Thursday, December 11, 2008

Winding road — Life’s twists hold many surprises for Kenai resident

By Clark Fair
Redoubt Reporter

The year was about 1950 and Fiocla Wilson and her husband, Philip, were driving south of Soldotna on a recently opened section of the Sterling Highway. Suddenly, Wilson spotted something puzzling.

“We were going for a ride toward Kasilof, and I said, ‘What’s a horse doing back there in the woods?’ I only saw the back end, you know,” she said. “He said, ‘That’s not a horse. That’s a moose.’”
For Fiocla, that sighting was a first.

“I never saw a live moose until the highway was built to Homer,” said Fiocla, who was born in Kenai in 1916. “I never knew what a moose looked like.”

This may seem like a strange proclamation from someone who began life in Alaska 92 years ago and who subsisted, in part, on a diet of moose meat, along with salmon and wild berries, and some store-bought goods. Philip regularly hunted moose during open season, but Fiocla said that she never accompanied her husband on his hunts and never saw a moose wander into town prior to that drive to Kasilof.

Of course, Wilson knows that life can be full of surprises.

Born Fiocla Sacolof to a part-Russian father and a half-Russian, half-Athabascan mother, she found herself an orphan at the age of 9. Because of her young age then, Wilson said, she was unsure what caused her parents’ death, but she did realize that her life was about to change.

Her older sister took in her younger siblings, but could not afford to take in Fiocla, too. Since there was no road yet to Kenai, Fiocla was sent by boat to Anchorage to live with a relative. She attended school in Anchorage until she turned 12, at which point she decided to receive vocational training at the Eklutna Industrial School for Natives.

She arrived by train in Eklutna and stayed at the school until she was 16, attending regular classes in the mornings and training sessions in the afternoons. Wilson said she learned to work in a kitchen and a laundry, learned to sew and learned how to be a waitress, among other skills.

At the school, she was surrounded by more than a 100 other Natives from villages scattered throughout Alaska. Despite the many different cultures and languages represented there, only English was allowed to be spoken. If they were caught speaking Russian or any Native tongue, they were punished.

“There was another girl from Kenai, and I said something to her in Russian and the matron heard it,” Wilson said in a 1985 interview, recorded in a book called Our Stories, Our Lives. “We both had to wash our mouth out with soap! I don’t remember what I said. Wasn’t anything bad or anything.

“That’s how strict they were. And that’s why I can’t understand now why everything’s getting back so that they want us to talk our Native language.

“At that time the government wouldn’t allow us to talk in those languages. And now, they’re giving funds to get back to our heritage.”

Despite the strictness, however, Wilson — who was called “Fanny” by the matrons — said she was pleased that she had the opportunity to attend the school, and she fondly recalled one particular home-economics teacher who taught her an important lesson.

“I had a teacher that always told me, ‘Never be ashamed of your nationality.’ And it wasn’t your nationality that counted as much as your character and your personality. And she always told me that I would go a long ways if I would just be the way I was with my personality and character. Because she said I had an awful sweet personality.”

When Wilson left the school in 1933, she had a surprise waiting for her. A man she had always known as “Uncle Dan” met her at the train station in Eklutna, where he handed her $25 and an envelope containing a photograph of himself. He said he had written something on the photo, but he did not want her to read it until she had boarded the train.

On board, she learned that “Uncle Dan” was her biological father, who had run off to Anchorage with another woman when Fiocla was too young to remember. The man she had believed was her father had actually been a stepfather.

On the eve of her first steps into adulthood, “Uncle Dan” had reached out in his own way to let her know the truth.

A few days after leaving the boat in Kenai, Fiocla turned 17. Before the year was out, she was married to her first boyfriend, Philip, in a ceremony officiated by the Rev. Paul Shadura at the Russian Orthodox Church.

Philip, the son of a Caucasian father and a half-Russian, half-Athabascan mother, had been born in Kenai in 1912. He fished commercially in the summers and trapped in the winters. By the time the Wilson family had grown to six children in 1949, he also had an airplane, a single-engine Piper PA-12 Super Cruiser, which he used occasionally to fly out men on hunting trips.

One of Fiocla’s favorite times of year occurred when the family ventured down to their setnet site below Wildwood.

“I enjoyed that, taking the kids out on the beach,” she said. “Living in tents. It was just like a vacation for my children. They really enjoyed that.”

Fiocla smiled as she remembered the work involved in commercial fishing. “I liked picking fish. I used to think that was fun. I used to see how many I could carry. I could have 10 fish, you know — you put your fingers in their mouth and carry ’em like that.”

As she explained, she held out both hands, palms up, fingers and thumbs curled like hooks.
“And I used to run to (Philip’s) dory to put the fish in.”

From the dory, the fish went to a scow, and then on to a tender that carried them to the Libby, McNeil and Libby cannery across the wide river mouth. She said that when they began fishing in 1934, a single sockeye salmon fetched 7 cents, while a single chinook fetched a dollar. At the Kenai Commercial store at the same time, a pound of butter cost 25 cents.

Fiocla and her family fished the site until the early 1960s, when Philip decided to sell the place and buy a drift boat, which he named the Kenai. In her home today, Fiocla has a Jim Evenson painting of Philip’s plane on skis in the winter, and another painting, by one of her daughters, depicting Philip’s boat on choppy water, with the Kenai bluffs stark in the background.

Philip, who suffered from diabetes, died in 1975. Several years later, Fiocla moved into the home that she still maintains by herself, although one of her daughters lives right next door. She keeps busy with her large family — including 16 grandchildren, 16 great-grandchildren, and several great-great-grandchildren — and as a member of both the Kenaitze tribe and the Kenai Bible Chapel.

These days, the moose are more plentiful in Kenai. Some of them even wander into the neighborhood.

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