One woman’s epic adventures in Southeast Alaska
This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Taku Glacier Lodge. The lodge has had a number of owners, but none stand out as much as the pioneer and adventurer Mary Joyce. Her story is a local legend, but she’s mostly unknown outside of Juneau.
In 1929, Joyce was in her early 20s and working as a nurse in a Los Angeles hospital when she began attending to a patient named Leigh Hackley “Hack” Smith. The charismatic, wealthy, self-destructive young man had been wounded in World War I and needed another surgery to remove shrapnel from his shoulder.
Hack had fired his previous eight nurses. Between physical and mental wounds, Hack had become addicted to morphine and booze. Joyce is remembered as being fearless and sharp, and Hack didn’t fire her. Instead, the two developed a deep bond. Hack’s mother, Erie, offered Joyce the job of being her son’s personal nurse. Never one to shy away from adventure, Joyce soon found herself on a yacht, hunting and sightseeing in southeast Alaska.
After seeing much of the panhandle, Erie, Hack, and Joyce began the journey up the mighty Taku River. The Taku originates from numerous tributaries born from the ancient mountains of British Columbia, before draining through the rugged Coastal Mountain Range into the ocean just south of Juneau. The Taku River Tlingits, who have called the area home since ancient times, once had populous villages and numerous camps in the watershed. By then, most had moved to Juneau or to Atlin and other communities in Canada.
Hack and Joyce fell in love with the Taku at first sight. They stopped at Twin Glacier Lodge—later renamed the Taku Glacier Lodge—across the river from Hole-in-the-Wall Glacier. Frontier doctor Harry DeVighne had built the lodge and hunting camp in 1923. Erie saw how much her son loved the lodge and bought it from DeVighne, hoping, between the Taku River’s beauty and Joyce’s tough love, to save her son’s wounded soul. Erie returned home to the Lower 48, and Hack and Joyce were soon running the lodge when they weren’t off adventuring. Often Hack would disappear to Juneau—it was a half day’s boat ride from the lodge to the capital city—to drink. Joyce would soon chase after him in another boat and haul him back up the river to sober up.
There are stories that Joyce was in love with Hack. How much that was reciprocated is unknown, but, at the very least, Hack was extremely fond of her. Authors Karen Bell and Janet Shelfer wrote in Taku: Four Amazing Individuals – Four Life Stories And the Alaska Wilderness Lodge That Brought Them Together, that Hack gifted Joyce an exceptionally fast boat. His generosity backfired on him as Joyce was now able to easily overtake him whenever he tried to take his own boat to Juneau to get drunk.
Life, especially in the winter, was not easy in the wilds of the Taku River. Dog mushing and carpentry were two of the few things that would calm Hack and keep him from spiraling into the abyss. He and Joyce developed such a passion for dog mushing that they made plans to journey to the Taku River’s upper reaches in Canada and then all the way to Fairbanks. The trip would be 1,000 miles of adventure. That dream seemingly ended in the fall of 1934, when Hack suddenly died. He’d been without Joyce, traveling up the Stikine River on a hunting expedition, when it appears his heart gave out. Afterward, Erie gave Joyce, who’d become like a daughter, ownership of the lodge.
A year later, in spite of being constantly told all the ways she would die or freeze her feet off, Joyce set off to mush to Fairbanks alone. She’d received an invitation to the Fairbanks Ice Carnival and had been asked to be Miss Juneau in the carnival’s beauty contest. She left in December, with the hopes of reaching Fairbanks by early March, when the festivities would start. Her journey had a morbid beginning. She passed by where a moose had fallen through the river’s ice and drowned. Soon after, she came upon two men debating what to do with the body of a “bushed” man who had killed himself upriver. Both were reminders of her vulnerability.
Instead of giving up or dwelling on the darkness, Joyce focused on the beauty of the country and stars. She danced every chance she got, whether at a trapper’s cabin or with the Royal Mountain Canadian Police in Whitehorse. In Mary Joyce: Taku to Fairbanks, 1,000 Miles by Dogsled, a book by Mary Anne Greiner taken mostly from Joyce’s writings, Joyce acknowledged the hardship, darkness and cold—temperatures would dip colder than 50 below—but she wrote more on the freedom and happiness she found along the way.
Joyce made her journey during the end of an era. Airplanes were replacing dogsled teams in the Alaskan and Canadian bush. Much of the route she cut through the wilds would, a few years later, be the route of the Alaska Highway, or ALCAN, through Canada. By the time Joyce made it to the Fairbanks Ice Carnival, newspapers across the nation were telling her story. She declined to enter the beauty contest but took full advantage of the festivities. At the end of the book, Joyce reflected on her journey.
“I did have three months of perfect happiness. I found what I was looking for…I saw in the hearts of men and women and found everything that was good and beautiful there. And if there is a God I have been closer to him than I ever have been before, and if there isn’t, then what is my soul longing for? I know this wilderness is not all desolation. I saw on a dark grey day for one moment God come out and with one sweep of His brush painted the tips of His cottonwood trees to gold.”
After Joyce flew home from Fairbanks, she changed the name of Twin Glacier Lodge to the Taku Lodge. Joyce continued to take full advantage of life by becoming one of the first Alaskan female bush pilots, a military advisor, a Hollywood consultant and actor, and a bar owner to name just a few of her accomplishments.
Today, her snowshoes, dog sled, and expedition mittens are hanging from the wall of the Taku Glacier Lodge. Mike and Jessalyn Ward, who manage the lodge, enjoy thinking of her and sharing the place she loved and her story with their guests. Mike’s family bought the lodge in 1992, when he was six years old. Mike grew up surrounded by glaciers, salmon, and bears. The lodge has become a lifelong love affair. After graduating high school and considering a few other careers, he returned with his wife, Jessalyn, to manage it. They now have three young boys who are enjoying a similar sort of upbringing to Mike’s. He sometimes reflects on Joyce and is pretty sure she’d be happy to see how the lodge looks today.
“Mary Joyce was an incredible woman. A pioneer for sure,” he said. But for all the glamour surrounding her, she had some serious grit.
For more information on visiting the Taku Glacier Lodge, see wingsairways.com.
Bjorn Dihle is Alaska magazine’s gear editor and writes for several publications. His latest book is A Shape in the Dark: Living and Dying with Brown Bears.