An Alaskan couple looks back at romance and upheaval in the wilderness

Sonja Woodman-Corazza (left) and Rich Corazza in 1976 on a boat in Cook Inlet, Alaska. (Photo: Sonja Woodman-Corazza)

During the 1970s, a small number of tough-minded young people moved into what is now the Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve. They built cabins, trapped, fished, hunted and raised sled-dogs — living a version of the Alaskan dream that would soon become a thing of the past. The third section of John McPhee’s book, “Coming into the Country,” profiles many of these people, living a life only the Alaskan frontier could offer.

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One of those profiles is the beginning of a love story. It was first written in a journal in 1975, tacked to the wall of an empty cabin and left in one of the wildest parts of Alaska.

“Monday, November 10th. Minus 12 degrees. Cloudy and may snow. Today is the anniversary of being in Alaska for exactly one year now,” the journal read.

Rich Corazza’s story might have stayed in the cabin forever, but after some months, John McPhee wandered in and found his journal. McPhee was taken by this tale of survival, addressed in parts to a girl named Sara. The writer included excerpts like this one in his book, “Coming into the Country:”

“Quite a lot has happened and if I had Sara now it would be the end of a near perfect year. Still it was the best decision I ever made, and I’m very glad things worked out. If I was religious, I might say ‘thank you, Lord. Amen.’”

Corazza spent his first winter in the Alaska wilderness in 1975, when he was just 23. He had been working as a logger in the forests of Wyoming and Colorado, but he felt constricted. He drove north to Montana and within days, he decided there were too many people there, too. In the book, McPhee quotes Corazza saying he settled on the Alaska bush because “There ain’t no barbed wire up here.”

Corazza said that sums it up.

“Oh, that was so good,” Corazza said. “A lot of things that he said in one line, yeah, I could waste a lot of words on, but he said it right.”

Corraza added, “there was no barbed wire, none. And I loved it — it was made for me.”

Although Alaska was everything Corazza hoped for, a girl he’d left behind in the Lower 48 occupied his thoughts. In his journal, Corazza punctuated his accounts of grouse hunting and chopping wood with heartsick notes like “good night, Sara,” “good morning, Sara,” and “Sarah, where are you?”

It’s been 40 years since these words ended up in the pages of “Coming into the Country.” Even though he gave McPhee permission to publish the journal, Corazza is still a little shy about it.

“I was kind of shocked that he wrote the love story part of it, of all the things he could have written about it,” Corazza said.

It’s a bit awkward to talk about today, because as he’s reading from his old journal, Rich is next to the woman he’s spent his life with — and her name is not Sara. It’s Sonja.

“Sonja was the first girl I met in Alaska,” Corazza said.

“But, we weren’t at all impressed with each other,” Sonja Woodman-Corazza responded.

At the time, Woodman-Corazza was also living in the upper Yukon. She was born on Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula and grew up fishing. But she was also drawn to the bush, and in 1975 she was living with a friend in a cabin about 40 miles from Corazza. The two kept running into each other — and helping each other out.

“I had my chainsaw, trying to figure out how to put a new link in my chainsaw, Rich was there and said, ‘you need help?’ I said, ‘yeah,’” Woodman-Corazza said. “And he said, ‘I always wanted to go fishing, and you know how to fish.’ And I said, ‘yeah.’”

As Corazza and Woodman-Corazza taught each other survival skills, they discovered they shared a deep love for the land.

The two were discussing marriage when Corazza’s journal pining for Sara appeared in the pages of “Coming into the Country,” first published in one of the most famous magazines in America, The New Yorker.

“I was thinking well, this is interesting. We’ll see how this ends up,” Woodman-Corazza said. “I didn’t know at that point if Rich was going to choose to stay with the fishing woman from Alaska or if he was going to revert to his longing of his heart for Sara.”

Of course, Corazza did choose the “fishing woman from Alaska,” and they’ve been together ever since. Today, the couple is living on a bluff overlooking Homer, in a cozy log home Corazza built himself, on land Corazza-Woodman’s grandparents homesteaded.

But the couple is still mourning the way things ended on the Yukon. The building of the trans-Alaska pipeline set in motion a great reapportioning of land. The area where Rich and Sonja had lived became a National Preserve. “Coming into the Country” documents the federal government handing out trespass notices to wilderness residents. In one scene, McPhee describes a Bureau of Land Management worker descending on a cabin in a helicopter, telling the man living there, “This is now the twentieth century. You can’t just do what you want to do.”

Corazza and Woodman-Corazza had moved off the Yukon by then, but they were close with many people who left. It’s not easy for Corazza to talk about.

“It was uncalled for for people that weren’t Alaskan to come in here and change this country to their standards without considering the people who were on the land. Hard to understand when you’re a young kid,” Corazza said.

Sonja also gets emotional talking about how the Yukon changed when the area became a National Preserve. She said it’s important to protect the environment, but the people who lived there were important, too.

“I’m not totally saying that I don’t believe in protecting certain areas. I do believe in that,” Woodman-Corazza said. “But not everything. Not the entire state.”

Corazza said young people no longer experience Alaska like he did in 1975. They arrive here with hiking boots, bikes and skis, and see the state as a kind of picturesque playground. But Rich has a different vision. He said there’s no longer a place for a young person with no money to go build a cabin out in the woods.

“The young generation, they don’t have that right now and I’d like to see that. I think it makes a better person out of you,” Corazza said. “You gain something in your heart, and you’re going to love this land more for going out there and doing it.”

In the end, McPhee may have publicized Corazza’s love notes to a girl he didn’t end up marrying, but Corazza said that’s okay because McPhee so perfectly captures his other great love — a time and place in Alaska that felt truly boundless.