I think about Kathy Johnson and her delicious cookies every time I drive past Nenana.
Thirty years ago, I hopped aboard the tugboat M.V. Tanana for its final trip of the season, from Nenana to Russian Mission on the Yukon River. We had lots of time to get acquainted. She was the cook for that trip on Yutana Barge Lines.
The memento she gave me after that journey still is perched on the corner of a bulletin board at my home office even after all these years — a dark blue corduroy baseball cap with a circular patch from Hobo’s Yukon Inn at Galena. She carefully beaded three rows of gold, silver and blue beads along the brim of the hat, around the patch and up to the crown.
We exchanged Christmas cards over the years — she was way more dedicated to that than me — but we never ran into each other in person. Earlier this year, I was in Nenana working on a story about the Ice Classic, and I decided to track her down.
I went to lunch at the Nenana Senior Center and the director offered to call her. “I’m not going to tell her you are here,” she said, “It will be a surprise.”
When she arrived, I recognized her immediately. The first thing she said to me was, “I knew it was you.”
She said she wished she had done a better job beading the hat, but I told her I thought it was perfect just the way it is. Of course, I brought it with me, along with the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner stories that then-photographer Mike Mathers and I put together for the Daily News-Miner’s Sunday magazine, Heartland.
Of course, we reminisced about that trip. It was a challenging one due to shorter days and low water. Usually, it takes just 20 hours to travel from Nenana to Tanana. It took us five days.
A high point for me was that Jack Coghill and his wife, Frances, were on the trip taking a mini vacation as far as Tanana. So I spent many hours in the pilothouse just talking with them. Jack Coghill knew every bend of the river, the name of every hillside and every stream that flowed into the Tanana River. I know how lucky I was to share that time with him.
Kathy Johnson kept seven hungry crew members, plus me and a photographer, fed every day. Here is an excerpt from that 1989 story “Last Barge Out”:
“The M.V. Tanana was blessed this season with a cooking machine named Kathy Johnson.
“Last summer, the crew of another tugboat offered $1,000 cash to the crew Johnson fed, if they would give her up. Her crew turned down the cash.
“Up at 4 a.m. every day, Johnson, 46, cooked three huge meals a day. She also concocted a continual smorgasbord of homemade cinnamon rolls, crunchy cookies and steaming brownies. It was hard to walk past the galley counter without peeking into the cookie box to see what smelled so good.”
When the barge ran aground in low water, the galley, located near the stern, vibrated mercilessly. Every time the engine roared, the galley lurched forward as it tried to slide off a sandbar.
Johnson usually had to yell to be heard.
“When I get home, my husband is always telling me, ‘Will you quit yelling?’” she said.
The crew ate anything Johnson cooked, but she doesn’t do that kind of cooking anymore.
Baking cookies is still her specialty. I think I’ll have to visit again next time I am in Nenana.
Reach columnist/community editor Kris Capps at firstname.lastname@example.org. Call her at the office 459-7546. Follow her on Twitter: @FDNMKris.