Reading the North: New books of interest to Alaskans

Winds of Skilak

Bonnie Rose Ward (Two Harbors Press, $18.99)

The blurb: The sign warned: "Welcome to Skilak Lake! Boater's Warning -- Cold Water Kills!

Don't take chances -- 26 (crossed out), 30 (also crossed out), 32 people did and didn't make it."

With that grim sign, Sam and Bonnie Ward arrive at their new home. Leaving behind friends, family and life as they knew it, the Wards embard on a journey into the Alaska wilderness that will change them forever.

"Winds of Skilak" traces a young couple's adventurous move from the suburbs of Ohio to a remote island on ill-tempered Skilak Lake. As Sam and Bonnie adapt to life without running water, electricity and telephones, the unforgiving, desolate environment tests their courage early on. Facing sub-freezing temperatures, unfriendly bears and cabin fever, the Wards find strength in new friends, each other and the awe-inspiring beauty of The Last Frontier.

Excerpt: Sam idled the boat slowly into the mouth, while I laid on the front bow, hung my head over the edge and peered deep into the water. The fish fascinated me. There wasn't a spot in the creek that didn't have a fish in it. The shallow water ran only a couple of feet deep, so Sam had to turn off the motor and raise the prop. Then he and Bill used oars and paddled us slowly up the creek. The salmon looked nothing like the fresh salmon we'd caught just a week or so ago. These were in all stages of decomposition, and it seemed impossible to me that they could still be swimming with decaying flesh hanging off their bodies in strips. Where the rot had not yet spread, their skin had turned bright red, and some were swimming around with just one eye, or worse yet, some with no eyes.

"Sam, what happened to their eyes?" I gaped in astonishment.

"Seagulls plucked them out," he said. "That's usually the first thing they go for."

I shuddered. "That's horrible." Some of the fish looked like something had taken a bite out of them. "Do you think it hurts them?" Mesmerized by an equal mix of curiosity and horror, I couldn't move from my spot.

"No, I don't think so." Sam looked over my shoulder. Bill watched the fish, too. Carcasses lined the edges of the little creek on both sides of us.

I think we all realized our dilemma at the same time. We'd been so enthralled with watching the salmon that we hadn't realized how narrow the creek had become. The bank closed in on both sides of the boat and, had we wanted to, we could have stepped right from the boat up onto the bank on either side.

"Bill," Sam said, "we'll have to push out backwards. We won't be able to turn the boat around in here." Both men shoved their oar blades against the bank and started pushing us out of the creek, when we froze at the sound of a most frightening rumble.

A huge brown bear stood to our left and towered over us. The alder brush lining both sides of the creek was so thick that we hadn't seen the bear when it walked on all fours. The bear hovered so close, I had to look straight up to see his head, and had he been friendly, he could have reached down and shook our hands.

"Don't anybody move." Sam spoke in a low but firm voice.

His words were useless, as I couldn't have moved any more than Lot's wife when she turned into a pillar of salt. I held my breath as painfully slow seconds ticked past.

The bear stared down on us. Drool slithered down the corner of his mouth -- a mouth large enough to contain my head, ears, hair and all. Dagger-length claws hung from baseball mitt-sized paws. Freddie Kruger would've been proud. He stood so close I could smell his rancid fish breath. The bear snorted and made a noise that sounded like whuff. He turned and ran back into the woods, snapping sticks and branches as he moved through the heavy underbrush.

Warriors: A Novel

William B. McCloskey Jr. (Skyhorse Publishing, $24.95)

The blurb: "Warriors" is the prequel to "Highliners" and is based on McCloskey's own experiences with the fishing trade in Alaska waters after World War II. TV's "The Deadliest Catch" made the fishermen of Alaska famous. McCloskey makes them legendary. Following the final, horrifying moments of World War II, Japanese officer Kiyoshi Tsurifune, Sgt. Jones Henry and Resistance fighter Swede Scorden are hoping to return to their previous lives on the sea. But as each finds his way to the bays of Alaska, he discovers that a fisherman's life is no longer as simple as it once was. A new union calls for a strike during the height of the salmon season, and expensive new engine boats with brand new technology such as radar and LORAN are replacing the sails and oars fishermen have relied on for years. Plus, the tension created by postwar anti-Japanese sentiment makes the looming deal between Alaskan fishermen and Japanese buyers difficult for many.

Excerpt: Born on the Fourth of July

High above Ketchikan, Jones Henry crouched in a pocket of late snow that had been preserved by a shadowed gulch of rocks and pine. From a height, it all looked innocent enough below. Rain mebbe, later. Such cloudy gray on branches and rooftops suited him today, more so than the water beyond sparkling from the sun that poured through a cloud opening. Revillagigedo Channel was busy with boats coming in to make deliveries from a shortened fishing week before the fun started. Boats where he ought to be. The stink of rotting bait had started the malaise... From boardwalk pier to street he had strode, without a word to anyone -- even those few on other boats who called to offer him a beer.

By the stores that lined the main street through town, people were tying the Stars and Stripes everywhere in preparation for tomorrow. Let 'em. He didn't need a flag to know where he was, but mebbe they did. Others were nailing together a raised boxing ring for the matches that would occur that day.

"Hey Jones, not too late to sign up," called Knute Jensen. Jones waved him off and kept going. Let others punch each other around fun. He paused at the walkway on pilings that wended to the little whorehouses on Creek Street. But he rejected the option and instead passed behind more storefronts onto the paths that skirted the creek. Come on, pull it together, he told himself Fish rot is nothing like corpse stink. But still he gasped for fresh air as if the other smell would never leave his head.

Some kid was poling a line into the water to snag a fish. Do it, kid, he thought. Just like I used to do, right where you're standing. Then run the other way if a war starts and they try to get you. That's what you'll see me doing if the Russian commies start another one. Just let me catch fish for the rest of my life, and everybody stay clear of me otherwise.

Compiled by Kathleen Macknicki, Anchorage Daily News