Monday, July 7, 2014

My Bold Grandmother

My Grandmother is amazing! She just turned 90, and coincidentally published her third book. The book is  Bold Women in Alaska History ( $10.80), and I can think of nobody more apt to have written it than my own bold grandmother, Marjorie Cochrane.

 Granny was raised in Idaho, where she traveled many narrow roads that have since become railroad beds or bike trails. She visited Yosemite and saw the Firefall at Glacier Point in 1937. She rode horses, played the violin, and, of course, developed a love of writing. She earned a degree in journalism from the University of Oregon. After she was married, she lived in the ghost towns of Central Idaho before they were abandoned, and even witnessed an atomic explosion in Nevada in 1953.

While raising her five children, she became a reporter for the Idaho Statesman, and for the Star Newspaper in McCall Idaho, where she was also an AP reporter. On one assignment, she had to fly in a small plane in order to interview fire crews at the Big Creek Ranger Station in what is now the Frank Church/River of No Return Wilderness. The plane flew through a thunderstorm and out over the raging fire, which from above looked like a “huge, glowing snake weaving its way along the mountains.” In McCall, she took up hiking and backpacking, taking her toddlers out into the mountains to sleep under the stars, and instilling in them a love of the outdoors that has been passed on through generations. She guided girl scouts on outings in the woods, and took cub scouts to an army base for tank rides.

   When the family moved to the Boise valley, she once again worked as a reporter for the Idaho Statesman, graded essays for English classes at the University, and earned a library science degree so that she could become a librarian in her children’s schools. One of her best jobs was starting a library at a new elementary school, where she could decide what books to buy for an entire children’s library! Meanwhile, she was taking backpacking classes and sewing backpacks for the family to use nearly every weekend on trips to the mountains.

Her next adventure began when the family relocated to Alaska. With her husband already at work in his new job there, she loaded the children onto a ferry bound for Alaska. They slept on the deck, where the covered area was full of sleeping bags, and passengers played guitars and sang together late into the night as they sped past the wilds of Canada to their destination in the North. In Eagle River, Granny was drawn to substitute teaching by the magnificent salary they offered, and this was the hardest job she ever had. After days of going home with headaches, she jumped at the chance to become a reporter once again, this time with the Eagle River Star.

 In the early years of helicopter use by the police force, she reported on a demonstration of a new police helicopter at a local school. The pilot offered her a ride, but while they were in the air, the pilot got a call to tail an escaping bank robber, and they followed the chase until police managed to arrest the suspect. Granny loved it! The Star was also the first paper in Alaska to use a computer, and my Grandmother was the first reporter in the State to use it. It took up an entire room, and when working on a document she had to remember to save every few paragraphs. Many good stories were gobbled up by the enormous computer and had to be rewritten time and time again.

 Her outdoor  adventures continued there, too, and one of the first things she did was sign her family up for a kayaking trip on Prince William Sound with a couple of entrepreneurs known as the Bear Brothers, who would take the family out on a float plane to an island in the Sound. They would then have to paddle their way back to civilization. There were no cell phones then, and the guides had no radio. Granny spent a sleepless night before the trip wondering what she had been thinking. But they flew out the next day, assembled their kayaks, and waved goodbye to the float plane in a wilderness that stretched on forever. They saw what looked like multitudes of sailboats, but turned out to be icebergs that had calved off the Nellie Juan Glacier. They explored islands with no trace of human presence, collected mussels to roast for dinner, and crossed a vast expanse of rolling water to reach the port of Whittier and the train back home.

Summers in Alaska were spent canoeing and kayaking the vast system of boggy lakes South of Anchorage, where moose and blueberries were encountered on every trip. Winters were spent skating the frozen lakes and cross country skiing in the hills. The winter highlight was the ski train, which the family caught in Anchorage and rode along Turnagain Arm, while the train rocked to the dancers in the Polka car. After a day spent skiing in the mountains, the return trip was often even more raucous.

When the children had grown and gone their separate ways, and Granny and Grandad retired, they decided to leave Alaska. For most retirees, new adventures are not on their mind, but when Granny and Grandad vacationed in Hawaii, they decided on a whim they wanted to live there, and the only way to afford it was to become coffee farmers. So they exchanged their house with a view out over Cook Inlet and a hot tub under the northern lights for a coffee shacks with a rain barrel for drinking water and a composting toilet in the outhouse, where they could wake up to the singing of the cardinals and wear shorts every day.

Now Granny lives in Nahcotta on the Long Beach Peninsula in Washington where she sings in the choir, gardens, and continues to write. She published a book for young adults in 2010 called  Three Dogs, Two Mules, and a Reindeer: True Animal Adventures on the Alaska Frontier( $9.74). She is editor in chief for her family of writers and an inspiration for us all. If I could change one thing about her most recent book, it would be to add a chapter about her!