Keno's Sauna

Alone in the woods stands a solitary sauna, decaying back into the earth. This is the story, as best I know it, of that sauna.

Way back in probably around 1973, my family took a hike up Bear Creek, in Hope, Alaska. Hope--on the Kenai Peninsula about two hours outside of Anchorage--had an Alaskan gold rush that preceded the great Klondike rush by two years in 1896. Before Anchorage, Fairbanks, and Seward existed, thousands rushed to the "cities" of Hope and Sunrise. During this era many of the small creek valleys leading into the Turnagain Arm were explored, prospected and had claims. Bear Creek is a valley that is more or less part of Hope's larger Resurrection Creek valley system. (Bear Creek is not a tributary. It feeds directly into the ocean not too far from the mouth of Resurrection Creek.)

Bear Creek intrigued my parents who had an interest in the history of the area and a taste for the adventure of exploring old mining claims and abandoned cabins. The Sleem map, a well-known map of the region from 1912 showed a number of claims, named mines, marked cabins and mining structures. However by the 1970s much of the area had been largely abandoned, left to become overgrown and forgotten. Wouldn't it be fun to see what was still up there?

The first night of the hike we spent in Keno's cabin. Herman Keno was a Finn. He was one of the old timers who moved to and stuck it out in Hope after the gold rush and eked out a living. During the Nome gold rush he worked primarily as a black smith. Maybe he had some money saved up from Nome, maybe he did odd jobs or maybe he worked a claim and made a modest living out of it? He did have a load mine up Bear Creek. (The Hope and Sunrise Historical Society has a photo of his hard-rock mine going into a hillside.) However he did it, he managed to survive, alone and mostly isolated, in a hand-built log cabin on the lower section of Bear Creek.

To this day, Keno has a dark reputation in the small Hope community. In spite of his independence and craftsman's artistry he was a drunk and sometimes a mean one. Billy Miller, a longtime local who was the source of much of the information in this story, told me of how he saved Keno's life once. He was driving slowly down the Hope Highway in the middle of winter. Sticking up out of snowbank he thought he saw a foot. He backed up to double check. Sure enough, it was a human leg. Billy got out and discovered Keno passed out behind a pile of plowed snow. Keno was purple. He dragged him into to his truck and then back to his house where Keno warmed up and got sober.

Every so often Keno had a habit of going into Anchorage and picking up lady drinking friends or maybe prostitutes to bring back to Hope. It should be remembered that back in the 1970s Anchorage had a rough and wide open side to it. This was particularly the case as the economy went crazy during the pipeline boom. Some of the woman he brought to his cabin were native Alaskan. He had a reputation of spending a few days with a woman and then dumping her out on the Hope road. Back then this was pretty tough business since the Hope road was a single-lane dirt road 14 miles off the main Seward Highway. In the winter it might be a while before it was plowed.

Keno died in the winter of probably 1973. Whatever year it was it was the winter just before the summer we slept in his cabin. After his body was found and people were cleaning up his place, a skull was found somewhere on the premise. I've heard that it was in his cabin and also that it was found on the grounds of his property. A search was conducted but no body was found. One version of the story was that it was a skull of a native woman. Was this a skull of some woman he brought from Anchorage? Maybe he simply found the skull of some old miner? Also around the turn of the century, the Dena'ina Athabaskans camped at the base of Bear Creek not too far down from his cabin. It's possible he found a Dena'ina grave. No one knows for sure, but due to his prior behavior with woman, suspicions remain.

He was old when he died. The winter must have gotten to be too much for him. When my family did our hike up Bear Creek the weather was so rainy the parents elected to sleep in the cabin instead of a tent. We slept in the exterior loft of his cabin. I don't remember much of this night other than it creeped the heck out of me. The cabin was old and filled with a fantastic collection of historic and new junk: tools, mining implements, and ancient opened cans of vegetables. Glass jars containing Keno's piss were stored all around the cabin. He had become either too old or lazy to go outside in the cold for a leak.

One of the other reasons my parents wanted to visit the cabin was that it was slated by the Chugach Forest Service to be removed. This was an era when the forest service had a misguided policy of removing old historic miners' cabins. They considered them to be a nuisance and fire hazard. Probably Forest Service bureaucrats wanted to erase any potential legal gray areas of land use and ownership. Old abandoned cabins could present problems if someone moved into the them, renewed a mining claim or somehow tried to "prove up" on the land. During this era a number of historically-significant cabins were destroyed under this policy.

We spent the night and somehow I survived Keno's ghost. We hiked up the valley. Somewhere not too far up the trail I distinctly remember finding a drinking ladle by a small creek tricking down the hillside, a gesture of hospitality and kindness from Hope's gold-mining past. There was also a nice old log structure, surprisingly almost right on the trail. It was fairly intact still but the roof had recently caved in. We didn't get too far on the hike. Either we ran out of steam, the weather turned bad, or we were hindered by alder growth in the trail. We didn't get far enough up the valley to explore the mining cabins my parents were looking for but it was a fun adventure.

In the early 1980s a small private mining operation reestablished mining claims up this creek drainage. The path was cleared out and mining operations began anew. Today this is an open day hike. There are probably remnants of what we saw and now, with improved access, more can be seen. You can certainly go farther than we did. It would make a great hike and I've seen photos of a lovely high-alpine lake near the top of the valley.

Not long after our stay, Keno's cabin was torn down. It was spared being burned down by the Forest Service. A local Hope resident was allowed to take it apart and remove it. The plan was to rebuild it elsewhere in Hope. Sadly it was taken apart but never put back together. The logs were left somewhere. By now they certainly have rotted into oblivion. This is particularly sad because Keno had a reputation for being a fine rustic craftsman. The cabin had a gambrel (barn-shaped) roof. Integral in the log construction was the second-story loft where we stayed. The loft was carefully framed to interlace with the log outer walls.

The cabin is gone but a few items of Keno's remain in the community. My family salvaged his old beat-up and leaking copper wash tub. The was his hand-made table which is now in the Hope and Sunrise Historical Society Museum, used as staging in the Oscar Grimes School House. Billy Miller, rescued his barrel stove. The stove had been left for trash outside after the cabin was torn down. It was a crude device but it serves as an example of some of this old Finn's great ingenuity and craftsmanship. Barrel stoves are typically made out of a used 55-gallon steel drums. Many of these use kits that come with ready-made cast-iron pieces: a door, legs and a stove pipe mounting flange. As a blacksmith, he had the knowledge and tools to reworked his own from scratch. The most interesting feature is an oven inside the barrel. Also the top had two burners for stove-top cooking. Each burner had a door which could be slipped aside so pots or pans could be heated directly by the fire. Once the cooking was done the door could be closed over the stove to keep smoke out of the cabin.

Here's is a closer detail of the oven. (You can see the hinge and the door latch but the door is missing.)

Here is his table, now at the Hope Museum.

At the site where Keno's cabin was located one structure still remains, but only just barely. This was his sauna. The sauna was built very much like his cabin. It was well-constructed and, mirroring his cabin, it had a gambrel roof. Benches were built high off the ground, about three feet up, to put someone up where the heat was in the room. Close examination shows how they were integrally built into the structure, Lincoln Log-style. This helps demonstrate that this little structure was put together for one purpose: to have a good sweat.

You can see the framing for a bench in this photo:

Opposite the wall, here is the bench on the inside of the sauna shot through an opening in the roof.

I was surprised to see that it had a poured-concrete floor, complete with older-style 8-inch composition vinyl tiles which might have helped shed water. Of course the hand-mixed concrete wasn't very thick and the floor is now broken up by intrusion of tree roots. The benches were originally upholstered in red vinyl, giving it a bit of a 60s-era Anchorage massage parlor touch.

Today two towering cotton woods are slowly squeezing the structure together like a vice. The roof has collapsed and the back wall is mostly rotted back to forest humus.

I couldn't make out whether or not there was a stove pipe in this sauna. Judging by the soot on the walls of the interior and lack of any obvious stovepipe exit, my best guess is that Keno's sauna was an old-school smoke sauna or savusauna as it is called in Finnish. This is where a fire is built in an unvented stove or simply on rocks inside the structure. After the sauna reaches the appropriate temperature, and the fire dies down, the door is opened to air out the room and the sauna-ing begins.

For the cold plunge, Bear Creek is very near. The setting couldn't be more beautiful. Going from this sauna into the creek would have been wonderful. The creek, as you might imagine, is ice cold.

Here's a view from just outside the door of the sauna towards where he would take his cold dip:
It's sad that such a beautiful location is marred the disturbing tales of his behavior. Maybe the sauna provided some consolation and helped him cope with his loneliness?