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Book offers personal view of Alaska's changes

Posted: Thursday, June 12, 2003

Many people come to Alaska pursuing dreams and adventures. Some find them. But few can tell their tales to others in a compelling way.

Delta Junction writer Judy Ferguson has written an ambitious memoir, "Blue Hills: Alaska's Secret Door." It recaps her 35 years in the state through a series of narrative essays.

Through her family, neighbors and friends, she offers a personal view of the major transformations the past 50 years have brought to everyday life in Alaska.

"It is Alaska's personal story: the evolution from old to new, from the ice box to global neighborhood, the very human story of the woman and her family who lived it," the preface says.

Refugees from the Lower 48 and the social turmoil of the 1960s, Judy and her future husband came to Alaska separately to carve out a life close to nature with their own hands and hard work.

Their adventures began with romantic Alaska notions, complete with quotes from Robert Service.

She describes her impressions upon arriving in June 1968:

"We left behind the 'Lower 48' states' ordinary daylight. The sunlight began to intensify, coming at a different angle, forming deep, rarified hues. In Fairbanks, I gazed at the houses around me, bathed in midnight gold. It was a timeless zone: the magical world of Shakespeare's fairy, Puck, and of Queen Titania. An evening reverie washed the intensely emerald-green grass, the yellow-hued sky, and us."

She promptly found Reb Ferguson, a New Jersey native who had come north six years earlier and gone feral in the hills along the Tanana River. She and her man willingly accepted the harsher realities necessary to make their dreams of living in Alaska's wilds come true.

They started their marriage with no assets except youth and gumption, subsisting off the land, spending winters trapping from squatter cabins and summers working odd jobs.

The book traces how, over the years, they built homes, raised children, met fascinating people, hunted to keep food on the table, explored Alaska and watched it mature alongside them.

The book's strongest passages describe the years the Fergusons spent running trap lines in the remote hills north of Delta Junction. Summers, they traveled on horseback to cut trails, build cabins and lay in supplies. Winters, they followed the first snows into the backcountry on dogsleds and hunkered in for the long season.

Nowadays, when we think of mushing, the images that often come to mind are from the high-profile races, with their groomed trails and speed. "Blue Hills' gives different pictures of breaking trail, hauling freight through swamps and over daunting terrain:

"If we were sledding a long, downhill slalom, my sled frequently missed a curve, overrode the trail and wedged hard behind the far side of a tree," Ferguson writes.

"Frightened of abandonment, my dogs pulled insanely from the opposite side of the tree trying to catch up with Reb, far ahead. Frustrated, I screamed, 'REB!' but Reb just kept swishing over the snow. Blithely unaware, with his earflaps down, he could not hear my cries slicing the frozen air and falling, unheard, to the ground. In the silence following my screams, my dogs panted. Like sap chunks on the blazed, wounded trees, my tears froze on my cheeks."

Parenthood increased the challenges. The physical labor and cold were grueling, the isolation sometimes maddening and, occasionally, extremely dangerous.

Yet the Fergusons and the book also emphasize the positive aspects of that nearly extinct lifestyle. The author celebrates the family bonds forged on an isolated homestead, the satisfaction of building one's own cabin and the beauty of the vast wilderness.

"Blue Hills," like the best of memoirs, looks outward with enthusiasm, rather than dwelling on the narrator. Her book ranges widely, highlighting other parts of the Bush, the rogues and heroes that dwell on society's fringes and historical events that touch their lives.

Over the course of the book, we see Ferguson and her family grow, mature and gradually "civilize." She goes from scraping laundry on a washboard to long Laundromat commutes to owning a washing machine. Total isolation yields to citizen-band radio emergency contacts to the present Internet age. And in 1997, they switch from mushing to snowmachines.

"Now that we have them, we don't have to wrestle dogs into harnesses. A short trip doesn't have to be an expedition. We can hop on the machine and commute like any 'modern savage,' as Reb often calls us."

The book is adapted from a series of columns Ferguson has written for the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner's "Heartland" magazine since 1996.

That format allows readers to skip around or read the book one brief chapter at a time, like reading letters from an adventurous friend. The format is more awkward when reading the book cover-to-cover, because stories skip around in time and place and sometimes repeat details. More restructuring and editing would have helped the narrative flow, and better maps would be useful.

The numerous black-and-white photos are a welcome enhancement. Although few are professional, they add to the memoir's intimacy and immediacy. Another plus is the handsome production with heavy, glossy paper.

"Blue Hills" is not always smooth sledding for the reader, but it takes us to some wonderful places.

Ferguson has realized her Alaska dream and, in the process, given us a warm portrait of what she calls "classical" Alaska life.

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



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