8 Books About Alaska for People Who Don’t Watch Reality TV

Books about what draws people to the last great American frontier and what keeps them there

You may have heard that Alaska is large. This is true. If you cut up a map of the United States, you’d find that the next three largest states (Texas, California, and Montana) would fit within the acreage of the 49th. You may also have heard that Alaska is a frozen wasteland populated by loners who spend their time hunting caribou to feed their families and sled dogs through the ten-month winter while waiting for gold-panning season to arrive. This is not true. Alaska accounts for half of the country’s coastline and that’s where most of its population lives, in small cities and towns.

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A few years ago, I decided to retrace the Harriman Expedition of 1899, in which a luxury steamship loaded with two dozen of America’s leading naturalists spent a summer following the coast of the Last Frontier. The 1899 expedition was bankrolled by railroad tycoon Edward Harriman, and traveled with a collection of 500 books on Alaska. (Unlike me, they had stevedores to carry their trunks and a comfortable smoking lounge to read in.) I connected the dots of their journey by traveling thousands of miles on the Alaska Marine Ferries (the state’s version of Greyhound buses).

By the time I was done, I’d slept in more than twenty towns and wrote a book about it: Tip of the Iceberg: My 3,000-Mile Journey Around Wild Alaska, the Last Great American Frontier. Along the way I amassed a small collection of books that collectively give a pretty good sense of what draws people to Alaska and what keeps them there. Here are eight books about Alaska, the last great American frontier:

Coming into the Country by John McPhee

This is the book that almost every Alaskan recommends when asked for suggestions, and for a good reason: no piece of writing by an Outsider (as Alaskans call those unfortunate enough to live elsewhere) better captures the forty-ninth state’s uniqueness and ethos of rugged individualism. Plus it’s funny.

Fishcamp by Nancy Lord

Outside of Anchorage and Juneau, Alaskans tend to rest up in the winter and pack as much action into the short summer months as possible. This impressionistic portrait of the rhythms of the quintessential Alaska summer activity, salmon fishing, beautifully captures the feeling of long, hard days outdoors and the satisfaction earned from what Alaskans call subsistence — feeding yourself through your own labor.

Travels in Alaska by John Muir

A million people will visit the Inside Passage on cruise ships this summer, and every one of them is going to see the spectacular mountains and glaciers that Muir introduced to the world. The vivid descriptions of nature and sense of wonder hold up well after a century. Sadly, Muir’s namesake glacier has retreated thirty miles since the Harriman Expedition saw it in 1899.

Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer

The book that launched a thousand hitchhikers. The seekers who head north searching for solitude and solace from civilization are sometimes known as “End of the Roaders.” Krakauer brilliantly captures the allure of Alaska’s remoteness, and the skepticism the state’s residents feel toward those who arrive unprepared to survive when nature gets angry.

If You Lived Here, I’d Know Your Name by Heather Lende

Lende is a newspaper reporter (among other occupations; Alaskans are champion multi-taskers) in Haines, and her book’s title is strictly factual. Alaskan towns are filled with quirky characters of every sociopolitical stripe, and they tend to get along out of necessity.

Not One Drop by Riki Ott

This account by environmentalist Ott of the crisis and aftermath of the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster tells how the town of Cordova — reachable only by air or water — was nearly destroyed by corporate malfeasance.

Going to Extremes by Joe McGinniss

McGinniss spent a year living and traveling in Alaska around the time oil began to flow through the Trans-Alaska Pipeline in the late 70s. But the portraits he paints of dreamers and dropouts and the plans they made for One Big Score could have been written yesterday.

Pilgrim’s Wilderness by Tom Kizzia

Not everyone who comes north to live off the grid is a lovable goofball. This chilling account tells the story of Papa Pilgrim, a fundamentalist Christian with fifteen children, a very dark past, and little patience for government interference in his affairs.

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