AUTHOR’S NOTE: In the first part of this tale about Cliff House on Tustumena Lake, I explained its origins and how it blew to smithereens in early July 1978. I also introduced diarist Bob Huttle, who spent an early April night at the cabin in 1934, pondering its history — and its somewhat troubling connection to a man named Dr. John Aiken “Doc” Flanders.
Doc’s odd behavior
On Sept. 19, 1923, a small notice entitled “Build Lodge at Kusilloff” appeared on page 5 of the Anchorage Daily Times: “For the purpose of building a hunting lodge at Kusilloff lake [another name for Tustumena Lake], Dr. J. A. Flanders and nephew Jack [Harney] have left for the lake with an outfit and supplies. They will spend the winter falling timber and hewing logs, and expect to have the lodge nearly completed by spring.”
For shelter during this construction project, Flanders and Harney planned to live in Cliff House. In “Alaska’s No. 1 Guide,” authors Gary Titus and Catherine Cassidy documented more of Flanders’ early movements: In his diary entry of Oct. 2, 1923, hunting guide Andrew Berg noted a visit up to Cliff House, where he saw “Doctor Flanders & his friend … busy fixing up the house.”
Titus and Cassidy also referred to a contemporaneous report from game warden George Cotter, who, according to their paraphrase, claimed that Dr. Flanders was “a shell-shocked veteran of World War I who came to Alaska from Chicago to recuperate. He [had been] the company doctor at the Kasilof cannery during the summer of 1923.”
In late December 1923, said Berg, Doc Flanders fell ill. At about the same time, Cotter added this: “Learned that Dr. John A. Flanders … had been taken from [S.S.] Northwestern coming from Seldovia, very ill, found that N wester’s captain had called for ‘the Marshall to take this dope and put him in the jail.’ [I] got busy and explained what shell shock [was] in the Marshall’s office.”
Despite reservations about Flanders’ mental state, Cotter also commended the doctor: “He is a fine influence in the Kasilof country…. Last summer was doctor for the Alaska Packers cannery at Kasilof, doing some wonderful operations on injured personal [sic]. I saw result of his work.”
Flanders also recovered quickly. By Jan. 10, according to Berg, Flanders and Harney were back at work. Berg mentioned both men off and on for the next two months — Harney for a final time on March 31. Berg’s last references to Flanders came later in the year.
On Oct. 26, Berg penned a puzzling description of the doctor’s behavior: “was out [with] the whole gang hunting for Flanders … went to glaser where he was last seen … found no trace of him … in going home found him waiting at the boat … Carlson said he acted irration [sic] … [he] got them to heat water for use in hiperdermik.”
Berg never mentioned Flanders again after November 1924.
How much of the doctor’s actions Bob Huttle knew when he stayed in Cliff House 10 years later is difficult to know. But he had certainly heard of Flanders, and he was particularly focused on the most disturbing possibility he had been told:
“It was from this cabin the Cliff House that Jack Harney disappeared mysteriously in the spring of 1924,” wrote Huttle, “after an argument with his partner Doc Flanders and it is rumored that [Doc] shot Jack and threw his body in the lake or buried same in the woods nearby….
“[A]fter the U.S. Marshal investigated the case and could not produce the body the case was dropped on account of insufficient evidence, but Doc Flanders had left Alaska perhaps had a good reason, and Jack was listed in the U.S. Marshal’s records as another of the many men of the North lost without a trace. [P]erhaps he is only a few yards away from me in the lake but I had a good sound sleep just the same at the Cliff House which has been unoccupied since Jack & Doc lived in it.”
To rebuild or not to rebuild
The obliteration of Cliff House in July 1978 was not the end of its story, at least according to David Letzring of Kasilof. He said that the cabin’s owner, his father-in-law John Swanson, came to him in August 1978 and told him that he had received unwritten permission from the refuge to rebuild the cabin. “He says we can rebuild it,” Letzring recalled, “but we gotta get it done right now, this year.”
Gary Titus, a former backcountry ranger, was skeptical. “I don’t think so,” Titus said. “If that would have been done, it would have been illegal because that was federal land. If you give one person permission to do that, you’d have to give everyone permission.” To allow a single instance of building, or rebuilding, a private cabin on the refuge, he said, is to “open a can of worms.”
When Bob Richey, who had been the assistant manager of the moose range in 1978, learned of Swanson’s claim, he said, “I have never heard that. I can’t believe that is likely, and I think I would remember.”
Whether or not Swanson truly had permission to rebuild, he moved forward with plans to do so, said Letzring. Swanson and a few friends — most notably George Calvin and Chuck Raymond of Kasilof — began gathering building supplies and storing them in a Quonset hut that Raymond owned on Tustumena Lake Road. They were awaiting winter snow and freeze-up, said Letzring, so they could use snowmobiles to haul in the materials over the ice.
But late that year, Swanson was diagnosed with liver cancer and traveled Outside for treatment. Without his leadership, the heart went out of the rebuilding effort. “The spark plug wasn’t there,” Letzring said.
Swanson died in 1982, and to this day the small sandy point remains devoid of any manmade structure, which is how the federal government plans to keep it.
According to Richey, who said he spent many nights at Cliff House in his 26 years with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the greatest loss in the destruction of the cabin was not the structure itself but the log book inside the place. That book, he said, contained a wealth of names and histories that could never be fully recovered.
Part of that history — if Bob Huttle had had his way in 1934 — might have been very different. On Wednesday, Feb. 7, he wrote this in his diary:
“While at the lower end of the [trap] line I met Gus Ness and his Son Ike going to the Cliff house with their dog team, they had 15 days provisions and were going to trap in the vicinity of the [Tustumena] Glacier, they stopped in and had dinner and left about 2.00 P.M. I asked him if he would sell the Cliff House he said no.”