Alaska


2x poplars
Photo of the Yukon by nordicshutter used under a Creative Commons license.

Jill Fredston, Rowing to Latitude (North Point Press, 2001).
Fredston is an avalanche expert who lives near Anchorage nine months out of the year; for the other three months, she and her husband take long-distance trips in oceangoing rowing shells in colder climes. This book is the story of 20,000 miles of kayaking along the coasts of British Columbia, Alaska, Yukon, Greenland, Labrador, and Norway, with a little of Sweden and Washington thrown in for good measure. Oh, she rowed 2,000 miles down the Yukon River to the Bering Strait, and before she reached the Yukon coast on that other trip she rowed down hundreds of miles down the Mackenzie River from Hay River, Northwest Territories. For those of us who dream about such trips but likely will never feather an oar in those waters, Fredston’s book is a wonderful opportunity to row vicariously — a better way to experience the tedium, mosquitoes, and bears. The book won a 2002 National Outdoor Book Award.

Here (scroll down) is Fredston’s bio at the National Avalanche School. You’ll find an excerpt here. Philip Johns says it’s a tremendous book. Dana De Zoysa says Fredston writes rings around mass-market travel scribblers (whomever they may be). Judyth Willis particularly likes Fredston’s connection with the coasts of Yukon and Labrador. David would reread it in a heartbeat. Carol Standish is glad that it’s not a sloppy paean to nature. KiwiBird appreciates Fredston’s thoughts about what’s truly wild (and she should know). Brian Handwerk (National Geographic) picks up on the same theme. Sarah Sammis says it’s one of the best books she’s ever read. It’s Katie Lindsay’s favorite travel writing book (or was in 2004). Karen Karbo (The New York Times) focuses on Fredston’s husband. Gavin J. Grant interviewed Fredston.

Buy it at Amazon.com.

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Turnagain Arm

Photo of Turnagain Arm by rbbaird used under a Creative Commons license.

John McPhee, Coming into the Country (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1991). McPhee does Alaska, in a book first published in 1977. Broadly organized in three parts: “At the Northern Tree Line: The Encircled River,” about a canoeing and camping trip down the wilderness of the Yukon River; “In Urban Alaska: What They Were Hunting For,” about the (now-settled) debate over moving the state capital from Juneau to a more central location; and “In the Bush: Coming into the Country,” about settlers in the small town of Eagle. Much of Alaska is, after all, a frontier. McPhee’s writing is, as always, a delight, and the book captures the size and flavor of a wild, empty state.

You can pay $3 to read Diane Johnson’s 1978 review in The New York Review of Books (I didn’t). Here are reviews from Charlie Marlowe and Anna Mills. Here are reading and discussion questions about the book put together by English 171 students at Brown University. At Bookslut, Weston Cutter says Coming Into the Country is “the Alaska book, a book it’s impossible to try to describe with much more specificity than that (a sprawling and large and inimitable book about a state featuring identical characteristics).” Ronald Kovach (The Writer Magazine) offers a brief review. Jennifer Nichols found someone who didn’t like the book. More from WordPress bloggers here. Scott Eric Kaufman points to McPhee’s ability to create memorable metaphors.

Buy it at Amazon.com.

BC Ferry, Strait of Georgia
Photo of the Georgia Strait by WeeScot used under a Creative Commons license.

Jonathan Raban, Passage to Juneau (Pantheon, 1999).
An account of Raban’s solo voyage aboard his 35 ketch from Seattle, up Puget Sound and the Strait of Georgia, along the coast of British Columbia and then up the Inside Passage to Juneau. To travel this route by sailboat instead of ferry is to reckon with winds and tides, to shelter in unvisited coves, a slow and less direct trip that lets you see more. Travelogue combines with memoir, Raban’s readings of the accounts of Captain Vancouver’s expedition to the area in the 1790s, and reflections on Indian/First Nations art and culture. I loved this book. Unless you’re going to be on a small boat, Raban’s path is through a world that most visitors will not see much of, which is all the more reason to read his account.

Dave Weich of Powells.com interviewed Raban in 2000 (via Beth Wellington). Reviews from Sherry Simpson (SF Chronicle), Scott Sutherland (Salon), Michael Gorra (The New York Times), and Richard Bernstein (The New York Times). More from Dr. David P. Stern, Ann Skea, Traci J. Macnamara, HAK, Meg, Scott Esposito, t.s., Eileen D., and Ken Liu.

Buy this book at Amazon.com.