Ruth Johns Of Copper Center Alaska: Mother, Philosopher, Ahtna Historian

The Joyous Day-to-Day Life Of Ruth Johns & Her Family, As They Traveled The Woods Of Alaska In A Simpler, Harsher Time

  Northcountry Communications. All Rights Reserved.  

Ruth Johns, Copper River Country Journal 1988 Woman Of The Year

Life for the Ahtna Natives of the Copper Valley of Alaska was a difficult one. As the years passed, and westerners arrived, the Ahtna people continued gathering food in the wilderness; but they also started coming to the lodges to trade. Ruth Johns, of Copper Center, looked back at her changing life in 1988. In her story, told from afar, Ruth's world of Copper Valley hardships were softened by the perspective of a child. A child with parents who protected her from worries.As a child growing up in the Depression in wilderness Alaska, life for Ruth Johns was a happy blend of hard work and wonder.
With her brothers and sisters, Ruth hauled the entire year's supply of firewood by dogsled in the winter time. She lugged water from the river. She helped her family in their harsh and unyielding world. And she loved every minute of it.

"We had everything the old fashioned way," she recalled. "When I was a young girl, people used to come down at Christmas time, and bring their furs down to the lodge. They used to sell their fur and get their food for the months ahead. Everybody had their own trail. I remember Tazlina Joe and their family, they used to go out to Tazlina Lake -- that was their area -- trapping."

Ruth's parents -- Estaco and Jessie Ewan -- took their children with them across the Copper River wilderness to distant winter homes. In the winter of 1926-27, the family stayed in the wooded timberline near Mt. Drum. Another year, they stayed with Jim McKinley and his family at Klutina Lake. 
Her parents were the biggest influence in her life. "I had really good parents. What I am now is because of my parents."

Ruth John's parents taught by example. And they were satisfied with their handiwork. "They really didn't TELL me anything until Dad was on his deathbed. I was 18 years old. He looked at us. He said, 'I'm not worried about you, leaving you, because I know you're going to take care of yourselves.' That really stayed with me, my father, thinking, 'Okay, you can do it.' We looked at him in tears, and he said, "'Don't cry. I know you'll do well.' Maybe that's part of the  thinking. Maybe that's what really helped."

Traditional life was a hard life, but a good one.

"Dad and them were busy all day. I didn't see anybody get depressed. There was no time. It was time of survival! People were doing something!

What was Copper River life like in this days that now seem so long ago? "What I enjoyed with my parents was it seems like it was an adventure, each day, when we were out there together."

One especially exciting fall was the season that the Ewans and Jim McKinley's family walked to their winter home at Klutina, accompanied by their pack dogs.
Lowbush (lingonberry) cranberries
The families traveled about 8 miles a day. They were on the way to their second camp when they saw moose tracks. Ruth's mother was making tea from a stream. The fathers told their children to be quiet. And then they disappeared with their guns.

These were thrilling memories for Ruth. "Everything we were doing was something we enjoyed...." A little while later there were two... three shots.

The men came back, and took their families to a lake where there were two dead moose in the water. Somehow, the men put a raft together, and hauled the moose in, while the children tore around, gathering wood for a fire.  "We were happy, running around, getting wood -- deadfalls."

Then, even the children helped beach the moose. "We had a part in it. They threw a rope, and we pulled that moose to the shore!'

The memories of wilderness life as a child were glorious for Ruth Johns. "Everything we did was fun to me. Just nice and peaceful. We spent the next few days, picking berries. We picked and picked, and my mother put it in a 50 lb. sack. Lots of big berries." Then Estaco Ewan and Jim McKinley made a big cache from round green logs, and the families cached their cranberries and dried moose meat for the winter.

But life then -- as now -- was far from perfect. A wolverine tore into the cache and destroyed and meat and berries. "My sister and I felt really bad about 'our' berries." 

The Depression Years were difficult. Yet, it wasn't until World War II that the worst changes came. And those changes were brought about by alcohol. The war sent young men into the army and brought good paying jobs. But it also brought whiskey -- and the final blow to traditional life....

Years ago, a lodge owner named Mrs. Barnes lived nearby. Ruth always remembered her kindness and thoughtfulness. Mrs. Barnes was a true Copper  River person, Ruth Johns remembered,  "She was like a grandma. A mother to the people."

Kind of like -- well -- Ruth Johns herself. 

  Northcountry Communications. All Rights Reserved.

© 2015, Copper River Country Journal,  Linda Weld, Editor All rights reserved, including photographs and maps. 

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