You may have heard that Alaska is a lot bigger than you thought it would be. This is correct. A map of the United States would show that the next three largest states (Texas, California, and Montana) would all fit inside the 49th state. I’m sure you’ve heard that Alaska is a frozen wasteland that’s home to lonesome people who hunt caribou for food while they wait for gold-panning season to come around. This is false. Alaska has half of the country’s coastline, and that’s where most of the country’s people live in small cities and towns.
The Harriman Expedition of 1899, which took place in 1899, was a luxury steamship filled with two dozen of the best naturalists in the country. They spent a summer on the coast of what was then known as the “Last Frontier.” On the 1899 expedition, railroad tycoon Edward Harriman paid for it, and he took a collection of 500 Alaskan books on the trip. It was different from me because they had stevedores to help them move their trunks and a nice smoking lounge to read in. In order to connect the dots of their journey, I took the Alaska Marine Ferries (Alaska’s version of Greyhound buses) for many, many miles.
There were more than twenty towns I had slept in and I wrote a book about it: You can read about my 3,000-mile journey through Wild Alaska, the last great American frontier, in this book. It took me a long time to build up a small collection of books that all together give a pretty good sense of what draws people to Alaska, and what keeps them there. Here are eight books about Alaska, which was the last great American frontier before it was over.
Coming into the Country by John McPhee
For good reason, this is the book that most Alaskans recommend when they’re asked what books they should read. An Outsider’s writing better captures the forty-ninth state’s uniqueness and rugged individualism than this book, which is written by an Alaskan. This is also funny.
Fishcamp by Nancy Lord
Outside of Anchorage and Juneau, most Alaskans like to take a break in the winter and get as much done as possible in the few summer months. This painting shows the rhythms of salmon fishing in Alaska during the summer. It captures the feeling of long, hard days outside and the satisfaction that comes from what Alaskans call “subsistence,” which means feeding yourself through your own work.
Travels in Alaska by John Muir
A million people will go on cruises through the Inside Passage this summer, and each one of them will see the beautiful mountains and glaciers that Muir first showed the world. It has been a long time since the book was written, but the vivid descriptions of nature and sense of wonder still work well. Unfortunately, Muir’s glacier has moved 30 miles since the Harriman Expedition saw it in 1899.
Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer
The book that led to a thousand hitchhikers getting on the road. “End of the Roaders” are people who go north to find peace and quiet away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life. Krakauer does a great job of capturing the allure of Alaska’s remoteness and the skepticism the state’s residents have about people who come to the state unprepared to survive when nature gets angry.
If You Lived Here, I’d Know Your Name by Heather Lende
Lende is a newspaper reporter in Haines, Alaska, and the title of her book is 100% true. Alaskans are great at multitasking. Alaskan towns are full of weird people from all walks of life, and they get along because they have to.
Not One Drop by Riki Ott
When the Exxon Valdez spill happened in 1989, Ott wrote a book about how the town of Cordova, which could only be reached by air or water, was almost destroyed by corporate greed.
Going to Extremes by Joe McGinniss
McGinniss spent a year living and traveling in Alaska around the time that oil started to flow through the Trans-Alaska Pipeline in the late 1970s, which is when he was there. In fact, the portraits he paints of people like dreamers and people who don’t go to school could have been written just a few days ago.
Pilgrim’s Wilderness by Tom Kizzia
Getting off the grid in the north isn’t for everyone. An account of Papa Pilgrim, a fundamentalist Christian with fifteen children and a dark past. He has little patience for government interference in his life. This is a chilling story.
The Call of the Wild, White Fang and Other Stories by Jack London
As a sled dog during the Klondike Gold Rush, Buck is snatched from his home and put to work. This is London’s most basic masterpiece about a dog learning how to live in the wild. White Fang is the story of a wolf-dog hybrid who has to fight for survival in a world that is just as harsh as the natural world. It is set in the frozen tundra and boreal forests of Canada’s Yukon territory.
The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah
“In Kristin Hannah’s The Great Alone, a desperate family moves to the near-isolated wilderness of Alaska in search of a new start. They soon find that their unpredictable environment is less dangerous than the unpredictable behavior found in human nature.
Two Old Women by Velma Wallis
“It is based on an Athabascan Indian legend that has been passed down through the generations by mothers to daughters in the upper Yukon River Valley in Alaska.” This is the story of two old women who were left behind by their tribe during a brutal winter famine.
The Firecracker Boys by Dan O’Neill
In 1958, the father of the H-bomb, Edward Teller, came up with a plan to set off six nuclear bombs off the coast of Alaska to build a new harbor. However, a few Eskimos and biologists were able to stop the plan, which could have caused far more damage than the Chernobyl disaster. The Firecracker Boys is a story about the U.S. government’s arrogance and deception, as well as the brave people who fought against it, which led to the environmental movement in the United States.