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The True Story of One Family's Survival and Courage in the Alaskan Wilds
By Norma Cobb, Charles W. Sasser
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2000 Norma Cobb and Charles W. Sasser
All rights reserved.
Being isolated and lonely is different from being in town and lonely. Few people can take it. They fall apart each in his own way just as I began to fall apart the moment Les pushed back his plate and looked at me across what remained of supper's black bear roast.
I slowly laid down my fork and, before he could continue, warded him off with both palms. I didn't want to hear it.
Even the children stopped eating. Early October's first snowfall murmured in the darkness against the spruce log cabin. Silence fell around the table, so that the fire in the wood-burning oil drum roared like a grizzly coming down the stovepipe and the whisper of snow on the black windows became as ominous as gossip at a funeral wake.
The way Les looked at me, half apologetically, half triumphantly ... Panic leered from shadows resurrected to life by the uncertain flicker of the oil lamp. Tears blurred my vision. It wasn't as though I hadn't known tonight or a night like tonight eventually had to come. Sometimes I blocked from my mind things I didn't want to happen. I didn't trust myself to speak. I knew I might say things I surely would come to regret in hindsight. The hush built.
Lester Cobb was one stubborn man. I knew it when I married him, but I married him anyhow. He had dark hair and a magnificent beard. At six feet two, he towered over me by nearly a foot. He made me feel protected and diminished at the same time. It was his attitude as much as his size. He thought he could conquer the world, and if he couldn't conquer it he would bluster his way through. I could never win an argument with him. He would have his way tonight, as he had his way in most things.
Anger, resentment, loneliness, flared deep inside my soul, fueled by emotion with which I was well acquainted after nearly three years homesteading the Alaskan wilderness — raw fear. My husband was going to abandon me and our five small ones in the middle of the northern wilds with wolves literally at the cabin door and snow bringing the long darkness of the Arctic winter. Suddenly, I let it all out from a bitter deep spring inside.
"You can't go and leave me out here all by myself with five kids. Lester, anything could happen!"
"Honey ..." Les began.
"It won't do, Les."
Last August while prospecting for gold, Les met a man named Gary Streicher. Streicher was putting together an oil field service company to construct iron islands — oil derricks — in Prudhoe Bay. They could only be erected when the bay was frozen over, from October to April. They were built right out on the ice, then drilled and anchored to the bottom of the bay. Come spring thaw, people who didn't know wondered how they got out there like that in the middle of the water. Streicher had hired my do-it-all husband to ramrod the operation over the winter.
Rough as a Cobb. That was what people said about Les. The expression somehow expanded to include the children and me after we migrated to Alaska. It became "Lester and Norma, the Cobbs, and their five little Kernels." Rough or not, we were still chechakos, tenderfeet. Other bush people were predicting we would never make it as pioneers. We were lucky, they said, if this land didn't kill us all. Which it might do yet — starting this winter after Les abandoned the children and me.
"Honey, either I take the job to earn enough money to see us over," Les argued, "or we give up right now and move back to Colorado ..."
Sid, the eldest of the brood at nearly thirteen, sat very straight and stiff. He folded his hands in his lap, squared his shoulders, and looked across the table at Les. His face turned pale; Sid loved it in wild and isolated Minook Valley.
Sean, ten, exchanged uncertain glances with seven-year-old Tommy. Things had started out rough for Sean, but the valley had been the first real home he had known in his short life. Tommy got up and as self-appointed protector to the twins, Cara and Cora, moved around closer to them. They temporarily suppressed their endless tittering and picking at each other. At four years old, nearly five, they were already a riotous and rebellious pair. Their bottom lips swelled in mirror images of defiance and resistance to whatever decision we reached. To please was never an objective in their lives. They were just like their father.
The Kernels seemed to realize that we Cobbs were confronting another landmark obstacle in pioneering.
"Les, it's our first wintering over. And to do it out here by ourselves, without you ... We're not ready."
"Honey, the cabin is finished —"
"The roof fell in on the last one when it snowed."
"All the food supplies are in —"
"Remember how bears broke into the other cabin and ransacked it?"
"The bears are hibernating. Firewood is all bucked up for the winter —"
"What if we run out of food? Can't you wait until spring and get another job?"
"Norma, we have to have the money —"
"What about the Bushman? He chased Sid. He's stolen some of the Indian kids."
Les threw up his hands in exasperation. "The Bushmanl God help the Bushman if he should run into you!"
Grinning like that, Les had the look of a rough-and-ready TV villain, even down to the mischievous devil-may-care twinkle in his blue-gray eyes. The way that man could grin!
"Grinning won't work this time, Lester," I warned him. I turned to the children. "Kids, finish eating and go to your loft. Fur is going to fly. Your father is deserting us."
"I am not deserting —"
"I'm scared," Tommy whispered, wide-eyed and looking around at the window for prowling bears and Bushmen.
If I were to be honest with myself, I had to admit Les had a point. We were all but broke, again. If he turned down this job, with its really good pay, he would undoubtedly have to hike out of the valley and look for employment come spring, when he was really needed to work the homestead. There were cabins to build, the airstrip to finish, some gold prospecting to do. We had only three more years, a little over, to "prove out" our homestead claim before it actually became ours. Les insisted that about all he had to do in the winter was lie around, eat, and, weather permitting, run a trapline with Sid and Bony Newman the Eskimo.
But the important thing to me was that he would be here, with us, when it really mattered. I actually pretended all summer, even knowing differently, that I was going to spend the long, snug, romantic winter cocooned up with my husband and children. I thought we would have plenty to keep us busy — books, home-schooling the children, trapping furs for making mukluks and caps and robes, training the sled dogs so we would have transportation.
I had tried to ignore the growing restlessness I saw forming in Les as winter approached. Winter and cabin walls were hard on men, especially high-energy men like Les. They started getting restless in September and early October. I suspected the threat of cabin fever, of being confined with women and children, was the reason men took to traveling and trapping as soon as the streams froze and there was enough snow on the ground for dogsleds.
Summers were visiting time for people in the bush. It was as if everyone tried to cram in enough living between June and September, like bears gorging themselves fat for hibernation, to last them from October to May. All the socializing pretty much ended in September as people left the bush country for the safety and comfort of towns. The Westbrooks, our only neighbors in the valley, had left weeks ago; it was uncertain if they would ever be back. The last visitors we'd had were John Shilling, who worked a gold mine claim downvalley toward the Yukon River, and was on his way out to Fairbanks, and Ted and Steve, the district's roaming schoolteachers who delivered materials for home-schooling the children. There wouldn't likely be anyone else out this way until thaw breakup in the spring.
Autumn was a lovely time of year, what with the brilliant new golden drapery donned by the aspen and birch and larch on the hillsides and the broad-leafed cottonwoods along Minook Creek, and the crisp fall mornings during which the air itself seemed to crackle. Behind the beauty, however — especially this year — it seemed to me there lay a mounting anxiety. Pine squirrels went into a final frenzy of food gathering; bears headed higher up, walking fast, to search for dens; ducks and geese chattered excitedly as they fled south; ermine, snowshoe hares, and grouse hurriedly changed into their winter colors. They knew winter was coming. So did I. They were preparing for it. I tried to ignore it, knowing Les would leave for the winter but hoping up to the last minute he would reconsider.
By the end of September, the sun hung so low in the sky that its rays could not reach over the mountaintops. It circled around and around the unseen horizon outside Minook Valley, sinking lower and lower, pursued by the darkness. We would not see it — or Les — again until spring.
It was a tense evening after the children went to their loft. The argument between Les and me went on until the fire died down and the grizzly stopped coming down the stovepipe. I kept on at him even though I knew he was going to do what he said he had to do, no matter how much I protested. Leave me out here with five little kids. With an old battery-powered car radio our single link to the outside world — and a one-way link at that. My heart beat wildly to the rhythm of What if? What if ...? What if ...? What if ...? So many things could happen to us!
"Our survival at homesteading depends on me getting a winter job," Les insisted.
The man was immovable, like the mountain peaks. I may as well have been outside shouting at the snowstorm or at the thick imperturbable spruce with their deep shadows.
The evening ended on a sour note. I finally surrendered out of sheer exhaustion as I knew I would. As Les knew I would. What hurt as much as his determination to leave was the look of excitement, of happiness, on his face. I was afraid with a woman's keen intuition, deep in my soul, that if he left us like this, things would never again be the same between us, that it would be a winter to haunt us for the rest of our lives.
"When are you leaving?" I asked with a final, tearful sigh.
"Tomorrow. I'll never get out once snow closes Dead Horse Pass."
It was still snowing the next morning when he departed to walk the eleven miles over the pass. I was reserved, resigned to our fate. The kids stood very quiet at the door, the twins and Tommy clinging to me. Les hoisted his pack without looking directly at any of us. He ought to feel guilty.
"Are you coming back?" Tommy asked, pleading.
"Hey! Don't I always come back?"
"What if something gets us?" whispered Sean, always the worrier. He still had nightmares about the bear that almost got him at the creek.
Les shot me a sharp look, blaming me for transferring my own fears to the children.
"Nothing will get us," I scolded with more confidence than I felt.
Les tightened his pack straps and turned to Sid. A rough hand fell on the boy's shoulder.
"Keep your rifle handy, son," he said.
Sid squared himself with pride and newfound responsibility. Sometimes I thought quiet Sid was the most responsible member of the entire Cobb clan, Lester included. Watching the exchange between father and son, the passing of the sword, as it were, made me realize how fast the boy was growing up out here. Much of the child had already left his face. It now cut a profile as thin and sharp as a skinning blade. In his eyes already appeared the faraway Alaska look. Wolves and grizzlies had that look. Les said it came from gazing into free and wild places where a man could be a man.
Finally, there was nothing left but goodbyes. Kisses and hugs stiffly delivered and received.
"We're Cobbs," Les said in parting. "We're homesteaders — and we're here to stay."
Then he turned and began walking rapidly with his pack away from Minook Creek. Snow swirled around his tall figure, its vortex sucked him into it, and he was gone. The mountains blurred by the snowfall seemed to rise higher and higher until they blocked out the sky and I thought they might suffocate me. Tears like icicles touched my cheeks. Twin terrors of loneliness and fear started growing in my belly like the unwanted fetus of a monster, whose very presence I heard in the whisper-walking of snow on the cabin roof, whom I sensed lurking in the deep shadows of spruce across the creek where they were a part of the changing light and the texture of the air itself.
"Maybe it'll keep the wolves back if I put some traps around the cabin," Sid proposed, covering his uncertainty with the thin flash of a grin. "I reckon they're going to get mighty hungry before the winter's over. Snow is coming early. Two or three more days like this and we won't be able to get in or out of the valley until spring thaw."
Jack London wrote that there were a thousand ways this country could kill you — and each way was more horrible than the last.CHAPTER 2
Odd that it was I, not Les, who came up with the idea of homesteading. I was not the pioneering type; at least I didn't think I was. I was a smalltown girl from Wichita, as in The Wizard of Oz. Like most young females of my generation, I grew up aspiring to the title Mrs. as the pinnacle of female success — a little house in the suburbs, a hardworking and faithful hubby, two-point-two children ...
Right out of high school, I ended up with a tract house, a husband who was neither particularly industrious nor faithful, and, soon, three kids. I divorced my husband in the spring of 1971. Good riddance. He was just as happy to be rid of me and his three rough-and-tumble sons as I was to be rid of him. We were holding him back, he said. Turned out the only thing we were holding him back from was commitment to various institutions for treatment of his mental condition and insanity. The boys and I never saw him again.
Reflecting back, I decided it was probably the breakup of my marriage that made it easier, perhaps even inevitable, for me to entertain the idea of new frontiers. After my divorce, I was more than ready to begin life again — somewhere far away from the bad memories. I felt compelled to go out and start fresh.
I bundled Sid, eight, Sean, five, and Tommy, three, into what amounted to my share of the wrecked marriage's assets — a metallic-blue 1966 Ford Mustang Fastback — and headed ... west. Where else? Had Americans not always turned west in search of new lives?
We first settled in Denver. That proved to be transitory. I was a smalltown girl with small-town ways and habits. I was out of my pond in Denver. I picked us up and moved to Longmont, a much smaller town, where I soon hooked a job working a cash register at a truck stop. I barely earned sufficient wages to satisfy four hungry mouths and make ragged ends meet.
I was twenty-seven years old, divorced, uneducated, the single mother of three — and I was going nowhere fast. I was a dead-end woman at a dead-end job in a dead-end corner of nowhere — a brutal but honest assessment of my life. Exhausted, discouraged, and frustrated, I prayed every night for God to let me see a better way. A single thought nagged at me: There has to be more to life than this.
Sometimes Destiny has to kick you in the seat of the pants to get your attention. Not that I recognized the grease monkey from the truck garage next door as Destiny. He looked more like Trouble. As it turned out, he was a cowboy-type recently off a Colorado cattle ranch, so tall he bumped his head on the doorway when he came in, broad shouldered, with a dark magnificent beard and a direct blue-gray gaze that proved hard to ignore. He walked with a brash, swaggering gait that turned out to conceal an inherent shyness.
He kept coming into the truck stop to drink coffee and, I correctly suspected, to attract my eye. He started off exchanging a few comments with me at the register, then gradually got around to introducing himself and asking my name. It took him almost a month and forty gallons of coffee to get that far. His name was Lester Cobb.
"My pop named me Lester after my granpaw. Granpaw was an early settler in Colorado."
"Norma is a real pretty name. I notice you a lot. You're always friendly and smiling at people."
I smiled. "You do drink a lot of coffee."
"I come in for lunch and on my coffee break. That's when I notice you."
"I notice you noticing me."
The big guy actually blushed. I was going to burst out laughing if he kicked the toe of his shoe on the floor and said, "Gee whiz!"
"Uh ... Norma. Maybe ... You know ...?"
I said it for him, laughing merrily, "Gee whiz!"
He grinned sheepishly. That man could really light up a grin.
"Norma, if you ever get a break ... I mean, uh ..." He finally blurted it out. "Maybe you could have coffee with me?"
I did. About forty more gallons of it. In the process I learned that the beard covered up a baby face; he was only twenty-one, six years younger than I. His live-in girlfriend had packed up and split just before last Christmas and left him in sole custody of six-month-old twin daughters, Cara and Cora. A single parent like me, he struggled to make ragged ends come together. His dream was to own a little farm or ranch of his own, if he could ever afford it.
Excerpted from Arctic Homestead by Norma Cobb, Charles W. Sasser. Copyright © 2000 Norma Cobb and Charles W. Sasser. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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