Like a flesh and blood firecracker, Nancy Allyn Cook sashays into a room, frequently a dominating presence.
In a brisk 40 years, she has accomplished much. She has balanced the writhing deck of fishing boats on the Bering Sea, climbed diamond-blue glaciers, hiked and lived in the wilderness. On calmer waters, she has taught students literature and poetry from Alaska to Astoria.
Today she is sporting 13 month-old Izi, a tiny red-headed girl with as much gumption and energy as her mother. Cook is a single parent. When she is not changing diapers, she is inspiring students at Clatsop Community College, a job she finds rewarding and challenging. That is not a problem; Cook adores a challenge. As she puts it, "sometimes we have to do the same thing day after day. The challenge is to do it well (day after day)."
She repeats that directive frequently, always a smile framing her full expressive face. Her intelligent eyes broadcast a bit of humor. Hers is a full-nelson headlock on life.
Cook started doing everything well in grade school in Washington, D.C., her home until the end of the ninth grade. She was a fine student, bright, quick and curious. Sometimes one suffers from too much commitment. Cook tells of a driven principal who taught at her in junior high. How the woman demanded scholastic perfection. How one afternoon the principal fudged on specific rules in order to get higher marks for her students in a national competition.
Cook, then a teenager, pointed out the discrepancy out loud in class, and instead of being rewarded, was punished. The lesson Cook got from the incident was direct. She defines it as "an overly fierce sense of justice."
In the 10th grade, Bob and Sunny Cook moved their daughters to Eastern Washington where Bob worked for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission at Hanford and later as a technical adviser to the Yakama Nation, a culture that Nancy Cook respects mightily.
Dad and Mom were bright and committed. Nancy was one more bite out of the family apple. She excelled in high school and moved on to the University of Washington, and later, Evergreen State College, where she graduated with a bachelor's degree in Environmental Science. Graduation year was 1992. Summers were spent in Alaska, her home away from home for the next 20 years.
Hers was a love affair with nature, a green epiphany. "Literally, I became a 'mountain junkie.'" The young woman had a fixation with the outdoors which she calls, "A quest for authenticity." Every summer from high school on, she would hike to lovely mountains of the Sierra Nevada, and later those snow-clad peaks of the Wrangell Mountains in Alaska.
She was drawn to natural history. Home became the Kennecott Valley in the middle of the Wrangell/Saint Elias National Park. Later, she would work summers as a workshop director at the Wrangell Mountains Center in McCarthy, Alaska. That was summer work. In the winter there was the Bering Sea.
Cook shipped aboard boats out-bound from Dutch Harbor, fishing intermittently, or worked as a bio-tech observer for the National Fisheries Service. Riding the 50-foot waves remains as bruising and dangerous as any occupation on the planet. When asked about challenge, however, Cook suggests that childbirth is the pinnacle of adventure.
A year ago she gave birth to Izi, a girl named after the Nizina River in Alaska. Cook likes to talk about "going with the flow." After 20 years in Alaska, harsh weather and lack of daylight motivated a change. She put out feelers. She preferred the West.
Her first enquiry landed at Clatsop Community College. Her resume with a master of fine arts in creative nonfiction from the University of Alaska at Fairbanks reads like an invitation to the circle of scholars. Now Cook says she loves Astoria, its rich sense of community and natural beauty. "I feel fortunate to be surrounded by an inspiring environment - students and faculty. I'm part of the anagama kiln, part of the Fisher Poets. I'm part of a community."
Playing with her daughter, Izi, when she's not teaching is one of Nancy Cook's favorite and most consuming pastimes.Photo by Laurie Anderson
Creative writing instructor at Clatsop Community College, Nancy Cook, shown here with her daughter Izi and dog, Sami, is a self-proclaimed and proud supporter of Barack Obama. Photo by Laurie AndersonSuch words are spoken with intense pride.
She moved here five years ago with her dog, Sami, named after a professor and shaman inspiration at the University of Alaska. Cook and her female husky broke the 3.7 mile, one-dog skijor record for Fairbanks, the skijor center of the world. (Skijor is the practice of one dog dragging a human on skis.) Cook is just about as proud of the event as she is for winning the tall tale contest in McCarthy and the $500 purse.
Cook is known for her poems and sea stories at the Fisher Poet's gathering, to be held at the end of this month, as well as her inspired interaction at other artistic events including her editorship of "Rain Magazine" and the inspiration she provides for students who help produce the literary manuscript.
She is succinct about the connection between teaching and community. She "likes to create a community where students feel safe and can find their best - and truest - selves." Further, she states, "Teaching is about making community. About living life fully and being engaged fully." Teaching, she implies, covers lots of fresh ground.
Cook can hardly finish a sentence of conversation as Izi scampers about, her little hands and legs darting like wild mustangs. Indeed, Sunny Cook once accused her own daughter of being a warrior spirit, "of being a wild woman who runs with wolves."
Perhaps the pursuit of such spirit is the mother and teacher's fullest challenge. As Cook so eloquently explains, "for me to be the spirited and consistently loving mother, that is what this little soul - Izi - fully deserves."