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Home  >  History and Culture  >  Life in Alaska
An Alaskan Heirloom Sourdough Starter
By Lisa Frederic

In 1968 a small Cessna 180 dropped a man on the edge of a remote lake deep within the interior of Alaska. He methodically set about crafting the trees of the nearby woods into a home. Sawdust grew thick below his feet as walls of stacked logs rose, one man’s castle, in one man’s wilderness. 

Dick Proenneke was retiring, or rather that is what he called his self-imposed exile at 52 years old. He planned on hunting and fishing as much as possible, searching the hillsides for wild plants, and supplementing this natural garden with a humble garden of his own. He wanted to live in the Spirit of the Woodsman and live as simply as possible.

Babe Alsworth, a local bush pilot, had flown Dick and his supplies to the new building site. His wife Mary had sent caribou sandwiches, but she had also sent something far more important; she had given Dick some of her sourdough starter.

He lovingly guarded the small pot of sourdough over the rough trail to Twin Lakes, knowing it represented not only a profound friendship, but the basis to most of the meals in the upcoming year, if not the rest of his life.

From the earliest days in the exploration of Alaska, sourdough had been the most important ingredient in a pioneer's larder. Pinch biscuits, pound cakes, powdered doughnuts, the famous hotcakes – all began each day as a mixture of flour, water and wild yeast – bubbling away in a cherished pot. Commercial baking yeasts were not available in the remote corners of the north country, so the early explorers cultivated a wild yeast that they kept ever ready in crocks warmed by camp fires, tin wood stoves or even their own body heat.

If the starter was allowed to get cold – which was easy in a country that often boasted temperatures of 40, 50 below zero – then the yeast would go dormant, the lactobacilli slowing to a halt, unable to rise. Thus if no warm hearth was available, the pioneer would keep a small portion close to their body, guarded within the deep folds of their heavy garments until time to cook the next meal. The term Sourdough these days often refers to someone who has over-wintered in the North Country, but the nickname comes from when folks often stored their wild yeast like a mother cradles her newborn to her breast.

In 1944 Babe and Mary Alsworth homesteaded in a cove of the Lake Clark region, a wild country 170 miles due west of Anchorage. Hardenburg Bay soon became known as Port Alsworth, as the secluded spot became a refuge for stranded travelers and the reputation of the Alsworths’ famous hospitality spread.

Good cooking contrasted the harsh environment. Fragrant baked treasures born from the quiet bubbling of the Sourdough Pot, cheered many a weary pioneer.  If a traveler did not carry his own starter, his host would share, and it was truly a gift that kept giving. Even a tablespoon of the yeasty stuff could be carried to the next hearth and with a good feeding of flour would multiply into a healthy batter. The starter could be kept alive indefinitely, passed down for generations, shared with countless friends and strangers alike. It was a precious thread in the weave of the country’s backwoods communities.

When Mary gave Dick a jar containing some of her ageless sourdough starter, it was in the first load of gear he carried on his back to the spot he had chosen to build a log cabin. For the next thirty years Dick made the mountains, the valleys, the streams of the Twin Lakes his home. From those first days, when his cabin still stood as trees in the woods, until he left the area in his eighties – his sourdough pot was a key to not only his survival, but a source of great joy.

Nearly every day began with sourdough flapjacks, and golden brown sourdough biscuits accompanied nearly every meal. Dick carried flapjack sandwiches of peanut butter and onions in his pockets as he roamed the countryside and canoed the waterways. He found great contentment watching the biscuits brown near the fireplace he had carefully crafted of stones carried from nearby beaches - lovingly even photographing them! 

Thanksgiving was crowned with sourdough shortcake; Christmas was celebrated with the arrival of 50 more pounds of flour. In April he picked cranberries that had over-wintered and made a sauce to compliment his breakfast. “Now those sourdoughs would have an elegant topping in the morning,” he wrote in his journal.

Dick Proenneke passed away in 2003 and his cabin was absorbed into the Lake Clark National Park, becoming a remote mecca for many who have read the beloved book on his first year in the area, One Man’s Wilderness. But the story of his sourdough starter did not end at this point, as he, like Mary, had shared his starter with others.

In the late fifties Jerre Wills came North with $80 to his name and 3 children to feed. He pinned his hopes on homesteading on the Kenai Peninsula. With help from a fellow homesteader named Perre Osmar, he soon began carving his niche in Alaska – building a log home and finding various ways to keep his family fed. He turned to commercial fishing and for years chased crab, herring and salmon around the Gulf of Alaska.

In the early sixties Jerre began looking for a way to make a living between seasons of the sea. The ominous mountain range west of his homestead had always enticed him, and one day he pointed his tiny Aeronca Champ across Cook Inlet. He built a cabin on the shores of Twin Lakes and began trapping and hunting Dall sheep, caribou, wolves and lynx.

Eventually Dick Proenneke became his neighbor, and one day shared some of the sourdough starter he had gotten from Mary Alsworth. Jerre loved “the sourdoughs” made on the wood stove in his tiny cabin on Twin Lakes and for over 40 years his sourdough has been a constant companion.

Jerre never forgot the friendship of the Osmar family offered him during his first winters struggling in Alaska; it was a bond that would last a lifetime.  One day, years later, he was able to repay a small fraction of their kindnesses by giving Perre’s son, Dean Osmar, a jar of his cherished sourdough starter.

Dean Osmar was raised on the homestead in Clam Gulch.  He grew up fishing for salmon off the beaches of Cook Inlet which edged the family property. Eventually as a young man he bought huskies and in 1984 he won the prestigious Iditarod Sled Dog race.

Dean lives in a Victorian mansion in a country known for its log cabins. Perched high on a cliff there is a breathtaking view out of every window of their home. Dean has been very successful both on the sea and snow – an Iditarod champion and a modern-day salmon baron.  Summers are spent fishing for wild salmon with fragile nets suspended in the glacier fed waters, winters keep the couple busy training sled dogs in the nearby Caribou Hills.

I had met the Osmars while working as a volunteer for the Iditarod. On one spring visit, over a lively conversation that darted from salmon to sled dogs, harnesses to outboards, boats to sleds -- we feasted on sourdough hotcakes. After a multitude of compliments, they eagerly showed me their sourdough pot and explained the basic care it required. Their enthusiasm was contagious and when I left their house that morning, I gingerly cradled a jar of starter in my hands; it was heading home with me to the island of Kodiak.

Over the following years I used and abused the starter. There were times when every meal at my house was accompanied by some sourdough product – often my experiments perplexing my family – smoked salmon waffles with melted cheese, cookies with the ability to stretch twice their size – but it was the hotcakes that captured the heart of everyone.

Each summer I moved to a remote camp to commercially fish for salmon. Here I lived closely with young crews, often exposing them for the first time to the treasures of Alaska. Kenny came from LA and had never eaten a berry he had picked himself. Peter had never seen rivers filled with spawning salmon. Sam had never smelled bear. Kathy had never cleaned her room.  I proudly showed them the wonders of the isolated bay I called home, and I taught them about sourdough.

A hundred pounds of pancake flour remained unused for years, shoved with disdain into the darkest corner of the pantry. For months on end sourdough pancakes were eaten every single morning. We developed a system, mixing up the next days batter while today’s cakes browned in the pans – that way the starter was always ready and as convenient as the store-bought Alaska stand-by, Krusteaz.

These days, while waiting for my flapjacks to cook, I often think of the cherished moments that have blended together through the decades from this single sourdough starter. I imagine it being served as biscuits by Mary to stranded travelers at Lake Clark, the shortcake celebrating Thanksgiving on Dick’s hand carved table, the double chocolate sourdough cake Jerre proudly bakes. I picture the Osmars feeding pancakes to hungry dog mushers up in the Caribou Hills. I smile to think how my own story can now be added to theirs: the experiments, the waffles, the comforting sight of flapjacks at fish camp ready to serve another crew another day.

I love being part of such a long tradition; I too have shared this starter over the past few years, giving mason jars of this Alaskan gold to friends and families. Now they are adding their stories to its history as well. This sourdough starter is truly an heirloom and we can rest assured, there will be no end to this story.

Gallery of Images
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Dick building his cabin
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Dick at his cabin
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Dick eating blueberries
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Dick's cabin
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Babe and Mary Alsworth
Click here for all 13 photos in this gallery.

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