Then and Now, Across America’s Last Frontier

Book review: Tip of the Iceberg, by Mark Adams

Travel writer Mark Adams recounts his experiences traveling in Alaska, that “last great American frontier”, following the trail of an exploratory expedition run by railroad tycoon Edward Harriman in 1899. That expedition was mapping the state’s coastline, and included famed naturalist and conservationist writer John Muir (a self-described “author and student of glaciers”).

Muir certainly could have been categorized as odd goods when he arrived in Wrangell in 1879. For starters, he did not seem to have what might be considered a real job…When not occupied roaming the mountains of the Sierra, Muir made his living in San Francisco as a freelance writer of adventure and nature tales. (A notoriously unsteady vocation then as now.)

Adams traces their steps accurately, hitting all of the team’s important stops, and describes what those 3,000 miles of Alaska are like today alongside flashbacks and comparisons to the state of the state in 1899. A subtle, mostly underlying but sometimes overt message is that of global warming and climate change and its role in Alaska’s physical changes and politics. This message was so brilliantly conveyed and depicted, I can’t stress that enough. Alaska’s frozen landscape is “dissolving like a popsicle in the sun.”

Adams has a gift for descriptions. He recalls meeting another writer on board one of many ship voyages during this trek, and compliments her skills at “sketch[ing] a prose portrait” and he would know. And like the best travel writing, he interweaves compellingly told history with local culture and personal impressions that give a truly sensory perception of the places and experiences he relates.

Nestled in one of the most spectacular natural settings of any city in America, downtown Juneau is like an aging Hollywood star who still looks gorgeous in panoramic shots but suffers under the scrutiny of close-up.

I especially love portraits of Characters with a capital C and there are plenty of those here, brilliantly sketched out. He does great work in showing a range of people – from tourism industry workers to shop owners, entrepreneurial drifters to native Alaskans – all three-dimensionally, and he ties them descriptively into their settings. I absolutely love writing like this. It was lovely service to these people, their work and communities.

We also get portraits of a number of cities, towns, villages, stretches of forest, and vivid experiences on board the ships and planes necessary for traversing any significant distances in the state. As revealing as the historical sections were, I enjoyed Adams’ own travels much more – they were just so vivid and funny and well told.

Here are two favorites, showing past and present sides of Ketchikan, a onetime salmon cannery town and now Alaska’s sixth-largest city:

The novice seaman E. B. White met a lot of guys like Slim belowdecks on a steamship cruise that brought him to Ketchikan in 1923. He’d departed Seattle expecting to find “a land of deep snow, igloos, Eskimos, polar bears, rough men, fancy women, saloons, fighting sled dogs, intense cold, and gold everywhere.” To his unpleasant surprise, he found in Ketchikan not the Alaskan winter wonderland of his dreams but “a warm, mosquitoey place smelling of fish.”

And from Adams’ highly entertaining visit:

After the timber business dwindled in the nineties, Ketchikan went all in on tourism. Brochures now touted visits to totem carvers and flightseeing trips and the Great Alaskan Lumberjack Show. On Creek Street, there is an old-timey museum in a former house of prostitution. The sign outside billed it as the place WHERE MEN AND SALMON BOTH CAME TO SPAWN, which I hope is the last tourist slogan I ever see related to ejaculation.

Adams’ writing style is enriched by his sense of humor. He almost has a Jon Ronson-esque way with the people he pals around with, in how he gets them to open up and depicts such a vivid angle of the people and their passions.

There’s a recurring theme of how “You didn’t turn your back on Alaska.” Both Adams and the historical expedition encountered their fair share of Alaska’s inherent wilderness dangers, bears being the primary one.  The narrative alternates between showcasing Alaska’s expansive natural beauty and cultural quirks with its unique dangers.

If Lawrence Wright created a fleshed-out portrait of his native Lone Star State in God Save TexasAdams creates a dedicated portrait of Alaska here, with just enough history to feel like you’re learning without losing interest along the way by veering too far into the dry or esoteric. In particular I learned a lot about how Alaska’s economy functions, and how it’s been especially built up by dedicated hard workers (often with fascinating back stories.) As Adams puts it, “Alaska is a very welcoming place for anyone who’s willing to bust ass.”

About that message of change I mentioned earlier? Here’s how the book ends:

John Muir, the father of American mapmaking notes that, for the one Yosemite in California, “Alaska has hundreds.”
He concludes by offering a “word of advice and caution” for anyone considering a trip to Alaska. “If you are old, go by all means, but if you are young, wait. The scenery of Alaska is much grander than anything else of its kind in the world, and it is not wise to dull one’s capacity for enjoyment by seeing the finest first.”

In a fitting conclusion to his devoted juxtaposing of his own “event of a lifetime” with Muir’s journey, Adams wraps up thusly – with quiet urgency after reminding about the weighty changes that have already occurred, and significantly demurring from naming culpable politicians by name:

If you are old and want to see the finest scenery in the world, there’s no time like the present. And if you are young, what are you waiting for? Check the ferry timetable, grab a sleeping bag, and go. Stay for a while. Believe me, it could be the event of a lifetime.

4/5

Tip of the Iceberg:
My 3,000-Mile Journey Around Wild Alaska, the Last Great American Frontier
by Mark Adams
published May 15, 2018 by Dutton

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