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Greetings, Alaska adventurers.
When you take a place as vast as Alaska and add the literary, climate, and natural history passions of the Education Team, it’s difficult to come up with a suggested reading list that isn’t as big as a Holland America Line cruise ship! The following recommendations should provide fodder to fuel your adventurous soul on our travel to the Last Frontier.
Rich, Natalie, Lytton, Ray, Mark, and Nan
Cruise naturalists Natalie Springuel and Rich MacDonald always offer a good mix of reading suggestions. Consider the following selections, titles that have appealed to Rich and Natalie, to root you to place:
Alaska’s Birds: A Guide to Selected Species (2003) by Robert H. Armstrong. This pocket-sized reference covers a bit less than half of Alaska’s birds; for those it does cover, the text is more prose than a standard field guide, making it more readable.
A Birder’s Guide to Alaska (2008) by George C. West and Cindy Lippincott. This weighty tome is the definitive guide on where to find birds in Alaska.
Flora of Alaska and Neighboring Territories: A Manual of the Vascular Plants (1968) by Eric Hulten. This book is for the serious botanist and will be well used over the years. (And it is still quite relevant, even though it is dated.)
Guide to the Birds of Alaska (2008) by Robert H. Armstrong. This book would be an excellent complement to the National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America. It has good photos, but the most useful feature is the table describing regional distribution within the state.
Guide to Marine Mammals of Alaska (2013) by Kate Wynne. This is the best and most comprehensive of the Alaska-specific marine mammal guides. It is also field-friendly with a spiral binding.
Life in the Cold: An Introduction to Winter Ecology (1996) by Peter J. Marchand. An excellent text describing the forces of winter and how plants and animals survive.
National Audubon Society Guide to the Marine Mammals of the World (2002) by Brent S. Stewart, Phillip J. Clapham, James A. Powell, and Randall R. Reeves. Natalie’s favorite marine mammal field guide, this hefty tome covers seals, otters, and whales (and includes that marine carnivore: the polar bear, which does not occur in our cruise region). It has excellent maps, photos, and species comparison diagrams to help zero in on what we might see.
National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, sixth edition (2011) by Jon L. Dunn and Jonathan Alderfer. This is the book the cruise naturalist Rich MacDonald swears by. It covers all of North America, is organized taxonomically, and has excellent illustrations and range maps.
A Naturalist’s Guide to the Arctic (1995) by E.C. Pielou. Although written for the natural world of the Arctic, there is quite a lot of ecological overlap with any northern latitude cold climate.
The Nature of Southeast Alaska (2003) by Rita M. O’Clair, Robert H. Armstrong, and Richard Carstensen. This book offers a broad view of the landscape ecology, zoology — mammals, birds, fish, and invertebrates — botany, fungi, and lichens. One of our few criticisms of this book is its emphasis on a Clementsian view of ecological succession, a theory not entirely subscribed to by cruise naturalists Rich and Natalie.
Pacific Salmon Life Histories (1991) edited by Cornelius Groot and Leo Margolis. This book provides life histories of the seven Pacific salmon species and is a wealth of biological information.
Walker’s Mammals of the World, volumes I and II (2002) by Ronald Nowak. This two-volume set contains species accounts for over 1,100 mammalian genera. The late Roger Tory Peterson said of these volumes: [They are] “an absolute treasure trove. A ‘must’ for the working naturalist as well as for any person who has curiosity about the world’s mammals.”
Whales and Other Marine Mammals of British Columbia (2002) by Tamara Eder. A good introduction to the marine mammals of the region.
Alaska (1988) by James A. Michener. A story of man against the elements, from prehistory to the present.
Alaska: Saga of a Bold Land (2004) by Walter R. Borneman. From Russian fur traders to the Gold Rush, extraordinary railroads and World War II to the oil boom and the fight over the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, this is an excellent history of Alaska, the 49th state, once known as Seward’s Folly.
Baidarka: The Kayak (1986) by George Dyson. Long before the first Europeans came to North America, the indigenous peoples of the Arctic and sub-Arctic perfected a method of efficient water travel: the kayak. This book and The Bark Canoes and Skin Boats of North America both explore the rich history of the kayak.
The Bark Canoes and Skin Boats of North America (1964) by Edwin Tappan Adney and Howard I. Chapelle. For anyone interested in the esoteric history of traditional craft — both in the sense of skills and transportation — this book is a must-read. Adney and Chapelle write firsthand of their knowledge of and experience with First Nations’ water vessels during a time when they were still heavily in use.
Bear Attacks: Their Causes and Avoidance (2002) by Stephen Herrero, Bear Encounter Survival Guide (1997) by James Gary Shelton. These two books provide good background information on bear behavior and safety in order to prepare anyone for bear experiences.
Bush Pilot (1988) by Pierre Rivest. A book with extensive tips and techniques for remote flying on wheels, skis, or floats.
Coming into the Country (1991) by John McPhee. Classic McPhee (and among Rich’s favorites), this book explores the people and places of Seward’s Folly.
Fifty Miles from Tomorrow: A Memoir of Alaska and the Real People (2010) by William L. Iggiagruk Hensley. Hensley grew up near the Arctic Circle, raised in a sod house without electricity, running water, or a bed of his own. Schooled in the Lower 48, the subarctic region of Kotzebue Sound was always his home. The book follows a life straddling two cultures—Inupiat and that directed by a government that at that time denigrated his heritage—through post-college activism, his time as a state representative, and his late work with the Native corporations.
Frigid Embrace: Politics, Economics and Environment in Alaska (2002) by Stephen Haycox. Haycox’s probes into the mindset of pioneer Alaska, the effect of major federal land protection legislation, the Exxon Valdez oil spill, timber management in southeast Alaska’s Tongass National Forest, and the ongoing debacle over the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
Of Wolves and Men (1979) by Barry Lopez. Two animals personify Alaska: the grizzly (or brown) bear and the timber wolf. This may be some of the very best prose on the wolf.
One Man’s Wilderness: An Alaskan Odyssey (1999) by Sam Keith and Richard Proenneke. Follow Proenneke as he leaves the rat race of 50-hour workweeks to find solitude in the wilderness where he employs his extensive talents to make everything he needs, from wooden spoons and bowls to a cabin, all while living off the land. (It is also available as a documentary DVD.)
Passage to Juneau: A Sea and Its Meanings (2000) by Jonathan Raban. The author takes his 35-foot sailboat 1,000 miles along the Inside Passage from Seattle to Juneau and dives into the region’s history, environment, and culture. Natalie says this is a very good read.
Pinnell and Talifson: Last of the Great Brown Bear Men (1980) and Track of the Kodiak (1984), both by Marvin Clark, Jr. These two books give great accounts of the old days hunting brown bears on Kodiak Island.
Travelers’ Tales Alaska: True Stories (2003) edited by Bill Sherwonit, Adromeda Romano-Lax, and Ellen Bielawski. A collection of Alaska stories by some of the best contemporary adventure writers, including John Krakauer, Tim Cahill, and Pam Houston.
Two in the Far North (2003) by Margaret E. Murie, foreword by Terry Tempest Williams. Margaret Murie, who grew up in Alaska before it was a state, tells of living in the 49th state. Her life is an adventure and the tales recounted will allow even the most ardent couch potato to relive, albeit vicariously, Murie’s life, from running the last dog mail delivery of the year as the rivers are breaking up to exploring and mapping the wilderness with her scientist husband, Olaus Murie.
Where the Sea Breaks Its Back (1966) by Corey Ford. The epic story of early naturalist Georg Wilhelm Steller (1709–1742) and the Russian exploration of Alaska. Steller was the first naturalist to document the wildlife of Alaska’s coast. Today, several species are named after him, including the Steller Sea Lion and Steller’s Jay, both of which occur along our cruise route.
Winterdance: The Fine Dance of Running the Iditarod (1995) by Gary Paulsen. The classic story of dog mushing the 1,000-mile Iditarod race.
Natalie and Rich have some recommendations on other sources, such as periodicals, maps, CDs, and videos:
Alaska Geographic is a quarterly publication of the Alaska Geographic Society that dedicates each issue to one topic.
Alaska and Canada’s Inside Passage Cruise Tour Guide, by Coastal Cruise Tour Guides, is a beautiful, six-foot, foldout map of the island-dotted waters from Seattle to Glacier Bay, including cruise routes, with city maps for Sitka, Juneau, Ketchikan, and Victoria.
Alone in the Wilderness (DVD), produced by Bob Swerer Productions, is a documentary video (see the description of One Man’s Wilderness: An Alaskan Odyssey above).
Bird Songs of Alaska, by Leonard Peyton, is a two-CD set that will help most anyone learn the birds of Alaska by sound alone. Rich’s brother, Rob (some of you will remember him from our 2006 cruise), is a wildlife biologist in Alaska, and this CD set has been instrumental in his bird studies and presentations over the intervening years.
Natalie and Rich have always had a keen interest in children’s books, too:
The Alaska Mother Goose (1997) by Shelley Gill and Shannon Cartwright. A kids’ book that has pages and pages of north country nursery rhymes.
The Bravest Dog Ever: The True Story of Balto (1989) by Natalie Standiford. A kids’ book that shows the story of the lead sled dog that helped save all the people in Nome’s diphtheria outbreak in 1925. The Iditarod Sled Dog Race commemorates his run.
The Eyes of the Gray Wolf (2004) by Jonathan London and Jon Van Zyle. A kids’ book that is the story of a wolf in winter, illustrated by the famous Alaskan artist Jon Van Zyle.
Flight of the Golden Plover: The Amazing Migration Between Hawaii and Alaska (1996) by Debbie Miller and Daniel Van Zyle. A kids’ book that is a fun-filled way to learn the migration of this plover species.
One Wing’s Gift: Rescuing Alaska’s Wild Birds (2002) by Joan Harris. A kids’ book that is a tribute to bird rehabilitation at the Bird Treatment and Learning Center in Anchorage.
Salmon Stream (2001) by Carol Reed-Jones and Michael S. Maydak. A kids’ book that depicts the life cycle of salmon in an easy-to-read format.
Lytton John Musselman, our cruise botanist (every ship needs a botanist, right?), has some reading recommendations:
Food Plants of Coastal First Peoples (1995) by Nancy J. Turner. This is more than a guide to the identification of wild plants that can be used for food in coastal British Columbia and Alaska; it is something of an anthropologic investigation, as well. The author, a well-known ethnobotanist, includes information on how indigenous people collected and prepared food from their local flora.
Into the Wild (1997) by Jon Krakauer. This is the account of Christopher McCandless, an outstanding student and athlete who embraces poverty and travels to Alaska to live off the land. Causes of his death were (and still are) debated, but involve eating a misidentified plant. This is the true story of botanical forensics. It was also made into an award-winning movie by the same name.
Never Cry Wolf (1963) by Farley Mowat. First published in 1963 and reprinted several times, this is the account of a Canadian wildlife biologist sent to the tundra to study wolves and their relationship to caribou. This is a charming and engaging study of a noble beast. (Lytton writes: “I read this while in high school and am thankful that the opinion of biologists and the general public has radically changed — for the good.”)
Lytton has some additional recommendations related to his area of interest — plants of the Middle East and elsewhere:
A Dictionary of Bible Plants (2011) by Lytton John Musselman (yes, that Lytton Musselman, our very own cruise botanist)
Figs, Dates, Laurel, and Myrrh: Plants of the Bible and the Quran (2007) by Lytton John Musselman, with a foreword by Garrison Keillor. In describing this book, Lytton writes: “Shameless self-promotion — though the foreword by Garrison Keillor is worth the price of the book.” This is a well-illustrated survey of all the known plants of both holy books.
The Quick Guide to Wild Edible Plants: Easy to Pick, Easy to Prepare (2013) by Lytton John Musselman and Harold J. Wiggins
As the resident Alaskan, Nan Elliot has put together a sampling of books — her favorites and those of her friends. She writes: “A potpourri of Native cultures, adversity, humor, adventure, history, tales of this extraordinary land, biography, conservation, children’s tales, and eloquent writing (plus a few recommendations of Canadian books).”
Like the “Chicago Reads” program, Alaska started an “Alaska Reads” program where a book is chosen each year for the whole state to read (the idea being that when you belly up to the bar and want to meet the fellow or woman on the next barstool (or you are marooned together in a tent during a blizzard or climbing Denali or waiting on a sandbar for your bush pilot to pick you up) you’d have something literary to talk about. In the past two years, the list of chosen books have (for shorthand purposes—and because I know how hard they are to write) two- or three-sentence summaries from jacket covers, reviews, friends, or me):
The Snow Child (2012) by Eowyn Ivey. “Alaska, 1920: A brutal place to homestead, and especially tough for recent arrivals Jack and Mabel. Childless, they are drifting apart — he breaking under the weight of the work of the homestead; she crumbling from loneliness and despair. In a moment of levity during the season’s first snowfall, they build a child out of snow. The next morning the snow child is gone — but they glimpse a young, blonde-haired girl running through the trees.”
Blonde Indian: An Alaska Native Memoir (2006) by Ernestine Hayes. “In the spring, the bear returns to the forest, the glacier returns to its source, and the salmon returns to the fresh water where it was spawned. Drawing on the special relationship that the Native people of southeastern Alaska have always had with nature, Blonde Indian is a story about returning.”
Alaska Native Cultures
Two Old Women: An Alaska Legend of Betrayal, Courage, and Survival (2013) by Velma Wallis. “Based on an Athabascan Indian legend passed along for many generations from mothers to daughters of the upper Yukon River Valley in Alaska, this is the suspenseful, shocking, ultimately inspirational tale of two old women abandoned by their tribe during a brutal winter famine.” This little, captivating book has been translated into 17 different languages.
Gift of the Whale: The Inupiat Bowhead Hunt, A Sacred Tradition (1999) by Bill Hess. A beautiful book, filled with Bill Hess’s beautiful photographs, about life in far-flung villages along the Arctic Ocean, where for centuries, people have depended on the bowhead whale for their way of life and very existence.
Jimmy Bluefeather: A Novel (2015) by Kim Heacox. “Old Keb is somewhere around 95 years old (he lost count long ago). He is in constant pain and thinks he wants to die. Part Norwegian and part Tlingit, he’s the last living canoe carver in the village of Jinkaat in Southeast Alaska. When his grandson, James, a promising basketball player, ruins his leg in a logging accident, Old Keb comes alive and finishes his last canoe, with help from his grandson. Together […] they embark on a great canoe journey.” This book won a 2015 National Outdoor Book Award. Kim Heacox lives in Glacier Bay.
Shadows on the Koyukuk: An Alaskan Native’s Life Along the River (2010) by Sidney Huntington. “‘I owe Alaska. It gave me everything I have,’ said the late Sidney Huntington, son of an Athabascan mother and white trader/trapper father. Growing up on the Koyukuk River in Alaska’s harsh Interior, that ‘everything’ spanned 78 years of tragedies and adventures.”
Julie of the Wolves (1996) by Jean Craighead George. “To her small Eskimo village, she is known as Miyax; to her friend in San Francisco, she is Julie. When her life in the village becomes dangerous, Miyax runs away, only to find herself lost in the Alaskan wilderness. Miyax tries to survive by copying the ways of a pack of wolves and soon grows to love her new wolf family.” I read this book when I first came to Alaska and loved it. Today, it is an award-winning classic.
Bo at Ballard Creek (2014) by Kirkpatrick Hill. “It’s the 1920s and Bo was headed for an Alaska orphanage when she won the hearts of two tough gold miners who set out to raise her, enthusiastically helped by all the kind people of the nearby Eskimo village. Bo learns Eskimo along with English, helps in the cook shack, learns to polka, and rides along with Big Annie and her dog team.” A homesteading friend of mine — who also owns a bookstore — says this is a wonderful story, not only to read, but also to read out loud with the whole family.
Granite (2007) by Susan Butcher and Dave Monson. “Susan Butcher was a four-time champion of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race and Queen of the Iditarod. Granite was her greatest lead dog. In the beginning, he was a shy, scraggly pup that the other dogs pushed around, but Susan saw his potential. Together they worked until he became leader of the team.”
Klondike Fever: The Life and Death of the Last Great Gold Rush (2010) by Pierre Berton. To get to the Klondike in Canada, the easiest route was out of Skagway at the head of the Inside Passage of Alaska and then up and over the mountains via the infamous Chilkoot Trail. This book is a classic and filled with marvelous old-time stories of the gold rush. When it was published in 1958, The New Yorker wrote: ”Absolutely first rate.” When an old rust-bucket of a steamboat docked in Seattle in 1897 containing two tons of pure gold, it set off one of the most amazing rushes to the North. “So frenzied was the dash, that the rush for riches became kind of fabulous madness,” wrote one historian. Pierre Berton is a wonderful writer and storyteller.
City of Gold (film; 1957). A gem. A Canadian documentary film, made in 1957, narrated by Pierre Berton, who grew up in Dawson, a city made famous during the Klondike Gold Rush. It starts with the poignancy of old men in the twilight of their years swapping stories about the greatest adventure of their lives—the rush to the Klondike in search of gold. Time: 20 minutes. Available on YouTube (or by writing the National Park Service in Skagway, Alaska).
Best Tales of the Yukon (2010) by Robert Service. “There are strange things done in the midnight sun by the men who moil for gold …” Robert Service was the “bard of the North”—the best and most beloved, gold rush poet.
The Call of the Wild, White Fan, and Other Stories by Jack London. Like John Muir and Robert Service, London evokes the feel of the Far North in a way very few have captured since. As one reviewer said: “London’s wonderful stories about dogs and wolves and simple, hardy men have never failed to grip the imagination of readers throughout the world. But their simplicity belies their complex themes and the poetic force of the prose.” If you read nothing else, read his short story “To Build A Fire.” If you live in the north, London’s description of the “White Silence” has power beyond imagination.
Handloggers (1974) by W.H. Jackson with Ethel Dassow. This is a wonderful book. A classic. Described as an Alaskan adventure, lots of action, set among the big, big trees of southeast Alaska, detailing the unusual life of a one-man profession, a handlogger. It is also a very sweet romance. When the book came out in the 1950s, the San Francisco Chronicle wrote: “Good old-fashioned storytelling. A rare piece of Americana.”
Travels in Alaska by John Muir. Anything by John Muir would be a delight. “Travels in Alaska is John Muir’s journal of his 1879, 1880, and 1890 trips to southeast Alaska’s glaciers, rivers, and temperate rain forests. For Muir, the wilderness was a medicine or spiritual tonic. […] When describing glaciers, John Muir offers descriptive powers unequaled among authors on nature.”
Stickeen by John Muir. Muir set out to explore a new glacier with a brave little mutt named Stickeen. “It was the most memorable day of all my wild days.” Short and sweet.
Arctic Dance: The Mardy Murie Story (2002) by Charles Craighead. “From her Yukon River wedding to naturalist Olaus Murie and years of wilderness adventures in Alaska to a lifetime of conservations efforts,” this is the story of Mardy Murie’s life. Accompanies a documentary of the same title.
Looking Far North: The Harriman Expedition to Alaska, 1899 (1982) by William Goetzmann and Kay Sloan. A journey to the Alaska wilderness with the last of the great oceanic exploring cruises. Union Pacific magnate Edward Harriman invited America’s leading scientists and artistic elite to accompany him on this reconnaissance. Edward Curtis, John Muir, and George Grinnell were part of the party.
Green Alaska: Dreams from the Far Coast (1999) by Nancy Lord. One hundred years after the Harriman Expedition, another ship set sail to retrace the route of this historic voyage. This creative nonfiction book “provides an impressionistic account of that scientific and exploratory expedition in juxtaposition with Nancy Lord’s own travels in coastal Alaska. Nancy was drawn to the Harriman Expedition as subject matter largely because two of her favorite writer-naturalists, John Muir and John Burroughs, were part of the two-month, 9000-mile steamship trip along Alaska’s coast. The lesser-known of the two, Burroughs, serves as a prominent ‘character’ in Nancy’s account of the earlier journey and as she contrasts circumstances and attitudes of the two eras.”
Tisha: The Story of a Young Teacher in the Alaska Wilderness (1984) by Robert Specht. “This is the true story of Anne Hobbs, a young school teacher who moves to the Alaska wilderness in 1927 to teach school. She knows nothing about Alaska or living in the wilds or about the social conditions or customs in Alaska, but she is open to new experiences and certainly finds them in Alaska.” This is a fast read and a good story.
Fifty Years Below Zero: A Lifetime of Adventure in the Far North by Charles Brower. A classic story of 53 years lived above the Arctic Circle, whaling and trading.
The Bush Pilots (1983) by the editors of Time-Life Books. A wonderful journalistic look at those early fliers of the North.
The Alaskans (part of the Old West Time-Life series) (1974) by Keith Wheeler and the editors of Time-Life Books. A marvelous anecdotal read of the history of Alaska.
Denali (Mount McKinley)
Minus 148: First Winter Ascent of Mount McKinley (Legends and Lore) (2013) by Art Davidson. The first winter climb of any of the high mountains of the world was made on Denali (Mount McKinley) in 1967 by “eight gallant men on a mission.” This is a mountaineering classic.
Bradford Washburn: Mountain Photography (1999) photography by Bradford Washburn, edited by Anthony Decaneas. Brad Washburn was an extraordinary scientist/explorer/photographer/mountaineer. His photographs of Mount McKinley (Denali) have never been equaled. He was the first director of the Boston’s Museum of Science, explored and mapped some of the last white spaces on Earth, mapped Mount McKinley, Mount Everest and the Grand Canyon. He pioneered the most popular route up Mount McKinley (aka Denali).
The Last of His Kind: The Life and Adventures of Bradford Washburn, America’s Boldest Mountaineer (2010) by David Roberts
The Accidental Adventurer: Memoir of the First Woman to Climb Mt. McKinley (2001) by Barbara Washburn. Barbara Washburn went on many remote, world adventures with her husband, Brad. It was a lifetime romance that led even to the top of Denali.
The Seventymile Kid: The Lost Legacy of Harry Karstens and the First Ascent of Mount McKinley (2013) by Tom Walker. Harry Karstens was one of the toughest men of the north, the leader of the first successful expedition up Denali in 1913. He later became the first superintendent of McKinley National Park. Tom Walker, who lives in a cabin on the outskirts of Denali National Park, has written a wonderful biography of Karstens.
Ten Thousand Miles with a Dog Sled: A Narrative of Winter Travel in Interior Alaska (2015) by Hudson Stuck. In the beginning of the last century, Hudson Stuck set out to minister in Interior Alaska. “The preservation of the native peoples presses greatly upon my heart,” he wrote. He also was the leader (in name) of the first ascent of Mount McKinley in 1913 and one of the four-man party to summit. One of his young assistants, an Athabascan lad named Walter Harper, was the first person to set foot on the highest mountain in North America. Stuck wrote an account of this expedition, Ascent of Denali. When they got to the summit, young Robert Tatum said, it was like “looking out the windows of Heaven.”
This Last Treasure: Alaska’s National Parklands (1982) by William E. Brown and Carolyn Elder. This is a beautiful book, eloquently written, about the lands in Alaska added to America’s national parks in 1980 — which doubled the size of the National Park system. As one of the leading conservationists of the day said, “Alaska’s most valuable resource is its space — spectacularly beautiful space.”
Rowing to Latitude: Journeys Along the Arctic’s Edge (2002) by Jill Fredston. Jill Fredston traveled more than 20,000 miles of the Arctic and sub-Arctic—backward—in an oceangoing rowing shell. Her husband, Doug Fesler, paddled forward—in a kayak. With this unique perspective, they adventured down the Yukon River and along the coasts of Labrador, the Aleutian Islands, Greenland, Spitsbergen, and Norway.
Mind of the Raven: Investigations and Adventures with Wolf-Birds (2007) by Bernd Heinrich. The Raven is a very important character in the Far North. Known as “the trickster” in Native stories, the Raven is also the creator of the world and bringer of life. This is a scientific look at this character, but still one filled with awe. Said Edward O. Wilson: “This is an amazing book by an amazing author. Heinrich has documented a level of intelligence and social sophistication rarely even dreamed to have existed in birds.” (A New York Times notable book of the year.)
Ray Troll’s Shocking Fish Tales: Fish, Romance, and Death in Pictures (1993) by Ray Troll and Brad Matsen. Ray Troll is an artist who lives in Ketchikan, Alaska; Brad Matsen is a fish writer who has spent his life between words and fish. Fish have, maybe, never seemed so funny. Ray Troll produces his art in bite-size, even wearable, pieces, capitalizing on some of Alaska’s most famous watery creatures with descriptions of his art such as: “Salmon Enchanted Evening,” “No Nookie Like Chinookie,” and “Spawn Till You Die.”
Iditarod Trail and Sled-Dog Race
Champion of Alaska Huskies—Joe Redington Sr., Father of the Iditarod (2011) by Katie Mangelsdorf. “Joe Redington Sr. was an ordinary man with extraordinary dreams—and buckets of determination! This firsthand account is of the man whose love for the Alaskan husky and the Iditarod Trail evolved into the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.” Joe’s downhome style shines through. This was probably the last series of in-depth interviews Joe Redington ever gave. The author grew up in Alaska.
Race Across Alaska: First Woman to Win the Iditarod Tells Her Story (1988) by Libby Riddles and Tim Jones. In 1985, Libby Riddles made a bold and dangerous move out on the ice of the Bering Sea and left the rest of the pack of mushers behind. It was the first moment that the international press really took notice of the Iditarod, the thousand-mile race across Alaska by dog team. A woman had won. Astonishing! She had beaten all those rough, tough men. And it didn’t hurt that she was soft-spoken, blonde, and musical, too.
The Great Alone (2015), a film about Lance Mackey, by Greg Kohs. Shot in the Arctic wilderness of Alaska, “The Great Alone is a feature-length documentary that captures the inspiring comeback story of champion sled-dog racer Lance Mackey. From his sunniest days as a boy by his famous father’s side to cancer’s attempt to unseat him, The Great Alone pulls viewers along every mile of Lance’s emotional journey to become one of the greatest sled dog racers of all time.”
Chasing Dogs: My Adventures as the Official Photographer of Alaska’s Iditarod (2014) by Jeff Schultz. Jeff Schultz’s photographs of the Iditarod Race for the past 35 years tell the story of a historic trail and an amazing race, called “The Last Great Race in the World.”
The Cruelest Miles: The Heroic Story of Dogs and Men in a Race Against an Epidemic (2005) by Gay Salisbury and Laney Salsibury. The annual Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race commemorates two important historic events—the gold rush to the Interior of Alaska along the old gold route and the mail route at the turn of the last century, and the race by dogsled from Nenana down the Yukon River to the Bering Sea coast to get precious serum to Nome when there was an outbreak of diphtheria in 1925. This is a very good read about the relay by dogs and famous dog mushers of the day — a race against time — to deliver the lifesaving serum.
The House of All Sorts (2004) and The Book of Small (2004) by Emily Carr. Recognized as one of the more influential artists of western Canada, Emily Carr was also a delightful writer. You can visit her house, now a museum, in Victoria.
The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America (2013) and The Back of the Turtle (2014) by Thomas King. Tom King is a beloved Canadian novelist, writer, and radio man. The Inconvenient Indian is a history of Canada (and “not one to be proud of,” said one Canadian). It has been on the best-seller list for nonfiction in Canada. The Back of the Turtle is fiction and chosen as one of the “Canada Reads” books. (Every year, Canada proposes five books; they are then discussed and debated on the radio, and one is selected.)
Dead Dog Café Comedy Hour, CBC (Canadian Broadcasting) radio program. “Stay calm. Be brave. Wait for the signs.” These are the watchwords and closing line of this popular radio show, set in the Dead Dog Café on an Indian reserve in southern Alberta. It is very much Canadian humor—quite funny—in fact a lot of Canadians cannot even say the name of the show without starting to laugh. Tom King (radio personality) is the only white guy in the café, where the local folks set up a radio program that gently and humorously mocks all white guys. You’ll learn a lot.
The Mountain Goats of Temlahan. This is a cautionary tale by the Tsimshian people of northwest British Columbia about treating the world (and its creatures) with respect. It is linked with an erupting volcano of 1,000 years ago.
Keepers of the Light (1990) and Lights of the Inside Passage: A History of British Columbia’s Lighthouses and their Keepers (1986) by Donald Graham. Two books about the lighthouse keepers of the Canadian coast just south of Alaska. These were “smash best-sellers” in Canada and give a very intimate feel for the isolated, dangerous, beautiful, and lonely existence and provenance of these keepers — and a feel for the storm-ridden, wild coast of British Columbia. Good for maritime buffs.
Books/films by Nan Elliot (in the rare chance you have exhausted the previous list):
I’d Swap My Old Skidoo For You: A Portrait of Characters on the Last Frontier (1989) by Nan Elliot. From whalers to con artists, go-go dancers to dog mushers, Eskimo magistrates to Tlingit leaders, fish czars to bush pilots, spitfire wits to world adventurers, this is a smorgasbord of Alaskans to answer the question a publisher once posed: “Who ARE these Alaskans?” In 1990, it got the happy review “Cream of the Cream—Editors’ Choice Award for the Best of the Northwest in Print.” The Alaska State Historian Bill Hunt, writing for a local audience, framed it another way: “If you send this book to friends Outside, they will assume that you live as colorful a life as the book’s characters. Why correct them?”
National Geographic Guide to America’s Outdoors: Alaska (2001) by Nan Elliot and Tom Walker. As it says in the introduction, “Although this is a book about the many jewels of Alaska—the small twinkling emeralds and the big impressive diamonds—it is also a window into the magic that is Alaska. Part of that magic is the people who live here and the people like yourself who come to explore.” Short descriptive pieces of the magnificent country we will be sailing.
Alaska Best Places (Best Places Alaska), first and second edition, by Nan Elliot. While these two guidebooks are outdated in terms of current information on restaurants and lodgings, they do contain entertaining, short descriptions of places we will be visiting and sidebars on Alaska life. One of our favorites was: “The Best Places To Die in Alaska.” As with many things, it comes with a backstory.
DVD: ALASKA: A History in Five Parts (1985), Nan Elliot—producer/series writer. “Winner of the International Film Festival of New York,” this film series on DVD contains five parts, each 20 minutes long, from the beginning of time to the silver anniversary of statehood. Part One: “The Mists of Time”; Part Two: “The Age of Discovery”; Part Three: “Folly or Fortune?”; Part Four: “Adventures of a Pioneer”; Part Five: “The Silver Years.” As one reviewer said: “A compelling blend of mystery, romance, daring, adventure, and achievement.” (Feature length: 1½ hours.) (The film series is available through Hearthside Books in Juneau, Alaska.)
Ray Hudson brings his vast knowledge of the Aleutians to bear with some excellent reading suggestions
Ray notes that there are many excellent contemporary writers who live in, or write about, Alaska. Look for a variety of books at the websites for the University of Alaska Press and Epicenter Press; both publish fiction and nonfiction works.
For mystery readers, try any of the 20 Kate Shugak books by author Dana Stabenow. Kate is an Aleut who has never lived in the Aleutians, but is a feisty character even so. (Stabenow has other detectives, so look for those featuring Kate Shugak.) Ray has also enjoyed mysteries by John Straley and Sue Henry.
Nancy Lord is an excellent writer of short stories and essays. Rock Water Wild: An Alaskan Life is a terrific read.
Karen Hesse’s Aleutian Sparrow tells the story of the Aleut evacuation during World War II. This is a novella in verse — short and very moving.
World War II enthusiasts might try Brian Garfield’s classic The Thousand-Mile War (University of Alaska Press). A more recent book is The Aleutian Warriors by the historian John Hale Cloe. Profusely illustrated, this is the most authoritative account of the war in Alaska. (This book is a bit harder to find: it was published by Pictorial Histories Publishing Company of Missoula, Montana, but copies are often available on eBay.) For a more relaxing read, try the recent novel by Brian Payton, The Wind is Not a River (Ecco/Harper Collins Publishers and now out in paperback.)
Brian Payton listed Ray’s memoir, Moments Rightly Placed: An Aleutian Memoir, among his 10 favorite books on Alaska in an article in The Guardian. The memoir is available from Epicenter Press. Ray’s somewhat lengthy history of three Aleut villages, Lost Villages of the Eastern Aleutians, is available as a download from the National Park Service.
Because we will be spending quite a bit of time in Southeast Alaska, Ray highly recommends Nora Marks Dauenhauer’s collection Life Woven With Song (University of Arizona Press, 2000). A member of the Raven moiety and a distinguished Tlingit scholar, she is also a writer who is able to convey the joy and complexities of Alaska Native life. Her late husband, Richard Dauenhauer, was also a noted poet and scholar. His Benchmarks is well worth reading (University of Alaska Press, 2013). For those who really want to submerge themselves in Tlingit culture, the award-winning series of books on oral narratives edited by the Dauenhauers is a must (University of Washington Press). Both Nora and Richard served as the Alaska State Writer at different times.
Richard Nelson is among the finest nature writers in Alaska. His classic Make Prayers to the Raven is set in the boreal forest and centers on the Koyukon people. The Island Within is set in Southeast Alaska and won the John Burroughs Medal for distinguished natural history writing.
Other writers to consider include Peggy Shumaker, Tom Sexton, John Haines, Frank Soos, and Joan Naviyuk Kane.
Ray has written and edited a number of books published by University of Alaska Press, including:
Before the Storm: A Year in the Pribilof Islands, 1941–1942 (2010) is a memoir written by Fredericka Martin in 1946 and edited with supplemental information by Ray.
An Aleutian Ethnography (2008) is a book in which Ray assembled the fragments of Lucien Turner’s ethnographic work in the Aleutians from around 1878.
Family After All: Alaska’s Jesse Lee Home, 1889–1925 (2007), written by Ray and published by Hardscratch Press in California, is the history of an orphanage and boarding school at Unalaska.
Moments Rightly Placed: an Aleutian Memoir (1998), published by Epicenter Press in Seattle, is Ray’s story of life in Unalaska.
Mark Seeley is a climatologist at the University of Minnesota — an appropriate addition to the team given that Alaska is one of the many places readily experiencing the changes wrought by global warming. He has some relevant suggestions:
Climate of Alaska (2007) by Martha Shulski and Gerd Wendler
What We Know About Climate Change, second edition (2012) by Kerry Emanuel
The Cloudspotter’s Guide: The Science, History, and Culture of Clouds (2007) by Gavin Pretor-Pinney
The Cloud Collector’s Handbook (2011) by Gavin Pretor-Pinney
Articles or summaries:
Climate Change Impacts in the United States: Alaska, National Climate Assessment Report from the U.S. Global Change Research Program (2014)
Why the 1964 Great Alaska Earthquake Matters 50 Years Later, Seismological Research Letters, Seismological Society of America (2014)
For children and young readers:
The Impossible Rescue (2014) by Martin W. Sandler
Merchants of Doubt (2014) directed by Robert Kenner based on the work of Naomi Oreskes and others.
Fran Ulmer is another of our resident Alaskans and comes with a diverse background. Her reading suggestions offer some excellent and thought-provoking titles
Arctic Sea Ice, Jet Stream & Climate Change, A YouTube video by Dr. Jennifer Francis.
One Arctic [PDF] editorial by Fran Ulmer, Science, vol. 348, issue 6232
January 2016: ‘Crazy warm’ winter weather, record-setting sparse Arctic sea ice formation by Tim Ellis. A 2:30 audio piece on KUAC TV9 & FM 89.9.
North Slope coastal erosion rates are worst in nation, USGS reports by Yereth Rosen.
The Eskimo and the Oil Man: The Battle at the Top of the World for America’s Future (2012) by Bob Reiss
This book offers great insight into the complexity of the discussion about drilling for oil in the Arctic, both from a social and cultural perspective, but also from an environmental and economic perspective.
Crude Dreams: A Personal History of Oil and Politics in Alaska (1997) by Jack Roderick. This book was written by a former mayor of Anchorage and former commissioner of Natural Resources about the history and politics of oil development in Alaska.
Alaska: An American Colony (2006) by Stephen Haycox. Haycox is one of Alaska’s best historians and political commentators. In this book he explains the role of many different countries, companies, and organizations that have influenced the development and course of history in Alaska.
Veteran Prairie Home Companion at Sea passenger Lee Mayfield followed our reading list in the past and sent in this recommendation
If You Lived Here, I’d Know Your Name: News from Small-Town Alaska (2005) by Heather Lende
A Prairie Home Companion Cruise is produced by Prairie Home Productions and presented by American Public Media. Ship’s registry: The Netherlands.