After spending the summer of 2013 in Alaska, I became infatuated with the state. In order to feed that infatuation, I read voraciously about any and all things related to the region. Over the years, this has resulted in my reading of nearly 100 different books on Alaska covering topics from anthropology to history to memoirs. Just when I think I’ve exhausted all the “good” books covering the state I come across more that I enjoy. Recently, that proved to be the case after reading Hudson Stuck’s 10,000 miles with a Dogsled, James Michener’s Alaska and Arctic Odyssey by Chris Allan. While I have enjoyed many of these books over the years, some have stood out as favorites. Below I list a few of what I consider to be the best books about Alaska. There is a bias towards northern Alaska as that is what I’m most familiar but I have read my fair share of books pertaining to the southern portion of the state as well. If anyone has any books or other resources to recommend, please feel free to leave a comment below.
If I can achieve a skill of writing half as well as John Haines, I will be very satisfied. This book is a reflection of his 25 years in and out of Richardson, Alaska. John has a talent for writing and there are many enjoyable stories spread throughout the book covering his time in the area. He has written a lot of poetry and a number of other non-fiction books as well but I have not yet read any of his other works.
Sidney Huntington was a prominent elder within Northern Alaska, passing away at the age of 100 last winter. There is not much to say, other than the fact that the life he lived was quite impressive, starting from a young age. It is well worth reading about this Alaskan icon. His brother, Jimmy Huntington, also wrote a book, On the Edge of Nowhere, which I would not recommend.
I credit Dick Proenneke as the main reason that I find myself in Alaska today. Back in December 2012, I stumbled upon One Man’s Wilderness, which is an edited version of his journals around the time he built his cabin at Twin Lakes in what is now Lake Clark National Park. Dick was a master carpenter and lived a life that many only dream of. After reading of him building a cabin using only hand tools and living at peace within the wilderness, I discovered what it was that I wanted to do. Everything since has been a journey to get to where I am today. I recommend this edition over One Man’s Wilderness and More Reading’s from One Man’s Wilderness as I found it more comprehensive and his writings are not edited. The reading pairs nicely with documentaries about Proenneke such as Alone in the Wilderness I and II, The Frozen North and Silence and Solitude.
Kantner details his life growing up on the Kobuk River away from the village in a sod igloo. Much of the book discusses how his family and he went/go about their lives in a practical sense but he also delves into the philosophical realm as well attempting to answer the question, how is one to live in Alaska in the modern age? Like Proenneke, Kantner has served as an inspiration to me and I find myself identifying with many of his viewpoints and feelings. I think this book wins the award for most read among my Alaska collection. His novel covers similar topics and pairs well with this book, Ordinary Wolves, I would highly recommend reading both.
Anthropological and Sociological works
In the late 1920s and early 1930s, Robert Marshall spent time living in Wiseman, AK. During the course of his travels, he compiled notes and information about the life within the community. This information was presented in this book. The first time I read this book was before I ever lived in either Coldfoot or Wiseman. This book provides a snapshot of life in what was an interesting time period due to the gold rush, intermingling of natives and whites and the general frontier lifestyle. Needless to say, I find this book even more interesting now that I live in Wiseman.
This may be my favorite book from Alaska. The book describes Ingstad’s time with the Nunamuits during 1950. The Nunamuits were the last native group to be contacted by western people within Alaska. As such, they were still living nomadically up until 1950. Helge arrives in what ends up being one of the final years of their modern semi-nomadic existence and documents the life of the people throughout the course of the year.
In the 1960s and 1970s, a young Richard Nelson went out to live among native peoples in Northern Alaska in order to better understand and capture their culture before it disappeared. What he learned was set down in each of these books. Each pertaining to a different region and native group within Alaska, they offer a comprehensive view of the Native Alaskan’s culture, use of environment and knowledge.
The book offers the most comprehensive portrait of the history of Alaska that I have read. It starts with the early formation of the state and the eventual migration of people across the Bering Land Bridge. Furthermore it goes on to explain the history of exploration, gold, salmon, oil, the railroad and much, much more.
This movie features video footage from Dick Proenneke’s time at Twin Lakes. A narrator reads excerpts from his journals that tie in well with the footage. For passionate viewers, Dick Proenneke and his footage is also featured in Alone in the Wilderness II, The Frozen North, and Silence and Solitude.
In the 1990s, four families were followed in the bush as they went about their lives. The result is this documentary. The information is pretty shallow, you won’t gain any significant knowledge from watching this but the scenery is superb and I found the film to still be enjoyable. Hemio Korth (see below) and his family are featured in this film.
This documentary is not set in Alaska but rather in Siberia. However, the landscape and culture is largely the same. It provides an enjoyable and educating glimpse at a year in the life of a subsistence hunter and trapper. Available on Netflix.
I’ve lost count as to how many times I’ve watched this documentary. Like Dick Proenneke and Seth Kantner, Heimo Korth has served as an inspiration to me over the years. He lives with his wife, Edna, about 300 miles to the east of me, in the far eastern Brooks Range, about 80 miles from the nearest village. There is also a book about him that was written by his cousin that provides more of a back story but the writing is so-so and I enjoyed the video more. It focuses on a short time period, only about a week or so at what seems to be the end of September/early October, but is well worth a viewing.
“Gates of the Arctic”
A film produced by PBS covers the landscape within and surrounding Gates of the Arctic National Park. Notable individuals provide commentary from the Park Service as well as other individuals such as Richard Nelson, and residents of Anaktuvuk Pass and Wiseman.
There aren’t many podcasts about Alaska, and most cover topics that aren’t particularly interesting or well presented, in my opinion. Of those podcasts there is one that stands out far from the pack and I consider as high quality.
The anthropologist Richard Nelson takes his work to the microphone. In Encounters, Nelson spends his time out in the field talking about natural sciences pertaining to Alaska and their history as he observes them. Each episode is roughly 30 minutes and packed with insightful information and stories related to the topics presented.