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Pet Reindeer Is Tip of the Iceberg of Alaska Woman's Uncommon Life

January 21, 1996|MAUREEN CLARK | ASSOCIATED PRESS

ANCHORAGE — The first clue that Oro Stewart is an uncommon woman is her pet reindeer. "I told my husband I wanted an Alaskan pet," says Stewart with a smile. "Of course, he thought I meant a husky."

Stewart, 78, has kept a pet reindeer in the yard of her downtown Anchorage home for the last 35 years. Star, her fourth reindeer so named, munches contentedly on alfalfa and lettuce in the fenced-in yard of Stewart's trim, ranch-style house.

It's a whimsical element in an otherwise ordinary neighborhood. But Stewart is no ordinary woman.

She was a newly minted English teacher at Washington State University in Pullman 55 years ago when she met her husband, Ivan, an engineering student. He brought her to Alaska.

Ivan Stewart, who died nine years ago, had traveled north to work as a gold miner. It was supposed to be a temporary job to earn money for school, but he quickly decided to stay. He wrote to Oro, asking her to marry him and move to Alaska.

"I decided I'd better if I wanted Ivan," said Stewart. She left on the last steamer bound for Alaska, four months after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, drawing the United States into World War II.

They had a two-day honeymoon, hiking Kodiak's Pillar Mountain. It ended abruptly when they took shelter from the rain in a shack on the beach. They awoke to find themselves surrounded by American soldiers with bayonets drawn. The soldiers had been hot on the trail of Japanese spies.

"I said, 'Don't shoot, don't shoot. We're Americans!' " Stewart said. "So they apologized all over the place and fed us a nice steak."

During their first year of marriage, Oro operated a photo shop in Kodiak while Ivan worked for the Army Corps of Engineers on military construction projects in the Aleutian Islands.

"I was the janitor and the portrait-taker, the salesman and the bookkeeper," she said. She still recalls the sudden scramble when the military would respond to the threat of enemy aircraft.

"The air raid would sound and I'd close the photo shop and run into the bushes across the street."

After a year in Kodiak, the Stewarts moved to Anchorage and opened the downtown photo shop that Oro runs to this day.

Life in what was then small-town Anchorage was an adventure. "Everything was new and exciting," Stewart said.

After running the shop during the day, she'd stop at Ship Creek and catch a salmon for dinner. She learned to hunt moose and caribou and began holding a yearly, midwinter wild game barbecue at the camera shop.

"When it came time to cook the walrus and seal, all my friends would vanish," Stewart said.

She and her husband enjoyed traveling in rural Alaska and once made a trip down the Yukon River in their amphibious car.

"We went down the Yukon River from Eagle to Circle City in 1966," she said. "We went 365 miles in three days."

The amphibious car is used only for parades now, but Stewart's traveling days are far from over.

At an age when she might be expected to slow down, Oro Stewart still rambles the world in pursuit of her passion--rocks.

A member of the Chugach Gem and Mineral Society, Stewart has spent years collecting minerals. Her home and photo shop are overflowing with specimens she's collected--rubies from Yugoslavia, emeralds from South America, tourmaline from Australia, golden agate from Sri Lanka.

Most prominent in her collection is Alaskan jade, mined by her husband in northwest Alaska.

It's the unique character of each rock that keeps Stewart on the hunt. "Every one is different. Every one is original. You never get the same thing twice."

Stewart says she's too busy planning her next mineral expedition and running the photo shop to think about writing memoirs.

"I have 11 employees to take care of--and one reindeer."

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