Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct the spelling of author Doug Vandegraft’s last name.
If you ask Doug Vandegraft, it’s impossible to distinguish a single bar in Alaska as above the rest. For him, it’s much easier to pick a favorite from each city.
And Vandegraft would know — he spent 14 years researching for his 2014 book, “A Guide to the Notorious Bars of Alaska.” He brought copies of the book to a “meet-the-author” event at the Bow Bar in Kenai on Friday.
“Every memory gets embellished, and it’s just a great thing and it’s what I think makes … Alaska bars so fascinating,” Vandegraft said. “Because there’s so many old ones that have been around for so long, and people have so many memories stretching out, you know, 30, 40, 50 years sometimes. To try to document that has been very challenging but pretty rewarding for me.”
No book lovers came to the event, but that didn’t dampen Vandegraft’s spirits. His books were even snapped up by the bar staff.
Vandegraft was joined, however, by Bill Howell, author of “Alaska Beer: Liquid Gold in the Land of the Midnight Sun,” and teacher of a beer appreciation course at Kenai Peninsula College. They met through swapping their books for editing purposes.
Between scrawling his signatures in the books he sold Friday, Vandegraft chatted with Howell about Alaska’s complicated history with bars, beer and alcohol in general.
Vandegraft is not a writer by trade. He moved to Alaska from California in 1983 to work for the Bureau of Land Management in Anchorage as a cartographer. His interest in writing about Alaskan bars was piqued when he realized there was no existing book that comprehensively catalogued the historic or notorious bars in the state, he said.
Then, before the book was finished, Vandegraft was moved to Washington, D.C. for work, where he continues his work in cartography. While he originally thought this would make his research more difficult, Vandegraft said he was soon bowled over by the sheer volume of information to be found in the Library of Congress.
“When I got to Washington I was like, ‘Oh my god, how am I ever going to write the book now?’ and then I realized how great the resources are back there,” he said. “But there were still some things here in Alaska that I needed to come up to … talk to people that had been around, you know, and been at these bars and just some certain publications that were published only in Alaska that still hadn’t made it to the Library of Congress.”
Vandegraft also returned to Alaska every other year or so to conduct interviews and visit some of the bars on his list. Getting those local anecdotes was important for the book as well, he said. Sometimes, however, locals were convinced their recollections of certain events at bars happened at a different time than they actually did, and this could lead to little arguments with Vandegraft.
“People can remember incidents and they can remember certain, you know, happenings, but memory is the worst for dates,” Vandegraft said with a laugh. “You cannot depend on your memory.”
Vandegraft traveled to the Salty Dawg in Homer on Saturday for another meet-the-author event. From there, he will lead a bar crawl in Juneau this weekend before heading back to D.C. Vandegraft leads bar crawls of the notorious bars in his book in Juneau, Cordova, Kodiak, Anchorage, Nome and Fairbanks.
“I’m really loving the history of the bars, and that’s what I’m talking about when we’re going around,” he said.
The crawls provide a chance to give people some extra information about the bars that had to be trimmed out during the editing process, Vandegraft said, though as the crawls wear on through the night he has to edit his anecdotes for brevity.
Nursing their respective drinks — beers, of course — Vandegraft and Howell ruminated on which of the 135 places to grab a drink were their favorites. In Kenai, Vandegraft said there is something about the Bow Bar that he has always enjoyed.
The Bow, previously named the Rainbow Bar but officially changed because people were always abbreviating it, used to be part of what’s called the Devil’s Triangle, Vandegraft said. It was a group of three bars, two of which are no longer standing, in Old Town Kenai that people often frequented because they were within close walking distance of each other.
The Bow is outlived, however, by Kenai Joe’s, which is the second-oldest bar on the Kenai Peninsula after Tony’s Bar in Seward, according to the book.
Howell has also traveled to many bars throughout the state. For him, the Yukon Bar in Seward merits a visit. Howell said he was also a regular at B.J.’s in Soldotna before it closed.
The threat of bars closing sometimes made the decision of whether to include certain establishments in the book difficult, Vandegraft said. He hopes those that made the final cut will be iconic enough to last.
“Notorious bars, historic bars are an endangered breed,” he said. “We’re losing them every year, and it’s really a shame. It’s nobody’s fault, really. You know, people grow older and people change and tastes in bars change. People want to go into a bar and have a craft cocktail made for them, and you’re not gonna get a craft cocktail at the Salty Dawg.”
Reach Megan Pacer at firstname.lastname@example.org.