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A wild life

Dan and Jean Gabryszak in the musician days/Yentna Station Roadhouse photo

Cancer has claimed Dan Gabryszak, a backwoods Renaissance man who built a life for himself and his family along the Yentna River north of Anchorage when it was still a wilderness a world away from his California roots.

Everyone who traveled the now popular, Alaska waterway in the past three decades knew, or knew of, Dan and the Gabryszak family at Yentna Station Roadhouse. Today it is a refueling stop or place to grab a burger for riverboat drivers in summer and a winter swarm of snowmachine riders, mushers, fat bikers or the occasional skier.

Forty years ago, it was a considerably different and quieter place where Gabryszak and his wife Jeannette – Jean to friends – nearly starved to death their first winter.

Except they didn’t. They persisted until technology and the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race smiled on them.

“Junior Iditarod found us first,” Dan recalled almost a decade ago. The lodge became a checkpoint for that race and later for the bigger event that bills itself as “The Last Great Race.”

The latter historically followed an overland route to the west of the Yentna River on its way from the now-abandoned checkpoint of Knik and to the community of Skwentna. It moved east to the Yentna in the mid-1980s to take advantage of a trail packed in by growing numbers of snowmachines using the river to visit the recreational cabins popping up in the area.

Music man

Rapidly developing snowmachine technology – today’s machines are as reliable as automobiles and motorcycles – helped Dan and Jean make a go of business that could only be described as farfetched when envisioned by a one-time musician who backed up the likes of Frank Sinatra Jr. and Chubby Checker.

Not quite the Beatles, but headliners in their day. And anyone who was at the roadhouse when Dan got out the guitar would well understand why they wanted him in the band. The man was a talented musician, which is pretty much worth diddly squat in the Alaska Bush.

To survive there, you have to be good at a lot of other things – a pretty good carpenter, cook, electrician, plumber, small engine repairman, hunter, fisherman, freight hauler,  PR man, and, heaven forbid, politician.

A general-purpose lodge welcoming the masses doesn’t survive long in the way the Yentna Roadhouse has unless the owners can get along with almost everybody, and Dan – despite a reputation of being sometimes a little crusty – got along with just about everybody.

He was strange that way. An observer might have described him as a gregarious introvert. He could turn on the charm for the crowd, but seemed even happier when everyone left him alone to the peace and quiet of the wilderness that first drew him to his Alaska home.

He picked the location for the lodge on Yentna’s Big Bend after staring at its sun-washed banks across from his moose hunting camp in the 1970s. The property was on an inactive bank of a meandering, glacier-fed river, meaning he could build near the river without worry of the lodge washing away.

Plus there was a great beach. The more Dan looked at the place, the more he dreamed about moving there.

“We lived in Anchorage,” he said in an interview years ago. “I played music. I was a whitewater (paddling) freak.”

Who knows where his life might have gone if not for the state of Alaska’s decision to roll out a state, land-distribution scheme that determined his future.

“This came up for open-for-entry,” Dan said. He staked it and the Gabryszaks started building.

“I just envisioned it was going to become prime recreation country,” Dan said. It wasn’t, and as  a result his dream could easily have gone bust.

Lake Creek, a fabled Alaska salmon stream, was miles up the muddy Yentna. Moose hunting in the surrounding forest was limited. Only a handful of snowmachines fought their way past the lodge in the winter. The hideaway cabins for Southcentral Alaska residents that now dot the banks of the Yentna were just starting to pop up.

Wasilla, the nearest community of any size, was about 40, roadless miles to the east, and they weren’t easy miles. Wasilla itself wasn’t much. It would be years until it exploded into one of the fastest growing area in America, and more years before it spawned short-term governor cum national polebrity Sarah Palin.

Outback

Wasilla was still something of an outpost. Yentna was a place beyond the outpost. And Dan and Jean gave it a go anyway.

Dan’s life would never prove rich in the economic sense, but it was fruitful. The Gabryszaks raised six children and helped foster a couple dozen others that needed help.

Meanwhile, their two-story, cedar-shake-sided longhouse along the banks ofthe  glacially muddy little traveled Yentna of the 1980s became a tribute to the entrepreneurial spirit and hardheadedness of Dan and Jean, who hung in through thick and thin.

After the first lean winter in-country, Dan remember Jean warning, “I’ll give you one more year.” After a second winter that proved barely better, the refrain was much the same: “I’ll give you one more winter.”

She is left to solder on alone although the kids have largely taken of the operation of the lodge where there are always chores demanding to be done. It is not an easy life, but easier than it was four decades past.

“It is a different way of life,” said Jean, who still isn’t sure how she ended up living it. She was working as a dispatcher for the fire department in Reno, Nev., when she met Dan. He’d gone from a difficult childhood in Los Angeles to some early years doing hard manual labor in Seattle to the musician touring with Sinatra Jr. and Checkers.

“I’d stay in some places for a while,” Dan said. “I’d run rivers. I’d fish.”

He hung out in Steamboat Springs for a time, and then went to work as a musician in Reno.

“I picked him up in a bar there,” Jean said. “He wanted me to quit my job and go to Stanley, Idaho, to open a river rafting company.”

Jean said no way; she wasn’t going to Stanley. She was the one who offered Alaska as an option.

“I’d always wanted to go to Alaska,” she said. “I don’t know why. I don’t really remember why.”

Dan didn’t care why. Alaska sounded great to him. If it wasn’t Stanley, he said, it was either Alaska or Australia, and Australia has lots of little creepy, crawly things. Dan preferred Alaska where the dangers are more obvious, like the grizzly bear that ripped its way through the bottom of his storage shed and was throwing out bags of dog food when Dan confronted it before running it off.

It was the big wild life in the big wild, and Dan loved it.

 

 

16 replies »

  1. Thanks for a great article about a wonderful man. I always enjoyed him when I was in Yentna! You have really brought him to life in this article. He will be missed by so many!

  2. I have the honor of knowing Dan and Jean and staying at the Station as the ham and medic for various races over the years. They were wonderful hosts, and listening to Dan play in the evenings was a rare treat. Ironically, one year when I showed up after missing the previous race, they were shocked because they heard that I had died. Now, I hear that Dan has passed on. I could wish this was a mistaken rumor too, but I am not selfish enough to keep him back from Heaven. God Speed, Dan! And Jean, we all love you.

  3. Thanks for the fitting eulogy, Craig. He was a rare bird, like many long timers on the river increasingly seeming gone too soon.

  4. Thank you Craig Medred for sharing this beautiful story of another Alaskan who will be missed. Wish I had met him.

  5. Since the first year when the JR. Iditarod used Yentna Station for their layover I have known the Gabryszak family and always with great memories and affection. This family is what old time Alaska was all about and I will miss Dan and all that his family and way of life stand for. See you on the other side Dan, and may God Bless you and yours.

  6. A great man . A wonderful family. An amazing partnership with his wife. May we all aspire to our dreams yet not make them our master . Im honored to live in the same state as such an adventurous, courageous ,giving person.

  7. Craig, what a wonderful article and tribute to Dan and his family. My first trip to Yetna station was back in 1982…every time since then it has been an absolutely wonderful experience. I loved to sit and listen to him play his guitar….Dan, Jean and the kids have always been willing to assist anyone. Whether it be helping us mushers square away a dog team, or as pilots helping to load/unload an airplane…or even help us when we get a little bit stuck. Dan will be greatly missed…

  8. Dan was such a character! He will be missed. Yentna Station won’t be the same. You are in my prayers, Jean.

  9. Pretty sure I didn’t meet him, but Yentna holds a warm—literally and figuratively—place in my heart as my first Iditarod checkpoint. 1982. Traveled there with Norman Vaughn. “Cool, first checkpoint, only about a thousand miles to go.”

  10. I’ve know the Gabryszak’s for over 25 years and watched their children grow up. What a wonderful family. I will miss my conversations with Dan the River Man.

  11. Dan was one of the first guys that I ever met when I started my project of building a cabin on the Yentna. I can still remember him pulling up next to me on a snowmachine as I adjusted a load of lumber on my sled. “You are new on the river…” Was how he greeted me. He proceeded to tell me that I was welcome anytime at the “Station” and that he had warm meals, hot coffee and cold beer. Since that day over a decade ago, I have been a welcome guest at the Yentna Station many of times and enjoyed many good meals and the ability to warm up after hours of cold winter travel on the frozen Yentna. Dan, Jean & their sons have always gone the extra mile to help me anytime that I stopped at the station for food or fuel. My deepest condolences to the entire Gabryszak family and many thanks for all your help over the years.

  12. Dan and Jean were great hosts for the volunteers of the Iditarod. Most teams didn’t stay long in Yetna but the volunteers that had been there before always wanted to go in early and stay late.
    I always enjoyed the kids, they were as entertaining as Dan and his guitar.
    He will surely be missed by folks from all over the world they experienced the hospitality of Yetna station

    • Sorry to read of yet another unique Alaskan crossing the gravel bar. In the early 80’s he would often pass by our F&G sonar/fish-wheel camp at mile seven on the Yetna. I recall the river flooding and filled with trees, debris, sweepers and silt; Dan salvaging floating propane tanks and rescuing boats that many new “remote land barons” were sure they had stored safely up by the trees. His PFD at the time was an old puffy Navy Mae-West and unlaced bunny boots, an d a grin. Deepest Condolences.

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