You can tell a lot about an author by the books in his or her library. Along one wall of Jim Rearden’s office in his home, Sprucewood, he has an almost complete run of Alaska Magazine. Another row of bookshelves holds an Alaskana library that would make any sourdough envious. The titles reflect his career in fisheries and wildlife management and his interest in Alaska history and culture. The neatly arranged, indexed books and articles show where Rearden gets the ideas to write Alaska best sellers like “Shadows on the Koyukuk,” “Alaska’s Wolf Man,” “Castner’s Cutthroats” and “Koga’s Zero.”
Out of that treasure trove Rearden has pulled a poke of gold for his latest book, “Old Alaska: Events of the 1900s.” Over the decades since Rearden, 88, first came to Alaska in 1948, he clipped and saved articles, columns, stories and other writings. “All of them I feel have the flavor of the old Alaska,” Rearden said.
He got the idea for the collection after injuries from a fall limited his mobility and made it impossible for Rearden to turn pages on books and do research, his prior method for writing nonfiction.
“So I thought, well, I’ve got all these pieces,” Rearden said of the boxes of articles. “What could I do with them?”
Many of the stories are by Rearden himself, or retellings of stories as told to him by some of the 20th century’s original old characters. Most came from previous publication in newspapers or magazines.
One work, “Chasing Gold in 1898,” by Charles W. Blomquist, is published for the first time. That story was written in 1960 and spent 13 years in the slush pile of Alaska Sportsman magazine. It came into Rearden’s hands after Doris Tobin Bordine, the daughter of the magazine’s former editor, Emery Tobin, sent Blomquist’s story of gold mining on to him.
Locals will appreciate “My 1916 Whaling Cruise,” a story by Ted Pedersen, one of Homer’s original pioneers, about his whaling days as a cabin boy on his father’s ship.
Rearden’s “Memories of the 1964 Earthquake” gives a first-hand account of the chaos of the earthquake in Homer and Seldovia, and reveals a little-known historical fact: that Rearden, in his job as area biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, helped keep a radio relay between Anchorage and the Alaska capital in Juneau, including Gov. William Egan.
“Old Alaska” is packed with gems like that, first-hand stories of Alaska before statehood and in the days when dog drivers staked out teams in downtown Anchorage.
“I harvested the cream of the crop,” Rearden said.
Unable to type, Rearden turned to new technology to write his book: Dragon Dictation, a computer software program that allows writers to dictate to a computer and have the spoken word become text.
“I sat there and read to the Dragon,” Rearden said. “Every damn word in that book was spoken by me to the Dragon.”
Rearden credits his wife, Audrey, with helping him on the book by turning pages or adjusting his dictating microphone.
“Without her, I couldn’t have finished the book,” he said.
“There was lots of correcting,” Audrey Rearden said. “Sometimes that Dragon wasn’t going to cooperate on these Alaska names.”
“If the mic wasn’t placed properly, you get gibberish,” Jim Rearden said. “Of course, some people think my writing is gibberish on its own.”
Audrey said when Jim was first learning to use Dragon Dictation, it was a struggle to get the program working right. She’d hear him in his office dictating.
“I’d hear ‘backspace five, correct that,’ and then he’d say ‘son of a bitch,’” she said. “There it would be on the screen — ‘son of a bitch.”
Rearden said that a lot of the old Alaska is no longer appreciated or lost to history. As an example, Rearden mentioned when he received the Governor’s Award for the Humanities in 2011 and was invited to the reception. “Tuxedo optional,” the invitation said.
“I don’t have a tuxedo,” Rearden said, “I thought, I’ve got an Alaska tuxedo.”
So Rearden put on his 40-year-old Filson wool jacket and pants, a dress shirt and a bolo tie with an ivory carving.
“You’re looking at history,” Rearden said he told the audience when he accepted his award. “No Alaskan every appeared without his Alaska tuxedo. Everyone had fancy suits, but not old Rearden. He wore his Alaska tuxedo.”
Like C.B. Bernard’s recent “Chasing Alaska,” Rearden’s “Old Alaska” grapples with the question, “What does it mean to be an Alaskan past and present?” Rearden said it’s still possible to find that old Alaska in the state’s more rural areas and villages where there hasn’t been a lot of change except for better communication and medical care.
“The outdoor equipment is the same. The food comes from the land,” Rearden said.
An Alaskan might still be able to find that old Alaska, he said.
“Sure. It would be a matter of choice. If you want to go out and live off the land,” Rearden said. “We get dreamers. Very few succeed, but a few do … The dream life is much more different than real life. Living on the land is darn hard work.”
Someone new to Alaska might see an Alaska that’s fading pretty fast from the old Alaska.
“They might think they got here too late to enjoy the real Alaska,” Rearden said.
But then Rearden remembered something a friend told him when they’d arrived in 1948. “Jim, we got here too late,” the friend said.
The essence of that Alaska can be seen in one story by Rearden, “The Secret Valley,” in which he writes about hunting the Clear Delta River valley, a glorious game-filled refuge in the Alaska Range with his friend, Jim Brooks. Rearden writes of returning from a successful hunting trip. An old gold miner, Charlie Miller, had watched their pickup truck at their put-in spot on the Clear Delta River and Brooks gave him a 125-pound ham from a moose they’d hunted. Still a cheechako, Rearden said he was amazed at Brooks’ generosity.
“After a few years went by I realized that what Brooks had done was commonplace,” Rearden writes. “Alaskans treasure old-timers like Charlie who, like so many others, had chased a dream most of his life, breaking trails across this great land looking for gold. Alaskans gave a boost to such men whenever possible.”
“Old Alaska” gives a boost to those old timers, but it also treasures another Alaskan — Rearden himself.
Michael Armstrong can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.