Adventure vicariously with these great arctic books
by Michael Engelhard
The days are getting longer but snowdrifts still cover the environs of my hometown, Nome. There is plenty of time to curl up on the couch with a good book, dreaming of next summer’s trips. I’ve put together a short list of materials that allows you to adventure vicariously in Alaska’s arctic.
After three years of guiding for Arctic Wild, I’ll be taking the summer off to realize a long-held dream: a Brooks Range traverse from the Yukon border to the Bering Sea coast. So, in addition to planning the logistics, I’ve been browsing a lot of these titles again myself.
-The next best thing to being out there in person is probably Buck Nelson’s Alone Across Alaska: 1000 Miles of Wilderness. Don’t be fooled by the fact that this DVD is self-produced—it’s nicely done and Buck a true wilderness traveler with a sense of humor and humility. If I even get to see half the wildlife he encountered on his trip, I shall consider myself lucky. (My route will be a bit different from his.)
-For the excitement of encountering tens of thousands of caribou, there is none better than Karsten Heuer’s Being Caribou: Five Months on Foot with an Arctic Herd. Heuer and his filmmaker wife Leanne shadow the Porcupine herd from their wintering quarters in the Yukon to the calving grounds on the Arctic Coastal Plain. Worth alone the price of the book (or the DVD) is their trip to D.C. afterwards, to lobby for wilderness designation of the calving grounds. (Don’t let it frustrate your political efforts.)
-Subhankar Banerjee’s Seasons of Life and Land, a photographic portrait of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, rooted that place firmly in the public’s mind. Grand shots of wildlife and scenery are trumped by his many winter scenes, which without doubt declared Alaska Senator Murkowski a liar. (“This,” he said holding up a blank piece of cardboard in Congress, “is what AN-WAR’s coastal plain looks like for nine months of the year.”)
-Another, slightly different but no less spectacular photo book is Arctic Sanctuary: Images of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, by Jeff Jones. No wildlife pictures here, but Jeff’s canvases—shot in a unique panoramic format—perfectly capture the sublime moods, light and forms of arctic landscapes. This book, to which I was honored to contribute a foreword, is part of the celebrations that commemorated the 50th anniversary of the refuge in 2010.
-I can’t leave the politics out of adventure. For a collection of nutshell credos by artists, activists, and—yes—even by politicians about why the refuge matters and needs to be sacrosanct, I recommend Arctic Refuge: A Circle of Testimony. It was rushed to the printer and distributed freely on Capitol Hill to turn the tide of development, at least in one place.
-Alas, 2012 is seeing the eleventh attempt by Alaska congressman Don Young to open the refuge to drilling. More action and awareness are needed. Just in time, and taking into account some of the threats from climate change, comes Arctic Voices: Resistance at the Tipping Point, a compilation similar to Circle of Testimony but with a wider and updated focus. (I will be reviewing this title for High Country News.)
-Although a bit dated, Debbie Miller’s Midnight Wilderness: Journeys in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge remains a good overview of the history and of traveling in the refuge. Debbie used to be a teacher in Arctic Village and guided Jimmy Carter when he visited the refuge.
-As for the classics, there is of course Mardy Murie’s Two in the Far North, her account of growing up in Fairbanks and of meeting Olaus, and battling for wilderness designation for my favorite part of the Arctic.
-Her tracks crossed those of Bob Marshall, who fought for what would become Gates of the Arctic National Park. (He also coined the park’s name after seeing two mountains that face each other on the North Fork of the Koyukuk.) Alaska Wilderness: Exploring the Central Brooks Range chronicles the Wilderness Society’s gestation and Marshall’s obsessive-compulsive hiking in country I also hope to explore.
-At the risk of tooting my own horn too much, I’m including this article I wrote for National Wildlife for the 50th anniversary. It’s a bit heavy on “hard” facts, but numbers have their own power to convince, and it’s an overview for people who don’t have the time to read whole books.
-Lastly, I’d like to mention my anthology Wild Moments: Adventures with Animals of the North. While only some of these essays take place in Alaska’s Arctic, they give a good idea, I think, of the raw power and lasting impact of wildlife encounters. I hope to add many more to my store of memories.
-The only reading material I will be carrying on my Brooks Range Traverse trip is my battered copy of A Sand County Almanac. For me, Aldo Leopold still is the writer who expressed the need for a new land ethic best. Each page in his book and each mile traveled in wilderness remind me of what I cannot live without.
Once you read through some of these titles, get out and see the place for yourself. And if you have other titles you enjoy leave a comment and let us know your favorite book about Alaska Wilderness.