In modern Alaska, elevated storage caches (sometimes called fish or bear caches) typically consist of small rustic log cabins built atop four canted legs, above the reach of pilfering animals and attainable only via removable ladders.
They have become ubiquitous symbols of Alaska — some would say hackneyed symbols. The folklorist Susan W. Fair, who referred to these structures as “tall caches,” wrote that well-known Alaska artist Byron Birdsall believed depictions of tall caches had become trite, and for most of his career he refused to paint them. When he finally did a cache painting, in a play on words he titled the original watercolor, “The Great Alaska Cliche.” (For sales purposes the reproduction of the painting was renamed “The Great Alaska Cache.)
In a 1997 article, “Story, Storage, and Symbol,” Fair states that Alaska Natives used elevated storage racks prior to western contact, but that the origin of tall caches — elevated platforms topped by storage sheds — is debatable. They may have been an indigenous development, but Fair hypothesizes that tall caches were probably introduced by Westerners, perhaps on the Kenai Peninsula in the 1870s. They might also have been brought by the Hudson’s Bay Company when it established Fort Yukon in 1847.
If tall caches were a Western introduction, they spread quickly. US Army Lt. Henry Allen’s journal of his 1885 Alaska explorations includes a drawing of an elevated log-cabin cache built by Ahtna Athabascans along the Copper River. Also, photos from turn-of-the-19th-century USGS surveys show tall caches in Native villages, including one along the Goodpaster River, a tributary of the Tanana.
During an 1896 journey down the Yukon River, USGS geologist Josiah Spurr’s party built tall caches to protect their supplies while investigating mining areas. In Spurr’s book, “Through the Yukon Gold Diggings,” he explained that the word cache (from the French cacher — to hide) was first applied to tall caches by French Canadian voyageurs, who built the structures to temporarily store supplies. The term was later extended to similar structures built by North American aboriginal peoples.
Several 1930s ethnographic studies of Alaskan Athabascan groups describe similarly-constructed tall caches in widely separated regions, from the Dena’ina of the Kenai Peninsula to the Ingalik of the lower Yukon River. These caches had walls built from thick planks split from spruce logs, with gable roofs usually covered with either spruce or birch bark.
Tall caches are typically supported by four upright spruce poles sunk into the ground, often tilting inward towards each other. The legs’ inward cant lends stability to the structure and also makes it harder for animals to climb the poles. Pole are often peeled to deter climbing. To further discourage marauders the poles’ upper portions are sometimes banded with sheet metal. (On older caches the metal bands were often repurposed food tins.) Some early caches only had three legs, and occasionally, large caches were supported by six legs.
In Alaska’s more developed areas tall caches have been supplanted by freezers and ground-level sheds. In many localities caches exist merely as decoration. Only “off the grid” or in areas with high electricity costs do tall caches still retain their original function.
The cache in the drawing used to stand in Pioneer Park’s Gold Rush Town, next to the Two Finns cabin. Perhaps dating to when the park was constructed in 1967, the cache was torn down in about 2013, a victim of time and decay. Donny Hayes, Pioneer Park’s manager, told me that the park is not averse to rebuilding the cache if funds become available. Caches were a part of the early Fairbanks landscape — maybe someday Gold Rush Town’s tall cache will return.
Ray Bonnell is a freelance artist, writer and longtime Fairbanks resident. See more of his artwork at www.pingostudio.us.
• Conversation with Donny Hayes, Manager of Pioneer Park
• “Ingalik Material Culture.” Cornelius Osgood. Yale University Publications. 1940
• “Story, Storage, and Symbol: Functional Cache Architecture, Cache Narratives, and Roadside Attractions.” Susan W. Fair. In “Perspectives in Vernacular Architecture,” Vol. 7. 1997
• “The Ethnography of the Tanaina.” Cornelius Osgood. Yale University Publications. 1937
• “Through the Yukon Gold Diggings.” Josiah Spurr. Eastern Publishing Company. 1900