OCEAN SHORES — Taking to the water at the Ocean Shores Community Club pool, playing a few hands of pinochle and volunteering her time wherever and whenever she is needed, Jean Kyle likes to stay active and busy.
The 91-year-old Kyle keeps active to get herself going, especially when she’s helping out local organizations on the weekends and caring for older dogs at her home in their final days.
Her heart, though, is in Alaska.
“We were reverse snowbirds,” Kyle said. “For six months out of the year, we would travel up to Alaska, where we bought a cabin on the Yukon River in the city of Eagle. For over 25 years, I worked and lived there. For the other six months, I volunteered here.”
Kyle spent years working in Eagle as a jack-of-all-trades — a storekeeper, a museum curator, a tour guide and a historian. Now, she still travels to Alaska when she can, but her memories of life in Eagle and her travels in Alaska are still strong.
These days, Kyle doesn’t get out and volunteer in Ocean Shores as much as she’s done in the past. A few health troubles, along with an increased reluctance to drive the pitch-black streets of Ocean Shores at night, keep her home.
Well into her 80s, she didn’t mind driving up to Eagle, which is a small bush community deep in the Alaska Yukon, just four miles west of the U.S.-Canadian Yukon border.
The very small town was one of the launching points for the Alaska Gold Rush in the early 1900s. A U.S. district judge and future congressman for the Alaska Territory, James Wickersham, founded the city of Eagle on the Yukon River in 1900. Wickersham was one of the main leaders who fought for Alaska statehood.
“Wickersham and his wife, Dorothy, signed the incorporation papers for the town of Buckley,” Kyle said. “He’s an important person, but people don’t know it.”
There are a few ways to get to Eagle. You can fly there, you can take a ferry or there are a few driving routes.
She drove and her husband, Dr. Henry Kyle, was a passenger on the five-day sojourn to Eagle. In the last few years, Jean Kyle drove by herself to Eagle until her final drive in 2008 — at the age of 86.
“Henry was always amazed that the car was able to make the trip, because I packed it so full of supplies,” Kyle said. “There were a few times when we couldn’t sleep in the car because it was so full.”
At Eagle, Kyle ran the gift shop and store, which was one of five parts of Eagle’s historical museum. She spent time in Ocean Shores ordering food, supplies and other items for the Eagle store and for their cabin, which they bought when they were living in Sumner.
The Kyles were married in 1977 and Dr. Kyle retired from his post as the chief medical officer at the McNeil Island Corrections Center. The couple moved to Ocean Shores a few years later. They were already veterans of trips to Alaska, as well as New Zealand and other ports of call.
For many years, the Kyles transported their supplies for the cabin and the store. In the last couple of years, she used a few specialized transport companies, like Span Alaska Transportation in Auburn, to get supplies there. She also noted that, at times, it was cheaper to ship than buy-and-drive.
“We would go up in April, but the thing was, by February, I was already ordering things for the store and working on getting up there,” Kyle said. “We didn’t get back down here until September. Then, by the next February, I was ordering for the store. It was a lot of work.”
Road trip to Eagle
Kyle noted that there were a few ways to get to Eagle, but the route she took in her last trips there was impressive to undertake at 87 years old.
After taking the ferry in Bellingham to Victoria, British Columbia, Kyle would drive to Port Hardy, B.C., and catch the Alaska Ferry through the Lynn Canal to Skagway and the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park.
She said if she traveled in February or March, there was no way to get a ferry to Skagway — the ice was still choking any water traffic. So, she had to disembark at Haines, just south of Skagway.
When she traveled in April, this was her latest route: From Skagway, she took the Klondike Highway back into Canada through northern British Columbia and the Yukon Territory to Whitehorse and then west to Dawson to catch the Top of the World Highway. From there, she drove west back into Alaska, then north on Highway 5/Taylor Highway at Tok, which is usually closed for long periods of the winter, to Eagle.
Total distance driving: 2,050 miles, including ferries and a few other stops along the way to rest, sleep and eat. There is also a route from Haines, which takes you around from west to east and that is a few more miles added to the trip, if the roads aren’t clear or safe to drive on.
“We were really in the interior,” Kyle emphasized. “I did it because I wanted to. I’ve always been interested in the outdoors. No one else in my family was, not even my own kids, just me. All of these trips I took to get to Eagle, I camped. There were campgrounds along the way. At Prince Rupert, there is a campground above the ferry building and I always made sure I got there early enough to get a good place to camp out. It is a beautiful place to camp at.”
At Eagle, the cabin the Kyles bought in 1977 was right on the Yukon River and was renovated many times over the years. Kyle sold the cabin in 2007, one year before the Yukon River flooded a big portion of Eagle with huge ice chunks overflowing the banks.
“The river got jammed and huge chunks of ice went up the banks and into the restaurant, the store and lots of houses,” Kyle said. “My place even got water in the first floor, but I sold it a year before. So, it wasn’t my worry, but that cabin is very dear to my heart.”
In Eagle, Kyle was busy. She took over managing the gift shop/store that she stocked full of supplies from home that she shipped or drove up herself. Situated in a very old building that didn’t allow for inside heat — for fear that the building would go up in flames — Kyle stocked the shelves one hour at a time.
“You couldn’t work for more than an hour at a time without gloves,” she said. “You worked for an hour, warmed your hands, then worked another hour.”
The store was one of five pieces of the historical museum, where Kyle volunteered. The other places — the Wickersham Courthouse, the Customs House, the Old Church and Fort Egbert — were stops on a three-hour walking tour that she conducted once or twice a week for tourists who happened to make it out to Eagle.
“No one really went to Eagle, unless you were like me and you were interested in history and the Gold Rush and hunting/fishing/kayaking,” Kyle said. “I went through a lot of history of Eagle with them and always added little tidbits that I would pick up while I lived there. Many of them asked me if I was a teacher.”
Traveling around the town meant driving 4-wheel all-terrain vehicles rather than conventional cars and trucks. Kyle would warm up her cars once a week to keep them from freezing over and then climb onto an ATV to get supplies, get laundry and travel to and from the cabin.
When not working at the store, the Kyles would enjoy the day, with some hikes and kayak trips thrown in. They also got to play in one of the local’s gold mines and panned for gold nearby. One particular kayak trip that Kyle remembered fondly was a journey from Dawson, B.C., to Eagle, which took her through Gold Rush country and historical spots.
“I did the tour with one of the locals and he had a customer who was going to do that trip, so I accompanied them,” Kyle said. “He drove us to Dawson, then we put kayaks down and we’d kayak back to Eagle. We’d stop at Forty Mile, Fort Reliance and other very historical spots. We would stop on the banks on the beaches to cook and sleep in tents.”
Kyle’s conducted her last tour in Eagle was in 2008.
In 2005, she got to mark off one of her lifelong ambitions to see the Iditarod dog sled race from Anchorage to Nome. Kyle stayed with friends she knew from Eagle who lived in Nome and got to dine with the winner, Norway’s Robert Sørlie, a two-time winner of the landmark race.
In Ocean Shores
During her six-months time in Ocean Shores, Kyle continued to volunteer and help out when and where she could.
Still an avid history buff, Kyle has volunteered for many years at the Museum of the North Beach and in the Ocean Shores Historical Society before it merged with the museum.
Along with helping out at the museum, Kyle has lent a hand at the Coastal Interpretive Center, where she is a lifetime benefactor and was the secretary on the board of directors for 11 years. Kyle would help out in the bookstore during the center’s peak season — from April to September.
“She’s one of the nicest people I’ve ever met,” Mary Mattern, one of the center’s board members, said. “She never has a negative thing to say about anyone and still has a lot of energy to give. She’s very knowledgeable about the history of the Harbor and this area, and she loves to work with the children who come into the bookstore.”
“She keeps herself busy,” Anny Koetitz, a longtime board member and volunteer at the center, added. “She did retail here for many years and she’s done any odd jobs that have come up. She also helped me out with the jazz festival when it was around. You have to keep yourself busy when you get older. It helps.”
“I still help out when necessary,” Kyle said. “I still go to the pool three times a week at the community club and my cardiologist told me to keep doing that. I also try to play some pinochle at the center and just get out.”
One of the dearest activities Kyle does now is volunteering with the North Beach PAWS. She helps out with the organization’s garage sales and fundraisers, but more importantly, she takes in older dogs so they can have a safe and stable place to spend their final days.
She currently has two dogs she’s taking care of — Mickey, a mixed-breed terrier, and Melba, a Bichon Bolognese. Mickey, 10, has outlasted the other adopted dogs, while Melba, 14, is the fifth older dog she has adopted.
“I got Melba about two years ago,” Kyle said. “I do it because it feels good to do it, because I love animals and because it gives those older dogs a good home toward the end of their lives. I always cry when they die, but I fill that void with another dog.
“I’m hoping that with my health, I can go back (up to Eagle) next year,” Kyle added. “I couldn’t do it this year. A year ago, I went up to the Stickine River, near Wrangell (on Wrangell Island). I took the tour up there. I loved it. I’ll keep going up there until I can’t. It may sound strange, but when I first got to Eagle, I felt like I’ve been there before.
“That is where my heart lies. I love Alaska.”
Rob Burns is a Daily World sports writer. He can be reached at (360) 537-3924 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org