'Frontier Adventure' provides plenty of entertainment

Posted: Thursday, February 07, 2002

Don't let the title of this book fool you. It may have been almost 50 years since the first of these previously published pieces appeared in print, but some of Homer author Jim Rearden's cast of characters cut their adventurous trails across Alaska much earlier than that.

And though the intervening years have altered "the last frontier's" landscape, the pages are filled with reminders of why the name of this country means "the great land."

For starters, there's the land itself. Descriptions of Alaska's countryside are tightly woven throughout the book's fabric. In some sections, like the chapter about a 1954 rescue on Mount McKinley, they are more the pattern than the background.

Rearden recorded an interview with Dr. John McCall of College, who was on a team of rescuers that pulled an injured climber off North America's tallest mountain. McCall tells of thick clouds that rolled down the slopes and weighted down the team's spirits.

Fragile ice bridges collapsed over bottomless crevasses.

"It gave a loud crack, and the whole thing, for a distance of about 20 yards, disappeared. We listened to the echoes and the sound of ice and snow bouncing from side to side in the big hole."

The altitude made reasoning difficult and teamwork a challenge.

On more than one day, they hoped to reach the waiting climber, only to have weather, dangerous climbing and exhaustion foil their attempts. All the while, McCall "was afraid to think about what we might find when we arrived at our destination. Would it be an empty tent? A frozen body? A gibbering idiot? The strain of being injured and alone for so long would break the nerves of many, and it would be no discredit to them."

The remote country around Lake Minchumina is Hjalmar "Slim" Carlson's home. But his home came with a high price. Sometimes Carlson made those "payments" while fishing for food.

"Bare-handed despite the 18-degree temperature and raw wind, he used a handle with a nail in it to untangle the nylon net from the whitefish, an occasional scaleless ling, or sucker."

And sometimes he made those "payments' while trapping for furs.

"During winter '54 while he was running a trapline, the temperature dropped to 58 below. On another occasion when it was 60 below he became so cold that he drove his dogs right into a line cabin. He was too cold to remove harnesses until he warmed himself with a fire."

Wildlife gets its chance at center stage in many of Rearden's chapters. In one instance, the author praises the grayling of northern and interior Alaska.

"He is a country boy with manners. He is a gentleman and he has saved my neck on many occasions ."

Wolverines are described as "ill-tempered and unpredictable," and Rearden gives them wide berth. In fact, they claim an entire chapter. Drawing from a number of firsthand accounts, he debunks the myths, honors their feistiness and laughs at their curious ways.

And then there's Rearden's experience with the sea otter of the Aleutians during the 1960s, when swelling otter populations resulted in then-Governor Walter J. Hickel's decision to let the Department of Fish and Game thin the numbers.

Finally, there are the people. Like Knut Johnson, who grew tired of Interior Alaska's bitter cold and migrated to the Kenai Peninsula in 1922. After settling into one of the peninsula's more remote corners, Johnson's interactions with some of his four-legged neighbors earned him the nickname "Moose." But judging from the stories Rearden shares with the reader, Johnson could just as well have been nicknamed for any number of animals with whom he experienced close encounters.

There's Frank Glaser who came to Alaska in 1915. Rearden describes this hunter, trapper and guide as "a compulsive talker who loved to tell about his many encounters." His years in Alaska, began when he was 26 and came to a close some 60 years later, richly seasoned with a personal war against grizzlies and involvement with wolf control, as well as a successful attempt to create a superior dog team, thanks to a certain black wolf.

Through Rearden's wide lens are scenes from Hollywood's discovery of Alaska in the 1930s and the Aleutian's head-on with World War II in the 1940s. There are the unending ridges of the Talkeetna Mountains that threatened to keep hunter Pat O'Donnell lost and wandering. And there's an acknowledgement of Alaska's past and current connection to Russian.

In the end, Rearden's path leads to his own front door, where he reflects on changes against a backdrop of constants. And whether the reader agrees with his conclusion, the 280-plus pages and 50-plus years prove a great adventure.

McKibben Jackinsky is a free-lance writer who lives in Ninilchik.

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