It takes a special type of writer to truly understand the human condition in a particular place, and explain it in a meaningful way. There is less demand for such writers these days, especially when it comes to the outdoors. The problem is, as I’m discovering over time, few of us under 50 actually read anymore.
A while back I wrote about John McPhee, who covered the legendary northern Maine pilot and guide Jack McPhee in a well crafted story decades ago. As it turns out, the writer’s outdoor experiences extended far beyond the Maine woods, and he spent months living in and researching frontier Alaska in the 1970’s, resulting in a book that tells the story of a special place at a critical time in its history.
“Coming into the Country” is actually three books about Alaska and its people shortly after statehood, during the oil boom, and amidst the unfolding of the infamous Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA). McPhee saw the country firsthand with those looking to preserve it, learned the motivations of politicians steering the state’s progress, and lived with the folks on the ground – natives, pioneering settlers and those in between – who were affected by it all.
“The Encircled River”, first of the three part book, follows McPhee and employees of the state and federal government on a long float trip down the Kobuk River, much of which was soon to be designated National Park or Preserve by impending acts of Congress. They were there to assess the value of the river, its wild and scenic characteristics, and make recommendations. For his part, McPhee gave a pretty good account of the canoe and kayak trip, the perspectives of the different agencies involved, natural history of the river and its importance to the local Eskimo population.
Part two, “What They Were Searching For” is an interesting divergence into Alaskan politics as the young state struggled to find its identity and unite its people. As trivial as it may seem, the entire section focused on the discussions around selecting a proper location for Alaska’s capital, as the voters had determined Juneau was too far and isolated from the people. As you might have guessed, nothing came of it, but the story highlights some interesting Alaskans from diverse backgrounds.
Finally, “Coming into the Country” tells the tale of the country around Eagle, Alaska, a tiny village on the Yukon River near the Canadian border. Long visited by nomadic native tribes, the area became famous during the Gold Rush in the late 1800’s, when more than 10,000 people occupied the village and surrounding hills in search of treasure. It was perhaps the richest gold district in all of Alaska.
Fearing instability and lawlessness among the mining camps, the U.S. Government set up a fort in the region, at a site which eventually became the town of Eagle. But over the years the gold boom died away, the fort was dissembled and like many mining towns, Eagle became mostly deserted.
Some prospectors stayed on and continued to work their claims in the creeks and mountains. New people moved into town, some looking for opportunity, some to get away from the outside of world, many looking for both.
Perhaps more notably, a wave of people from the Lower 48 began moving ‘into the country’ around the time McPhee visited during the 1970’s. By most accounts they were considered hippies, part of the ‘back to the land’ movement. Most were from cities or suburbs and wanted to get away from the ‘rat race’. Many were well educated, but couldn’t stand the idea of the ‘bright future’ that society offered them. They moved to the bush to live life as their ancestors did, shunning most of modern technology and seeking to relearn bushcraft, survival and a pioneering lifestyle. They purchased supplies and went off into the woods, some alone, some as couples. They built small cabins, grew gardens in the summer, harvested game and trapped fur during the winter. They made no more from the land than they needed to purchase minimal supplies and live as they pleased. They were an interesting bunch and settled up and down the Yukon River from Eagle. Most did not last more than a year or two.
During his time with the people around Eagle, McPhee gained a true understanding of the effects of the government and ANILCA. In essence, the Act was Congress’s way to split the vast Alaskan lands into various pieces so that it could be both utilized and protected. When it became a state, Alaska had the option to select a portion of the territory’s area as state-owned land, but it took longer than the Feds and the oil interests could tolerate. The push for development of oil on the North Slope necessitated the settlement of land claims.
In the end, Alaska Natives were given land and required to form corporations to manage it, the state was given land, and the rest was designated for what the Federal government saw fit as its proper use and/or protection. In short, it meant that much of the north was open to oil exploration, while most of the interior became National Park, Wildlife Refuge, Wilderness Area or National Preserve. With the signing of a bill, the government became owner of land that Alaskan natives and pioneers had until then enjoyed unimpeded use of.
If the cold, rough country didn’t drive pioneers away, their new landlords did. The hippies were told they were trespassing, miners were in violation of environmental laws. Natives struggled with the concept of private property, while outsiders struggled to understand why one couldn’t buy land in a place where it was so abundant. The country was changing, and its independent minded rugged individualists were struggling to adapt. McPhee was there for it all, and told the story well.