Whether they’re built on John Muir’s journey along the Southeast in a Tlingit canoe, Christopher McCandless’ iconic teal and white bus or a retelling of a particularly daring hike in your local newspaper, adventures are easily inspired by the stories we read and tell.
But everyone chooses their own stories to read, and to create. For some, Alaska is a well-read copy of “Into the Wild,” for others, it’s a barely opened SparkNotes edition of “Travels in Alaska” at the bottom of a high school locker. But sometimes, those in the latter group find themselves in possession of a round-trip ticket to Alaska and need literary inspiration to fill the flight with entertainment and their mind with excitement.
“I need to understand why people want Alaska so badly, what inspires them about the Last Frontier,” said Kate Devine, a self proclaimed “un-Alaskan” and my proclaimed best friend, who’ll be making the trek from New Jersey to Kenai next week to visit. “It’s never been a part of my library before.”
I’ll be waiting to pick her up from the airport with open arms and a headful of stories to catch up on, but in the days leading up to the trip and the layovers between flights, she’s asked for insight into what’s in store, to help her grasp the allure of the country that has authors and artists waxing poetic the minute they set foot in the snow.
So, what inspired others to make the trek? What should a first time Alaska visitor put in their carry-on?
Alan Boraas, professor of anthropology at Kenai Peninsula College, recommends the treacherous adventures of “Sergeant Preston of the Yukon.”
“It was a comic book set in the Yukon, not Alaska, but what did I know when I was 6, 7 years old?” Boraas said.
In a particularly Arctic issue, “Sergeant Preston and the Traitor,” dog sleds chase after scoundrels who have stolen gold dust from across three Yukon Territories. Sergeant Preston, with his faithful dog Yukon King, nabs the culprits — “case closed.”
“With that comic series, on a cereal box you could send in a dollar to buy land in the Yukon,” Boraas said. “I did that and got a certificate saying that I owned a square inch, or square foot, of land and the mythology of that always stuck with me.”
Over time, the North found Boraas again, in the pages of Jack London novels or Robert Service poetry, so although he didn’t find a way to fit a cabin on his square inch, or square foot, of land, he did find his way.
“I’m sure Sergeant Preston was part of the impetus of going to the North, the mystique of the North,” Boraas said. “I have a different view of that, now, because it’s really a colonialist view, but that’s part of the subconscious motivation for packing up a pickup with everything I owned and moving to Alaska, where I knew no one, not a soul. But, when I crossed the border, I knew I was home.”
Larissa Arbelovsky, of Soldotna, knew Alaska was home even while staring at maps on the walls of her bedroom in Utah.
“I spent countless hours as a kid just going over maps of Alaska,” she said. “I still do that, I get out maps and it makes you wonder. You look here and there, wondering why a highway is named the way it is or what they call a certain peak. I’ve spent hours and hours, looking at the maps and just exploring everything.”
Alongside maps, Arbelovsky said there were a handful of books she read that roused a need for Alaska adventures.
“People will make fun of me for saying it, but ‘Into the Wild’ was one of those books that really sparked my sense of wanting to see Alaska, and then there was ‘Tisha,’” Arbelovsky said.
“Tisha: The Story of a Young Teacher in the Alaska Wilderness” is a true story about a 19-year-old school teacher who moved to teach in Chicken, Alaska.
“She was a young woman and it spoke to me. I moved up here when I was 19, so her adventures, by herself and being in Alaska, really inspired me,” she said.
Once she got to Alaska, Arbelovsky said she found herself carrying with her a copy of a January 1999 Backpacker Magazine for years, returning again and again to an article written by Jonathan Dorn titled “Solo hiking Alaska: Fear walked with me”and the “breathtaking, amazing and beautiful” pictures that accompanied it.
“Last June I spent a week in Lake Clark National Park, backpacking across a breathtaking landscape of glacier-capped mountains, turquoise lakes, and caribou-nibbled tundra. Rarely have I felt so alive. Rarely have I been so miserable,” Dorn’s article starts, as it guides readers through the solitary fear in the face of Alaska’s wilderness.
If Sergeant Preston fails to inspire my friend, although I doubt Yukon King would allow it, or if “Fear walked with me” scares her away, I’ll take Shaylon Cochran of KDLL’s advice and tell her she’s landed in Cicely, not Kenai, while handing her a copy of “White Fang.”
“The place kind of sells itself. Usually,” Cochran said. “If you’re not into Jack London or Northern Exposure, what does it?”
For anyone looking to fill their own bookshelf or find their own inspiration, Peggy Mullen, owner of River City Books in Soldotna, has a selection of Alaska adventure tales. There’s Kim Heacox, who wrote about his experience as a Denali National Park ranger, among many other stories Alaska has thrown his way. Then, from Seldovia, there is Erin McKittrick, who’s written several books about her and her family’s adventures. Her most recent, “Mudflats &Fish Camps: 800 Miles Around Alaska’s Cook Inlet,” details their journey hiking and rafting along the entirety of the Cook Inlet.
After my friend Kate arrives in Alaska, I plan on passing along my copy of “Glaciers” by Alexis Smith to her. The book followed me from apartment to apartment and city to city, years before I called the Kenai Peninsula home. It made its way on to every bookshelf, all because of one chapter, “Exit, Glacier.”
“Isabel walked right up to the glacier. She could hear it sighing and dripping. She put her warm, plump hand on the heaving lung of it. She could feel its breath and the minute spaces inside filling with water and the great creases pulling in the sky,” Smith writes of an interaction with the Harding Icefield derivative during a final camping trip in Alaska.
The glacier’s personification has been highlighted and starred in my dog-eared copy of the book many times in inks of blue, black and red. Moving off the pages, the idea that nature breaths alongside me drove me to Exit Glacier Road, until the dense glacial blues took my breath away. The glacier, like Smith wrote, is “as uncanny and startling as anything, even for an Alaskan girl.”
It’s been a good read to have in my library but books, like inspiration and adventures, are meant to be shared with a friend.
Reach Kat Sorensen at firstname.lastname@example.org