The Call of the Wild - A Travel Writer Tries to Explain What It Takes to Survive and Thrive in Alaska

Article excerpt

Mark Barna is a writer living in California. His most recent article for The World & I was "The Stargazer," in the March 2002 issue.

Peter Jenkins 
 Publisher:New York: St. Martin's Press, 2001 
434 pp., $25.95 

There is nothing striking about the look of a winning Iditarod sled-dog team. Its twelve huskies are not more attractive or bigger than other Siberian huskies. When compared to those in Hollywood movies and TV ads, these dogs look small, usually weighing no more than forty-five pounds each. But you can't judge a husky by its appearance.

Nor can you people. In his new book, Looking for Alaska, Peter Jenkins meets Alaskans who, like Iditarod-winning huskies, do not at first appear to be special. "You find a person who can survive in the bush of Alaska for several years, and thrive, not gradually go insane or physically deteriorate, and you have found someone extraordinary," he writes. "These distinct people cannot, however, be judged by their looks, their clothes, their appearance, their degrees, and their pedigree."

The best reporters can sense (by a gleam in the eye? an offhand gesture?) when someone has something worthwhile to tell. When Jenkins spent five years in the 1970s walking across America, he met many people. He had to intuit who had a story worth hearing and then gain their trust so they would reveal it. In 1979 he published A Walk Across America, a best-selling chronicle of his adventures. His follow-ups were Across China and Along the Edge of America.

Jenkins does not do much walking in Alaska. Now in middle age, he is content to rent a house in Seward with his family and take an SUV or charter a bush plane to various parts of the frigid state. On rare occasions he takes his family with him.

He arrives at his destinations with minimal expectations. His knowledge of Alaskan wildlife is scant. Of the history of the state he is mostly silent (the book offers no index). His approach is passive: visit people who have contacted him or whom he has heard about and record their stories.

The great land

Alaska has six main indigenous groups. Along the west coast are the Yupik, and in the Arctic region live the Inupiat. Both groups, commonly called Eskimo, have lived in Alaska for thousands of years. The Athabascans, relatives of the Navajo and Apache Indians of the American Southwest, live in the interior; the Haida and Tlinglit are in the southeast. The Aleuts are on the Aleutian Islands, and they call the land to the east Alakshak--the great land--from which Americans carved the word Alaska.

In the eighteenth century, Russian professional hunters, or promyshlenniki, arrived seeking sea otter pelts. The Russian-America Company administered the fur industry in that region, acting as Alaska's only governing body for sixty-eight years. In 1867 the United States purchased Russia's interest. At the time, about 900 Americans lived on the great land, mostly in the southeast.

When gold was discovered in the Yukon basin several decades later, miners poured in, increasing the white population to 30,000 by 1900. In 1912, Congress declared the region an official territory of the United States, and on January 3, 1959, the territory--twice the size of Texas- -became the forty-ninth state of the Union. Total population was under 150,000.

Between 1882 and 1917, the Alaska Treadwell Gold Mining Company produced ore worth ten times the $7.2-million U.S. purchase price of Alaska. During the twentieth century, platinum and silver were discovered. In 1968 oil was found beneath Prudhoe Bay, leading to the construction of the 789-mile Alaska Pipeline. Prudhoe Bay oil represents one-fourth of all known oil deposits in the United States. Commercial fishing in Alaska accounts for 27 percent of the country's annual catch.

In 1980 President Jimmy Carter signed the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, setting aside 104 million acres as protected land--an area larger than California. …