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'Walter's story' tells history of Pedro Bay region through family stories

Carey RestinoThe Arctic Sounder

Every story starts somewhere, and for author Barbara Atwater, the story started 15 years ago when the Pedro Bay native began researching the history of the area where she was raised.

Because of the nearby Pile Bay Road, which was a well-used trail even before it became a road, many people came through the Pedro Bay area, Atwater said.

"So many people went through there," she said. "My family and I have a very mixed heritage."

This curiosity with the region and the people who lived there led her to study the history of various villages that came and went in the region, and the genealogy of those of the Pedro Bay area. One of the few ways to research this history was through the remaining elders from the region, and one of those elders was Walter Johnson, her great uncle. As she spent more time listening to his stories, she said she realized what an incredible life he had lived. It was then that she said she realized that Johnson was the key to telling the story of Pedro Bay and its people. Though the idea of writing a book with all the information she had collected was not new to her, she had struggled with how to tell it. Johnson's stories solved that puzzle.

Johnson is the youngest son, and his mother was of Dena'ina and Russian descent and spoke Dena'ina in the home. His mother also passed on not only the language but also a lot of traditional stories to her youngest son. These stories, coupled with a richly adventurous childhood and young adulthood made Johnson's stories a poignant way to relay the history of this extraordinary place, Atwater said.

After more than a decade of interviewing and writing, the resulting text, "Walter's Story," was first printed this summer. It follows Johnson's life chronologically starting with his earliest memories and continuing until the death of his wife.

Stories range from those told to Johnson by his mother and other elders, which Atwater wove into the text at the beginning of each chapter as "Distant Memories" to tales of his youthful adventures exploring in the great outdoors, camping, hunting and trapping and later commercial fishing in Bristol Bay.

An example of a distant memory, Atwater said, was a tale told about a woman who was traveling with a large group across a lake. The woman went up on the hill to gather moss to change her baby, and all of a sudden, an earthquake occurred and the ice cracked and all the people she was traveling with disappeared. That story precedes a chapter about Johnson's father, who left when he was 5 years old.

More detailed stories come from Johnson's own life, which was filled with extraordinary events, like a trip across a lake on ice skates that turned life-threatening when Johnson fell through.

Atwater said Johnson relayed to her the tale of skating five or six miles across the lake, and coming to a place where it was very deep and the ice never froze well.

"He saw it but it was too late," she said. "He went right in."

The guy he was skating with was quite far behind, and when he got to Johnson, he could see that he was far down into the water. Johnson said he remembered fighting to get back up to the surface. When he got up, his friend was able to throw him a backpack to grab onto and pull him to the surface. The two then skated to his brother's house, but the brother wasn't there, so they got dry clothing from his wife and skated another six to eight miles, Atwater said.

"He said he was fine," Atwater said. "There were a lot of pretty amazing things like that."

The task of weaving together all these stories into one cohesive book was challenging, Atwater said, as Johnson didn't tell them in chronological order. And teasing together the stories about other people from the area told by Johnson was also a challenge.

Atwater said she wrote the book for people who have some connection to the area, and it includes a lot of endnotes and genealogies to help people connect all the various histories. Those with connections to the area have applauded Atwater's efforts, commenting on how much they enjoyed the way Johnson's voice could clearly be heard as the author interwove stories and history together. Maps and timelines add to the historic accuracy of the text. And those who knew Johnson, a well-respected figure in the area, first-hand said it was marvelous to reconnect with the man and his extraordinary history.

"Great job of putting together Walter's story," wrote Warner Lew, who worked in the Pedro Bay area in the '80s and '90s. "As I read it, I envisioned the hardships of life in his early days. Remote, no medical care, tough subsistence conditions, etc. Lake Iliamna has been a huge part of my life and I'm thrilled to read the biography of one of the idols of my day."

Atwater said the journey of publishing the book has been filled with many surprises, including that she is enjoying doing book-signings and publicity for her writing.

"It's history, that's the whole focus," she said. "It's the biography of a man, (done) to tell the history of the area. If you like history, you would enjoy this book."

"Walter's Story" is available online through Amazon.com and other online book sellers as well as at the King Salmon Visitor's Center and other locations on the Kenai Peninsula and the Anchorage Museum Shop.

The preceding article was first published by The Bristol Bay Times and is republished here with permission. Contact Carey Restino at editor(at)thebristolbaytimes.com.