Back-to-the-woods memoir literate, fun

Posted: Thursday, September 23, 2004


  By Bob Durr Published by Thomas Dunne Books $23.95 (hardcover)

By Bob Durr

Published by Thomas Dunne Books

$23.95 (hardcover)

Once upon a time, an unhappy intellectual lived in upstate New York. He read mystical poetry, found true love, got high, landed a dream job as a tenured English professor and bought a beautiful, rustic farm. None of that cured his restlessness.

"Mainstream America for me was too commercial, too aberrant to human nature -- and too quietly, smilingly desperate," he writes.

So he ran away to Alaska. He didn't exactly live happily ever after, due to the vagaries of fortune, misfortune and the notoriously unfriendly climate. But he had interesting adventures and, by gum, he did find the elusive happiness he sought.

That, in a nutshell, is the premise of "The Coldman Cometh," the second memoir by Bob Durr. His previous book, "Down in Bristol Bay," published in 1991, told how he metamorphosed from an East Coast academic to a viable member of Southwest Alaska's hectic commercial fleet. Although each book stands on its own, "The Coldman Cometh" tells the rest of the story: how and why he brought his family north and committed to full-time life in Alaska's wilds.

The book chronicles the decade from 1964 to 1973 that transformed "the mad professor," Robert Durr, Ph.D., to "Jungle Bob," backwoods guru. Along for the ride were his wife, Carol, who comes across as a pillar of patience, and their four children, ranging from a babe in arms to a 15-year-old when the story opens.

The Durrs' odyssey is an entertaining and educational tale of the risks and rewards of leaving mainstream civilization to return to the land.

The author makes it clear that his decision to walk away from his life in Syracuse, N.Y., was not altogether rational. He also takes pains to point out his own naivety and folly. Many times, he willfully ignored omens and warnings, as on the fateful day in September 1968, when his family piled into the car to head for the Alaska Highway.

"Even the fact that it happened to be Friday the 13th was like water off a duck's ass to me," he says.

Durr may have been crazy, but he wasn't stupid. He carefully planned his getaway.

First he made sure he could keep afloat fishing Bristol Bay as an Alaska income source. Second, he took his family up for a winter as a trial run. They spent nine months caretaking a remote fishery research station on Lake Nerka, near Dillingham.

When they made their big move, they worked with one of Durr's fishing friends to set up housekeeping on the south shore of Lake Iliamna. But the Bureau of Land Management took a dim view of their squatting on federal land, so they moved on.

They spent about a year at Chinitna Bay on Cook Inlet's western shore, staying at the setnet camp of another friend, Les VanDevere from Nikiski. For a time, they even lived in a trailer in North Kenai, while plotting how to legally homestead a remote parcel.

In 1970, Durr found what he was seeking in the Susitna Valley. He fell in love with Talkeetna at first sight, he says, then found a remote, uninhabited lake about 10 miles north of town. He, his wife and their elder son, Steve, staked claims. They were home.

Which is not to say their troubles were over. Durr chronicles the hair-raising unpredictability of living on the fringe. Not least of the challenges was the winter's frigidity, a power he personifies as the Coldman of the book's title.

How readers will feel about the book will depend upon how they react to the author's idiosyncratic personality that shines through every page.

Durr's move north grew out of two cultural currents. He was a romantic -- in the English literature sense of the term. And he was a hippie. He voices disdain for capitalist values, and he makes the unabashed claim to be the first to introduce marijuana to the alcohol-saturated coterie of Bristol Bay fishers.

Being a combined counterculture revolutionary, woodsman and scholar gives Durr a unique and picturesque take on his world. Stoned or sober, he describes Alaska's wilds with both exuberance and erudition. He quotes poets and philosophers such as Shakespeare, Thoreau and Wordsworth. An erratic friend reminds him of the uncertainly principle of quantum physics; the sounds of a seabird rookery remind him of Stravinsky's symphonies. He describes the wilderness as being a Zen master.

Much of the book's tone is of wry, self-deprecating humor. For example, his description of a so-called "picnic" to the walrus rookery at Round Island includes one of the most eloquent descriptions ever of the concept of "stench."

But the story has serious undertones, as well. Durr is sincere about getting his priorities straight, taking care of his family and pondering what values and experiences a father should impart to his children. His writing also underscores the stark differences between being lonely in crowds and finding true community in supposed solitude.

Durr's time in academia left him with a firm command of the written word. That ease of expression combines with his adventurous life and gift of gab to produce a lively read.

He comes across as a man who has enjoyed life to the hilt, regardless of society's opinion.

His memoir provides food for thought, spiced with adventure and humor.

Shana Loshbaugh is a writer and former Clarion reporter who now lives near Fairbanks.

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