Tip of the Iceberg

Alaskans are an odd bunch who live in an odd place. A proper portrayal of their peculiarity—especially by an outsider—requires an uncommon talent for capturing the sense of a place and its people, and for avoiding the twin pitfalls of caricature and voyeurism. In Tip of the Iceberg: My 3,000-Mile Journey Around Wild Alaska, the Last Great American Frontier, Mark Adams demonstrates that he is more than up to the task.

Tip of the Iceberg weaves together two journeys, more than a century apart, into a beautiful portrait of the people and wilderness along the Alaskan coast. The first journey is the 1899 Herriman Alaska expedition. The expedition’s namesake and financier was Edward Herriman, a railroad tycoon preoccupied with scientific discovery, exploration, and bear hunting. The ship’s passenger log was a who’s who of late nineteenth-century naturalism: in addition to the various luminaries of biology, zoology, botany, geology, and geography, were the writers John Burroughs, George Bird Grinnell, and, of course, John Muir.

The second journey is Adam’s own, as he cruises up the Alaska coast and retraces the path of the Herriman expedition from Bellingham to Dutch Harbor to Shishmaref. In his travels Adams encounters a changed people—today more reliant on cruise ship tourism than fishing or mining—and a changing environment: melting glaciers, sinking coasts, and dying fisheries.

Adams, of course, is quite good at writing about nature. He captures the grace and beauty of the Alaskan coast with simple language and direct prose, and without hyperbole or exaggeration (of which Alaska needs none). But Adams is at his best when he is writing about people. Alaskans are sometimes quirky and sometimes bizarre, but they are nearly always fascinating. They are the people who got away, the ones who left, the people we dream of being as we sit in our dreary offices, puttering away at our crumb-filled keyboards. But they are also a people who are stuck. Rising sea levels and falling oil prices have left Alaska and Alaskans in a state of distress and, for some, emergency. Coastal villages are literally falling into the ocean as the Juneau legislature cuts basic services—like village police officers—just to stay solvent. In his journey up the coast Adams captures both sides of Alaska: the dream, which still exists, along with the ruin.

But good travel writers—and Adams is one of the best—don’t just tell us about where they have been, they tell us about where we are going. And Alaska is heading for a crisis. The state’s die-hard individualism is on a collision course with its changing climate—changes that can only be weathered through cooperation and organization, which is to say: government. The next few decades will be a test of Alaskan resilience and flexibility. But I wouldn’t bet against them.

Good For: Snowbirds; bear-lovers.

Not Good For: Landlubbers.

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