A Call to Adventure, Education

Posted: October 1, 2020 at 10:34 am

A homesteading spirit and never-give-up attitude proved helpful for the Coles and their Alaska journey

Max and Deanna Cole taught several subjects at the Stony River School in Rural Alaska.
Deanna Cole and her husband, Max, taught several subjects at the Stony River School in Rural Alaska. Photo courtesy of Deanna Cole

By Dianna Troyer

As newlyweds in 1962, Max and Deanna Cole had no idea of the life full of adventure that awaited them.

“After we retired, we realized we’d lived in 36 different places in our 48 years of marriage,” says Deanna, 79, who lives north of Almo in the valley where her pioneer ancestors homesteaded.

The Coles taught school for 25 years in remote Alaskan villages, farmed in central Kansas, traveled through the Middle East and Ecuador, and ended their teaching careers in China in 2004.

When they started dating as students at Utah State University in 1961, Deanna discovered Max was an adventurous person who wanted to live in Alaska. “That was fine with me,” Deanna says. “Wherever we
worked and lived, and whatever happened, we laughed a lot and always reminded each other, ‘Keep your head up, everything’s gonna be all right.’”

They lived that motto while farming, raising their nine children, fishing, hunting, flying, teaching and living in a school apartment in the village of Stony River, about 220 miles west of Anchorage.

While teaching in Stony River, Deanna and Max met Ken Deardorff—known as the last homesteader. Ken filed for 80 acres in 1974 and built a two-story, 18-footby-22-foot log cabin. He and his wife ran a small store for people traveling the river. The property was only accessible by boat or plane.

The log home and surrounding land is the last homestead patent granted under the 1862 Homestead Act.

“He lived about 40 miles from the school and would come down the river to pick up supplies,” Deanna says. “Sometimes he had to wait a day or so for things to be flown in, so we got to know him. When he offered to sell his property in 1993, two of our sons jumped at the chance. 40 Mile Stony River became a special place for our family.”

The tractor Ken used on the property is famous, too. In 2017, the Coles’ son, Will, who lives in Fairbanks, helped airlift the 1945 Allis-Chalmers Model C off the property so it could be shipped for display at the Homestead Monument Heritage Center in Beatrice, Nebraska. Center officials said it embodies the American spirit of individualism and adventure.

At the homestead on the Stony River, the ever daring Deanna and Max — both licensed pilots — had a harrowing 900-foot long runway on a gravel bar with trees growing at either end across the river.

“Max had to fly perfectly taking off and landing,” Deanna says. “Before we came in for a landing, we always flew over to spot logs or moose. I read the airspeed and altitude out loud, and he watched for critters.”

Rural Alaska posed plenty of transportation challenges, but the Coles learned to navigate by ground and air.
Rural Alaska posed plenty of transportation challenges, but the Coles learned to navigate by ground and air. Photo courtesy of Deanna Cole

Homesteading and a sense of adventure run deep in Deanna’s gene pool.

“Three sets of my greatgrandparents — Durfees, Brueschs and Whitakers — homesteaded around Almo and Park Valley,” Deanna says. “This valley has always been special to me because of that. My mom taught at the school in Almo during the 1932-33 school year. I knew from a young age that I belonged in Almo and that I’d try to come back one day.”

When they first moved to Alaska, the Coles worked for the Bureau of Indian Affairs from 1964 to 1968 in the villages of Noatak above the Arctic Circle, and in Kwethluk and Aniak on the Kwethluk and Kuskokwim rivers.

“During winter, we had about four hours of daylight from 10 to 2, but we were so busy teaching students in all the grades, the dark never bothered us,” she says.

Max taught math, health, science, shop and physical education, while Deanna taught language arts, computer science, art and special education.

In 1969, they had an opportunity to farm in Kansas, near where Max had grown up. For the next 12 years, they raised sheep, hogs and cattle, and grew alfalfa, corn, wheat, milo and soybeans. After the
crops were devastated during a drought in the summer of 1980, they headed back to Alaska to teach.

They taught in western Alaska for 17 years in the Kuspuk School District on the Kuskokwim River. When teachers were needed in the Aleutian Islands, they taught there for two years. Finally, in 2000, they retired—almost.

“Our daughter, Beth, told us we should teach for Brigham Young University’s China Teacher’s Program,” Deanna says.

They were assigned to a small university in Qingdao, Shandong Province, in eastern China.

“Many students were fresh off the farm and wanted to learn American English,” Deanna says. “We were glad to end our teaching career like that.”

When Max died in 2009, Deanna had him buried in Sunny Cedar Rest Cemetery near Almo and decided to return to her roots.

Treasures fill her home—scrapbooks of their family and students, handcrafted grass weavings made by Alaskan native artisans, treasures from China and Ecuador, and photos of their planes.

Deanna Cole holds a native basket she collected while teaching in remote villages in Alaska.
Deanna Cole holds a native basket she collected while teaching in remote villages in Alaska. Photo by Dianna Troyer

“In Alaska, you had to learn to fly out of necessity because there are few roads in rural areas,” says Deanna, who also taught ground school classes for future pilots. “We lived in some remote places,
and I realized if there was an emergency or something happened to Max, I needed to be able to fly us out. Four of our kids also have their private pilot’s license.”

Deanna still travels often to see her children throughout the West and in Alaska.

“I’m still up for adventure,” she says. “Four of our kids still live in Alaska. We have family reunions there and here in Almo.”

Wherever she has lived and taught, Deanna has never stopped being a student.

“Learning something new is always an adventure,” she says. “Recently, I started taking painting lessons—portraits in oils. There’s something new to learn every day. I feel fortunate to have learned about different cultures from living in so many places and really blessed to ultimately be living here.”

While teaching in Nikolski, Deanna wove intricate grass baskets.
While teaching in Nikolski, Deanna wove intricate grass baskets under tutelage of an Aleut friend and elder. Photo by Dianna Troyer