Jeff Brady: Alderworks Alaska – using the quiet power of Dyea to inspire writers and artists

Leigh Newman spent August in the Mary Jane cabin.  Photo by Elise Giordano

In August 1897, Alaska’s first literary icon landed on the
beach in Dyea at the beginning of his overland journey to the Yukon gold fields.  Jack London, then a 21-year-old adventure-seeker,
found among Dyea’s clustered beach of dogs and humanity the beginnings of a
story, and then headed up the Chilkoot Trail to more stories that would ignite
a writing career.

The most famous canine in literature, Buck of The Call
of the Wild
, found the beach scene a “nightmare” with “neither peace, nor
rest, nor a moment’s safety.” From the human point of view, character Jack
Tarwater in the story “Like Argus of the Ancient Times” described it this way:
“The beach was screaming bedlam. Ten thousand tons of outfits lay heaped and
scattered, and twice ten thousand men struggled with it and clamoured about
it.” The nearly penniless old man found it more peaceful further up the trail where
he camped by the river, saved a man from drowning, and found a partner to help
him carry on.
Dyea (pronounced die-ee, Tlingit for “to pack”) and the
Chilkoot still have that kind of power to inspire stories and partnerships,
despite changes brought to the valley over the years.
The Bea cabin with its signature curled beams on West Creek. Photo by Jeff Brady

Transformed from a centuries-old Tlingit fishing and trading
village into a “city” of thousands, Dyea boomed and busted in less than a year.
The Tlingit, while profiting from carrying gear over the pass, found that their
land would never be the same. Nearly every tree in the valley had been cut down
to build the town. After the stampede, the buildings were either moved over to nearby
rival Skagway, which had survived as a railroad town, or were left to fall down
and be taken over by fast-growing alders, willows and cottonwoods.

Dyea was mostly abandoned, except for just a few white and
Native homesteaders. In time, the area would discover a new life as a favorite picnic
and recreation area for Skagwayites who first traveled over by boat. Many more visitors
came after a coastal road was built to the ghost town in the 1940s. Talk of protecting
Dyea and the Chilkoot culminated in the area becoming part of Klondike Gold
Rush National Historical Park in 1976.
These days, much of the land is as it was before the gold
rush. Spruce and hemlock forests that were leveled during the gold rush have
come back strong. Visitors to Dyea enjoy seeing the seals, otters and salmon
swimming the river, eagles and herons on the flats, and the occasional bear. Locals
still drive over to run their dogs on the tide flats. Back in the trees live a
dozen or so residents, serving more like caretakers to their surroundings.
My wife Dorothy and I love the quiet of Dyea, but property in
the valley rarely comes up for sale.  So
when we found out that the owner of her aunt and uncle’s old 1950s homestead
along West Creek was thinking about selling, Dorothy arranged to caretake the
place. After we lived there for a summer, we made an offer and purchased the
property in 2011.
I had been searching for a place to help restore my writing
creativity after running a newspaper for three decades, and Dorothy had certainly
found her landscape as a watercolor artist and gardener.  But there was so much to be done.
The cabins were filled with more than a foot of silt from
the 2002 West Creek Glacier flood event. Seven miles up the valley, a lateral
moraine had been undercut on its back slope, causing it to fail and slough into
the lake at the foot of the glacier. On a beautiful July morning, a wall of
water tore down the canyon to Dyea, and the West Creek property was the first
hit. One cabin was spun off its foundation and carried a couple hundred feet.
The others survived, but after a decade, there was significant rot in logs that
had been submerged under four feet of water for days, and no one had dealt with
the silt.
We could have torn the old cabins down, but we appreciated
their history too much. Dorothy’s mom remembered bringing the kids out on
weekends to stay in the cabin by the creek. We would call that one Bea, after
her.  There were photos of parties in the
Sixties at Dorothy’s aunt and uncle’s cabin across the meadow. We would call
that one Mary Jane, after her aunt. Her Uncle Ed’s small workshop would be
better if it were made livable and moved to a clearing by the garden, but we
would call it Margaret, after my mom. Then, what to do with them after we
shoveled them out?
About this time, the North Words Writers Symposium had
germinated in Skagway, and I was part of the organizing faculty. The buzz
around North Words and the emergence of wonderful new work by Alaskan writers
was amazing. This spawned an idea for something more, turning the cabins into a
retreat for writers.
There are many wonderful artists and musicians working in
our region, so we also wanted to see the cabins available for those crafts.
Dorothy’s watercolors were sold under the name Alderworks, stemming from her
days of making furniture from alder branches. We liked the name and just added
to it.
We called home the father-son log construction team of Steve
and Orion Hanson to restore the cabins for summer residencies by writers and
artists. A bath house was also constructed from cottonwood and spruce logs on
the property.  The project took three
summers. Each cabin has its own character, and they are simple and functional.
Put to use by a few Alaska and Yukon writing friends over the past year, the
cabins have passed the test and are now ready for next summer’s residencies.
We decided to have two residency periods of 4-6 weeks each
to give people plenty of time to get settled and do quality work, and we have
kept the fees low to make staying at Alderworks affordable. We view it as a
creative partnership.
“The idea is simple enough,” says our vision statement:  “give writers and artists a quiet, beautiful
spot to create or enhance their works, and wonderful things will happen.”
The application period opened on November 15 and will
conclude on January 15. There is no fee to apply, so we hope to see a lot of
interest from Alaska, the Yukon and elsewhere. Testimonials, cabin photos and descriptions,
residency guidelines, and information about how to apply online may be viewed at

Brady is a writer, editor, publisher, bookseller, and cabin caretaker from
Skagway and Dyea.

2 thoughts on “Jeff Brady: Alderworks Alaska – using the quiet power of Dyea to inspire writers and artists”

  1. I saw the cabins while they were being finished, and this is a beautiful, serene place to write. I highly recommend it!

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