Looking for Alaska
Some 20 years ago Peter Jenkins made literary news with a personal memoir called A WALK ACROSS AMERICA. Now, older and grayer but still the observant reporter, he has brought his informal, sharp-eyed writing style to bear on Alaska.
You can't walk across Alaska --- too many glaciers, too many mountains, too many grizzly bears, too much snow, way too much cold --- so during his 18-month stay Jenkins did the next best thing: From a home base in Seward he got around by snowmobile, bush plane, dogsled, fishing boat, and private van. More importantly, he seems to have won the friendship and confidence of people who really know the territory --- native-born Alaskans as well as immigrants from "outside" (what Alaskans call the rest of the world). The result is a book steeped in genuine empathy for the rugged, dangerous Alaskan land and its quirky inhabitants. It is basically a series of self-contained travel vignettes, but the reader comes away with the feeling that he has been shown the authentic soul of an exotic place.
Jenkins is interested mainly in places that are remote almost to the point of being inaccessible: The fishing village of Cordova that you cannot reach by any road; a Haida Indian village virtually closed to the white man; a nameless spot in the wilderness far above the Arctic Circle that is home to one adventurous family; the Eskimo whaling village of Barrow on the shore of the Arctic Ocean; the 1,200 miles of empty wilderness through which the famous Iditarod dogsled race passes. Alaska's major population centers --- Anchorage, Fairbanks, Juneau --- are mentioned only in passing. Jenkins's home base of Seward has 2,830 people --- which qualifies it for large boldface type on maps of Alaska.
The reader learns much about the dangerous predatory habits of bears, who are a hazard even in relatively large towns. Techniques of fishing and whale hunting are explained in entertaining detail. The potentially catastrophic threat of snow avalanches is explored. We get what amount to personality profiles of hardy sled dogs, moose, and Arctic ice packs. Jenkins's unspoken moral is clear: Alaska is a place for rugged outdoorsmen, not for cloistered academics.
Also shrewdly conveyed by his narrative is the wary attitude of the longtime Alaskan towards people like himself who arrive from "outside," intent on putting them under a literary microscope. Jenkins captures this in a single deft phrase: Alaska is "the world's largest small town."
Central to his book too are penetrating portraits of the people who did befriend him: the hard-driving sled dog trainer Jeff King, the Jayne family in their utterly isolated Arctic home, fishermen like Sam Kito and Per Nolan, Alaska Fish and Game official Ted Spraker, and State Trooper Curtis Bedingfield whose territory covers more area than five or six Midwestern states combined. Other characters we get to know are Jenkins's own family, his wife and children who were with him on many of his adventurous wilderness forays. When one of his daughters marries an Alaskan, the outdoor ceremony is performed by a local boat captain --- and thus we learn almost casually that in Alaska, where everything you may need is so far away, "anyone can marry anyone." That detail alone tells you a lot about the place.
Jenkins is a sharply observant writer, but not always a careful one. His book is marred by some abrupt transitions of time and place that can leave the reader confused as to exactly when and where he is situated. And Jenkins is addicted to one of my least favorite borderline barbarisms, the expression "a couple..." instead of "a couple of." I wish too that he had not wasted a chapter on that charity "bachelor auction" in Talkeetna. It adds little to the sweep of his Alaskan vision.
Those quibbles aside, this is an entertaining and informative combination of personal memoir, travel book, and geography lesson. Reading it will either fire you up with the desire to go there or cure you forever of any such idea.
Reviewed by Robert Finn (firstname.lastname@example.org) on November 16, 2001