Like a Frenchman's beret, or a Scottish Highlander's kilt, a juneauite's XtraTuf boots clearly identify him as a resident of Southeast Alaska. Adaptable, resilient, thick-skinned and understated (yet stylish in their way) - the boots and their wearers share certain qualities, perhaps partially explaining their draw. But Southeast Alaskans' unusual and widespread appreciation for this particular brand, especially in a place that shuns conformity, largely defies reason.
With mystery comes appreciation. The bond between Southeast residents and their chosen footwear has inspired countless conversations and been represented in artwork from Bill Spear's XtraTuf pin and Charity Green's paintings to Amy MacLean Lloyd's wearable art piece. Now the topic gets a more in-depth look in "XtraTuf: An Alaskan Way of Life," a new book by Larry Johansen.
Johansen said he saw the boots as a jumping off place for his exploration of Southeast Alaskans and their relationship to their environment.
"There've been picture books about the beautiful scenery, but nobody's really told the story of what characterizes us as a people," said Johansen, a third-generation Alaskan. "And it kind of fell upon me that XtraTuf was kind of iconic in many ways in telling that story."
He first thought he would just be using photographs to tell the story. Photography had always been a hobby, he said, but when the company he worked for suddenly dissolved after 25 years, he began to take it more seriously. He started a business, Rowdy Dog Images, and started gathering images for the project, making a point of taking at least one photo a day. But as he began talking to his subjects and following the many new angles they suggested, he realized the project demanded something of more substance.
The end result combines photos and text, and includes both personal profiles and more general observations. From brides to senators, wildlife biologists to construction workers, Johansen's subjects fill out the definition of the area's residents, expanding it in many directions at once.
"The real goal was to capture something of the people of Southeast Alaska and explain how they tick," he said.
Another strong theme explored in the book is how our natural surroundings influence the way we live.
"(One of the) identifying characteristics of people of Southeast is their relationship with the land and the respect that we have for living in an environment that could turn on you suddenly," he said.
Johansen's grandfather, who moved to Ketchikan from Norway in the 1920s, was a "locavore" (someone who eats locally produced food) by necessity, Johansen said, and knew what it meant to depend on the land in the most basic way.
"I found that an interesting thread throughout the whole book, this idea of living close to the land and having to adapt - not only by keeping your feet dry, but by having to adapt to the food sources."
Modern Southeast Alaskans are now rethinking their reliance on outside food sources, he said, as the locavore concept comes back around, this time by choice.
Ketchikan, where Johansen grew up, is one of the Southeast communities featured in the book, as are Sitka and Tenakee Springs. Johansen said he wanted to include others, such as Cordova and Kenai, also part of "XtraTuf nation" but didn't make it up there.
"I know I left some communities out, but it's not just a Juneau-centered book," he said.
He hopes the book will attract not only Southeast readers but also those who travel here or have connections to the area.
Though he cleared the book's topic with the XtraTuf folks, his work isn't directly associated with the boot business itself, which is based in Illinois. He communicated with company representatives several times while working on the project, and said the XtraTuf staff have been as surprised as anyone by the boot's amazing success in Southeast. Originally designed in the 1960s for fishermen, the boot's range is limited to the Pacific Northwest, and is virtually unseen on the East Coast. According to an article in the Capital City Weekly, at least a third of the 100,000 pairs of boots produced every year end up in Alaska.
Johansen, currently working on two more books, will be signing copies of his self-published book at 4 p.m. Friday at the Alaskan Brewing Depot, 219 S. Franklin St. downtown. Copies are available at the Depot, as well as at Rainy Retreat Books and online at Rowdy Dog Images, www.RowdyDogImages.com.