“Cabin Stories: The Best of Dark Winter Nights: True Stories from Alaska”
Edited by Rob Prince; Snowy Owl Books, 2022; 128 pages; $21.95.
Ten years ago, Fairbanks resident Rob Prince went looking for real stories of how Alaskans live. Not the glorified version staged for so-called Alaska reality shows, then surging in national popularity, nor the mythological Alaska found in endless books and movies. Prince, a professor of documentary filmmaking with the Communication and Journalism Department at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, was after the everyday experiences of those who have made their lives here, lives perhaps lacking the romance of popular Alaskan imagery, but nonetheless forged by the place where we live.
In 2014, Prince launched “Dark Winter Nights,” a combination of live events and podcasts where Alaskans could tell those stories. With assistance from Prince in forging their narratives, contributors choose an event or experience that exemplifies their Alaska experience. Stories range from the simple joy of mundane happenings to hair-raising survival tales and everything in between, with an emphasis throughout on the human element. Prince tapped into the oldest form of entertainment, storytelling, and has encouraged everyday Alaskans, especially those in the Interior, to give it a go.
A decade later, “Dark Winter Nights” has become wildly popular in Fairbanks and has attracted national attention. In 2021, The New York Times named it the best winter podcast for storytelling lovers. Needless to say, Prince has accumulated a substantial archive of firsthand northern tales during these years, and in “Cabin Stories” he brings 25 of his favorites to the page.
The accounts in this book cover significant ground. Some are carried along by the wisdom that comes from age and experience, others by the impulsiveness of youthful arrival in the north country. Encounters with Alaska found in these pages can turn comical in one tale and deadly in the next. Most fall in between, and all tell us things about Alaska as it truly is.
It’s apparent with the opening tale that this is a different sort of Alaska book than normally found. In it, Alexandra Dunlap has a wildlife encounter with a moose that died on her property. Born and raised in Los Angeles, this was not something she was prepared for, and she’s even more taken aback when she calls the authorities for help disposing of the carcass. Upon learning that the moose had not been poached or otherwise illegally killed, they inform her that it’s her problem, not theirs. This is an occasional Alaska reality that reality show producers overlook.
Hollywood might take more of an interest Jan Hanscom’s unexpected interaction with a wild animal, not simply on her property, but in her house. When a bear gets trapped in her arctic entry, she escapes to her roof and calls 911. With no Fish and Wildlife officers available to handle the crisis, state troopers are dispatched and, finding themselves in a situation outside of their normal public safety duties, have to improvise a solution. It all ends well, but not without plenty of humor and a wandering cat.
Ken Moore calls 911 when his lawnmower starts a grass fire in his yard that threatens his house and his neighbor’s property along the Chena River in Fairbanks. The city fire department arrives, handles the situation in their own fashion, and leaves, followed immediately by forestry department fire spotters who had rushed in from Murphy Dome after spotting the smoke. They are left with the job of extinguishing the flaming balls of debris that the fire department had swept into the river. It’s a reminder that in Alaska, as everywhere, governmental agencies at varying levels don’t always follow the same protocols.
Recognizing danger is important in Alaska, especially in the backcountry, where help can be nonexistent. Mike Hopper had the experience to recognize danger but ignored the warnings when he and another well-skilled outdoorsman went skiing in the Alaska Range. An avalanche killed Hopper’s companion, as well as his beloved dog. In reliving the event, Hopper not only offers listeners, and now readers, a captivating and heartbreaking story, he provides a public service in reminding Alaskans how quickly things can go wrong in the wilderness.
Richard Coleman didn’t even have to leave town to discover this. While helping a friend who lived across the Chena River from Fairbanks — longtime residents will immediately know the man’s identity — Coleman is swept under river ice, one of the most frightening hazards for those who spend time outdoors in winter. Few people come back up when this happens to them. Coleman did, and he tells quite the tale.
Tragedy of a different sort is found in Alyssa Enriquez’s account of moving from San Francisco to Nome, falling in love with the people and culture, marrying into a family she finds joy in being part of, and then witnessing the shattering loss when a member of that family dies by suicide.
Wendy Demers also finds herself in that end of the world. Originally from New Jersey, she took a teaching job on Little Diomede Island, and as is indicated by the title of the story, “My Jewish Mother,” the culture shock was more puzzling for her family out East than it was for her. “You ate walrus,” her mother asks her. “Is it kosher?”
The stories continue. Some are funny, such as Steve Neumeth’s account of a domestic goose’s feet getting frozen to his deck, while others are deathly serious, including Guy Schroder’s tale of surviving a fishing boat sinking in the Aleutians, an accident that claimed several lives. And while not all the stories fit the classic Alaska outdoorsman narrative, Phillip Carette’s backcountry narrative absolutely does.
“True Stories From Alaska” is part of the subtitle of “Cabin Stories,” and that’s what readers find here. This is what Prince went looking for, and what he found. The Alaska we live in, of course, is even bigger, and containing it one book would be impossible. But what is found here is true to Alaska. Hopefully “Dark Winter Nights” will continue to entertain and inform us for many years to come.