Eloquent travelers pen memorable essays

Posted: Thursday, January 29, 2004

Most travel books about Alaska are written as introductory material for tourists. In contrast, "Travelers' Tales Alaska: True Stories" is an advanced course with plenty to entertain and teach any reader.

Superb writing and thoughtful content make this anthology stand out.

The book's 26 essays cast a wide net. With a powerful sense of place, their geographic span ranges from the Alaska Highway to the Aleutians, from the streets of Anchorage to the peaks of the Brooks Range, from Kachemak Bay to Dead-horse.

The authors are an eclectic mix of Alaskans and Outsiders. They include fishers, mountain climbers, guides, a rabbi and some of the best-known names in contemporary outdoor writing such as Tim Cahill and Jon Krakauer. They share a passion for the land, an intellectual curiosity and a mastery of language.

This is a book about Alaska the grand, the land of superlatives.

"On the far side of the pass is a scene straight from the Pleistocene, an alien world of black rock, blue ice, and blinding-white snow stretching from horizon to horizon," Krakauer writes in "The Flyboys of Talkeetna," a piece about Bush pilots serving Denali climbers. "Beneath the Cessna's wings lies the Kahiltna Glacier, a tongue of ice two miles across and forty miles long, corrugated by a nubbly rash of seracs and crevasses. The scale of the setting outside the plane's windows beggars the imagination: The peaks lining the Kahiltna rise a vertical mile and more in a single sweep from glacier to summit; the avalanches that periodically rumble down these faces at a hundred-plus miles per hour have so far to travel that they appear to be falling in slow motion."

"Travelers' Tales Alaska" covers the basics of the state's mythos: bears and glaciers, dog mushing, fishing and brushes with death in the wilderness. Several pieces are recognizable as jaunty, informative travel articles, reprinted from magazines such as "Outside," "Back-packer" and "National Geographic Traveler."

But the book contains much more, going beneath the surface to confront the ambiguities and intangibles that add to Alaska's more subtle pull.

The essays emphasize wilderness beauties, challenges, dangers and the wild's siren call to the young and adventurous. But two selections focus on Anchorage and its conflicted relationship to the so-called real Alaska. There is even a refreshingly open-minded piece about campers in a Wal-Mart parking lot.

Alongside their feel for the terrain, the writers show equal skill navigating human relationships. We meet a hunting guide who regrets killing animals, a mother seeking the solace of wilderness with young children dogging her footsteps and strangers with cameras coming into Native villages.

One was Daniel Henry, who teaches communication at the University of Alaska Anchorage. Illuminating the distinction be-tween guest and interloper, he calls one's status "auspicious invitation" and the other's "a bungling intrusion." In his essay, "Eating Edward Curtis at the Ugruk Caf," he writes, "I carry the lessons from these occasions as reassurance and warning, reminders of my place as a guest at the table."

The book confronts the implied colonialism when professional writers from elsewhere come to Alaska and, with their East Coast agents and national resumes, write about it in strange mixes of awe and condescension, insight and ignorance.

" (I)n 'Traveler's Tales Alaska' there lingers (as I would guess is true for very few other places in the world) a fundamental choose-up-sides distinction betw-een writers who live in the state and those who hail from Outside ," David Roberts writes in his introduction.

The outsiders featured in the book are professionals who did their homework and spent a lot of time in the state. In some instances, they probably know more about their topics than lifetime residents over the next ridge. Yet it is jarring to read about people who find Alaskans less interesting than their mountains. A few observers are less than flattering, casting the inhabitants as blights upon the fine scenery.

Ian Frazier, a New Jersey resident who frequently writes for "The New Yorker," had (we hope) his tongue in cheek when he wrote of being weathered in at Nome. "To say that Nome, Alaska, is mainly mud with pieces of rusted iron sticking out of it is to be unfair to that interesting place," he writes in the book's shortest piece, "but so it appeared to me at the time."

Indeed, the book is bold in taking readers into Alaska experiences that no traveler in their right mind would consider vacations. These include Mike Grudowski's winter week in Whittier's Begich Towers and Kodiak fisher Toby Sullivan's searing memoir of winter crabbing on the Bering Sea:

"But Kiska was a haunted place, awful and lonely even in daylight, and at night it was only worse, our 20-watt mast light the only light in a bay full of dead soldiers, immense and treeless mountains rising up into the mist around the bay ," he writes.

Despite the diversity, the editors, all skilled writers based in Anchorage, did a fine job organizing their material. Only the occasional sidebar struck a discordant note: Although the information was relevant and well-presented, their inclusion broke up the flow of the prose. But that is only a minor distraction from a collection of extraordinary contemporary creative nonfiction.

Alaska is so large that a person could spend an entire lifetime exploring it and never see it all. "Travelers' Tales Alaska" reminds us that no matter how long we live in the state, we just need to hop a plane, take a new road or, better yet, get off the road altogether to become travelers on pilgrimage through a land of wonders.

Shana Loshbaugh is a writer and former Peninsula Clarion reporter who now lives near Fairbanks.

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