This week’s list of Five Good Reads was selected by Jeff Brady, editor and publisher of the Skagway News and author of “SKagway: City of the New Century.” Brady is also co-director of the North Words Writers Symposium, held the first week of June in Skagway, and is in the process of constructing the future Alderworks Alaska Writers & Artists Retreat on his property
Every summer I try to read a selection of Alaska and northern authors and some outdoor writing that is good to take along on a river trip in the Yukon. Here are my picks from the past summer, and an old classic for wintertime reading:
“Dirt Work” by Christine Byl
My surprise pick of the summer is a cleverly written book by a new Alaskan author from Healy. Christine Byl, a former trail crew member at Glacier National Park in Montana and Denali National Park in Alaska has picked up the image of the green and gray uniformed national park legions and shaken the dirt off their boots for all to see. What begins as a book about a girl in a man’s world quickly turns into a very funny account of what it takes to make it on a trail crew, and how a strong woman can cuss and piss with the boys, thank you very much. Each chapter begins with a treatise on one of the tools that is essential to building a good trail. From a rock bar to a skid steer, Byl has mastered them all, and also how to tell a story.
“Walking Home” by Lynn Schooler
Schooler takes us on a personal journey in which he leaves his Juneau home in mid-construction, boats to the outer coast, enters legendary Lituya Bay, and then leaves his boat to walk north up the coast until he senses it is time to turn back homeward, only to be stalked by a grizzly to the edge of a river that he may not be able to cross safely. Throughout this beautifully written memoir, we learn the history behind this stark landscape, and how the author’s survival instincts and knowledge of the country help him keep the kushtakas at bay, and deal with death, decay and rebirth in his personal life.
“Encounters with the Archdruid” by John McPhee
John McPhee set the stage for his great Alaska work, Coming Into the Country, with this little three-part book in the early 1970s. Working as a journalist for the New Yorker, McPhee was able to convince three developers of proposed projects in Washington, Georgia and Arizona to spend time with the “Archdruid,” David Broder, the ousted former leader of the Sierra Club and now president of a new group called Friends of the Earth. As these arch-enemies encounter the land in question, whether on a backpacking trip to a proposed copper mine in the Cascades, via boat to a protected sea island off Georgia, or rafting the Grand Canyon to a proposed dam site, they develop a personal respect for each other, overwhelmed by a sense of where they are. Finely crafted by McPhee, Encounters is new journalism at its best.
“Prisoners of the North” by Pierre Berton
Before his death, the great northern historian gave us one more book, and I finally got around to reading it this summer on a camping trip in the Yukon. Returning to his roots in the north, Berton examines the lives of five legendary figures: Klondike Joe Boyle, successful miner and wooer of Romanian queens; Vilhjalmur Stefansson, the great Arctic explorer and collector; Lady Jane Franklin, whose husband went missing searching for the Northwest Passage and her efforts to find out what happened; John Hardy, a “backwoods eccentric” who led one too many trips into the cold Barrens; and finally the poet Robert W. Service, who would glamorize the Klondike in bestselling verse and then head to Europe for World War I where the horrors of war would turn him into a poet. Each of them, in their own way, is a prisoner of their north.
“Dubliners” by James Joyce
Whenever I travel, which is never enough, I always read the local literature because it is the best way to develop a sense of the place you are visiting. My spring began with a trip to Ireland, where I took along a classic, James Joyce’s short story collection about Dublin town. There is no better literary map in the world. My daughter and I then stumbled along in Joyce’s footsteps, eventually finding our way into an old apothecary shop by Trinity College where a group gathered weekly to read Joyce and other Irish authors. Diving into the ribald parts of Ulysses on the spot, we could not resist reading and drinking with this group and returned the following week for more before flying off the next day to Alaska.
• To submit your own list of Five Good Reads, email Amy Fletcher at firstname.lastname@example.org.