Farmington native publishes a tale of true-life adventure
Bonnie Ward was 26 years old and working a good job in 1981 when her husband, Sam, came home with an announcement that would change her life. He had put their home on the market, he said, and given his notice at work. They were moving to Alaska.
The announcement wasn’t a complete surprise. The couple had talked about Sam’s dream of living off the land in the Alaskan wilderness. But for Ward, it was a plan for someday. Not right away.
“I was a little startled,” said Ward, who grew up in Farmington. “We’d just remodeled our home and I probably could have lived there forever and been very happy. But it was his dream.”
At the time Ward, the daughter of Donald and Joan Rose, thought the excursion would be like an extended camping trip. Sam would get the wilderness bug out of his system, and they’d return to civilization. But it didn’t quite work out like that. The couple lived for nine years on a remote island in Skilak Lake and for 15 years altogether in Alaska.
Now, Ward has told the story of her time in the untamed north in a book called Winds of Skilak. The book is being released this week.
The book covers the first two years of the couple’s life in Alaska, a time that was often difficult and occasionally dangerous. They lived for three months in a pup tent on their island while they built their own log cabin. Sam would cut down trees on the mainland, then haul them through the lake and up from the shore for the construction. He was up to window height on the construction when a tree fell on him, breaking his hip and cracking three vertebrae. He refused to go to the hospital at first.
Life on the island was as remote as could be. There was no running water and no electricity. Sam hunted moose and bear, and Bonnie learned to can vegetables. For all of their nine-year stay there they never bought meat or bread from a store. They drank water straight from the lake, which was fed by a glacier.
Sam worked a stint or two each year on the oil pipeline, but nearly everything they needed came from the land.
A childhood in Farmington hadn’t prepared Ward for anything like what she experienced. She spent the months before their departure checking out books about canning and putting up meat.
“It was hard,” Ward said. “It was very hard. However, over the years, probably by the end of the first, second year I came to love it. It was sort of a coming of age story for me. I went up there totally a greenhorn, what they call a tenderfoot…. I just eventually came to love it.”
Living off the land helped Ward appreciate the things she was experiencing.
“You experience more joy,” she said. “You don’t take things for granted anymore.”
After nine years on the island, Ward and her husband bought a boat and were making plans to move to Prince William Sound to launch a commercial fishing business. The boat was nearly ready when the Exxon Valdez spill happened.
The couple’s 13-year-old niece had come to live with them, and since they didn’t think a remote island was the best place to raise a teenager they moved to town. Once they relocated, though, things just weren’t the same.
After 15 years in Alaska, the couple returned to the Lower 48. They currently live in West Virginia.
Ward wrote about her wilderness experiences at the time in a series of stories published in the Farmington Independent. Her mother encouraged her to write the story for a wider audience. She took 10 years to work on the book along with working a full-time job.
“I believe in it,” she said of the 404-page book, which starts with that moment Sam came home to make his announcement. “I think it’s a good story. My thing was, can I say it so it’s entertaining.”
The book is available now at windsofskilak.com.