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Reading the north

Alaska's Dog Heroes: True Stories of Remarkable Canines by Shelley Gill
A Russian American Photographer in Tlingit Country: Vincent Soboleff in Alaska by Sergei Kan
Salmon: A Global History by Nicolaas Mink

Alaska's Dog Heroes: True Stories of Remarkable Canines

Shelley Gill (Sasquatch Books, $16.99)

The blurb: These true dog stories from the last frontier describe remarkable acts of intelligence, stamina, loyalty and heroism by Balto, Togo, Tekla, Stickeen, and more of Alaska's famous dogs. From traversing mountains in winter with deliveries of life-saving medicine to fighting off bears and finding lost children, each illustrated and exciting story comes from the pages of Alaska's history. There's Buddy, a German shepherd, who led rescuers to his family's burning home, and King David, a police dog, who sniffed out and uncovered a young boy trapped beneath the snow.

These incredible tales illustrate the loyalty and cleverness of man's best friend. Each dog comes alive in lovingly rendered art by Robin James. Ages 6-9.

Excerpt: Tekla

Before Susan Butcher became famous for winning the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race four times in the 1980s and 1990s, she was an unknown dog musher who lived in the Wrangell Mountains. Her dog team was a mixed bunch except for its leader, Tekla.

Tekla seemed to have a sixth sense. It was as though she could hear Butcher's thoughts. If Butcher thought, "We need more wood," Tekla would lead the team to the woodpile.

However, once when Tekla was a new leader, she defied Butcher's command to "go ahead." Butcher couldn't understand Tekla's disobedience until the dog bolted off the trail just as an ice bridge collapsed into open water. Tekla's instincts saved them. From then on Butcher knew Tekla was her best partner -- and for good reason. Tekla would save her life again.

In Butcher's first Iditarod in 1978, Tekla led the team to a nineteenth place finish. The next spring, with Joe Redington, they completed the first and only ascent of 20,300-foot Mount McKinley by dog team.

Redington's team was led by Candy, another accomplished husky, but 14,000-feet up they combined the two teams. With Tekla in the lead, Butcher and Redington arrived at the summit. When they reached the top, the team, affected by the high altitude, would have kept going if not for Tekla. The dog dug in and kept the rest of the straining huskies from overrunning her and plunging off the peak.

Salmon: A Global History

Nicolaas Mink (The University of Chicago Press; $18)

The blurb: The story of salmon takes readers on a culinary journey from the coast of Alaska to the rivers of Scotland. The book traces salmon's history from the earliest known records to the present, telling the story of how the salmon was transformed from an abundant fish found seasonally along coastal regions to a mass-produced canned food and culinary delight.

Rich in omega-3 fatty acids, cheap and widely available, salmon is often listed as an essential part of any diet. A delicious and versatile fish, it can be eaten raw in sashimi, cooked in various ways or cured by smoking, salting or burial. But while salmon is enjoyed all over the globe, it also swims at the center of controversy, with climate change and loss of freshwater habitats threatening wild salmon populations, and the ecological and health impacts of intense salmon farming under fire.

Excerpt: Despite its liabilities in commercial curing operations, the humpback salmon's delicate flesh produced a nice canned product. It was also the world's most numerous salmon, which meant that it would be cheap and easy to mass produce. Its numbers, incidentally, stemmed from its natural history. Gorbuscha had adapted to small streams and thus had to move into the ocean much sooner after birth than other salmon species in order to find the food necessary to survive. Unlike sockeye, king and coho, all of which live in fresh water for years, humpback salmon move to the ocean after a few months. Because of the abundant marine food available to them, more young fish survived to adulthood.

A Russian American Photographer in Tlingit Country: Vincent Soboleff in Alaska

Sergei Kan (University of Oklahoma Press, $39.95)

The blurb: This book is a rich record of life in small-town Southeastern Alaska in the late 1800s and early 1900s. It is the first book to showcase the photographs of Vincent Soboleff, an amateur Russian American photographer whose community included Tlingit Indians from a nearby village as well as Russian Americans, so-called Creoles, who worked in a local fertilizer factory. Using a Kodak camera, Soboleff, the son of a Russian Orthodox priest, documented the life of this multi-ethnic parish at work and at play until 1920. Despite their significance, few of Soboleff's photographs have been published since their discovery in 1950. Anthropologist Sergei Kan rectifies that oversight in "A Russian American Photographer in Tlingit Country," which brings together more than 100 of Soboleff's striking black-and-white images.

Combining Soboleff's photographs with ethnographic fieldwork and archival research, Kan brings to life the communities of Killisnoo, where Soboleff grew up, and Angoon, the Tlingit village. The photographs gathered here depict Russian Creoles, Euro-Americans, the operation of the Killisnoo factory, and the daily life of its workers. But Soboleff's work is especially valuable as a record of Tlingit life. As a member of this multi-ethnic community, he was able to take unusually personal photographs of people and daily life. Soboleff's photographs offer candid and intimate glimpses into Tlingit people's then-new economic pursuits such as commercial fishing, selling berries, and making "Indian curios" to sell to tourists. Other images show white, Creole, and Native factory workers rubbing shoulders while keeping a certain distance during leisure time.

Kan offers readers, historians and photography lovers a beautiful visual resource on Tlingit and Russian American life that shows how the two cultures intertwined.

Excerpt: Intense contact between European seafarers and the Tlingits did not take place until the last quarter of the 18th century. By 1800, numerous fur-trading ships from England, Spain, France and the United States were visiting the area. Russia began colonizing Alaska in the mid-18th century and established a fort in Sitka, the heart of Tlingit country, in the early 1800s. This fort became the headquarters of the Russian America Company and the administrative center of Russian America until Alaska was purchased by the United States in 1867. During the Russian period, the Tlingits maintained their independence while trading and occasionally clashing with the Russians, and the European impact was limited largely to the domain of material culture. In the 1830s, however, a devastating smallpox epidemic delivered a first blow to the Native worldview, undermining somewhat the power of the shaman and undoubtedly opening the ranks of the aristocracy to those located lower within the social hierarchy. A small number of Tlingits, mainly in the Sitka area, converted to Russian Orthodox, but with a few exceptions, their understanding and commitment to Christianity was never strong.

The U.S. occupation brought an influx of prospectors and adventurers. In the words of Frederica de Laguna, "Drunken and lawless soldiers and miners debauched the natives, especially after a soldier taught the Hutsnuwu to distill moonshine liquor."

Compiled by Kathleen Macknicki.