As one who sees himself as the recipient of DNA bequeathed by ten generations of pioneering Americans who loved freedom, vast open landscapes and the very seas they had to cross just to get here, I have always felt the magnetism of wild lands, rivers that run free and the sound of an ocean’s thundering surf. I have felt myself drawn to wilderness cabins and those who lovingly built them, venerable light houses and the loneliness known by the families which kept their flames alive, and the islands of New England and similar seascapes a continent away which have been home to so many of those whose roots I spring from. I live today in a hand-built log home on wild acres through which an ancient river runs and with views of largely-open country overlooked by mountain peaks created by millions of years of God’s handiwork. The cedar logs of my walls, cut from the same northwestern forests where my father and grandfathers surveyed and cut the timbers which would build America, are hung with the photographs of lighthouses I love. I am one day’s travel from the pounding surf of the great Northwest where some of my family still live on islands, from Puget Sound to the Bering Sea, and within a determined day’s travel from the cold gray waters of the Atlantic where my 8th great grandfather Tristram Coffin purchased Nantucket Island from the Indians -whom he loved and protected – and whose family built great ships and sailed them around the world.
Not surprisingly I have a nephew who fishes commercially the waters of Alaska and the Northwest, from his Aleut wife’s ancestral home on Kodiak Island. Some years ago he and his working crew took refuge during a flagged non-fishing “time-out” upstream on one of the numerous tributaries of the wild and pristine Stikine River where Alaska and the Yukon Territory virtually touch borders. Looking for a safe and quiet anchorage they headed into a nearly invisible inlet where the whitewater of a mountain stream emptied into the river; a good spot for wild trout to add to the menu they thought. Then they were surprised to see a tiny log cabin with a thin tendril of smoke sauntering skyward from its stove pipe. Observing the northern backcountry’s emphasis on good manners, they began to turn away so as to respect the resident’s right to privacy. Then they were treated to the sight of a small man with white hair and a matching white beard standing in front of the cabin site, jumping up and down and waving them madly to come on in.
Thus they became for several days the guests of one of that regions rare “perimeter men”; an unusual breed of humans who choose to live alone. Inside the small hand-built cabin, outfitted for year-round living, they were tantalized by a lone and glowing 60-watt light bulb hanging sans shade from an overhead beam. They discovered it was powered by an ingenious water-powered generator being turned by a ram pump mounted in the waterfalls behind the cabin. A tall pole-built cache accessed by a bear-proof ladder protected the wild game meat with which the bearded resident filled it each fall. As a compliment to red meat, there would be the abundant salmon and Dolly Varden trout which filled the nets deployed from the “loner’s” short dock almost year-round. Such cash as the old man needed came from his trap line and the gold he panned from nearby streams. He assured Captain Cooper and his crew that he “had everything he needed” to live a “handsome life”.
Among those who managed to live life large in a wilderness setting and whose written words stirred me from an early age are “pathfinders” such as Calvin Rutstrum born in 1895, author of 15 books who had run the length of the Mississippi on rafts by age 12, and built wilderness cabins across North America as civilization kept “moving in” on him. He never took a regular job if it failed to allow him at least six months of “backwoods time”. I succumbed to his first book in 1946 and am just as moved by his last one published just before his death at age 87.
My late friend and best-selling wilderness author, Sigurd Olson, whose son Sig Jr. supervised wilderness lands for the state of Alaska for many years, once talked to me at length about these unusual men, among whom not more than 200 still live alone the old way. My nephew was lucky enough to meet one of them, and I fortunate enough to add that story to my life-long inventory of true tales of the pilgrims, pathfinders and perimeter men of free America, including that of a great grandfather whose search for Yukon gold cost him his life on the “trail of 1898". His remains lie lost somewhere “up there” amidst the debris of the landslide which made him part of that great land.
The author has known the peace of nights under the whispering Norway Pines of the north country as a guest in the trapper’s cabin at “Listening Point” made famous by wilderness author Sigurd Olson. Al Cooper Photo