Denali anthology captures old and newer tales

Posted: Thursday, November 09, 2000

"Denali: A Literary Anthology" depicts the power of Denali, the mountain, in Alaska thought and writing since primitive time. Publicized as "the first collection of original stories from a large and rapidly growing body of Denali literature," self-styled expert, Bill Sherwonit has compiled a literature of place spanning 101 years.

Beginning with Athabaskan legends and running through explorer Frederick Cook to the present day "trapline twins" Juli and Miki Collins, Sherwonit has selected well. While many of the 23 works may be considered "northern classics," others are known mainly inside the state. A few will be familiar only to those who consider Denali theirs.

The book is divided into five parts, starting with Native Sacred Stories. The opening selections contain an early translation (1908) by Jesuit missionary Julius Jette, as well as more current renderings (1990) by elder Shem Pete who resided in the Denali region all his life.

Part two is a selection of the early writings of European explorers in Alaska. Included is an excerpt from "The Shameless Diary of an Explorer," 1907 by Robert Dunn, who accompanied Frederick Cook in what turned out to be a circumnavigation of both Denali and Mount Foraker. The so-called expose is entertaining and enlightening, inviting the reader to find a copy of the original book to read in its entirety.

In part three, Sherwonit offers mountaineering stories from the earliest attempts. Among these tales is an excerpt from the well-known "Minus 148 Degrees," by Art Davidson, as well as the account by Belmore Browne of his aborted attempt to reach the summit in 1912.

Part four is titled "Natural History" and contains the moose, bear and wolf stories one expects to find in any compilation of Alaska literature. An abridged version of "Wolverine Trails" from biologist Aldoph Murie's "A Naturalist in Alaska" is included, along with "Wolves in Perpetuity" from "Wolves of Denali," by L. David Meach, et al, published in 1998.

In the final part, "Modern Adventure," Sherwonit selected five current (since 1992) Denali adventures. This section offers a sample of Sherwonit's own writing style, absent except for the introductions.

Sherwonit, a former reporter for The Anchorage Times, is a free-lance writer and author of four books about Alaska, including "To the Top of Denali," the account of his climb up the west buttress of the Great One.

Sherwonit lives in Anchorage and teaches a wilderness writing course at the University of Alaska Anchorage. Currently, he is finishing up a field guide to the Denali region for publication in 2001.

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