By Michael Engelhard; Hiraeth Press; 2016; 215 pages; $17.95 paperback
Fairbanks writer Michael Engelhard has two "soulscapes" — the American Southwest and Alaska. His new small book honors both with a collection of essays recounting adventures and reflecting upon the importance of wild places. The book divides conveniently into two parts — the first nine essays under the subtitle "Southwest" and the final 15 under "North."
With a background in cultural anthropology and 25 years of a nomadic life that's largely involved wilderness guiding, Engelhard is uniquely qualified to take readers well beyond the usual varieties of travel and nature writing. "American Wild" is not a guidebook to adventure; nor is it a clichéd rhapsody about spiritual growth among the rivers and mountains. Instead, each carefully wrought essay brings us a story from a life that's always moving, always questioning.
Sometimes a bumbler
Alternately serious and not so serious, Engelhard presents himself not as hero or even a reliable outdoors guide but as a humble student of the natural world and sometimes even as a bumbler, at one point freezing his tongue to his bike's padlock in the process of thawing it. His understated sense of humor is frequently on display.
In "Blacktop Cuisine" (about eating roadkill), the author discusses hunting and gathering from an evolutionary perspective, noting that, for early hominoids, "bone-picking proved to be more efficient than gathering … yet less risky than hunting." The invention of stone tools facilitated dismemberment. "Speech and cooperation quickly followed, in turn giving birth to more-complex behaviors like big-game hunting and presidential campaigning."
In "Marooned," about a Southeast Alaska kayaking trip, the author encounters a mountain goat at sea level. "I would trade with this bearded recluse in an instant. I'd travel unburdened by gear. I'd grow hairy and hunch-backed and rank, sniffing mates and competitors. I'd become agile enough to dodge grizzlies and wolves, fearless enough to bed down on vertiginous ledges, and smart enough to avoid our kind."
Engelhard takes us on a Denali climb, where "our bodies shrank into nothing but focused breathing, our minds into tight fists." He takes us on a rescue mission for an injured raven. He journeys through the Arctic, on foot and by canoe, beset by clouds of mosquitoes. "Without them, and without winter's dark moods, Alaska would be as crowded as Colorado or Wyoming, playgrounds for the newly rich and the eternally bored." He leads Outward Bound students kayaking in Kenai Fjords National Park, where he feels the kayak as an extension of his body and pays homage to the original Alutiiq kayakers of the region and their great skills in boat building and traveling through treacherous waters.
In perhaps the most self-effacing and humorous essay, "Mating Dance Under the Midnight Sun," Engelhard admits to being profiled in Alaska Men magazine, part of his search for a companionable mate. "Letters and pictures of women in various poses and stages of life lay scattered all over my 14-by-14-foot plywood palace without running water." ("Rustic minimalist" is how he identified himself in the magazine.) The eventual "fortunate candidate" won the right to accompany him on an Arctic kayaking trip on which (not to give too much away) he forgot to take a cooking pot and then left both paddles where they floated, forever, away.
Joined by live raptors
Another humor-filled essay, "Notes from the Road to Bestsellerdom," recounts the Anchorage-area book tour he put together as editor of a collection of northern wildlife stories (not named in the essay but readers may recall the anthology Engelhard edited, "Wild Moments: Adventures with Animals of the North").
Recognizing that "authors on book tours are … encouraged to play Indian flutes, tap-dance, wear clown suits, juggle their books blindfolded, or at least to behave inappropriately," he'd arranged to have live raptors at his events. In the end, after something much less than a launch into bestsellerdom, the author concludes, "Perhaps I did compete with myself, pitting wild animals against words about wild animals, a contest I can't ever and possibly shouldn't win."
Perhaps the most impressive journey told of here is Engelhard's solo traverse of the Brooks Range — 1,000 miles in 60 days. In "Marginalia," he revisits the 13 feet of U.S. Geological Survey maps that guided him, reflecting on the nature of maps and map-making, the attraction of uncluttered space and what he'd learned about the region's topography from Inupiaq and Koyukon people when he worked as a researcher decades earlier.
There are, of course, bears in these stories. Smitten by bears all his life, Engelhard rates wilderness trips by the number of bears he sees. One essay tells of a rare encounter with a polar bear 30 miles from the Arctic coast. In another, he admits to a lapse of protocol, a slip of attention, that once put him (and clients) into a dangerous situation and required his use of bear spray.
"American Wild" is, true to its title, a set of explorations — not just into geographies but the idea of wildness. Engelhard, in matching his passion to an anthropologist's inquiry and a lyrically crafted prose shot with honesty and humor, proves to be an exceptional guide. As he reminds us, "In more than just literal ways, the desert and Arctic, if you can love them, will widen your horizons. Perhaps most importantly, both retain some of the best America has to offer: room for us and other creatures to breathe or disappear."
Nancy Lord is a Homer-based writer and former Alaska writer laureate. Her books include "Fishcamp," "Beluga Days" and "Early Warming."