Two books about Alaska will cool off your hot summer

August 17, 1997
Elisabeth Sherwin -- gizmo@

If you happen to be suffering through a long hot summer with no relief in sight, pick up either "Into the Wild" by Jon Krakauer (Anchor, 1997) or "Fishcamp: Life on an Alaskan Shore" by (Island Press, 1997) and you'll be transported to a cool cold place.

Both are well-written books of non-fiction but while "Wild" is an adventure story with a tragic ending, "Fishcamp" is a domestic memoir with a happy ending.

"Into the Wild" is a demonstration of what can happen if you chuck your office job and hit the open road - what happens, in other words, if you opt for freedom. It's a risky business. Some great things happened to Chris McCandless - he proved his manhood, his independence, his ability to live as a free man, his ability to survive in the wild - until he died.

Krakauer is a talented journalist who followed McCandless' trail and tells his story.

"In April 1992 a young man from a well-to-do family hitchhiked to Alaska and walked alone into the wilderness north of Mt. McKinley," says Krakauer. "His name was Christopher Johnson McCandless. He had given $25,000 in savings to charity, abandoned his car and most of his possessions, burned all the cash in his wallet, and invented a new life for himself. Four months later, his decomposed body was found by a moose hunter."

McCandless died because he misidentified and ate a poisonous plant. He might have survived the ensuing illness, but his body was so weakened by months of subsistence-level nourishment that he couldn't rally the physical reserves he needed.

He was foolish. Help was available not too far away but he didn't have a map and never found it. He was stubborn and brave - and unlucky.

You might say Nancy Lord, on the other hand, is stubborn, brave and lucky.

She decided in fourth grade that she was going to live in Alaska. Never mind that she grew up in New Hampshire and didn't take her first trip as far west as Colorado until she was in college. Alaska was home.

That doesn't mean that Lord found making the move easy. She was warned that there were few jobs in the Alaskan town she had in mind, that the jobs were difficult and low-paying. Fine. She would put up with whatever she had to put up with.

"I was most committed," she wrote, "to finding a community where the landscape would stun my eyes every single day."

She also was lucky enough to find a partner, Ken, who was willing to go to Alaska, too. They studied maps of the state from their college rooms on the East Coast. Lord doesn't tell us much about Ken - although it's clear she loves him and they work well together - but in him she found a partner totally in tune with her life's desire.

"I was the one who was determined to move to Alaska," she said. Luckily, Ken thought he'd like to fish commercially and he was and is a man good at many things.

"We narrowed our choices to coastal towns, to coastal towns we could drive to, to towns where commercial fishing was a main industry, to coastal fishing towns that were small but not too small," she said.

As soon as school was out they bought a pickup, built a camper on the back, and drove to Alaska. That was in 1973 and they've spent the winters in that town ever since.

"Summers, I live at fishcamp," said Lord. "June through August, Mondays and Fridays, my partner and I catch and sell salmon that pass our beach on their way to spawning streams. The rest of the week, and parts of May and September, Ken and I mend nets, comb the rocky shoreline for useful poles and cottonwood bark, do a thousand camp chores and projects. We live quite happily in a tiny cabin at the top of the beach."

It's interesting to speculate what might have happened if Chris McCandless had met Nancy Lord and Ken Castner. The couple might have told Chris lots of stories about how bad luck, cruel weather or a single mistake in judgment ending up costing neighbors and friends their lives.

Chris, by all accounts a pleasant young man, would have listened attentively and nodded in the right places. He might have picked up some tips on how to catch and smoke fish and might have even decided to make his camp by the ocean instead of farther inland. But he probably would have thanked them for their time and hospitality and moved on - to his doom.

Alaska. These books will set your imagination free even if you can't make the trip.

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