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His First & Last Frontier

His First & Last Frontier

An Alaskan cowboy’s challenging life during the first 50 years of statehood
© Ron Levy 2017

Shiner gives his rescuer a lifetime of thanks for saving his life

“The grizzly bear lifted him up and slammed him down on the ground. Broke his back in several places”. That’s how Mark Hall describes Shiner, the Aussie-Shepherd-Springer mix that he saved from near death. Shiner still runs around, albeit a bit slower these days, and showers his owner with the deep gratitude that comes from the gift of ten bonus years of life.
Born breech and dyslexic in 1945 (“I should have been Hall Mark”), he was a Seneca Indian raised by his mother as a Lutheran in upstate New York. Mark’s father, split from his mother early in his childhood, moved up to Alaska before Mark could really forge any sort of relationship with him. Perhaps this may have planted the seeds of independence early on in his life to venture out and explore new frontiers.
He remembers fondly one of his schoolteachers, George Calvin, who was the last from the original Cavalry. George lived until 2008, when he died at the age of 87.
At ten years old, Mark learned that his father had been killed in a plane crash while returning from a DEW site in King Salmon, Alaska. A few years later, he decided to move to Tucson, where, in 1960, he became the first boy to receive a Big Brother in that city.
In high school, Mark played every other sport available, including basketball, discus throw, and football, where he became the captain of the team. He also learned Emergency Medical training, which was to help him numerous times throughout his Alaskan adventures.
Three days after graduation from high school, he decided to drive to Alaska. The year was 1968, and oil was booming in the north. Jobs in every field were hiring. He arrived in North Kenai on his eighteenth birthday, ready and willing to do anything that put food on the table.
“I worked up the slope and down the chain” commercial fishing and working in a cannery, dude ranching, latching pipe, hauling wood, roughnecking on the North slope, teaching, coaching hockey, guiding moose hunts, and working as a journeyman-electrician. While hauling moose meat on guided hunts (“Alaska was run by guides originally”), Mark packed 51 moose from Tustumena hills on the Kenai Peninsula, including one double palm rack that weighed over 90 pounds.
In the early days of the Kenai River salmon runs, before regulations were codified, Mark and his friends used to tie gillnets onto spruce poles and dipnet salmon out of the river.
He reminisces about the good ol’ days commercial fishing in Barren Strait in his 20′ skiff. “At one time we musta seen over 100 orcas all around us.” Another time he was in a 32′ seiner when they were approached by about 30 gray whales. “They came up and started bumping into the boat, trying to knock barnacles off their backs. At one point, they actually picked up the boat and it started to roll. We thought we were going in the drink.” By some stroke of luck, or perhaps whale intuition, the boat rocked back and stayed afloat.
During his journeyman- electrical stints, in addition to sometimes working in 200 mph winds, he helped rescue 8 workers from powerline electrocutions.
Eventually, dude ranching seemed to resonate with his heart more than anything else. At 26, he opened Strawberry Stables on the Kenai. In addition to herding cattle all over the state, he guided and taught hundreds of newbies the skills needed to hunt and survive in the far north. He’s trained hundreds of ranch-hands and thousands of kids all about horseback riding, outdoor skills and ranching. He reflects on the fine art of ranching: “As a dude herder and guide, you end up with a psychology degree”.
Amidst all the trials and tribulations of living an Alaskan lifestyle during the early childhood of a newly formed state, Mark managed to have a few children of his own. Twenty-four to be exact. All are still alive today, except for two. One was killed by police during an altercation with firearms. Another killed himself after learning that his wife had aborted.
This cowboy’s crusty facade belies his tender heart beneath. In his nearly 70 years on this planet, Mark’s life has had more twists and turns than his weathered face reveals. From his dyslexia (“I’ve never read one book all the way through”) to his father’s and sons’ deaths, he’s always found a way to march on and live the outdoor life of his dreams.
He sums it up casually with a simple observation: “No matter how tweaked you are, we’re all first string at something”.
Photos & Text © Ron Levy

Ron Levy’s images have been published internationally for over 3 decades, including exhibitions in museums and galleries in the US, Europe and Asia. He has been a photography instructor at the University of Alaska, and provides assistance to agencies and NGOs specializing in health and conservation issues worldwide. He has also guided hundreds of travelers on nature, photo and historical excursions in Alaska, California, Arizona and Ecuador over the last 35 years.

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