always enticed him, and one day he pointed his tiny Aeronca Champ
across Cook Inlet. He built a cabin on the shores of Twin Lakes and began
trapping and hunting Dall sheep, caribou, wolves and lynx.
Eventually Dick Proenneke became his neighbor, and one day
shared some of the sourdough starter he had gotten from Mary Alsworth. Jerre loved “the sourdoughs” made on the wood stove
in his tiny cabin on Twin Lakes and for over 40 years his sourdough has been a
Jerre never forgot the friendship of the Osmar family offered him during his first winters
struggling in Alaska; it was a bond that would last a lifetime. One day, years later, he was able to repay a
small fraction of their kindnesses by giving
Perre’s son, Dean Osmar, a jar of his cherished sourdough starter.
Dean Osmar was raised on the homestead in Clam Gulch. He grew up fishing for salmon off the beaches
of Cook Inlet which edged the family property. Eventually as a young man he
bought huskies and in 1984 he won the prestigious Iditarod Sled Dog race.
Dean lives in a Victorian mansion in a country known for
its log cabins. Perched high on a cliff there is a breathtaking view out of
every window of their home. Dean has been very successful both on the sea and
snow – an Iditarod champion and a modern-day salmon baron. Summers are spent fishing for wild salmon
with fragile nets suspended in the glacier fed waters, winters keep the couple
busy training sled dogs in the nearby Caribou Hills.
I had met the Osmars while working as a volunteer for the
Iditarod. On one spring visit, over a lively conversation that darted from
salmon to sled dogs, harnesses to outboards, boats to sleds -- we feasted on sourdough
hotcakes. After a multitude of compliments, they eagerly showed me their
sourdough pot and explained the basic care it required. Their enthusiasm was
contagious and when I left their house that morning, I gingerly cradled a jar
of starter in my hands; it was heading home with me to the island of Kodiak.
Over the following years I used and abused the starter.
There were times when every meal at my house was accompanied by some sourdough
product – often my experiments perplexing my family – smoked salmon waffles
with melted cheese, cookies with the ability to stretch twice their size – but
it was the hotcakes that captured the heart of everyone.
Each summer I moved to a remote camp to commercially fish
for salmon. Here I lived closely with young crews, often exposing them for the
first time to the treasures of Alaska. Kenny came from LA and had never eaten a
berry he had picked himself. Peter had never seen rivers filled with spawning
salmon. Sam had never smelled bear. Kathy had never cleaned her room. I proudly showed them the wonders of the
isolated bay I called home, and I taught them about sourdough.
A hundred pounds of pancake flour remained unused for
years, shoved with disdain into the darkest corner of the pantry. For months on
end sourdough pancakes were eaten every single morning. We developed a system,
mixing up the next days batter while today’s
cakes browned in the pans – that way the
starter was always ready and as convenient as the store-bought Alaska stand-by,
These days, while waiting for my flapjacks to cook, I often
think of the cherished moments that have blended together through the decades
from this single sourdough starter. I imagine it being served as biscuits by
Mary to stranded travelers at Lake Clark, the shortcake celebrating
Thanksgiving on Dick’s hand carved table, the double chocolate sourdough cake
Jerre proudly bakes. I picture the Osmars feeding pancakes to hungry dog mushers
up in the Caribou Hills. I smile to think how my own story can now be added to
theirs: the experiments, the waffles, the comforting sight of flapjacks at fish
camp ready to serve another crew another day.
I love being part of such a long tradition; I too have
shared this starter over the past few years, giving mason jars of this Alaskan
gold to friends and families. Now they are adding their stories to its history
as well. This sourdough starter is truly an heirloom and we can rest assured,
there will be no end to this story.