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.
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.
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.