Herald Journal - Enterprise Dispatch - Delano Herald Journal
Alaskan bush inspires Winsted native’s poetry

August 31, 2009

By Linda Scherer
Staff Writer

WINSTED, MN – Jack Campbell, a 1966 Holy Trinity graduate, lives in a remote area of Alaska, 60 miles west of Juneau, in Excursion Inlet, on the eastern border of Glacier Bay National Park.

His home is located in an area known as the Alaskan “bush” – the only way in or out is by plane or boat.

“My cabin is rather quaint, but the view out the front window is spectacular,” Campbell said.

Alaska’s wilderness has appealed to Campbell. He not only has chosen it as his home, but it has inspired him to write a number of poems published in Alaskan anthologies and magazines, labeling him a resident bush poet.

“I prefer writing poetry because it is short, precise, and expressive,” Campbell said.

His favorite poet is Richard Hugo, who was the former director of creative writing at the University of Montana. He studied under Hugo while attending graduate school there in the late ‘70s.

But it wasn’t until the early ‘90s, when his poems began to be published.

He had not planned on a book of poetry, but a university colleague of Campbell’s suggested he assemble the published poems into a collection.

Last year, he decided to take his friend’s advice and had his collection published in a book titled “Four Fevers, Musings of an Alaskan Bush Poet: A Collection.”

The title of his book was taken from one of his poems about someone living alone in a cabin, in the wilderness, caught in the dead of the winter, when he’s beginning to experience “cabin fever.”

The book is published by Todd Communications in Anchorage, AK.

Initially, Campbell went to Alaska for the fishing, hunting, and adventure.

Before he arrived in 1984, he had received a degree from St. Cloud State University in English and had taught school for a number of years in Minnesota and Montana.

His first Alaskan teaching job was in a logging camp on Long Island, west of Ketchikan.

“One hundred and fifty of us lived in the camp. It had no stores and only one telephone. All supplies came in by float plane,” Campbell said.

Following his first teaching experience, he learned there was a shortage of teachers in the “midnight sun” state, which gave him the freedom to choose where he wished to live and teach.

He taught primarily in rural bush areas, in native villages on the Yukon, Kuskokwim, and Kobuk rivers.

“I enjoyed the slow pace of life and the natural world at my doorstep. There were no fences or posted signs. No roads or highways. The river was a highway in summer or winter,” Campbell said.

He taught English, both reading and writing. However, in some schools, he had to cover other subjects as well, so students were able to meet requirements needed to graduate.

He usually remained in a village for at least three years to establish “identity, effectiveness, and responsibility.”

“While living in villages, I learned more than I taught,” Campbell said.

Wherever he taught, he found the students were a challenge to teach.

“Since these students watched many teachers come and go – there is a very high turnover rate among bush teachers – they were always apprehensive. They had individual needs, like kids anywhere,” he said.

The students mostly came from very low-income families. They liked sports; primarily basketball.

In most places, the weather was too brutal for any outdoor sports other than skiing or cross-country running in the fall, according to Campbell.

“By the time I finished my teaching career, I had taught in k-12 classrooms, as well as several colleges and universities,” Campbell said.

One village he worked in was located on the Kuskokwim River in Upper Kalskag. He taught reading to k-12 students in three schools located about three miles apart.

There were 200 natives living in each village.

“For three years, the trailer I inhabited had no running water. Like many villagers, I used a honey-bucket,” Campbell said.

Later, he was hired as literacy coordinator by Kuspuk School District and traveled to eight villages by plane, boat, or snow machine – Upper and Lower Kalskag, Chuathbaluk, Crooked Creek, Red Devil, Sleetmute, Stony River, and Aniak.

Besides teaching in the district, Campbell was sometimes called on to be school cook, dishwasher, and librarian.

“It was during this time I had accomplished my greatest feat as a teacher – I knew every one of the 450 students by name in the district,” Campbell said.

An ambition of Campbell’s had been to live above the Arctic Circle, so Campbell accepted a job for two years in a small Inupiaq village on the Kobuk River, near the Brooks Range.

Shungnak was located 150 miles east of Kotzebue. This area Campbell describes as, “rich in beauty. The river full of fish, tundra packed with berries, valleys lined with caribou trails, and the winters were cold and dark.”

“When I lived above the Arctic Circle in Shungnak, the winters grew somewhat threatening,” Campbell said. “That’s when I wrote “Thirty Days Hath November above the Arctic Circle” (one of his published poems).

Campbell’s last job was as content specialist for the School of Education at the University of Alaska, in Fairbanks. He traveled to remote villages to work with new teachers. Most were first-year native teachers.

“My job was to model effective teaching practices related to reading and writing, or supervise student teachers,” he said.

He worked there for four years, until recently.

Selling salmon to the cannery in Excursion Inlet the summer of ‘79 was how Campbell first became familiar with the area he has made his home.

He spent most of that summer at sea working on a salmon troller in Cross Sound in southeast Alaska.

“I liked the area because it has good salmon runs and is located in a long inlet, protected from heavy winds and high seas,” Campbell said.

During the summer months, he raises vegetables and takes friends fishing. He also does a limited amount of commercial fishing.

He is just a 30-minute flight from Juneau.

Growing up in Winsted

Reflecting back on his years in Winsted, Campbell said for him it was the right place to grow up.

“It was small and I knew almost everyone. We were forced to learn in school,” Campbell said. “We had no negotiating power with the nuns, like the students seem to demand nowadays.”

“The school (Holy Trinity) prepared me effectively, although I remember spending quite a few hours after school memorizing poems for Sister Cyril in the seventh grade for messing up.”

Campbell also remembers how the town supported the first year of Trojan football his senior year. “Even though we lost every game except one,” Campbell said.

As the son of Dr. Matt and Marie Campbell, he felt fortunate in many ways because he and his brothers had the opportunity to see life both in town and on the farms since his dad was the local veterinarian.

“I’d like to return to Winsted,” Campbell said, “to skate on the ice in November, ice fish on Lake Mary, visit the schools and church (I sure developed strong knees in church), dance to a polka at the Blue Note, go for a ride out to Sherman Station and Devil’s Island, buy a round at Keg’s, and say hello to some folks I haven’t seen in awhile.”


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