Not Really an Alaskan Mountain Man
By Doug Fine
Alaska Northwest Books
"How I moved north and changed from a cheechako to a real Alaskan" seems to be a popular theme for memoirs these days. It dates back at least to the writings of Jack London, of course.
The latest contributor to this genre is Doug Fine with "Not Really an Alaskan Mountain Man." The cover indicates what readers are in for: It shows a stuffed moose head and cadre of rugged-looking manly men flanking a guy with untied hiking boots and a wide smile. This last is the author, and he looks, for all the cheerful energy radiating from his picture, like a dweeb.
His story follows the premise put forth in the "Northern Exposure" television series: nerdy Jewish guy from New York goes to rural Alaska. Throw in a bit of "America's Funniest Home Videos," back-to-the-land idealism and Fine's breezy, self-deprecating writing and you get the general feel of this book.
Fine moved north after several visits to Alaska. He went to Homer with plans to do travel writing, make an independent film and find a lifestyle that felt authentic.
"This book is about switching from Big Macs to whale meat. Or, to state my intentions when I moved to rural Alaska in March of 1998, this book is about someone who wanted to feel indigenous," he writes in his introduction. "That is to say, part of a physical place."
He fell in love with Alaska for its beauty, wilderness and friendly, quirky people.
"This used to be a planet full of places that were alive," he continues. "Now there are a few. Even fewer if you mainly speak English and want reliable Internet access."
The book chronicles his first winter and two summers in Alaska. He lived with his amiable dog, Sunny, in a porous cabin at Fritz Creek, a suburb of Homer, nestled deep in the beetle-killed spruce forest. Most of the book takes place there, with significant excursions to Kachemak Bay State Park, Barrow and an unnamed lake near Cooper Landing.
Fine tends to slapstick, with himself always as the fall guy. Literally. Tripping over things, plunging into gaps and slipping on scat piles are recurring motifs. The author portrays himself as deficient in gross-motor skills, the kid who never took shop and one whose eyes glaze over when others expound upon mechanical fine points.
Power tools are his enemies. He relates, in painful and hilarious detail, the day he dubbed "Chainsawgate," which found him standing in the autumn rain trying to cut rounds for his woodstove until the chain flew off the smoke-belching, roaring tool in his hand. And the feeling of being left on pack ice on a rented snowmachine lacking key, windshield, speedometer, odometer and, most disturbingly, probably gas.
Yet for all his goofing around, Fine brings intelligent insights into his misadventures.
Conversations, such as a discussion of artificial ingredients in emergency rations and the moral obligations of shooting game, skillfully meld silliness and serious issues.
He analyzes the whole cheechako-versus-mountain-man progression, as he sees it. He concludes that Alaskans are distinct from many in the modern U.S. because we "Know How To Do Things," (the capitals are his). Likewise he decides the lifestyle he craves is "neo-Rugged Individualism." To shed his cheechako status, he figures he needs to learn how to do things in three basic categories that form the framework for the book: keep warm, obtain one's own food and build adequate shelter.
In pursuit of these goals, his great fears are ridicule and dying. Like many males of the species, he would rather die than admit his "cheechako-ness," he says. But he worries that he could get the worst of both, an ignominious demise followed by a lurid obituary with cheechako incompetence screaming from between the lines. On the other hand, he concludes that having "a legitimately harrowing survival story" is essential to manliness on the Last Frontier.
Fine buys into and skewers the classic fantasies of Alaska adventure. He also ascribes to the mindset that terror, pain and humiliation are worthwhile in the long run, because they make for great conversation fodder afterwards.
His portraits of the land and its people show a genuine and clear-eyed affection and respect. By the end of the book, he states, "The longer I've stayed in Alaska, the slower my pace has become, and the sharper and truer my thoughts."
Fine may not know how to butcher a moose, but he does know how to write. That is one thing he knew how to do before coming to Alaska, and it serves him and his readers well. The book is a page turner and, although a few comments may make readers roll their eyes, many more will elicit chuckles.
"Not Really an Alaskan Mountain Man" is lightweight, but it is a truly entertaining update on the status of the Alaska mystique at the start of the third millennium.
Shana Loshbaugh is a writer and former Clarion reporter who now lives near Fairbanks.
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