This is the time of year, especially when we’re dealing with temperatures of 90 + degrees F, when my thoughts turn to the idea of travel, especially travel to somewhere really cool, possibly even cold. It’s in the summer that I first read the book The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey (and if you haven’t read that novel, this would be the perfect time of year to read it, as it’s an excellent book and set in Alaska, I’m just saying), and it’s in the summer that I just read one of the best travel books I’ve encountered in the last few years, Tip of the Iceberg: My 3,000 Mile Journey Around Wild Alaska, the Last Great American Frontier, by Mark Adams. Whether you’ve always had a secret hankering for a trip to the 49th State (as I have), or whether you’re just in the mood for a well-written, vivid and entertaining book about a place most of us are fairly unfamiliar with, I highly recommend Tip of the Iceberg.
A travel book, for me, is something different from a guidebook. I’ll take a guidebook with me when I go somewhere, so I can find out what the cool places to eat are, where the museums are and what the other potential spots of interest are in the area. A travel book, though, is more like taking the trip without actually leaving home, exploring and experiencing a place with someone who shares his or her insights into this part of the world. I’m pretty demanding when it comes to travel books; the person taking me on this trip needs to be someone with a sense of humor, a willingness to seek out and ask questions of the people who live and/or work in the area, and someone who isn’t too full of him or herself. The person shouldn’t get in the way of the place, essentially. And, for someone who’s a history buff as I am, if the writer of the travel book can give me a good look at the history of the area, that’s definitely a big selling point.
Which is why I love this book so much. Mark Adams is traveling around the coast of Alaska in the modern era, using the kinds of transports (by sea and air, for the most part) any one of us could use nowadays, but he’s also retracing (to the extent possible) an earlier trip by Edward H. Harriman, the railroad magnate and millionaire (back when being a millionaire was a much bigger deal), who brought some of the best scientists in the country with him to explore the Alaska territory in 1899. The story of Mark’s modern expedition is interspersed with the story of the Harriman expedition, and the combination is magical. The contrast between the conditions of Harriman’s floating university, which included such brilliant people as John Muir and Clinton Merriam, one of the founders of the National Geographic Society, and the conditions in which Mark Adams is traversing the same coast, with a lot less luxury and far fewer intellectual heavyweights, is pretty funny, and Mark makes the most of it. He also points out the changes wrought in the Alaska countryside and especially its glaciers (which were such powerful attractants to Muir) by global climate change in the century between the two trips, not in a polemical way, but matter-of-factly, describing what they saw and experienced and what he’s seeing and experiencing.
And then there are the characters and situations he encounters. While this isn’t really a humor book, there are certain parts, including his discussions of bear encounters and the sort of information visitors are given with respect to bears, that had me laughing out loud. He had a knack for finding the most interesting characters in any of the places he went, however small or large, and getting those people to open up to him. There are certain aspects of the trip which I wouldn’t want to duplicate (an expedition where he and his guide just barely managed to get to base before their transportation left in a horrible storm was one of those nerve-wracking situations that was, undoubtedly, a lot more fun to read about than to experience in person), but on the whole, if I were going to Alaska to journey the inner passage, Mark Adams is just the kind of person I would want to have as my guide and companion. He’s funny and knowledgeable, he’s willing to let people teach him things, and willing to look with a clear eye at the world around him. He writes vividly, whether about the experiences of the members of the Harriman expedition or about the people sleeping on the decks of small ferries he’s taking from one point to another, and by the end of the book I certainly felt I’d been there with him.
The best kind of travel books, in my opinion, are the ones where you feel you’ve experienced the trip yourself, but you’re still filled (or newly filled) with the desire to check the place out for yourself. The Tip of the Iceberg certainly qualifies. Check it out for yourself.