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Bristol Bay historian John Branson to retire from National Park Service

Hannah Colton / KDLG

The marathon hiker who chronicled the lives of regional legends Dick Proenneke and John W. Clark will soon retire, moving on to new adventures of his own. 

For nearly 30 years, John Branson has been studying Bristol Bay as the historian for Lake Clark National Park. He’s published 11 books, including “The Life and Times of John W. Clark of Nushagak” and two volumes of homesteader Dick Proenneke’s journals. This winter, the historian will hang up his hat, at least officially. 

Audio transcript:

John Branson just got back from Anchorage with a box of fresh peaches, so he’s invited some Park Service friends over for pie.

Everyone marvels over the pie crust, browned in his wood burning stove.

“It has a nice oven,” he points out. “This is what I’ve used basically every day I’ve been here since 1989.”

Living in a cabin like this was Branson’s dream ever since he was a kid, playing in the woods in a small town near Portland, Maine.

“I was interested in history from a young age,” he says. "I thought I wanted to live like the frontiers people did.”

Branson got the “Alaska bug” when his father took him on a boat tour of Southeast Alaska at the age of 12. So after college, he took a job as a high school social studies teacher in Naknek. He recalls some school board members were unhappy he had talked in his class about his opposition to the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, so he wasn’t hired back for a second year.

He took it as his opportunity to start learning to live off the land. For the next couple years Branson worked at a cannery and wintered, often alone, at a hunting camp on the Alaska Peninsula outside Port Heiden.  

“I was just enjoying that immensely, and learned a lot,” Branson remembers. “You have to really have your wits about you, so you don’t drown, or cut yourself with an axe, or you don’t accidentally shoot your foot off. There’s all kinds of hidden dangers lurking when you’re all by yourself, so you’re extra careful or you should be, otherwise you’re not gonna survive… Well, here I am.”

Through his hard work and attention to detail, Branson not only survived but made himself indispensable to people he met. Up on Lake Clark in 1974, he was asked to take care of the homestead of then gubernatorial candidate Jay and Bella Hammond.

The Hammond homestead is also where Branson met Dick Proenneke, the famed homesteader up at Twin Lakes. Proenneke would occasionally visit to help out with building projects, and the two would go for long hikes together.  

“I learned a lot from Proenneke, sharp guy,” says Branson. “Just tireless, I never saw him get tired. He had a constitution that was amazing, I guess.”

Throughout all those years of hard work, Branson was a historian at heart. He had an excellent memory and kept journals on his activities and people he met around Lake Clark.  

After ten years at the Hammonds’, Branson gave in to suggestions, by his father and by the former governor Jay Hammond, that he take a position with the National park Service. He moved to Port Alsworth, and with a friend, built the small cabin he still lives in.

Now, the cozy home is filled with maps and books about baseball and American history.

Branson shows me an impressive first edition collection of Lewis and Clark’s journals. He says it’s accounts like that helped inspire his own work. 

One expedition Branson chronicled is the tale of Macnab and Vreeland, two New Yorkers who came to Lake Clark to hunt sheep in 1921. It took Branson five years to track down their journals, letters and photos, making trips to the East Coast and California to retrieve documents and speak with relatives. His research was so comprehensive that fellow NPS historian Frank Norris told him afterward he’d completed what amounted to a master’s thesis project.

“That was enormously satisfying,” says Branson, “because I’ve just got the undergraduate degree, I don’t have a master’s or anything. So when Frank Norris told me that’s the equivalent, that made me feel really good.”

Now, at 69 years old, Branson has an encyclopedic knowledge of late 19th century-early 20th century Lake Clark and its residents. The people from that era, both Alaska Native and later settlers and explorers, inspired his life’s work. Throughout his career, he’d actually try to re-create their journeys.

For example, he’d heard about one Dena’ina man, Trefon Balluta, who’d hiked 50 miles to re-stock on some provisions.   

“In the summertime, he could come down to Kijik to try to get some more tea and sugar, and he would walk it in one day,” says Branson. “So I tried to do that, and I came close.”  

He says he loves the idea of being able to empathize with those earlier generations, trying to hike light and fast as they would have done.

“So you get the same feeling as they did when they were out on the land,” he explains. “I thought that would help me enhance my abilities as a historian to try to experience what they might have experienced.”

“Do you think you’ve been successful in that?” I asked.

“I think at times I have been, yeah. I think I felt some of the same things the old Native people felt when they were walking across the land.”

Branson was still doing these marathon hikes up until last year, when “Harold” came into the picture. Harold is what he jokingly calls the stoma pouch connected to his abdomen, a kind of external gut he got as a result of Crohn’s disease.

His symptoms are in check now, but he may need more surgery down the road, which is why he’s retiring and moving back to Maine to be closer to doctors. 

But Branson doesn’t have any plans to slow down in retirement. He wants to explore New England, get into archeology, teach kids about climate change, and spend some time in France, where he says he likes the culture.

“I like the two-hour lunches and three or four-hour dinners! The wine, the paintings, the countryside,” he says dreamily. “That kind of stuff.”

Oh, and he plans to write at least two more books. Tireless, you might call him.