Ronald Herbert Engstrom died unexpectedly at Basin Creek, Alaska, his home of over 40 years on Nov. 20, 2020. A lifelong Alaskan and second-generation miner, he was a master mechanic, seasoned heavy equipment operator, Adjutant/Captain (ret.) in the Alaska Army National Guard, 1st Battalion Infantry Nome Post #297 and an Arctic Cat Snowmobile franchise owner. Ron served his hometown as a volunteer fireman from 1963 to 1978 and was elected to several terms as a city councilman in 1974, an honor he valued greatly. Most of all, he was a gold miner.
He was born in Nome on Nov. 22, 1937, to parents Herbert Leopold and Helga "Elsie" Engstrom while they mined at Santa Clara Creek in the Kougarok Mining District. After a season at Pajara Creek, Herb thought there might be richer ground south at Basin Creek, so he staked claims there and the mine became the family's home.
The Engstroms operated the Giant up the cut at Basin Creek for several years before buying the dredge in 1960. Grandpa, Ron, family friend Vernon Carlson and others moved the dredge to Basin Creek, which took 14 trips (50 miles round-trip) to place it in its final home.
By age 8, Dad had learned to operate the dozer and drive a car. He didn't know how to ride a bike yet but later bragged that he was a better dozer hand than Herb. (We're not sure whether he ever learned to ride a bike.) Herb and Ron built the Basin Creek runway before the Kougarok Road aka Nome-Taylor Highway was constructed.
Alaska Sen. Donny Olson, son of Dad's dear friend Martin Olson of Golovin, remembers, "Many grateful pilots used Basin Creek Airport as an alternative when we were unable to land in Nome. We knew that a well-maintained airport was just 12 air miles away and the only thing better than the runway was the cheerful welcome that Ron and wife Lorena had when we landed."
In 1959, Ron enlisted in the Alaska Army National Guard and attended OCS training at Fort Benning, Georgia. He retired from the Guard in the 1970s.
In 1962, Ron met the love of his life, Lorena Gloria Mills. According to Dad, they were "a perfect match" except that she was six years older than he and refused to marry him. He didn't care and pursued her diligently. When she moved to Kotzebue to continue work with the BIA, he flew his PA12 to visit every weekend. After several close bad weather calls, he told her "You better marry me or I might crash on one of these trips." That did the trick! They married at Friends Church in Kotzebue on June 15, 1963. When Lorena fell ill in 2010, Ron cared for her lovingly until her death in 2017. He missed her terribly and kept her ashes on the windowsill at Basin Creek, awaiting their reunion.
In 1963, flooding rendered the dredge inoperable. Ron and Herb devised a scheme to make the mine pay: tourism. That led to 10 years of a memorable partnership with Westours/Alaska Airlines that brought more than 50,000 visitors to Basin Creek to visit a gold mine and enjoy the Engstroms' extraordinary hospitality.
In the early 1970s, while working for RCA at the White Alice site on Anvil Mountain, Ron opened Engstrom Arctic Cat Sales. He sold more machines than any other franchise in the United States and was known to be a fair and honest businessman. He closed the business in the early 1980s to focus on mining and construction work through IUOE Local 302 from which he retired in 1998.
Ron is preceded in death by his parents Herb and Elsie, infant brother Daniel, daughter Ronna Lynn Engstrom, and his beloved wife Lorena. Grieving him are daughters Linda Koenig (Steven with son Dylan), Janice Bendixen (Ralph with sons Collin and Dana), granddaughter Elliott Alyssa Engstrom, and sister Joan Salzwedel and extended family. Information on the burial at Basin Creek will follow. As Dad would say, "Bring your shovels!"
Published by Daily News-Miner on Jan. 10, 2021.