The following appears in the October issue of Alaska Sporting Journal:
BY JEFF LUND
Nate Yockey takes two dribbles, explodes off two feet, turns in the air and reverse dunks with both hands.
It looks easy.
His dad Bill used to be able get up, but not like that.
“I can still grab (the) rim; that’s good enough for me,” Bill says. “And I can still shoot.”
He means “shoot” in every sense of the word. A few days into August he, Nate, 17, and his youngest, 12-year-old Nevan, were roaming “his” mountain near the Panhandle’s Coffman Cove and came home with three bucks.
In fact, on any given day after opening day, he’s out on the mountain with his sons looking for bucks, because Bill knows being a real dad isn’t just living through his son’s dunks and jumpers.
To some, a place like Coffman Cove, which has fewer than 200 residents, would epitomize isolation – even though it is on the Prince of Wales Island road system – and foster the type of sheltered upbringing that would stunt the growth of a teenager. It also produces adults who stay after they graduate because they are afraid or are unprepared for the real world, another red flag among skeptics to this way of life.
But don’t tell that to the Yockeys.
“I definitely don’t feel like I’m missing anything,” says Nate, who plans to go to college and eventually become a teacher and basketball coach in Alaska. “I don’t get to see skyscrapers every day, I don’t get to go to McDonald’s or have fast food, I can’t go on a road trip because I live on an island, but I get to walk outside and breathe perfectly clean air. I can go hike up a mountain and see views that no one else in the world can even imagine. I can go hiking for a couple miles into the woods and stand somewhere that no one else has probably ever stood. So no, I don’t think I’m missing out.”
Bill says it’s more a matter of being happy rather than trying to validate a lifestyle to those who have already made up their minds.
“I never had much desire to move to the Lower 48 because of all of the people; I like to hunt and fish and don’t like sharing my hunting and fishing grounds with a large crowd,” he says. “I come from three generations of loggers and operators, so I had my mind made up what I was going to do by the time I was 20.”
If anything, it was the absence of a down-south type of civilization that made Prince of Wales so appealing. Bill and Sara lived in Arizona but chose to go back to Alaska after their youngest (Nevan) was born.
“When we moved back to Coffman Cove is when I knew I wanted to stay on the island and raise my boys with the island lifestyle, the way I did when I was growing up,” Bill says. “Coffman Cove is where I was born and raised and I feel safe there. I like the feel of a small town and knowing your neighbors.”
But it’s not easy. Most people see Alaska in weeklong stints. If the weather, fishing and hunting are hot, it can misrepresent what it’s like to be a full-time resident.
“Three months out of the year this place is heaven. The rest is just the prep for winter and waiting for spring and summer to do it all over again.”
CHIEFTAINS VS. PANTHERS
Since Coffman Cove is on the Prince of Wales road system, Nate and Nevan were given the choice to attend whatever high school they wanted. However, Prince of Wales is the third largest island in the United States, where the miles between towns are filled only with trees and mountains.
Nate says his parents allowing he and his brother to choose their high school made a profound impact.
“Everything they do for me every day just so I can play ball and go to school teaches me determination,” he says. “With their schedule and driving every day to Klawock (52 miles from Coffman Cove) to drop us off for school, then going to work in Kasaan (63 miles from Coffman Cove, 43 from Klawock), just to keep the lights on teaches me not to give up, and there’s nothing that’s too much to do for someone you love.”
Bill says the decision was a no-brainer.
“We made the decision to commute over 200 miles a day with our boys to a larger school for social, academic and sport needs that they just can’t get in a extremely small school like Coffman Cove.”
Though Bill is happy to provide his kids the choice of schools, part of him is hanging on to the past.
“It was their decision to go to Craig or Klawock School; they chose Klawock. It was a hard pill for me to swallow, with Klawock being my rival school. My wife, not so much, since she graduated a Chieftain,” he says.
Smart choice, contends Sara.
“Seeing them both in Chieftain uniforms for the first time I almost cried, so beyond proud,” she adds. “I didn’t play ball but was a cheerleader, and the Chieftain pride never dies. Daddy is still settling into the red and black. I give him a hard time quite often – forever school rivals.”
When Bill was senior, his Craig Panther team beat Klawock in the regional championship game on a last-second lay-up. The author, a freshman at the time, was on the losing end of that debacle. Craig eventually lost in the state championship.
LIVING OFF THE LAND
While the Yockeys don’t live off the grid, they certainly do live off the land.
In addition to the natural garden, Sara tends her own, supplementing Mother Nature’s bounty with potatoes, cherries, beans and squash, along with other vegetables, spices and herbs. They smoke fish, can fish and stay away from the grocery store as much as possible.
“(Sara) always tries to utilize all of our local resources,” says Bill. “Whether it’s for food or medicine, she’s always doing something. Berries for jam and wine, fireweed, clover and roses for honey, beach asparagus, putting up everything we can think of from the land and sea; deer, mushrooms, fish, crab, octopus, shrimp, clams, devil’s club, spruce tips, dandelion roots – too many things to name.”
Sara says it was a process and took some work to fully make the most out of the local bounty.
“I started studying our indigenous plants and their benefits when the boys were four and three months, then started harvesting and teaching my boys, even the biggest boy, Bill, what I was learning. Bill is the hunter and fisher who has taught us everything he can.”
Bill never had to worry about being able to share his passion for the outdoors with his kids. They’ve taken to it, but each in their own way.
“Nate likes hunting up high (in the alpine),” Bill says. “Nevan likes everything all the time.”
Nate says there are lessons there.
“The special thing about having my dad teach me how to hunt and fish is that first and foremost it’s teaching me how to be independent, not only as a fisherman and a hunter, but as a person.” ASJ