These days, there’s no shortage of television shows or streaming platforms focused on Alaska. From “Life Below Zero” and “Port Protection” to “Alaska: The Last Frontier,” and everything in between, viewers catch a glimpse of life in the 49th state.
But sometimes the viewer must wonder: Just how accurate are these accounts? Can one believe everything on the screen? Maybe, maybe not.
For author Melissa Cook, there’s a lot more to the story.
In this her first book, Cook has put together a picture of her and her family’s stint in Alaska. The self-published “The Call of the Last Frontier: The True Story of a Woman’s Twenty-Year Alaska Adventure,” was released on Oct. 28, and has already gathered a myriad of praise. In November it held Amazon’s No. 1 position on the company’s Hot New Releases lists for U.S. Regional Travel as well as No. 2 in Historical Essays. In addition, Cook’s book caps the No. 1 spot on Amazon’s Best Sellers lists in Travel and Disability and Polar Regions Travel; the No. 2 Best Seller position for Multiple Sclerosis and the No 3 position on the Historical Essays list.
“My husband, Elgin, and I were teachers looking for jobs,” Cook said. “Unlike today, teaching jobs weren’t that plentiful. We launched our search and heard about the great retirement benefits in Alaska. We loaded up our three young boys, and off we went.”
The teaching duo attended the 1995 Alaska Teacher Placement Job Fair, and Cook took particular notice of the event’s words of introduction.
“If you are here in search of an adventure, go home! Alaska is looking for teachers, not adventure seekers!”
At the time, Cook didn’t recognize the paradox.
“Funny,” she wrote. “I was the teacher seeking a job, not an adventurer, yet adventure arrived on my doorstep almost daily for the next twenty years.”
Looking back, Cook thinks that Alaska schools should have “begged adventurous teachers to apply for bush jobs, it may have increased the teacher retention rate.”
According to Cook, there was a revolving door of teachers, many bemoaning the lack of adventure.
“New Alaskans learned quickly to live without or leave,” Cook adds. “Most teachers quit within a year or two. Some resigned in the middle of the school year. Others packed up and hightailed it home in the middle of the night because the Alaskan lifestyle was too much for them.”
Unlike the teachers who bolted at the first opportunity, the young couple determined to carry out the two-year Alaskan teaching contracts they signed. Before they knew it, 21 years had passed.
The real adventure was in the day-to-day. The tiny villages where the Cooks lived were remote with few amenities. During the school year, it was cold every single day. Even so, the “to do” list for residents was relentless. Gather firewood. Dispose of toilet waste in a communal disposal area (the Cooks were fortunate to have regular toilets). Cook from scratch. Fish and hunt. Headlamps were required personal equipment in dark winters. Monitor supplies (even if there was a local market, prices are extreme). “For us, there was no local market the first two years,” Cook added. “And for part of the last 18, the store was 75 minutes away – one way.”
Oh, and there was an active volcano, too … and the tide … and bears.
“And if this lifestyle wasn’t adventure, I surely don’t know what is,” Cook pens.
The family’s first Alaskan home was in the tiny village of Nelson Lagoon on the Bering Sea coast and later, Prince of Wales Island in the Tongass National Forest, “where we measured rain in feet, not inches,” Cook says.
While the Alaskan adventure continued unabated almost daily, Cook was to face an even greater challenge: a diagnosis of Multiple Sclerosis in 2000. Her students knew how to help, and she had a language aide to assist in communication. She continued to work only to suffer a brain stem lesion in 2008 that affected her heart, lungs and body temperature.
“In fact, I took the year off in 2008 to plan for my death,” Cook explains. “I wasn’t sure I was going to make it.”
She claimed medical disability in 2011, and in 2016, the Cooks retired and returned to Wyoming where Cook’s MS seems to be in remission.
A thousand sticky notes, numerous blog posts and many newsletters later, Cook has created a book full of adventure and emotion. “Call of the Last Frontier” has a conversational tone and is an easy read with short chapters, abundant images and maps. Cook is currently recording an audio version of the book and plans to write more books about Alaska.
Cook shares stories from the book at the Park County Library in Cody on January 11, 2022, starting at 6 p.m. while plans for other book signings are in the works. Learn more about the book and where to purchase it at MelissaCook.us.