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A sneak peek at the Walter Harper monument

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Jeremiah Howe, left and John Thies strap up the bronze monument depicting Walter Harper's ascent of Denali with the help of Jacob Wright, right. The statue was installed on Wednesday, July 13.

A statue honoring the first climber to summit Denali will be unveiled on Tuesday in downtown Fairbanks. The heavy, bronze statue of Walter Harper has already arrived in town.

Jeremiah Howe worked to open the huge shipping crate that held the statue. The rain had cleared recent wildfire smoke and had held off Wednesday so the area in front of the Doyon, Limited building was dry.

Waiting for a lift truck to arrive was Bill Gordon of the Walter Harper Project. The statue is the peak, (no pun intended) of work for the Project – a committee of historians and relatives of the Athabacan man who was the first to reach the top of Denali. Bill Gordon says the open area looking over the Chena River will allow people to get up close and touch the statue.

“When we first put this whole thing together and talked to artists about what kind of a statue we wanted, we wanted an interactive area. Something that people can come and touch and be inspired by and enjoy in the whole area, rather than looking up at a figure that, that they really couldn't relate to,” Gordon said.

Walter Harper was a 20-year-old Koyukon man who hiked with Archdeacon Hudson Stuck, Harry Karstens and Robert Tatum to the mountain in 1913. Harper is credited with bolstering the success of the expedition because of his subsistence know-how, general health and athleticism, and his good cheer. His positive attitude was noted in many others’s journals and letters in many parts of Alaska. That attitude of helping others was something the committee wanted to see reflected in the statue’s design.

“So this has been built in order for visitors to come and they can actually step up and reach. Touch Walter's hand as if he was helping them up the mountain, which is what the image is, is depicting is his, his, uh, energy that helped everybody up the mountain when they made that ascent in 1913,” Gordon said.

John Thies and workers from his company, Worry Free Alaska, put straps around the heavy bronze. And the lift truck run by Jacob Wright pulls the whole thing off the crate and into the air.

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John Thies guides the Walter Harper monument to its plinth. Helping to position it are Bill Gordon, (left) of the Walter Harper Project, and Ethan Woody (behind plinth) and Jeremiah Howe.

Sculptor Gary Lee Price, who already has other work in Fairbanks, did another piece to go with the main one that show Harper against a wall of rock. And it’s a dog. Price wanted to show how important sled dogs were to the expedition. That also was lifted into place.

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John Thies checks the placement of "Snowball" who represents the role sled dogs played in the first summitting of Denali in 1913. Assisting is Jeremiah Howe.

A handful of two-foot high replicas were made by the sculptor, Gary Lee Price. There are also about two dozen smaller replicas, about a foot tall, that the Project hopes will be distributed to some Alaska schools, to enhance the teaching of Harper’s story.

“And our goal is to put a couple of Mary Erlander's books into every school.”

That book is Emeritus Professor Mary Ehrlander’s 2017 history called Walter Harper, Alaska Native Son.

“We're in the process now of designing a curriculum for grade schools and high schools to add to their Alaska history, uh, the story of Walter Harper and the ascent, and also all the other things Walter did to try to bridge the, the different cultures between the indigenous people and the advent of the Western culture that's coming into Alaska during his time,” Gordon said.

After the installation of the Harper monument and cementing “Snowball” the dog in to place, the whole thing is covered by a tarp. The official unveiling is Tuesday afternoon at 4:00 p.m. at Doyon Place.

Robyne began her career in public media news at KUAC, coiling cables in the TV studio and loading reel-to-reel tape machines for the radio station.