Vital travels along the wild Alaskan coast, punctuated by dreadful circumstances that rob wildlife photographer and guide Schooler of the people he loves.
Having spent an important period of his youth in a brace for scoliosis, he writes, “My strangeness had isolated me from my fellow teens, and I was to find that my isolation was permanent, my hermitage ongoing.” When Schooler's family moved to Alaska, the land captivated him: “I loved it fiercely for its power of recovery after being scalped down to bedrock by ice or violent tsunamis. . . . I loved it the way a dog loves to ride in the back of a pickup.” Which is good, because in the course of this memoir, he will lose a woman friend to a serial killer, his father to cancer, and a longstanding friend to a bear attack. These elements thread their way through the narrative, keeping the overall mood somber and deepening the shadows, but the principal storyline retraces Schooler's forays afield with the Japanese photographer, Michio Hoshino. Their relationship is mutually advantageous at first; Schooler is a wilderness guide intimately familiar with the southern Alaskan coast, and Hoshino is generous with his knowledge of photography. It blossoms into friendship as the two work together to capture images of Alaska and pursue an encounter with the elusive blue bear that lives on the 500-mile stretch of coast between Prince William Sound and Ketchikan. Alaska is made for adventure, and the two men have plenty, though Schooler is sharp enough to keep drama pressurized but under a lid. He also zests the work with plenty of tidbits, such as the role of the isotope cycle in nature and why glaciers are blue.
An emotionally punishing memoir that finds beauty in the frailty of life and impermanence against a grand setting.