NONFICTION: A thorough and thoroughly enjoyable romp through Alaska, both now and a century ago.
From the time I read Jack London’s novels as a boy, I’ve longed to visit Alaska. Though I’ve never made it, after reading C.B. Bernard’s exhaustive and wildly entertaining “Chasing Alaska,” I feel like I’ve finally been.
Part travelogue, part history and part adventure story, it braids Bernard’s own musings and stories with those of a distant family member, relatively unheralded explorer Joe Bernard, who spent years in the Alaskan and Canadian Arctic, including many winters trapped by its fierce ice.
C.B. Bernard moved to Alaska to “participate in the real world, in the wild, in [his] own life.” Leaving behind the East Coast, he straps a canoe onto the roof of his car and heads for Alaska to take a job as a newspaper reporter in the small fishing village of Sitka. It’s a humble and admirable beginning, one he stays true to, and one that yields a fascinating crop of adventures and characters. And there are no shortages of either. Bernard tackles subjects as diverse as the Alaskan commercial fishing industry and the bloated cruise line industry (for which he has a special distaste). But he also discusses, with uncommon intelligence, the nature of hunting as a means of subsistence and the toll of environmental disasters, all the while applying the lessons he learns to his own life.
But it’s not a critique to say that his own adventures in Alaska pale next to those of Joe Bernard. Almost as soon as the author lands in Alaska, he discovers that Joe is buried practically right outside his bedroom window. It’s not long before C.B. is in possession of a thousand-page manuscript penned by Joe Bernard himself, detailing his near quarter-century exploring the lands and seas north of the Arctic Circle.
The stories are gripping in the way the best adventure writing is, with enough danger and discovery to keep the reader turning pages way past bedtime. There are polar bears and seasons of privation, plenty of political intrigue and tensions between rival explorers.
C.B. Bernard does a fantastic job of collapsing the years between his own experience in Alaska and Joe’s to show how the fierce and wild nature of the people who live in Alaska has persisted over the years, and it’s much to his credit that he realizes, “I love it here — the patience of the glaciers, the endless miles of forest, the stubbornness of the mountains, the forgiving rain — but I don’t belong here.”
Indeed, the real protagonist is Alaska itself, which “makes everything ordinary impossible to bear.” Thanks to C.B. Bernard’s assured storytelling and vibrant prose style, we understand that sentiment very well. I do believe Jack London would approve.
Peter Geye is the author of “Safe From the Sea,” and “The Lighthouse Road.” He lives in Minneapolis.