Reading the North

Compiled by Matt Sullivan, Anchorage Daily NewsMay 25, 2013 

Chasing Alaska: A Portrait of the Last Frontier, Then and Now

By C.B. Bernard (Lions Press, $18.95)

The blurb: Bernard moved from New England to Sitka to work as a reporter. He learned that a distant relative made a similar trek a century earlier, and Bernard chases his ancestor's legacy throughout the state through artifacts, journals and correspondence.

Excerpt: "Southeast Alaskans call it a sucker hole when a patch of blue opens in the clouds and suckers you into thinking the sky is clearing. Tourist fall for them regularly. The locals know better, beaten down by the unrelenting rain that saturates these islands. There seems little chance of such false promises as I leave the harbor, no fragments of clarity, the sky resolutely overcast. Shadows paint the mountains with undertones of menace, though sun brightened the same snow-bitten peaks just yesterday, a rare cloudless winter day in Sitka. I'd hoped for two in a row. As my lazy wake spreads, other boats nod their assent of my wish -- less modest here, perhaps, where you measure misery by the calendar and dodge raindrops 230 days a year. The two weeks of uninterrupted sunshine that greeted my arrival in town served as opening act for the downpours, deluges, and drenchers that headlined the next fifteen without reprieve.

"My God, I thought. What have I done?"

Wrangell

By Bonnie Demerjian (Arcadia Publishing, $21.99)

The blurb: Part of the Images of America series -- which celebrates the history of neighborhoods, towns and cities across the country -- "Wrangell" tells the history of the Southeast Alaska town through a collection of photographs.

Excerpt: "The city of Wrangell often introduces itself as the town that has been ruled by three nations -- Russia, Britain, and the United States. In truth, earliest ownership dates from the prehistoric clan legends of the Stikine Tlingit. The Stikines were one of the most wealthy and powerful of the Tlingit tribes, numbering around 1,500 out of a total pre-contacted population of 8,000 Tlingits. Legend says they migrated to the Wrangell area from the upper Stikine River, settling first on various islands near the mouth before moving to Chugan-an or Waterfall Town, today called Mill Creek. One group then moved to a Wrangell Island site now called Old Town, but it was once named Kositlan or Willow Town by its residents."

The Hunted Whale

By James McGuane (W.W. Norton & Company, $39.95)

The blurb: A photographic exploration of the material culture of American whaling before the time of steam and diesel ships

Excerpt: "The beaked upper and lower jaws are bird-like. Their shape also resembles that of the bottlenose dolphin, a relative. The image of a living, breathing sperm whale is not immediately obvious when we look at this 50-foot skeleton. In life, the tissue that makes up its enormous head and the cartilage that shapes the 16-foot flukes give the mammal its signature look. The entire massive 'forehead' (comedians might call it a 'fivehead') is soft tissue with no bones. This 'negative space' that we must visualize as we look at just the bones contains the 'spermaceti organ' which makes up over 25 percent of the sperm whale's anatomy. Scientists speak of the foremost part of the head as the bulbous 'nose.' Whalers knew that just below the surface of the whale's head was a reservoir (the 'case') which held an enormous supply (600 gallons was typical) of a pure semiliquid: spermaceti oil. Biologists or chemists would say that it is more correctly described as a wax. Whalers also knew that additional ultravaluable product was to be found in the head, adjacent to the reservoir of spermaceti. They carefully isolated the parts that they called the 'whitehorse' and the 'junk.' Unlike the spermaceti, which could be stored with little or no processing, the whitehorse and junk would be carefully 'tried out' over the fires to extract its valuable liquids. Each barrel would be separated and labeled to indicate its higher value."


Compiled by Matt Sullivan, Anchorage Daily News

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