An entertaining and informative trip around Alaska’s coastline, one man’s “event of a lifetime.”
Adventure writer and journalist Adams (Meet Me in Atlantis: My Quest to Find the Sunken City, 2015, etc.) returns to the successful narrative strategy he employed in his previous books, melding history and travel writing in a winning combination. Here, he follows in the footsteps of Edward H. Harriman’s 1899 expedition to northern Alaska. The Union Pacific tycoon refitted a steamship and invited a who’s who of “extraordinary gentlemen” to accompany him, including John Muir, John Burroughs, George Bird Grinnell, C. Hart Merriam, and a young photographer, Edward Curtis, “who had guided Merriam and Grinnell to safety after they’d gotten lost while hiking on Mount Rainier in 1898.” Adams journeyed alone, making his way to Bellingham, Washington, to board the Kennicott, setting out by sea, air, and land on Alaska’s 3,000-mile Marine Highway. The author is a terrific guide and an even better historian. Chapters juxtapose his and the 1899 expedition members’ experiences at each stop, from Anchorage and Haines to Nome and “Land’s End,” remote Shishmaref, located 30 miles south of the Arctic Circle on “a long sandbar, an elongated peanut two and a half miles long and less than a half mile wide at its narrow waist.” There, a resident told Adams that the “seasons have changed” and that “it’s taking longer for the ocean to freeze. Traditionally, it freezes in October. Last year it froze in January.” This environmental theme runs throughout the narrative. Alaska’s “frozen kingdom,” writes the author, is “dissolving like a popsicle in the sun.” In Gustavus (pop. 434), a golf course is “on land that had been underwater during the Harriman Expedition.” Because of “isostatic rebound,” the melting ice in Glacier Bay makes formerly depressed land rise up. Adams populates his story with hilarious tales and revealing encounters with guides, scientists, and a couple frisky brown bears.
Simultaneously uplifting, inspiring, and dispiriting.