There's a funny digression in "The Last Pork Chop," a classic Edward Abbey essay that was first published in Outside. In the essay, Abbey describes being in the remote wilds of Alaska, rafting in the Brooks Range with a group of locals, when several of his companions ask him—the decorated author, the trip's authority on all things literary—to name the best book about their state. Abbey obliges:
What's the best book about Alaska? The best book about the North, I say, is The Call of the Wild. In the language of critics, Jack London captures there the essence of the mythos of the wilderness. No, my companions say, the best book about Alaska. Winter News, I say, by John Haines – pure poetry; and by pure I mean poetry about ordinary things, about the great weather, about daily living experience, as opposed to technical poetry, which is concerned mainly with prosody – with technique. (One of my favorite lectures.) Don't lecture, they say; what about prose – books in prose. (I sense a trap about to snap.) I pause for a moment, pretending to reflect, and say Going to Extremes, by Joe McGinnis. A brilliant book. Mandatory for anyone who wants a sense of what contemporary life in Alaska is like. My opinion does not sit well with the locals. No! they say, McGinnis writes only about the sensational. Alaska is a sensational place, I reply. He's a scandalmonger, they say. Alaska is a scandalous place, I say; McGinnis tells the truth. How much time have you spent in Alaska? They want to know. About four weeks, all told, I answer. They smile in scorn. Four weeks of observation, I explain, is better than a lifetime of daydreaming. What about Coming Into the Country? Someone asks. I had to admit that I had started on that book but never finished it. McPhee, I explain, is a first-rate reporter, but too mild, too nice, too cautious – no point of view. More questions. You like Robert Service? I love him. But, says one inquisitor, I don't think you really love Alaska, do you?
I re-read the essay recently, and that section got me thinking. What is the best book about Alaska? What are the best books about the wider North—and, specifically, its wilderness, and the ways we engage with it? Or at least, what are some of my favorites?
And so, because it's the middle of July, when the sun never sets and the mosquitoes never hesitate, and because by the time you read this I'll be in a canoe on a river somewhere in the northern wilds myself, with a bagful of books along for the ride, I decided to indulge in a ritual of publishing: a wild summer reading guide to Alaska and the Canadian North.
The North is a place that people dip into and take from, whether that means oil or literary inspiration.
A lot of big-name writers have made their way up here at one time or another, and have subsequently left their mark on the geographic bibliography. Beyond London and McPhee, and McGinnis (all of whom were cited by Abbey), there's Barry Lopez, whose Arctic Dreams is a meditation on the landscapes and wildlife of the Arctic—perfect for those who like a slower-moving, contemplative vein of nature writing. I've always found John Muir, whose travelogue Travels in Alaska is still in circulation nearly 150 years after his first visit, a little bit florid for my taste—but he does capture the overpowering wonder of the region. Jon Krakauer's Into the Wild has become a modern classic about the allure and the perils of wild Alaska, and although you'll find it in dog-eared paperback form in hostels across North America (yep, there it is, right next to the Kerouac), it's not just for restless youth.
But my favorite of the best-known books is probably Jonathan Raban's Passage to Juneau, the story of a solo sailing journey from Seattle through the Inside Passage. Raban, a Brit who eventually settled stateside, is at his best when he's on the water—several of his books feature ocean and river journeys—and his trip up the coast of British Columbia and through the islands of the Alaska panhandle is evocative and moody, laced with considerations of local history, regional native art, and more. It also, eventually, reveals itself to be more personal than it seems at the outset. Probably more a rainy day read than a beach read, but I love it. (Also, the beaches here aren't really built for lounging.)
Another one I hold dear is Gary Paulsen's funny and exciting and bittersweet Winterdance, about the author's bumpy entry into long-distance dogsled racing. Paulsen trained a dog team in Minnesota, and ran the Iditarod in the early 1980s. A lot of writing about Alaska can be deadly serious, and while some mushers I've talked to were irked by Paulsen's occasional lapses in competence—he seems to spend half his time on the verge of disaster—I appreciate that he brings some whimsy and humor to the table.
You'll notice that all of these books are by outsiders who came up to visit: as I've written before, the North is a place that people dip into and take from, whether that means oil or literary inspiration. One great recent non-fiction book by an insider, Tom Kizzia's Pilgrim's Wilderness, centers on a mysterious man named Papa Pilgrim who arrived in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park with a huge brood of children. Papa Pilgrim carved out a home for his family in the wilderness, and wound up in a years-long legal battle with the National Park Service. That battle eventually led to the unearthing of Pilgrim's dark history of crime and abuse, and Kizzia—a local reporter initially covering the feud with the National Park Service—was on hand to watch the whole thing unravel. His book is grim and gripping; I read it in one long sleepless night.
I’ve read more writing about Alaska than I have about my own Canadian territories, so to help me out I asked Samia Madwar and Herb Mathisen, two of the editors at Yellowknife-based Up Here magazine, which covers the whole great mass of the Canadian North, to pass along their recommendations.
Samia recommended I Married the Klondike, a century-old memoir by Laura Berton. As Samia explains:
The author started out as an unmarried woman who went to Dawson to teach at the age of 29. It was the turn of the 20th century, a time when all of that would have been unusual. She shares her anecdotes without any pomp or self-aggrandizement; she simply describes life as it was, from navigating the dating scene in Dawson to keeping her kids and scatterbrained husband from drowning during a multi-day paddling trip. Plus, it's an interesting look at Dawson nearly a decade after the height of the gold rush.
Herb had two picks, both dealing with the history of First Nations, treaties, and the struggle over land and resource use in the Northwest Territories:
As Long as This Land Shall Last, by Rene Fumoleau, presents a history of Treaty 8 and 11, which comprise most of the NWT and northern Alberta. Fumoleau goes through government and church records and conducts extensive interviews with Dene elders to produce an account that balances out the official history provided in textbooks, etc. It illustrates pretty vividly the extinguishment agenda that the Canadian government had, with some examples of outright manipulation and lying. It also shows the difficulty the treaty-making teams had travelling around the territory, back in the late 1800s, early 1900s. A really solid read for anyone who wants to learn a fuller history of Canada's North.
In the same vein, there's Patrick Scott's Stories Told, which is a faithful account of what the Berger Inquiry heard from community leaders and members as it travelled up the Mackenzie River. Lots in the way of transcripts. It provides a look into life in these communities in the 1970s and powerful testimony about the importance of the land and what resource development might do.
I'd also link to two recent essays, both of which are preludes to eventual books. Blair Braverman's "Welcome to Dog World" is a thoughtful, sometimes grim look back at her summers spent in a remote glacier-top dog mushing camp in southeast Alaska. Her complete memoir of life as a musher in Norway and Alaska, Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube, is forthcoming. And Elisabeth Fairfield Stokes' unexpectedly poignant contribution to Eater's "Life in Chains" series is about the magic a Big Mac held for her as a child growing up in one of Alaska's fly-in villages. Stokes, I'm told, has a full-length memoir in the works too.
I know that there must be a lot missing from this brief guide: The North is geographically vast, culturally diverse, and has all sorts of stories to tell. I'd love to hear about what I should read next—just as soon as I get back from that river trip.
Dispatches From a Changing Arctic is a biweekly series of reported stories from Alaska and the three Canadian northern territories.