Reading the North

Red Light to Starboard: Recalling the Exxon Valdez Disaster

Angela Day (Washington State University Press, $19.95)

The blurb: Minutes before the supertanker Exxon Valdez ran aground on Bligh Reef, before rocks ripped a huge hole in her hull and a geyser of crude oil darkened the pristine waters of Prince William Sound, the ship's lookout burst through the chart room door.

"That light, sir, it's still on the starboard side. It should be to port, sir." Her frantic words were merely the last in a litany of futile warnings.

A parade of unkept promises began the next day. President Frank Iarossi pronounced that the Exxon Shipping Co. had "assumed full financial responsibility." A week later, Alaska Gov. Steve Cowper spoke at the Valdez Civic Center. "We don't want anybody to think that they have to hire a lawyer and go into federal court and sue the largest corporation in America."

Eight days later, Valdez native Bobby Day flew over the spill and knew his life as a herring fisherman -- a marine population that would be decimated by the spill -- was shattered. He struggled with feelings of betrayal and guilt, and later weathered the tensions of a divided community. His intimate portrayal lends a local perspective and conveys the damage inflicted upon individuals and the fishing industry.

Excerpt: Bobby thought of the countless hours he had spent fishing herring in the wintertime just off Knowles Head. He had come to believe the best time to catch herring was on a dark, moonless night and thought back to the nights he had spent there. The winter air coming in through the window tasted as cold as a martini on the rocks. Green and blue hues of the aurora borealis flashed and shimmered in the sky. He heard the sea lions barking and diving down for the same herring he was trying to catch. Their doglike heads with whiskery faces and question mark ears would pop up suddenly next to the boat, dark eyes looking curiously. He heard an occasional whoosh as a whale breached right next to the boat and the air coming in the wheelhouse window would suddenly turn warm and foul. Bobby had the strange feeling the orcas and humpbacks somehow sought the companionship of their fellow human fishers and were trying in some way to communicate. These encounters never ceased to thrill him.

Perhaps that was why he loved the winter "bait" fishery so much.

Most of his catch was frozen in giant blocks and sent to zoos all over the west coast and Hawaii. The herring he captured at sea went to feed penguins, otters, dolphins, orcas, and bears in captivity. Other fishermen would use his herring as bait to catch crab, halibut and black cod. It was satisfying to think he had helped to pioneer this fishery. Not many others participated in the wintertime fisheries and he reveled in the solitude. The part-time fishermen who had other jobs, but fished for salmon in the summertime, were gone. Only a hardy few whose entire income depended solely on fishing pursued elusive herring in frigid winter waters.

Whether it was superstition or the wisdom gained from years of experience, Bobby believed the herring had almost supernatural senses. He insisted the boat be kept completely dark, that all lights were turned off. He thought even a tiny beam peeking out from behind the blinds would scare the herring away. If a door or drawer was slammed absentmindedly by a crew member, he would hiss in a loud whisper to be quiet. Stealthily, he would idle the boat back and forth off Knowles Head using a sonar and depth finder to locate them. Herring are only about eight inches long and travel in large schools resembling mobile, swarming spheres. It is uncanny how quickly they can suddenly dart together, several hundred tons of them at once, disappearing in the depths as suddenly as they had come.

The Fires of Patriotism: Alaskans in the Days of the First World War, 1910-1920

Preston Jones (University of Alaska Press, $35)

The blurb: In 1912, Alaska had just been designated a territory of the United States. Five years later, the country entered World War I and citizens were called to fight. Alaska sent more people per capita to war than anywhere else in the U.S. and displayed a patriotism among the most intense in the nation.

"The Fires of Patriotism" explores Alaska's wartime experience, bringing to light new stories and new characters from a decade that shook the world. This multifacted book explores the era through engaging narratives and rare photos, offering a fresh perspective on World War I from a marginal land that forged its place in the greater unity of the country. The author is a professor of history at John Brown University.

Excerpt: Canadians had gone to war, and some Alaskans had gone with them. Now, it was time for the rest of Alaska's men to face the possibility of battle. An army officer from Fort Gibbon had written that the men from Canada's Yukon Territory had "made a splendid showing in Europe" and that, if called on to do so, Alaskans would do the same. From Whitehorse, an American miner wrote in early April 1917 that the Americans in the Yukon were eager for a "stampede" against Germany and were ready to be made into "cogs in an Alaskan fighting machine.'' Now the time had come. At the end of June 1917, President Wilson declared that between July 2 and September 2 all men between the ages of 21 and 30 were required to register for the draft. Alaska's minimum draft quota on this occasion was 696.

Compiled by Kathleen Macknicki, Anchorage Daily News