In the 1950s and 60s, when dairy farming was a major enterprise in the Matanuska Valley, it became necessary to find a way to cheaply feed non-producing cattle during the summer. A plan was formed to use a box canyon in the Talkeetna Mountains at the headwaters of the Little Susitna River. An old abandoned mining road followed the canyon floor, terminating at a steep rock cliff that formed the upper end of the box canyon near the old Fern Mine in Hatcher Pass. The Little Susitna River flowed along the entrance, where a bridge with a gate was built across the river, forming an effective fourth side to the natural corral.
The main advantage of the Susitna Range was it had plenty of lush grass available. Also, the elevation, cool air, and light breezes meant no mosquitos, a valuable consideration in Alaska. The cost was $1.00 per head, paid to the government, along with proper veterinary inspections and shots.
A few days before taking the cattle to the range was branding time. Harold Dinkel, a former Nebraska cowboy and neighbor, came over to help. He and my dad, Robert, wrestled our livestock to the ground and tied their feet together. A red hot branding iron taken out of the fire was applied to their right hips. I remember the smell of burning hair and flesh wafting across the area followed by loud bellowing. Dad was a small farmer, so he usually had no more than three or four head of cattle to brand with his Circle L. It was simply the letter L with a circle around it. My dad said it was the oldest brand in the Alaska Territory. Later, ear tags and tattoos were used, making branding obsolete. After Dad passed away, the brand was inadvertently allowed to expire, but I was able to renew Circle L and hand it down to my son.
Then the day would come when it was time to truck the cattle to their summer range. Early in the morning we arose, ate breakfast and packed a lunch. The old Studebaker, with the oil and antifreeze checked, was topped off with gasoline. Dad backed the truck up to a dirt mound and the cattle were driven to the loading area. If they were not trained to follow a lead it could be a problem to get them loaded. If pushing, pulling and gentle persuasion failed, a rope hitched to the tractor usually did the trick.
With the cattle loaded we drove off, headed for the Susitna Cattle Range, about twenty miles away, with the cattle stumbling and swaying in the back of the truck. Fishhook Road was dusty, narrow and winding. It became particularly narrow as it followed the Little Susitna River to the canyon. Often there were several trucks together headed north loaded with cattle. As we passed homestead houses, the trees became more scarce. After Pinnacle Rock, a popular landmark next to the river, the forest transitioned from trees to brush. Dad had to shift to a lower gear as we slowly gained elevation.
Finally we arrived at the turn off, near the Little Susitna Lodge, leading from Fishhook Road to the cattle range. From here we followed the old mining road, really just a one lane rutted trail, for a couple of miles to the unloading point. Dad drove the truck slowly making his way through the thick alders and across the bridge. Although a loading chute had been built to make unloading the cattle easier, some of the homesteaders just used a convenient hillside.
After unloading it was time to do a little socializing. This was done in a large cleared out area, also used for VFW picnics every summer. The farmers stood around in circles and talked. Lunches and snacks were unpacked. The cattle stood around for a time and then slowly started eating their way up the trail to the upper part of the box canyon. We finished our lunches and drove home to attend to summer work and await roundup time in the fall.
The short Alaska summer passed quickly and it was soon time to round up the cattle. Dad drove the old Studebaker truck back to the Susitna Range along the same route taken in the spring. At the Little Susitna Lodge we again turned off the main road onto the old abandoned mining road and slowly wound our way to the loading area. It wasn’t cool and sunny like in the spring, but rather, damp and cold.
The farmers organized themselves to drive the cattle down to the loading area. They would go in groups to the far end of the canyon. Some of them climbed higher up the sides of the mountain and they all worked together to drive the cattle down to the road that followed the canyon floor. With the help of salt blocks set out earlier to lure the cattle together, it only took a couple of hours.
Many of the cattle seemed to recognize their masters. They would come running to their owners bellowing and shaking their heads in excitement to renew acquaintances, and perhaps to beg for a ride home. Their appearance had changed. They were bigger and fatter from feeding all summer in the abundant grass and their hair had grown long and shaggy from the cool alpine weather. They would not be disturbed by the clouds of mosquitoes found at lower elevations.
At the bottom of the canyon and next to the river was the corral and loading chute. The cattle were sorted and loaded onto the trucks. Brands were difficult to see now because of the shaggy hair that had grown over the scars.
The ground was wet from rain and melted snow and soon turned into a muddy mess from spinning truck tires. Someone usually built a good fire from old dry alder. The wood burned down to make a nice bed of hot coals. Slow moving smoke permeated everything. It didn’t matter. Warmth feels especially good in the wet, cold weather.
Often there was a good supply of hot dogs to share. The farmers roasted them and enjoyed hot mugs of coffee and hot chocolate from pails set in the coals. Farmer talk followed. Prices and politics were discussed. The usual complaints about the government were bandied about. Everyone finally satisfied their grievances. Warmed bodies climbed into old battered trucks and drove off to prepare for the long Alaska winter that would soon follow.
Roger Lincoln arrived in Wasilla in 1950 when he was 3 years old. His parents homesteaded the property where Snowshoe Elementary School is now located off Fairview Loop Road. He graduated from Wasilla High School in 1965 and witnessed firsthand the area’s significant growth and change. After retiring from the Matanuska Susitna Borough School District as a computer/electronics technician, he and his wife, Nancy, relocated to Utah. He has a passion for preserving history and currently volunteers as a historical re-enactor at a living history site in Wellsville, Utah. Despite no longer physically living here, in his heart he considers Alaska home.
By Roger Lincoln