Mark Marette spoke on April 27, 1996 at the Land's End Resort in Homer, Alaska for a Communities of Memory meeting where people told stories about life in Homer. In this recording, Mark talks about how he came to settle in Homer, working on homesteads, starting his own business, and a special horse named Lila Mae who perished in a flood.
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Coming to Homer
Working on homesteads
Working in town
Starting a horse back riding business
Becoming a horse farrier
Horses in Alaska
His horse Lila Mae
Poem about Lila Mae
Hunting trip gone wrong
Getting his horses back
Looking for Lila Mae
Other special horses
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MARK MARETTE: Well, 20 years ago I left the place where I was raised and was looking for a new life and a lifestyle, you know, something of my own.
I traveled around the United States for about a year, and I ended up in the mountains of Colorado.
And there I got a teepee, bought my horse and kind of went back to the land.
Well this horse I bought, I bought from a girl who was moving to Alaska.
And she sold this horse to me because Alaska was no place for horses.
Well, about five, six years later I had a truck and a horse trailer, and I found myself on the AlCan Highway, heading to Homer, Alaska.
And that's where I ended up, me and my horse, whose name is Thunder.
I've been here now for about 15 years. And one of the things I found about Homer that brought me here in the beginning was there was a lot of young people.
I was fairly young myself at that time.
There was a year-round economy. Early '80s there was still a lot of winter fishing, things like that.
And there was great agricultural potential. I don't know if that was on your guys' list, but it was on my list when I was looking around Alaska for a place to live.
And the beauty. We've heard it mentioned, many times.
And that was one thing that I was looking for in my life, a place where I could live and do the things I wanted to do.
And Homer seemed to be able to offer me that.
So I came to this town, and I ended up at a ranch homestead out East End Road, and, you know, I set up my teepee and started into that rural life.
I became the ranch hand there, making hay, building fence, doing whatever you did to survive there.
And it wasn't always the ranching lifestyle. Sometimes it was the survival lifestyle, because you were fighting nature, doing whatever you wanted to do.
The old homesteader came through this place, and he would tell the stories of what it took him in the 10 or 15 years before that time to make this place into a home.
Brown bears, you know, wolves, whatever, fighting it all. It all happened out there.
Well, I stayed at that place for about a year and a half, and then I moved out to another homestead, remote, at the head of the bay.
And when I moved into this place, it had been 20 years since it had been lived in.
And there, in the living room on the end table, the tide book was open to August of 1964.
Here this family -- their oldest child was of that school age, and it was time to move into Homer and so they left all this stuff.
And, you know, the cabin just stayed there. It was locked up.
Not a lot of things happened. There was all kinds of neat old things on the shelf, you know. It just really intrigued me to go into this place.
One of the things I found was right up in the loft and it was laundry detergent.
And it still had phosphates in it, and they even, you know, said right there on the box that they had it, and they were really proud of this fact.
There was the wood-burning cookstove.
You know, there was canned goods that I was assured were still quite edible, but many of them made it into the compost heap or, you know, wherever.
Well, then next spring I was working for this guy and he told me he really didn't have the money, which a lot of these ranchers did to pay me through the winter.
And that I could continue feeding and calving out all his cows for the rest of the winter for free.
Well, I decided that I had better things to do. And so that day I went to town.
It was the first time I'd been to town in five months!
And I found a job, and I went to another rancher, and he had a cabin on their place, and I moved into this place.
Well, this job I found was a town job. And it took me away from a lot of the things that I really loved about Homer.
I was having to commute 24 miles to town every day.
This cabin, you know, was well off the road system. The end of East End Road was not as nice as it is today.
I rode my horse. I walked. I snowshoed. I skied, whatever I could, to get to the end of the road, and then I still had to do the 22 miles to get to town to do my job.
And, you know, all this time my thoughts were there with me, of how to find this lifestyle and everything that I wanted again.
I didn't want to spend my time out there.
Well, I was making money, though. So I bought a few more horses and I kept dreaming.
And one day I loaded those horses up in a horse trailer and I pulled down to the Homer Spit with them.
And I hung out a ride -- a sign that said "Horse Rides."
And that was the start of my business here in this town, 11 years ago.
Now in that time, I've got to meet a lot of you, your family, the visitors to Alaska, and that's been really, really important with me.
It helped develop my sense in this community.
When I first came in, I was out there, spending a lot of alone time.
And now here I was getting to meet the people in this town.
I was getting to meet their family and their friends when they came to visit.
And these were people out having fun. Now, you wouldn't go on a horseback ride if you didn't want to.
That person would stay home, stay at the B and B, go down to Land's End to have a drink, or the Salty Dawg, a sandwich somewhere.
They weren't on the back of the horse. So these were people out having a great time, and they were good people to be with.
I also, after a couple of years, went out to farrier school, and learned how to trim horses' feet. So that put me into a whole 'nother crowd of people's yards.
Now, I'd already been doing my own shoeing work for probably about 10 years and, you know, I'd nickle and dimed around with a few friends and doing work on their horses' feet too.
But it was a funny thing. You know, there's certain crowds in the animal community, and they only do certain things a certain way.
And I just told a few of these people I was going to shoeing school, and they immediately were calling me over to their yard to do their horses' feet.
It did not matter that I had not been to my education yet, or anything.
Two weeks beforehand, they would not have had me over there to do their horses' feet, but now that I had these great dreams and aspirations I was allowed to come in and start touching their horses' feet.
In the hopes that when I came back I would be able to help all these people with their problems that they were having in their yard.
So that was another way I got to meet people in this community, and it was great.
I sat there, and would go into people's yards, and they were much different.
You know, there were some guys who just had, you know, hack and tack operation there, and the horse was tied out to a tree behind the house.
And there was somebody else who had just gone out and bought the new truck, bought the new trailer, you know, was doing everything the right way.
Not necessarily the horse they bought was the right horse, but it happens at times.
So they had a lot of different things happening to them there.
It was a lot of fun. It put me back in touch with, really, who I was.
I was working with people. I was getting out in the country.
And it was getting me into a piece of Alaska that I really enjoyed, and that was the reason I came here when I did come here, was to enjoy the beauty and people and the lifestyle that I really wanted.
Well, horses was -- Alaska wasn't a place for horses.
Here me and my horse were there. I ended up having, you know, four, five, six horses in the yard and we're all doing quite well.
Horses came to Alaska on the first steamships up here, and a lot of time they got higher berthage than the people on board because they were so valuable when they got up here.
Hay went for $1400 a ton 100 years ago, going over the Chilkoot Trail.
It was just amazing.
I ended up with horses in my string from a lot of local people -- the Kilchers, the Tietjens, Elton Anderson.
My horses were related to horses that had come to this country for 100 years and people who had lived in this community for quite some time.
And that brought a lot of these people together. You know, sharing these animals, doing work for other people who came into the community, at a time Alaska didn't have a road system They had trails. That's how you got around here.
Besides the dogs in the winter or doing in on, you know, your own foot.
It was the horse that did it. So it was pretty nice to see all these animals and to talk to people in these different areas and find out how these animals were related to the different stories or the different people who had been in this community for 70 or 80 years. It was fascinating.
Well, one of the horses I ended up with came from a local ranch here, and she was born right after I got here to Alaska.
And this mare was there at the ranch, and the guy who'd bought the homestead, you know, got this horse with it, and he acquired a couple more horses.
Well, that first summer, she was putting on a hay belly like you wouldn't believe. And I was, like, "Well, has this mare ever been near a stud?" "Oh, no, no, no, no," they guaranteed me around this place.
"This horse has never been near a stud." Well, she kept getting bigger and bigger and wide as a boat, and, sure enough, about the end of September, go out there into the horse pen, and there's this mare standing with a little foal.
So I asked the hired hand who'd told me this story, and I says, "Well, I thought she'd never been near a stud."
He says, "Well, when we bought this ranch last fall, we went to the head of the bay, rounding up the cows, and we were up there with a neighbor.
And there was one night there where, you know, his horse and her spent the night in the corral together."
And I said, "Well, didn't your mama ever tell you? It only took one night."
So this little horse was there, and she was in my life.
Another funny thing about this mare -- I heard this story a few years later, and I was just getting ready to sell this mare and she was pregnant, and gonna have her fourth foal, and be moving to Ninilchik, and I had all her offspring in the yard.
And I was talking to a Russian fellow down at the head of the bay, and I guess she'd lived at the head of the bay for quite some time and run on the flats.
And there was always a little range horse stud up there, and she'd never had a foal.
And one time she'd been taken out, and they put a saddle on her back and it was the wrong fitting saddle and sored out this mare's back real, real bad.
So she ended up with a case of fistula of the withers, and they had to treat this. And she healed up, but she never did get all the hair back on her back.
And they just assumed that when she hurt her back, that was the reason she didn't have foals anymore.
And, for the life of me, you know, I couldn't figure this out, how hurting your back had nothing to with having babies.
But this was, you know, the opinion that they'd come to on this horse.
Well, she grew to be quite the horse and was part of my string.
And we had a lot of good times together. But she was a feisty little horse and had quite a bit of the mare's attitude, and if I ever had a vet around who spay mares, she would have been my classic, you know, horse to have gone in and had her spayed just to settle her mood swings down.
So I'd get to talking with her with people that would come in, and I would tell them just point blank, "Well, this little mare's got PMS."
And, you know, it was usually a woman I was putting on this horse, 'cause, you know, they like that little bit of zest that she had.
And you know, some of them immediately reached down and just give her a big old hug on the neck and give her a pat and say, "You know, I just feel just the same as you, baby."
Or their friends would be along and, yoy know, saying, "Well, you know, you gave that horse to the perfect person."
And the other gals would be reaching over and they'd be just about ready to bop me off that horse.
You know, it was just like, "Watch your tongue." And I'd have to tell them point blank, "Well, I wouldn't run a stud in my herd for the same reason."
Well, a couple weeks ago here, we had a cowboy poetry gathering here in town.
And, you know, the western lore has always been an oral type thing.
You know, guys get together, they tell their stories, they have their songs, they do whatever.
And a few years ago down in the States, they finally started organizing this stuff, and it's become quite popular. Down in Elko, Nevada, they're getting on their 12th or their 15th year of doing this thing.
And people get together and they tell all their yarns about what happens in life.
And so I decided to write one. And I've wrote a few over the years, and, you know, even touched into a few things that people were saying down the way, so it's real hard, which one I want to read to you guys here today.
But this is one that, you know, exemplifies to me a reason of why I moved to Alaska, and why I live the lifestyle I do, and why I'm here with you guys all and doing what I do.
And this is about that little horse that was born out at the ranch.
And it shoots straight from the hip. You know, I don't keep anything hiding away, and it's not the easiest story, but it's a story about living here and living the way that we do, or at least the way that I choose to live.
And, here we go --
I lost a good horse the other day. A horse I'd come to call Lila Mae.
Her story starts at roundup late in the fall of '82.
Seems Ed Wolf's mare, Stormy, and Tietjen's stud, Sparse, did something they didn't think she could do.
But about the first of October, the very next fall
Stormy had a bay filly with her there in the stall.
I stayed around that ranch for about another year
Before packing my horse and my saddle, and packing my gear.
But the next year I watched that little filly grow.
She was a little small like the stud, but she had plenty of get up and go.
Plus, like her mama, she was second to none
Kept most of the rest of those feedlot horses continually on the run.
Well right about the time that filly turned three
I traded some work and I brought that horse home for free.
This horse came with the name of Fara, But I already had a horse name of Sara.
And I decided they sounded too much the same, So I changed her name.
I named that horse Lila Mae
After a 67-year-old lady who still rode just about every day.
Now she was young, already pregnant, and not even broke
But gentle enough, I figured before long she'd be rode by dudes and everyday common folk.
And sure enough, she was easy to train. She was real responsive and always minded the rein.
So I put her to work the very next spring,
An instant success in my dude string.
And in the next nine years, that little mare never quit She worked the head of the bay and seven summers on the Homer Spit.
Yeah, she rode with a lot of kids in this here town,
Half a dozen girls around her could always be found.
LeeAnn, Crystal, Bonnie, Sarah, Katie, to name a few.
They never wanted to ride another horse, even if that horse in the string was brand new.
No, that horse in their hearts she was the only one.
To all those kids, she was second to none.
So the years went by, when Typhoon Oscar came our way Packing a moose with four young horses and Lila Mae.
Big water this time at the head of Kachemak Bay.
Sheep Creek was running bank to bank
Already starting to look pretty rank.
It was raising about six inches an hour.
This crossing looked like it could get pretty sour.
It would probably be days before it reached its peak.
We'd be stuck here for at least a week.
So I tied down all the loads good and tight.
This river looked like it was ready to fight. And then I took all the stirrups up to their top notch,
Stepped my horse into the river -- the water was already up to my crotch.
Lila Mae was carrying the hinds, The four young horses next in line.
I was getting pushed way down stream.
What happened next is still like a dream.
I looked behind to see what I'd find. The memory still, it isn't very kind.
Right away, things had started to go wrong.
The water was running too fast for a string that long.
The force of the river was just too great.
The mare was carrying too much weight.
She tried taking a few little leaps, But she was getting pulled, way down deep.
Then she started to roll, taking the rest of the string with
Deep sixed with a downward pull.
My partner following behind asked, "What can I do?"
"Just stay out of this mess. I don't want to have to worry about you."
It looked like the whole string was lost. Could I save anything? I knew what it might cost.
Weighing the value of my own life,
I swam my horse around that tangle, looking to use my knife.
Right away I got three horses loose from the rear
A big tangle, plunging hoofs, kept trying to stay clear.
One more horse getting pulled way down.
Just enough time to circle once more around. Somehow I got that colt unclipped,
But from the saddle, I'd been ripped.
I made a quick grab for that horse,
Before being grabbed again by the river's force.
My lifeline had just been torn,
Then I got ahold of their tail, the pommel, then the horn.
Then it was all over pretty fast. The river had won. The dice had been cast.
The packhorses each swam to shore
But where there were five, now only four.
I watched her roll only once more,
Then she sunk in the current and I headed for shore.
Another of life's lessons, oh what a price.
Still my memories of that ride aren't very nice.
Yes, I lost a good horse down Kachemak Bay.
She was just six days short of her 12th birthday.
This was a horse I'd called Lila Mae.
That horse came into my life, and she came into a lot of other people's life in this community, kids, adults.
Not everybody knows the story of what happened that day, but, you know, she was an important part -- she came into my life the day I came to this town, just like all of you did, and since that time.
And it was, you know, real hard to lose that horse.
But life continued on, right from that moment.
I had to sit there and worry about the rest of the horses. I had to worry about myself.
Here we were on the bank of a river. We were trapped. Things were just getting worse.
This river was rising and rising, and we had to regroup.
So immediately, it's like, you know, what's gonna happen? We're stuck here.
You know, who are we gonna depend on?
Well the first thing I'd told my friend's girlfriend when we left, I said, "Don't worry about us."
The last thing in the world I want when I'm out there is people sending helicopters and everything looking for me.
And he says, "So who's gonna rescue us?" And I said, "Nobody." I says, "We'll just do our time."
So we were up there for quite a bit of time and had a lot of time to think.
We watched the river rise higher and higher.
You know, we had to deal with survival issues.
Pretty soon, within the next day, it got to the point where trees, whole trees, were going by every 30 seconds.
The river had crested its bank.
The water was coming over the bank and coming up to this door of this small cabin where we were staying.
All our gear was on the other side, but fortunately the cattleman's cabin was there, so we had a place, you know, where we could hang our hat and at least be safe.
Well, now it was to the point where, were we safe there?
You know, it was backing up -- and there weren't even high tides happening -- right to the door.
There was an old rowboat behind this place that hadn't been used in years. And we dug this out, life vests, oars, a bailing bucket, and we started an evacuation plan.
You know, trying to figure out how to save our lives if it came down to it. You know, could we do this?
Well, it ended up it never got to that point. But the next day we were sitting there and we're outside and all of a sudden this big roar just happens up the valley, and it sounded like a dam burst.
And with as much water as there was, there was a great possibility that something had happened up there.
And our immediate thoughts were that, you know, there's a tidal wave or something coming down this river valley.
And we're sitting out there on the Fox River Flats and there's nowhere we can go but a cottonwood tree.
And what good would a cottonwood tree do us?
You know, so we're going from one calamity to the next, trying to survive in this great land.
And nothing happened. You know to this day, I don't know what happened up there, unless it was some type of electrical-type, you know, storm that was up there.
But the water never surged on the way down, and we were still there.
The river kept rising. Every day I would go out and follow it as far as I could, out, looking for a way to go.
Finally, I'd had horses working in the Caribou Hills, and it clicked with somebody that I wasn't coming back, and this man flew his plane over.
And here the sense of community started coming out.
He was trying to figure out where we were, and he wanted to get rid of my horses, too, it was one of his ulterior motives -- but finding us.
So he came flying over the head of the bay, and it's a big country, and he finally found my other horses and saw we were all right.
Went back to town. He packed up a big survival box worth of stuff that he could drop out a plane.
And, of course, he had a heck of a sense of humor. He saw how the head of the bay was and he immediately -- a big black magic marker on the top of this box, he writes, "See you in the spring."
He's gonna drop this off to us, just figuring that we're stuck there for a heck of a long time and he's gonna have to deal with what he's gotta deal with out there.
Well, we'd been up there four or five days, and the river's finally dropped to a point where I was hoping something would happen.
The weekend came along, and I was just sitting out there on the flats on a high point of land on one of my horses when, sure enough, a duck hunter sightseer type person comes up the way in a skiff.
And, you know, some of them can be fairly temperamental when you're cowboying up there and they don't want you kinda running through the mess of what they've got going on, because you're scaring the ducks or scaring the geese.
And so, you know, you always respect that stuff.
So I was watching this boat go up the river and I'm not sitting there going like this trying to show my predicament.
And so finally they go by and they look, "You know, that looks like Mark sitting up on that knoll there, just there. What's he doing?"
So they pull into the shore a little bit above me and they come over and they go, "What's going on."
And I said, "Well, I didn't want to scare your duck hunting if that's what you're doing," but I explained our whole calamity to me -- what we had going on.
And they immediately dropped everything they were doing -- you know, beached their boat, gave me a hand.
We went over to the cabin where we were, packed up what was left of the moose meat, which by that time, getting drowned in the river and five days sitting in the hills -- it had been a daily process of trying to save this meat, and, you know, a winter livelihood.
And all of our gear, we packed it over to the river. This man took us downstream, right to where I wanted to get dropped off on the flats.
Helped me carry all my gear up into the brush.
You know, totally went out of their way. And they were getting messed up with the tides.
It ended up when they went out that evening, they got stuck on the flats for the night, till the tide raised them back up and they could get loose. But that was just something they didn't even consider twice, giving us a hand like that.
Another guy was on this side of the river and he had a four-wheeler and he gave my buddy a ride to the end of the road.
And that was the start of the end of our story.
It was all over, you know, really quick. We got out. I took care of my horses that were in the hills.
Called a few friends up. We immediately butchered that moose and got it all in the freezer, and I've eaten a lot of burger this year. There wasn't many steaks and roasts left. But, you know, we saved it.
I had to go back up to the head of the bay a few times and try to get my animals out of there.
They were still stuck up there.
And, you know, I pulled up to those rivers and I'd seen, you know, what had happened.
I had a pair of chest waders, and I got one of my biggest horses, and the glacial silt was just piled up there with the high tides, and trees jammed all over the place, but, you know, I didn't think twice.
I went swimming across those rivers, and I had my knife right there in case something was happening, so I could cut myself out of those waders, or whatever.
But I did it, and I slowly got all those horses out of there.
Took a pack trip the next weekend.
Reorganized all my gear. I had people in town waiting to get out in the hills.
And we went, again, up to the head of the bay. And you saw what the flood had done to the valley. It was incredible.
And, of course, these gals were living the story, you know, after the flood. And you know, my loss was still pretty big at that time, from just losing the horse and being stuck up there for a few days.
And, it was pretty much over. I had other things to do with the fall -- a 10-day pack trip up to Tustumena, things like that.
When that horse -- bad news. You know, there's a horse up in Aurora Lagoon."
Well, I immediately called that guy up and told him to nix that message.
You know, that I'd gotten it. So I was running out somewhere on a trip the next morning, but two tides later I got a friend to come along and he was gonna give me a hand.
Maybe we could end this story right then and there in a seine skiff, and so we went up there looking for my horse.
He brought his daughter along. She was one of the gals who loved this horse.
You know, it's like, "Well, is this a smart idea?" And he says, "No, this is an Alaskan child."
You know, and she was very much prepared for what we would find when we went into Aurora Lagoon.
And, you know, I don't know if I was prepared for what I'd find, but this is what I had to do, and this was the way, you know, I'd chose to live.
Well, we got in there. We didn't find her.
You know, she'd already been swept out by the tide, or whatever had happened.
But, you know, the little gal, typical Alaskan gal, there was a whole bunch of sea gulls parked over on a little reef on the beach, and she says, "There she is over there. The sea gulls are eating on her."
And I'm just like, "My God." You know, you can't second guess these Alaskan kids.
They've grown up here and they've had all these experiences, whether they're homesteaders children or whether they're fishermen, or they're living in town.
They've been exposed to a lot of things that our families out in the States haven't been.
And, so we came back to town. I went to Tustumena for 10 days, and my horse finally did come into the Homer Spit while I was gone. And, you know, that ended her traveling tale right there.
You know, it was the end of it there, you know, for that little horse and me, but things continue to go on.
I continue doing more trips.
You know, I don't have any new foals in the yard this spring, but I ended up with a couple more horses over the winter in my yard.
One of them, she had been passed around from yard to yard.
People wanted a horse, you know, they thought they could do a lot of work with her, and she just ended up just not working in anybody's yard.
And she's a pretty rank little horse.
So by the time I got her last fall, I changed her name. Her name was Rose, and I now call her Tumbleweed, 'cause she was getting passed from yard to yard, and nobody could do her any good.
I'd got home after a trip and I immediately got a phone call from somebody and they were thinking about taking this horse on for their six and seven year old daughter.
And that was it. I brought that horse home and I think, you know, she's hung up on my fence and she might stay around there a little while longer.
Thunder? My horse I came up the Alaska High with -- the Alaska Highway with. He turns 21 this year.
That's getting to be an older horse. You know, I definitely see the age in him there.
And he's been with a lot of people in this community. People are always asking me how my horses are before they ever ask how I am.
And, you know, you kind of wonder where you all relate in that thing. But, you know, it's real, real important.
One of my friends up on the ridge was sitting there and she heard her child in the back room talking one day, and she was talking this kid name -- you know, to somebody named Mark.
And she kept hearing these conversations going on, this kid talking to somebody named Mark.
So finally, she was kind of concerned that maybe somebody had broke in the house or something was going on back there.
And go to find out the kids were playing cowboys and Indians or whatever back there, and they'd named their cowboy doll after me. So I guess I do have a little bit of a spot here in this town.
Well, with Thunder turning 21, you know, I decided there's probably something I oughtta do for him, you know, at least, besides giving him a carrot, apple or rub, or taking him on another ride -- which is the last thing he wanted to do.
So, you know, I might just have a birthday party for him this year.
And you know, I might just take him to the bar. You never know. I might just even ride him into the bar.