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 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.
David Cornberg knows that feeling.
CORRECTION: The title of chaos as social order was corrected in this story on Oct. 24, 2017.
David, I am Claudia. I was at Ketchum house in 1966. I remember Jon late summer telling all and me at the beginning of dinner, “The lawn is committing suicide.” God I was an idiot and still am.
hi, craig…fun talking with you by phone…you’re a little inventive with the facts of my life…first, i wouldn’t call what i was doing “escaping”…escapading would be more accurate…second, i did know where i wanted to be–near the yukon river, on a south-facing slope, and in an area without so many conflicts over land…third, i don’t remember ever saying “I never came back to civilization”–fact is i’ve been in and out of it most of my life…fourth, my canoe partners on the 70’s trip were a woman named Dania and a dog named Rabbit–i first met Lynn in 1993…fifth, painting, showing and selling my paintings for fifty years is not “dabbling in art”…sixth, the title of the academic article, at academia.edu, is “chaos as social order”…seventh, i relate to interior alaska as a very close, old friend so your comment about the land not being friendly is your stuff, not mine…eighth, i don’t “confess” because i don’t feel guilt and i certainly don’t feel that there is any illness, strange or otherwise, in my being who i am and doing what i do…i easily recognize myself in the photograph and i almost recognize myself in your article… : ) david cornberg
David: thanks for getting in touch. i wish you’d done it sooner. i’ve corrected “chaos as a social order” to “chaos as social order.” sorry about the extra article in there. my mistake.
i’m not sure what to say about the rest. i went back and reread the story. i like your word escapading, and i’m sorry if i following the McPhee narrative portraying you as someone escaping into the wilderness. i thought the story overall made it clear your life was about far, far more than that, but obviously we read it differently.
i don’t know what to say about the location. you specifically told me that “as beautiful as the area was, I didn’t know where I wanted to be.” i understand what you’re saying now, but i don’t know that the two things are really different. the Yukon River basin is a huge area.
your note mainly just makes me sad. the story was meant to be as much about Alaska as about you. you’ve both changed. i thought the story captured some of that.
you sound somehow offended, but no offense was meant. you did say “I never came back to civilization,” but you clearly meant it in a bigger context which is why the story said “…Cornberg would forever be a man of two worlds. ‘I never came back to civilization,’ he said, and yet he never left it.”
i did compress the canoe, the dog and Lynn into one sentence to shorten the timeline of some key events in your life, and if leaving out Dania and failing to name Rabbit somehow offended you, i’m sorry. it was a quick, easy, compilation of facts in the way journalists often run things together, a quick and dirty summary in a story instead of a play by play.
similarly so, the reference to dabbling in art. it was not meant to be offend you or your art, but merely a one-word way to demonstrate that art had not been your main sort of income in a rich and diverse life.
the observations on the harshness of the Interior landscape were indeed mine. i didn’t try to portray them otherwise. i do, however, appreciate your mention of Fairbanks and LA being chartered at the same time and displaying distinctly different growth patterns. i think it is fair to say that had a lot to do with climate. it was not meant to minimize your love for Alaska, an affection i share.
i’ll let the word “confess” stand for itself. i’ve done my time at 50 degrees below zero. normal people would find it a strange thing to miss, but i admit i miss it sometimes too. i don’t think this is unfair way of putting it for the masses in in California:
“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.”
no matter how i read that, i can’t read into it any guilt. but i do think that to most of the world you and i would be precieved to have a strange illness in this inability to live without wild places nearby.
again, i’m sorry if you were in some way offended. i think you’ve lived a big and interesting life and that made it worth writing about. i am glad you “almost recognize” yourself in the story.
God knows i’ve popped up in a few where i didn’t know i was the one being talked about.