Honer Homestead

The idea to put this story to page was one borne from a conversation I had with my Dad one afternoon during deer season in 2019.  Every year I return to my parents’ farm in northern Minnesota to sit patiently, quietly in the woods while the world moves around me in a cautious state, some aware of my presence and most others completely oblivious to my observing their every move.  It is during these hours and days of solitude in the woods that I start to make room in my life for improvements and loftier goals.  I am often moved to tears reading books in those deer stands as my mind is allowed to run free from ambient and electronic noise.  Against conventional wisdom I spend at least 50% of my time in the deer stand reading – my Dad can’t understand why I do it, but then again he’s never had a good reason to urge me otherwise.  I’ve killed plenty of deer after turning a page.

The book that had enraptured me this past November was ‘Flight of Passage’ – about two young brothers who set off on an epic flight from New Jersey to Los Angeles in a Piper Cub they rebuilt over the winter in their family barn.  It was the 1960’s and well before air traffic had congested the skies over America – these boys were flying free (without a radio) and by visual reference only as they puttered across this massive expanse of land.  The story conjured up memories from my childhood and adventures taken with my brother and family.  We never did anything quite so daring as these New Jersey boys but our lives were filled with fantastic memories that could easily fill pages in a good yarn.  I implored my Dad to read this book – but I think the reality of his flying days being over was too painful to wax nostalgic with some similar boys of his youth in a book that he would have to set time aside to read.  Instead he started to tell me about his neighbor, Bill Honer.  Bill lived just down the road and had been helping my folks with their maple syrup operation in the spring.  For the uninitiated, maple syrup is derived from copious hours of evaporation in a ‘sugar shack,’ requiring the constant vigilance of a cook.  It is during these long days of boiling sap that my father came to know his neighbor and friend. 

Bill was full of stories – and my Dad is one of the best listeners I know.  They must have chewed the fat for days on end in that shack, my father doubled over with laughter realizing this man’s tales were impossibly true – his twin brother Fred would ultimately vouch for it all, adding a few unbelievable and incredible stories to the mix. 

Dad started conveying some of these anecdotes probably as a response to my egging him on about this great book I was reading.  It was of course easier to laugh than to reminisce, and so he did his best to retell some of the more fantastic events, the most notable being the Brothers’ joint odyssey into the Alaskan Bush to homestead along the Stony River, south of the mighty Kuskokwim drainage.  The timing was probably the early 70’s by Dad’s estimation of Bill’s age – a time when American youth were casting off onto the last Great American Walkabout. 

The country was embroiled in the Vietnam War era and distrust of the government was at an all-time high, especially for college-aged men and women who were affluent enough to abscond to a different fate.  Alaska was indeed the most extreme and taunting place for two hardened farm kids from outside St. Cloud, Minnesota who weren’t planning to attend college.  Raised in a strict Catholic family, Bill and Fred Honer understood that work came before play, and anything extra was a tithe to the Church.  Their father was a staunch figure in their upbringing and taught the boys to be resourceful and honest.  After graduating high school, they started their own drywall business to capitalize on the high demand for all construction trades during the housing boom that was happening in St. Cloud.  According to Fred, “There were three drywallers in town during those days, us and two other guys – and they were drunks.”  And so business boomed and the Brothers saved their money.

Periodically Bill would take off for San Diego to see their brother, _______, who was a Navy Corpsman stationed with the Marines.  The trip from St. Cloud to San Diego was indeed a cross country adventure, sidelined by a few forays into Texas and Mexico that once resulted in a warrant being issued for Bill’s arrest by the infamous Texas Rangers.  These arduous journeys were simply fodder for the fire brewing in the boys’ hearts – they had almost made a mockery of travel throughout the Lower 48 by the time Alaska beckoned for them.  By the time they were in their early 20’s they had enough money and moxie to embark on the most audacious trip of their collective lives, inside a converted electrician’s van that was initially heated by a wood burning stove that would one day blow up under their immediate supervision, somehow leaving only soot and a good laugh to be shared with anyone who would believe these guys.

Although Bill and Fred grew up in a rural community they were not alone in their quest for a great walkabout.  Dewey was maybe a year or two older in school and had taken off for Alaska a couple years before the boys decided to head north.  His love for sled dogs and apparent isolation was strong and requisite to sustain a life in the bush.  During a trip back to Minnesota in the winter of 1973 Dewey regaled the Honer Brothers with details of his life as a homesteader.  He even found a girlfriend who was crazy enough to strike out with him on this bold adventure, a fellow lover of sled dogs and solitude.  They had friends in the bush and in Anchorage – in fact there was even a plot of land available to anyone willing to work for the patent offered by the BLM.  The offer was irresistible to Bill and Fred.  They weren’t loving hanging drywall and cold was cold anyhow – why not exchange Minnesota for Alaska?

The plan to move to the bush didn’t take long to materialize.  Dewey was making it happen and he was just one guy – these brothers were two in one, stronger than three men and stubborn enough to think there was no other way.  The challenge was set and their minds were made up.  Provisions could be acquired in Anchorage but that was still a few thousand miles away.  The journey to Anchorage alone would test the nerve and tolerance of most hardened travelers, especially during January in 1974, before the Alcan Highway was paved over.  It never occurred to them that summer would be a more convenient time to make such a trek, especially in a jalopy van, but that would mean more wasted time at home working to earn money they’d never need in the bush. 

When the time had come to leave for the frozen north the brothers said goodbye to their friends and family, took some last advice from their father and made haste for the border.  The drive would take four days to traverse Manitoba, Saskatchewan, the Northwest Territories, the Yukon and finally to the eastern border of Alaska.  They had embarked on a one-way mission, never lending thought to passing these routes south.  The characters they met along the way were on similar walkabouts, testing their mettle where most sane travelers wouldn’t dare venture.  Their focus was honest and simple – they weren’t opportunists or capitalists or scholars, but rather the sinuous fiber of American youth at the time.  They were pursuing a dream to strike out on their own against odds that seemed obvious enough to prevent thousands of others from trying it. 

Upon arrival in Anchorage they set out to exhaust their meager funds on whatever they would absolutely need to survive in a frozen and endless wilderness.  Their choice of timing would prove fortuitous since the only way to access the bush is by plane or boat, the latter not a great option if the former was available.  Bush pilots convert their planes’ undercarriage from floats or wheels to skis in the winter, opening vast opportunities to land where it would otherwise be impossible during summer months.  Accessibility is greatly improved but allowable cargo remains scant.  The haul out to their new homestead site would require six different trips, the final flight carrying Fred and their second canoe.  Sleetmute is a lonely outpost on the north bank of the Kuskokwim River and serves as a critical outpost for the inhabitants of the bush, both homesteaders and native Alaskans alike.  The rivers are frozen solid during the long winter months, creating a vast network of highways and byways for the local sled dog teams.  It would require a few trips behind these amazing animals to transport Bill and Fred’s precious belongings to the proposed homestead site, which of course didn’t offer any shelter or structure.  Dewey offered his unfinished cabin to the Brothers while they took time to carefully locate their new homesites and plan for the requisite cultivation for acquiring a homestead patent.  Food provisions would last them through the remaining winter months but they would need to hunt, trap and catch their meat, something that would prove far more difficult than they would initially believe possible.  It would be a difficult existence from Day 1.

Despite their obvious solitude and blatant separation from society a community did exist among the dwarfed Spruce trees and frozen tundra that was to become their new home.  A young couple from Oregon, Dan and Sylvia lived in a cabin perhaps a ½ mile distant.  They welcomed their new neighbors with open arms and an open dining table, but the boys were relegated to finishing Dewey’s cabin if they wanted a reliable shelter.  Fortunately trees don’t freeze and an axe in the hands of an accomplished farmer or woodsman can be set to prosperous work any day of the year.  They skinned felled logs by hand employed a whipsaw to mill floorboards. When Dewey’s cabin was near complete they were free to begin work on their own cabins and smoke house. 

Building a safe and sound structure is paramount to survival – right next to the acquisition and retention of water and food.  Dan and Syl had been surviving on melted snow, which Fred and Bill thought ridiculous since their cabin sat so close to the Stony River, albeit slightly ensconced in ice at the present time.  One afternoon soon after they first arrived Bill and Fred set to work chopping a hole in the ice to fetch fresh water.  Most people would have stopped chopping after the hole required widening to fit an upright man who stands 6’ tall – but the boys kept chopping until they finally struck water, some seven feet closer to the riverbed.  The hole would serve as a water well and a means for catching fish, except they only found about two inches of unfrozen water below the suffocating layer of ice.  So fishing was out of the question, but they had been resourceful enough to create a wellspring for their tiny community, which they covered with tarps to keep open until the mighty breakup came in the spring. 

As previously disclosed, hunting proved less than fruitful despite seeing a moose close to camp on their first couple days in country.  The moose escaped unharmed and perhaps was a fleeting omen that rarely does a free meal come around twice in one winter.  A few grouse and hares would supplement their meager diet but for the most part it was beans and rice for several months.  Dan and Syl shared their pathetic supplies as well to create an equal if not utopian community under the northern lights and the boys did the same.  Then one day Dan left for Anchorage to bring remedy to some dental malady and never returned.  He left his girlfriend alone in the bush with these two young Minnesota farmers, obviously not caring to live out his exhausted dream of raising a family on a homestead. 

In the event of a true disaster the boys carried an emergency locator beacon, commonly used in aircraft to alert overhead traffic of an emergency on the ground.  The idea was if the shit really hit the fan, they could activate the beacon and simply wait for help.  This device wasn’t a radio – it was merely a means of broadcasting a signal to passing pilots who are required by law to at least report and if possible investigate the source.  In a world where people now call 911 to report late pizza deliveries it is unfathomable to think of the extent of emergency or tribulation that must have occurred to require such an action. 

One of the surprises awaiting the Brothers at Dewey’s cabin were two sled dogs, Willow and _____.  Dewey had apparently left these dogs in the care of Dan and Sylvia when he last left for Anchorage and he expected Bill and Fred to care for them upon their arrival, perhaps in exchange for free rent in his floor-free cabin.  Feeding themselves was a constant hinderance and now they had two additional stomachs to fill.  Unfortunately for the dogs some of their meals were recycled from Bill and Fred but they survived the winter and were healthy enough to haul logs and materials that the boys desperately needed to get to their building sites.  Willow demonstrated an ever-expanding appetite and it was obvious there were going to be more stomachs to fill.  Dewey’s sled dog team was growing without his supervision and the Honer Brothers were soon in care of a litter of pups.  Aside from their four-legged brood they had pilfered a wild young goose that was more faithful than any dog they’d ever met.  The goose turned out to be an excellent mosquito trap once the winged devils took to their annual onslaught of anything warm blooded.

Unbeknownst to the boys an erosive undercurrent was at play to the east in Anchorage while they were diligently chopping trees and fighting to survive their first winter in the bush.  Their neighbor to the south was Richard Nevitt, at least on paper.  He had abandoned his belongings inside a tent that had collapsed under the predictable weight of snow during that winter of ’73-’74.  Fred and Bill rummaged through the items careful to preserve anything of importance to their survival or of possible value to Mr. Nevitt.  It appeared that they were going to be more successful than he had been by the look of things around his property.  Rumor had it that he had thrown in the towel and retreated for the safety and security of civilization as so many had done before him.  His failure was nothing less than encouragement for their drive to succeed at this gargantuan task of cultivating a life from a stingy and spongy landscape.

As the days grew longer and the temperatures climbed higher into the twenties and thirties the mighty breakup began in earnest.  It starts at the lower elevations and creeps up the rivers and streams bringing renewed life to everything frozen in suspense.  Icebergs the size of school busses start their voyage to the lower reaches and confluences of other rivers and ultimately the river deltas in the ocean.  Water begins to cascade from slopes and hills and mountains, forming spontaneous riparian courses over a bewildered expanse.  The breakup signals the salmon to start their fateful voyage up the rivers from their staging areas along the coastline, beginning with the legendary Chinook.  These behemoths battle their way up rivers and streams in search of the exact spot where they were propagated, stopping only to rest momentarily, never taking a break to eat.  Their last meal was somewhere in the saltwater, providing for enough energy to make the epic journey.

Native Alaskans have employed nets to capture salmon for eons – it is a terribly effective way to arrest their forward progress and to bring relief to the depleted stores of dried fish the locals depend upon for survival.  Some of these Chinook salmon can weigh close to 100 pounds and are considered the finest fish of all the Alaskan waters.  Other salmon species like Pinks and Chum are prized for their use in dog food in these communities, but the Chinook feed the people.  The Kuskokwim is one of the largest drainages in western Alaska, visible on a satellite map running almost parallel to the Yukon which begins its journey almost twice the distance to the east in Canada.  The Stony River, where the Honer Brothers were encamped, meets the Kuskokwim west of Stony River village and east of Sleetmute.  It is a good-sized river that attracts massive salmon runs and a means to a more stable existence.  The allure of salmon fishing in Alaska brings thousands of anglers to the state every year with rods and reels in tow, but Bill and Fred didn’t have the time or patience to catch fish like a ‘sportsman’ – they needed to capture as many fish as possible for their drying racks and a net was a proven means to success.

With warmer weather and a wealth of resources for even the most feeble homesteader, Bill and Fred set to completing their personal homesites with Fred’s cabin and the smokehouse the first of their collaboration.  Every tree was felled with an axe and every corner was notched with the same implement.  They skinned logs by hand and skidded each new course to the jobsite atop more skinned logs that were slick to the touch as sap oozed out.  They laid down earthen roofs for each building, using the bounty of gravel that lie just a few inches underfoot to provide weight and a good foundation for what may grow in time to come.  Security from bears and wolves was a real consideration and their buildings stood firm against the elements.  They had graduated from eating rice and beans and moldy oatmeal to a daily supply of dried fish and smoked & jerked moose meat.  The latter eventually came to them in the spring and the animal provided meat for everyone they knew, including some natives who occasionally ventured down or upriver from their camp on the Stony. 

With the constant presence of giant Brown Bears the Brothers were wary of storing their dried fish or meats too close to their cabin, so they erected the drying shack on the opposite side of the Stony River to discourage unwanted guests.  It didn’t take long for one or more of the local bears to sniff out this wealth of free food and it threatened their survival if not dealt with accordingly.  A trap was set one day for the prowler and their scheme worked a little too well.  The bone chilling sounds of an enraged Brown Bear filled the river valley one evening well past dark and the boys knew their trap was sprung – the bear would need to be dispatched and that meant they had to cross the river at night.  As they carefully paddled across to the opposite shore they could tell the bear was wreaking havoc on their fish drying operation but they couldn’t actually see what was unfolding a short distance from the cut bank.  Bill took their only rifle onto shore but wisely turned back a short distance later, opting to execute the mission and the bear under better visibility.  The next morning they returned to find their fish shack completely destroyed along with some pathetic remnants from the bear’s meal.  They had mistakenly secured the snare to a pole that was too close to the drying shack and therefore the bear had plenty to take out it’s frustration against.  This was a devastating blow to their enterprise at a time when they needed to be storing as much fish as possible.  Rebuilding wasn’t an option, it was a necessity.

After the boys had been in country for a few months word spread of their resilience and fortitude and people started reaching out to seek their assistance in all matters of interest.  One gentlemen had concocted a scheme to bring Whitefish to market in Anchorage, but would clearly need help with transporting and logistics – would they be interested?  Another neighbor wrote to them asking for help with his homestead, claiming someone had attempted to ‘claim jump’ him.  The local Inuit elder asked Bill if he wanted to take a native wife, one of his daughters.  Fortunately for Bill he was already enjoying the private company of Sylvia, who apparently wasted no time replacing her former Oregonian beau.  This also must have afforded Bill some time to delay in building his own cabin, as Fred’s was nearly complete before site prep work began for Bill. 

Summer was in full swing by the time the Trooper and Nevitt showed up.  They’d been working up to some sort of finale that no doubt would have involved the Troopers had any number of the boys’ schemes come to fruition.  Nevitt had been encroaching on their home sites more and more with each passing week and he was likely ignorant to their potential.  Fortunately for them all Nevitt was wise enough to come back in the protection of a State Trooper after he had petitioned to have the boys kicked off what he now claimed was his property.  It was simple mistake, that’s all – boundaries were drawn incorrectly and therefore subject to a re-draft.  And conveniently Fred’s sturdy cabin sat right in the middle of the newly portioned boundaries of Nevitt’s homestead.  Details are murky, but the end of the road was standing before them as the Trooper advised them to pack up and head down river, they were technically squatting on someone else’s land.  Nevitt agreed to pay Fred $500 for the cabin he had worked so hard to build from scratch – which according to the Trooper wasn’t even required to clear them off his land, so it was a pretty good deal and Fred should take it, which he did.  Apparently that $500 bought their first case of beer in many months from ______’s place in Sleetmute – they paid $18 for those twenty four beers, equivalent to about $97.88 in 2019 money.  They had drank the entire case before they got back to camp.

Four months in country – that’s all they had to pursue their dream of being homesteaders before they were usurped by what was probably a scantily staffed BLM office tasked with reviewing such matters.  The whole program of homesteading was ill-conceived, yielding more confusion than anything for the local and indigenous peoples who have populated and propagated that land for hundreds if not thousands of years.  The US Government carved out bazaar tracts of land to deed for homesteaders who would promised to work the land to build sound structures and cultivate crops.  The original program was supposed to expire in 1974 but was extended to 1978, most likely because the land wasn’t being occupied and worked over to the standards the government envisioned.  In fact, the last registered homestead patent ever granted by the US Government was to Ken Deardorff in 1988 – but he had filed for his patent in 1978 just before the final deadline – making his patent the last ever awarded despite it came a decade after he applied.  Ken was the very same man who sent a letter to Bill and Fred, asking for help with the claim jumper on his property.  Ken Deardorff was a helicopter pilot in Vietnam and was missing a leg by the time he showed up to start work on his homestead with his young family – not that a missing appendage would prevent this man from doing what was required of him by his country.  He satisfactorily cultivated his land and eventually moved to McGrath, AK to provide a more solvent means for his family.  He was named ‘Trapper of the Year’ in 2010, over 30 years after he relocated to the bush.  Ken Deardorff embodies the fortitude required to subsist in this cruel yet beautiful environment, and he represents perhaps 1% of the thousands of starry eyed homesteaders who actually made a life out of something free from the government. 

When it came time to leave their temporary home they chose to take a couple of the pups with them, one of which made it all the way back home to Minnesota, where the boys were now men and they carried on with their respective lives.  Fred admits now that they were ready, although reluctantly, to leave the bush.  It was more than they imagined it would be, they were tired, hungry and angry.  Home made more sense than whatever had transpired back on the Stony River, and they had come out relatively unscathed.  Nevitt was still alive thanks to his probably paranoia and he would continue to lobby for his patent, finally being rejected by the BLM and Dept of the Interior in 19___ – court documents show that there were two complainants on file disputing his right to his land or any of the nefarious tracts around his original parcel.  Those two were Libby Riddles and Dewey ______ – they ultimately prevailed and prevented Nevitt from acquiring his patent. 

Libby Riddles went on to become the first female winner of the infamous Iditarod in 1985, never giving up on her passion for sled dogs and racing, an obsession she carried from an early age in Wisconsin where she witnessed her first sled dog sprint race at the age of 16 – her life’s purpose was pretty clear after she moved to Alaska.  She too represents the finite percentage of homesteaders who achieved what she had come for.

When I interviewed Fred and Bill for this story it was in a race for time – Bill had succumbed to the rigors of his cancer and was bound to a wheelchair and difficult to understand without a lot of patience.  He has difficulty finding his words but you can see his eyes flash with memories as he tries to express a simple thought.  He laughs more than he shows frustration, despite what must be torture for a man who has so much to say.  Fred is a man that you might get a nod or a hello from but I doubt he’s too jovial with strangers.  I felt honored to have these two men sit in my parents living room and try to convey their incredible story to me.  Fred brought their journal and a box of slides from their trip – items he’d stashed away for over 40 years, quite possibly afraid to revisit until now.  Bill’s son, Frank joined them during this visit and interview, partly to help get his Dad around but I think it was so he could hear these men tell stories he’d never heard before.  He sat back with arms folded behind his head, soaking it all in.  He was patient with his Dad and would laugh hysterically when a good story would materialize.  He claimed to have never heard most of this, so I felt doubly honored by his admission. 

My initial focus was the homestead – I was under the impression that these guys were out there for a few years making a go at it, and I must admit a bit disappointed when I computed the timeline – four months?  That’s it?  But the stories just started coming and I realized the subject wasn’t the homestead but rather the Walkabouts these men embarked upon in their youth.  Fred recounted a story of hitchhiking from San Diego back to Minnesota one winter.  He started in trucks, moved into some freight trains headed east and eventually got picked up in Wyoming by a Montana sheriff who was too hung over to drive home from a conference he had been attending.  He told Fred to keep it on the speed limit and to wake him when the 8 hour trip was over, to which the sheriff summarily dismissed young Fred Honer outside of town to find his own way home. 

When Fred and Bill returned to Anchorage they brought one of the canoes with them and Fred still uses it to this day.  They were desperate for money to get home so any job looked promising, even unloading boxcars full of nitroglycerine to a depot that had already once exploded and leveled every tree for a mile.  It was perhaps the only time the boys quit a job on the same day they started. 

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