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An Alaska life

riverwind

In the photo posted by KTOO.org, a smiling “River Wind,” aka David Cornberg, is standing on a sandbar along the Yukon River with a short-barreled shotgun slung over his left shoulder, but what really catches an Alaska historian’s attention is on the riverbank in the background.

Parked there is a high-powered riverboat with a fully enclosed cabin and a roof rack. Clearly a lot has changed since Cornberg set off down the Yukon in 1977 in a 15-foot aluminum canoe with some wondering if he’d ever be seen again alive.

Forty years ago, the author John McPhee ended his Alaska classic book “Coming Into the Country” with this observation of Cornberg:

“I asked him where he meant to go,” McPhee wrote. “‘Down the river,’ he said. ‘I’ll be living on the Yukon and getting my skills together.’

“I wished him heartfelt luck and felt in my heart he would need it. I said my name, and shook his hand, and he said his. He said, ‘My name is River Wind.'”

Cornberg was then 32 years old and still searching for himself. The 1970s were a turbulent time. Earth Day, a grassroots revolt against global pollution, in 1970 had sparked a back-to-the-land movement that grew through a turbulent decade that saw the Vietnam War finally end in 1975 with the fall of Saigon. 

The rush to hippie communes in rural areas across the country was beginning to fade by ’77, but there were still a lot of young people headed north to  Alaska where the federal government continued to offer free land. The Homestead Act had ended in the lower 48 in 1976, but it would continue in the 49th state for another decade. 

For a time then, everyone seemed to want to float the Yukon River. The late and legendary actor Jimmy Stewart in 1977 narrated a National Geographic TV special about four of them. 

“All four of the partners had been attracted by the lure of the wilderness, and the frontier life of Alaska. They all attended college and although they’re all pushing 30, the need to be free to take off and to see the world has kept them from settling down,” he intoned in “Yukon Passage.”

Cornberg was cut from that cloth.

Back to the wilderness

Like so many others, he tried to escape back to the wilderness. It didn’t work.

“I lasted about a month, a month and a half on Montauk Creek,” he said in a telephone interview last week. “I realized I was not prepared. I decided to go back to Fairbanks.

“As a beautiful as the area was, I didn’t know where I wanted to be.”

The wilderness was then even wilder than it is today. Television had yet to come to rural Alaska. Where there were telephones, they were often a lone, community phone. The internet was still a dream of the first computer geeks. Most people still traveled by canoe or raft.

Cornberg remembers a few lucky souls on the Yukon with small outboards on their canoes, “kickers,” as he called them. The little motors made it possible for people to every so slowly fight their way back upstream.

So much has changed now that Cornberg is a little defensive about the gasoline-powered convenience he owns.

“It’s not a jet,” he said of his riverboat.”Its a Yamaha 150 (horsepower outboard). I stuck to a canoe until I got tired of asking friends in Kaltag to help me ferry stuff across the river. I needed the independence.”

Cornberg can now speed up and down the Yukon almost as easily as you get around in your car on the highway. He didn’t have the luxury in ’77. There was only one way to go.

So when he quit the country, he got back in his canoe and paddled on down the Yukon to the end of the road at Circle. There he sold the canoe and caught a ride back to Fairbanks on the Steese Highway.

He quickly found a job at a book store. Construction on the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System was just ending. The Interior community – which had for a brief time been the Dodge City of Alaska – was beginning to quiet down.  Cornberg settled in.

“I was aiming at going out in the Bush again,” he said.

And he would, but Cornberg would forever be a man of two worlds.

“I never came back to civilization,” he said, and yet he never left it.

A big, wild, complicated life

For a time, he worked on a horse farm outside of Fairbanks. He built himself up, he said, bought an 18-foot fiberglass canoe, got a dog and met a woman – Lynn Hajdukovich – destined to become Mrs. Cornberg.

The three of them would eventually paddle that canoe on down the Yukon to Kaltag, where the west-running river takes a hard turn south and heads for the Bering Sea. They would build a cabin there, and then a bigger cabin, where the now 72-year-old David still prefers to spend his time.

The man McPhee thought might not make it in the Alaska wild is competent and comfortable there now, but it’s a two-faced life he’s lead.

“I first came to Alaska in 1964,” he said, “and I think this is the seventh time I’ve been here since.”

He’s gone out to get a master’s degree in education from UCLA and later a Phd in education from the University of Oregon. There was some time spent in a monastery in Romania. Then a daghter came along. The family – David, Lynn and daughter Kaiyuh – moved for a time to Taipei, Taiwan.

From 1984 to 1989, he was a teacher in Anchorage and the poet-in-residence for the Anchorage School District.

“I’ve taught at every level of the system,” he said, from nursery schools to graduate studies. Along the way, he dabbled in art, published more than a half-dozen books, and wrote some interesting academic papers on everything from cross-species communication to chaos as a social order. 

The wild intellectual

Cornberg’s brain clearly has needed the social and intellectual connections of civilization as much as his heart needs the wilderness to which he has come back again and again.

He was headed back there when reached by telephone in Fairbanks. He has a new 16-by-20 foot cabin along the Yukon near Kaltag. It is small enough to heat efficiently with wood and yet big enough to be comfortable.

“I can stand up in it,” Cornberg said. “I had to crouch in the old cabin.”

He sees himself as a Yukon survivor. There aren’t many of them. Most of those who escaped to the wilderness in the 1970s gave up and went back to civilization where life is a lot easier.

“I can’t say I’ve run into any of them since the 1970s,” Cornberg said. “I think it’s to be expected. They grew up on Jack London. It was a fantasy.”

The upper Yukon of Cornberg’s early days is now a “A Land Gone Lonesome,” as Alaska writer Dan O’Neill described it.

The Interior wilderness of Alaska is good at choking the life out of fantasies. It’s not a friendly place. Cornberg notes that Los Angeles and Fairbanks were chartered as cities not that far apart in time.

The Greater Los Angeles area is today home to 18.7 million people.  The Fairbanks Metropolitan Statistical Area, which covers an area almost the size of the state of New Jersey, is home to fewer than 100,000 – a tiny fraction of the LA population.

“I look at that and I say, ‘Nature talks,'” Cornberg observed. Life at 50-degrees-below-zero, he said, is simply “not accommodating.”

And yet, Cornberg confesses, when he is away from it he yearns for it. There is a strange illness here that infects a few.

“There’s the land,” Robert Service, the bard of the north, wrote in 1907.

“(Have you seen it?)
It’s the cussedest land that I know,
From the big, dizzy mountains that screen it
  To the deep, deathlike valleys below.
Some say God was tired when He made it;
   Some say it’s a fine land to shun;
Maybe; but there’s some as would trade it
   For no land on earth—and I’m one.”

David Cornberg knows that feeling.

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