Sure there are crazy people everywhere, but in Alaska, it’s a whole different world.

If I’d written down my impression of Alaska after the first two sections of the book, it would be filled with awe at its otherworldly nature full of contradictions: so harsh and unforgiving that it would tolerate no one that does not respect its ways, and yet so delicate that every element is in a fine balance with each other, and any impact from outside, no matter how seemingly inconspicuous, leaves its marks for years to come. Spectacular and colossal but tiny in population. It’s little wonder why many outdoorsy friends went, fell under its spell, came back and can’t stop raving about it.

Now that I’ve ended the last page of the third chapter and of the book, and have been introduced to idiosyncratic characters that survive in the woods, all I want to say is that these people are effing insane. In the beginning I could sympathize with their ideals of abandoning the rat race, living off the land, learning and respecting nature, “making your own living as opposed to making money and buying your living”

“What would you do if you got a hundred thousand dollars’ worth of gold?”
“Put it in the bank.”
“How would it change your life?”
“It wouldn’t.”

But it’s not that rosy. This is Alaska. Men ride dog sleds in -60F and sleep outside on the snow under a tarp. Women chop woods and shoot wolves. A team of father and son disassemble a 50-ton bulldozer, fly all the parts in helicopter to the middle of nowhere, and reassemble it for a gold operation; nothing is too extraordinary here.

I remember taking a long time choosing my first Alaska book. I wanted it to be perfect and give me the most accurate account of nature and people. I read reviews for a dozen titles and this one stood out as the rest were dished for being too romantic, or for simply not “getting it”. (I even skipped Michener’s in favor of this.) This book came out almost 40 years ago, but for some reason I suspect that it can’t have changed that much in those little outposts with a population of a few dozens. (I just wiki-ed it: Eagle, Alaska has 86 residents as of the 2010 census).

McPhee was sure there during an interesting time. It is fascinating to read about debates around big proposals in the state that never took off – moving the capital from Juneau, or have materialized like the designation of the road-inaccessible national park Gates of the Artic, the second biggest in the nation. (The 4 biggest parks are all in Alaska, 3 of them including Gates of the Artic were established on the same day Dec 2, 1980.) The discovery of oil and the subsequent construction of the pipeline from Prudhoe Bay shook communities off their feet and challenged time-immemorial traditions and age-old practices. Some were changed forever. Native Alaskans received the Native Settlement Claims Act whereby they had to select land to “own” and forsake their rights to roaming in the wild and using land and its resources as spurred by necessity. The pioneers – who for generations could come into the country, pitch a tent anywhere, claim their ground, and start homesteading – were being threatened, as land in this vast territory became a scarcity. In this matter, I do sympathize with the settlers in Eagle, thanks to McPhee’s honest and non-judgmental story telling. On the father and son miners that move hundred of thousands of square feet of bedrock, digging moonscapes for some flaky gold that will be locked up by investors, McPhee writes:

The relationship between this father and son is as attractive as anything I have seen in Alaska – both of them self-reliant beyond the usual reach of the the term, the characteristic formed by this country. Whatever they are doing, whether it is mining or something else, they do for themselves what no one else is here to do for them. Their kind is more endangered every year. Balance that against the nick they are making in this land. Only an easygoing extremist would preserve every bit of the country. And extremists alone would exploit it all. Everyone else has to think the matter through – choose a point of tolerance, however much the point might tend to one side. For myself, I am closer to the preserving side – that is, the side that would preserve the Gelvins. To be sure, I would preserve plenty of land as well. My own margin of tolerance would not include some faceless corporation ‘responsible’ to a hundred thousand stockholders, making a crater you could see from the moon. Nor would it include visiting exploiters – here in the seventies, gone in the eighties – with some pipe and some skyscrapers left behind.

While I admire McPhee’s meticulous investigation – he followed everyone he interviewed in their activities, even if it means walking out by himself in grizzly country, I wish he had featured more Native Alaskans. I don’t know if it was an issue of lacking compelling characters, or gaining access to their stories (it might be the latter one). The Indian Eagle Village is only 3 miles away from Eagle town, yet only two of its residents were included: one being a white who got married to a Native women, and the other the young chief. For now, before I can get hold of Michener’s book, I have to make do with the following glimpse:

There is much to be envied in such an approach to one’s day. No doubt it accounts for the easygoing grace, the humor, the companionability of the Hungwitchin, not to mention the lilting, unbusinesslike way they speak – a primal outlook, so durable that, for all its beauty, it is perhaps unfortunate that it has survived while superficial facts have changed. The Hungwitchin may look upon a wristwatch as “the sun’s heart,” but they know what time it is, and they work on the pipeline. They seem to hang suspended between a fast-fading then and a more than alien now. Meanwhile, their failures to adjust are much noted by the whites.

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