Forty Years in the Wilderness
More than 50 people crammed into the Athens Village Board meeting room on Monday night to hear Athens native Dolly Faulkner talk about her book, “Forty Years in the Wilderness,” presented by the Marathon County Athens Branch Library.
Faulkner moved to Alaska as a young woman, at age 23, with the dream of living in the wilderness and lived a life many can’t even imagine. Much of which is described in her self-published memoir.
“I always wanted to go to Alaska and I like winter and I had an interest in aviation when I left here [Athens],” Faulkner said. “I don’t like big cities and I wanted to see interior Alaska. I like the peace, quiet and serenity.”
On Monday Faulkner said she wrote the memoir to show how hard it is to make a life in the wilderness, but more importantly, to share her story of how a native corporation in Alaska is trying to take her home, her land, away from her.
“I wanted to make it a public issue,” she said about her battles with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA).
“I finally decided to share my life’s trials and triumphs with total strangers. I do this in hope that one of you can help me in my battle to save the home I have put my life’s efforts into.”
Faulkner said she went to Alaska where she met the man who eventually became her husband in Anchorage. At the time he, a pilot, was looking for a secretary for his air charter business. She took the job and eventually married him and they created their home in the wilderness of interior Alaska, named White Bear.
The home’s name comes from a white bear her husband saw in the valley near their home before they homesteaded. To this day, she said, there are white bears there that are not polar bears, and this summer a pair of white cubs were spotted nearby.
Faulkner’s closest neighbor is “40 air miles” away and she is accessible only through their private airstrip. Conditions are not favorable for flying every day. The nearest town is Bethel with a population of about 6,000.
The home at White Bear has no electricity, internet service or cell phone reception. Faulkner does use a satellite phone for emergencies. With limited wood fuel available near the home, which is needed for cooking, the family heats with water from a hotspring located about a quarter mile away. With permits allowing them usage of the hotsprings water, Faulkner’s husband engineered a home heating system utilizing the hot water available.
Faulkner’s sister-in-law Doreen Schultz, Athens, said when visiting Dolly they would run a bath and have to wait for the water to cool down before bathing.
The homestead is 27 acres and Faulkner said that hotspring is the home’s “heartbeat.”
Located on a fault line, Faulkner said tremors threaten their existence every year. This year she said there were 23 tremors in June and July. In her book, Faulkner describes one time when a tremor closed off the hotspring and they were left without heat as temperatures dipped to -80 degrees. Faulkner had to dig through more than 15 feet of frozen clods and rocks to get the water flowing again.
With no refrigeration, Faulkner hunts moose and caribou and traps beaver, then cans the meat. She also raises chickens for eggs and collects berries. In her garden she is able to grow potatoes, cabbage, broccoli, spinach and carrots and now, with the greenhouse she constructed with the help from her brother, Ed Schultz, she can grows things like tomatoes.
“I can a couple thousand jars of food each year,” she said.
She said the one thing she misses most is ice cream and cheese curds and added, “I gave up on beer a long time ago.”
Alcohol, she said, is not readily available because Bethel is dry. To import beer or liquor there is an $80 charge. That in addition to shipping costs, she said, “you realize you don’t really need it all that bad.”
She said she drinks water from a mountain stream and powdered milk.
In her limited free time Faulkner said she loves to read and enjoys sewing. She gets her world news via radio and mail takes about three to four weeks to receive.
Where she lives, Faulkner said there will be as little as four hours of daylight in the winter and as much as 24 hours in the summer.
“Would you do it again?” one person asked on Monday and Faulkner said, “I think so. There are some parts I’d like to change though,” she said in reference to her son’s 1996 suicide.
She said she plans to stay at White Bear as long as her health is good, but said she is hoping to never have to make a decision to leave.
One person in attendance Monday told Faulkner the feats she accomplished and the things she did to survive seem impossible, but she calmly responded with, “Everybody has a different story to tell and everyone has their hardships, many more difficult than mine.”
The issues Faulkner is currently facing, which threaten her home, stem from a 1971 Alaska Native Claim Settlement Act (ANCSA) which was signed into law by President Richard M. Nixon on Dec. 18, 1971. This claim was intended to resolve long-standing issues surrounding aboriginal land claims in Alaska, as well as to stimulate economic development throughout Alaska. The settlement established Alaska Native claims to the land by transferring titles to a dozen Alaska Native regional corporations and over 200 local village corporations.
Faulkner’s battle has been with the Calista Corporation, which as part of ANCSA, received patent for 4,997,263 acres from the federal government as well as approximately $80 million, making it the second largest corporation established under ANCSA.
The corporation has put a claim on the 27 acre homestead Faulkner and her husband created, as part of a 6,500 acre claim.
“We are still in limbo,” she said of the issue. “They are still trying to get that land and we are still fighting.”
“There is a lot of corruption going on there,” she said. In the book Faulkner said, as of 2009 the Calista CEO has a $283,000 annual salary but gave himself a $400,000 annual bonus for five consecutive years.
“This [ANCSA] was supposed to be settled 20 years later and here it is still going on 40 years later,” she said.
She said she is currently working on a second book but isn’t sure when it will be finished. The next book, she said, will focus on bush pilots, some about the land issues and some flashbacks of exciting times that weren’t in “Forty Years in the Wilderness.” Faulkner said she will also be featured in an eight-part series by National Geographic and did a piece for the Travel Channel.