Building in an Ashen Land: Historic Resource Study
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IN MANY PARTS OF ALASKA during the early twentieth century, trapping was an important source of income for thousands of rural residents. The area in and around present-day Katmai National Park and Preserve was similar to much of the rest of Alaska in supporting these activities. From the 1920s through the 1940s, a number of individuals trapped in the rich fur-bearing Katmai country in the winter and worked as salmon fishermen at various Bristol Bay canneries during the summer.

To support their trapping lifestyle, these hardy, self-reliant individuals built cabins, ancillary structures, and traplines near lakes and rivers. Most of this construction took place in the northern and western portions of today's park. A 1931 expansion of the monument boundaries brought the trappers' way of life into conflict with the National Park Service's natural resource protection policies. This action eventually brought an end to the Katmai trappers' lifeway, and little trapping activity has taken place during the past fifty years. Although the time in which they were active was relatively brief, trappers were able to develop almost fifty cabins or cabin complexes within the present park and preserve boundaries. But evidence of their activity has been fleeting, and NPS cultural resources personnel have thus far identified in the field fewer than twenty of those sites.

Historical Trapping Patterns

Trapping and hunting in Katmai region has been traced back to prehistoric times, and during the historic period, trapping doubtless formed an integral part of the subsistence lifestyle of Katmai, Douglas, Savonoski, Kukak, and other area communities. (Some residents of those communities lived elsewhere during the summer; at the Brooks River mouth, for example, some Savonoski residents had long had a fish camp to take advantage of the remarkable salmon run.) Hunting, trapping, and fishing patterns in the Katmai region were dramatically altered by the June 1912 volcanic eruption. All settlements and camps were subsequently abandoned. Most residents no longer used monument resources, but those who were relocated to New Savonoski may have eventually drifted back into the monument and once again carried elements of their subsistence lifestyle. Other local residents, such as those from Naknek, never stopped coming to Katmai in order to participate in long-established traditional activities.

A local resident (either Martin Monsen, Jr. or John Monsen), in this circa 1940 photograph, poses at a cache in the Naknek Lake country. NPS-LACL Photo Collection, courtesy of Dorothy Berggren.

Most of the early National Geographic Society expeditions to Katmai approached the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes from Shelikof Strait, and in so doing they avoided the prime trapping country west of the Aleutian Range. But in 1919, an expedition visited the newly-designated monument from the west, and on that trip, participants identified two rude trappers' cabins. One belonged to a man named Buckley at "Island Bay" near the portage to Lake Grosvenor, while the other cabin, belonging to "Mr. Grant," was located on the portage between Naknek and Brooks lakes. [1] (Alex Grant may have been the man being referred to; in 1918, Grant discovered gold along American Creek.) The expedition members that year built a log cabin at the head of Naknek Lake to store goods during their trek to the volcanic area. That cabin remained for more than twenty years; more than a decade later, it was used by at least one trapper.

Before long an increasing number of men, primarily local residents, were attracted to the Katmai area's trapping possibilities. As noted in chapter 9, fur prices began to rise during and shortly after World War I, and the Katmai lake country—particularly the country surrounding Naknek and Brooks lakes—promised high trapping yields; as longtime Naknek resident Melvin Monsen noted, "In the 1920s, 1930s, and early 1940s, fur trapping was a more lucrative activity than was commercial salmon fishing in Bristol Bay waters." [2] By 1925, Stephen M. Scott had relocated to the area just south of Brooks River to commence trapping, and during the next six years four additional men—Verner Eckman, Roy Fure, John Hartzell, and John Monsen—also became actively engaged in the trade. [3] These men, all recently arrived immigrants, built one or more cabins as base camps for their itinerant lifestyle. These men typically trapped only during the seven- to eight-month winter when the pelts (commonly beaver and fox) were in peak condition. They would then return to Naknek. They would sell their furs at the R. Davey General Store, [4] and after the area's canneries reopened, they would spend the summer working as commercial fishermen. (Scott, in fact, was known as "Portland Packer Scotty" because he was affiliated with the Alaska Portland Packers cannery, which operated along the Naknek River from 1919 to 1933. [5])

barabara and cache
When Paul Hagelbarger of the 1918 National Geographic Society expedition visited "Tom's Bay" (Lake Brooks), they encountered this barabara and cache. University of Alaska Anchorage, Archives and Manuscripts Department, National Geographic Society Katmai Expedition Collection, Biox 4, 4104.

In April 1931, a proclamation signed by President Herbert Hoover more than doubled the size of Katmai National Monument. The proclamation stated that the expansion was needed to protect "features of historical and scientific interest and for the protection of the brown bear, moose, and other wild animals." The monument, at that time, had almost no visitation; thus the proclamation had no immediate effect on the monument's megafauna populations. The monument's new boundaries were moved sufficiently far west that each of the five trappers noted above were included. But they and other Naknek residents had scant knowledge of the monument expansion, and conditions continued as before.

High fur prices, and a continuing, active cannery presence, induced other local residents to trap in the Naknek Lake country. In the next five years, at least nine new trappers became established. Those nine included Gunnar Berggren, Paul Chukan, Alfred Cooper, Harry Featherstone, John "Frenchy" Fournier, Sigurd Lundgren, Richard Mitchell, Martin Monsen, and a man named Karvonen. These men were both Natives and non-Natives, and both recent and long-term U.S. residents. Most if not all were Bristol Bay residents who divided their year between the trap lines and the canneries. [6]

Trappers Leave the Monument

John Fournier
Above: John "Frenchy" Fournier was a Katmai-area trapper during the 1930s; he was one of several who left the monument as a result of the Kinsley investigation. Photograph taken in 1923 by Alyce C. Anderson, a Naknek teacher. Alyce Anderson Collection, LACL, courtesy of Theodore W. Anderson.

The trappers' lifestyle became endangered, however, beginning in 1936. Early that year an Alaska Game Commission (AGC) agent out of Dillingham, Hosee R. Sarber, visited Naknek and was surprised to find that "quite a number of trappers" were operating in the Naknek Lake-Lake Grosvenor country, most of whom were unaware that they were doing so within a national monument. Spurred on by that discovery, the AGC began patrolling the monument's Shelikof Strait coastline and found "several violators operating in and adjacent to the park." Word of the violations eventually found its way to NPS Director Arno Cammerer, but neither he nor anyone else could react to the problem until the Mount McKinley Superintendent agreed to dispatch a ranger to the area. But the visit was just a one-day flyover, and the trapping problem remained. As additional reports of violations continued to pour in, so the NPS asked the General Land Office to look into the matter. In January 1938, investigator A. C. Kinsley undertook the task. He visited Naknek that July and completed his report the following January. Kinsley, giving the trappers the benefit of the doubt, said that all those who had settled into the area prior to the 1931 proclamation had the legal right to continue living in the monument, even though they had never filed for legal rights to the land. But in an ironic twist, they were prohibited from trapping because that activity violated NPS regulations. Those who had entered the monument after the proclamation had no legal basis to either live or trap in the monument. [7]

When Supt. Frank Been and biologist Victor Cahalane visited the monument in the summer of 1940, they were pleased to discover no signs of active trapping; on the contrary, they saw several stripped cabins and abandoned caches. The trappers had apparently moved out of the Bristol Bay side of the monument. But as Cahalane soon discovered, the situation was different along Shelikof Strait. The biologist, along with an AGC agent, spent several days patrolling the coastline. He made no specific mention of active trappers; he did note, however, that it was "perfectly feasible for poachers to base their operations on any one of the numerous [offshore] islands while they may trap on the mainland of the monument with greatly enhanced chances of escaping detection." Cahalane, hoping to separate the legitimate fox farmers from any illegal trappers that might be in the area, suggested that the monument's boundary be extended two miles east into Shelikof Strait. But before the agency finalized its recommendation, it drafted the GLO's A. C. Kinsley to study the situation. Kinsley got the job in April 1941, and before long he discerned that only two men had any legal claims to the offshore islands: Earl Butler, whose Kiukpalik Island fox farm was legitimate (though of marginal economic benefit), and John A. Smith, who had acquired no foxes and otherwise seemed uninterested in fulfilling his fur farm lease. Kinsley, who relied for his information on visits by AGC agents, reported that Smith, under the guise of a fox farmer, was illegally trapping along the Shelikof Strait coastline. As a result of that investigation, Smith lost his fur farm lease in April 1942, and on August 4 of that year, President Franklin Roosevelt added all of the offshore islands to the monument. Those actions eliminated the trapping problem along the monument's eastern shoreline. [8]

Hammersly cabin complex
Believed to be Hammersly cabin complex, 1973. LCS Katmai file, AKSO.

Meanwhile, officials were beginning to discover that in the country west of the Aleutian Range, the quashing of trapping had been only temporary. With the onset of World War II and the resulting reduction in NPS funding, agency personnel had virtually no opportunity to see the monument for another five years, and in early 1947, a Fish and Wildlife Service agent informed the NPS that four men—one of whom was longtime trapper Stephen M. Scott—were living and trapping inside of the monument. The F&WS agent, with the NPS's blessing, arrested all four of the trappers, who pleaded their innocence based on their lack of knowledge of the monument's boundaries. All were released, but the following year additional trappers—Kirk Adkinson, Henry Nelson, and Jim Marlette—were spotted and arrested. Adkinson, furthermore, was convicted and incarcerated. When an F&WS agent returned in 1949, trapping was as active as in previous years, and he found one cabin that had been extensively used for trapping. But the activity was clearly winding down. NPS officials have noted few problems with illegal trapping since 1950, when they established an on-site management presence at Brooks Camp. [9]

The monument, which was managed on a bare-bones budget until the late 1960s, may well have hosted illegal trapping activity from time to time, although there was little economic incentive to harvest furs during this period. During the 1970s, a resurgence of fur harvest took place throughout Alaska, fueled both by rising prices and a newly-emerging "return to the land" syndrome; historian Melody Grauman notes that the latter condition resulted "from an environmentally conscious society and a recognition of [the] lost values of self-sufficiency and rugged individualism." One person, in pursuit of those values, settled just outside of the monument and spent most of the decade trapping in the American Creek watershed. [10] But when President Carter's 1978 proclamation incorporated huge new areas into the National Park Service system, more than a million acres on the margins of "old" Katmai National Monument were closed to trapping, and the recently-established trapper was obliged to leave. [11] Carter's proclamation and the subsequent passage of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act meant, quixotically, that trapping would be prohibited in both the old (pre-1978) and new portions of Katmai National Park; the activity could continue, however, in the newly-designated Katmai National Preserve. Since 1950, few if any illegal trappers have operated in the park; thus trapping has had few significant impacts on park resources.

As the above discussion has suggested, trapping activity took place in many parts of the present-day park and was prevalent for many years, particularly between 1925 and 1940. Perhaps the best known of these is Fure's Cabin complex, built by Roy Fure in 1926, which in 1985 was entered onto the National Register of Historic Places. In recognition of its historic value, the NPS restored the cabin in 1987-88 and the remainder of the complex in 1993-94. [12] Almost all of the remaining cabins, however, have severely deteriorated, and the site of many former trapping cabins has not yet been relocated. Because trapping was centered on three geographical loci, the various trapping sites will be discussed in that context.

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Last Updated: 22-Oct-2002