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A New Yorker blends deep historical research into his personal, peculiar journey in ‘Tip of the Iceberg’

  • Author: Nancy Lord
    | Alaska books
  • Updated: June 2
  • Published June 2

Tip of the Iceberg: My 3,000-Mile Journey Around Wild Alaska, the Last Great American Frontier

By Mark Adams. Dutton, 2018. 323 pages. $28.

Alaskans are rightfully skeptical when writers from Outside, perhaps especially New Yorkers, arrive in our state to tell the story of "the last frontier." It's rare that they bring much more than a "gee-whiz — there-are-are-a-lot-of-bears-and-crusty-characters-here" understanding to what they experience.

“Tip of the Iceberg: My 3,000-Mile Journey Around Wild Alaska, the Last Great American Frontier,” by Mark Adams

Thus, it's a real pleasure to discover a new, well-researched book that defies expectations and presents a lively and insightful story worthy of broad readership. Mark Adams, the author of other well-regarded travel books, here brings together the story of the 1899 Harriman Alaska Expedition with his own travels around the state, with side excursions into related topics including our state's current financial and political situation.

(Disclosure: This reviewer, the author of a book (Green Alaska) related to the Harriman Alaska Expedition, played a very small advance role in advising author Mark Adams about his route.)

The book's title, "Tip of the Iceberg," suggests the modesty Adams brings to his effort. He acknowledges right away his position as a naive traveler, bringing fresh eyes to a very large place with a deep and complex history, and that he is far from an expert about any of it. Still, he was no slacker in doing his research and in seeking out Alaskans who are themselves experts.

As the prologue opens in Glacier Bay National Park, Adams finds himself contemplating from the seat of a kayak not only the "spellbinding performances" of massive glaciers, but the subjects he was just beginning to learn about — bears, for one, but also "the five varieties of Pacific salmon, the structural integrity of permafrost, recipes for moose meat, the declining quality of rubber boots, and a simmering resentment toward Washington, D.C., that fell under the general rubric of "federal overreach."

The idea for the book, Adams tells us, came to him in Seattle's Pioneer Square when he learned from a park ranger that the impressive totem pole there was a replica of one taken from Alaska in 1899 by the Harriman Expedition. Adams, who prided himself on knowing exploration histories, was embarrassed that he knew nothing of that expedition. When he learned who accompanied Mr. Harriman, he was propelled into a new book project. (Previous books focused on Machu Picchu and the lost city of Atlantis.)

The Harriman Expedition, which spent two summer months exploring the Alaska coast all the way to the Arctic Circle, carried a who's-who of America's scientific community — including head of the U. S. Biological Survey (which later became the Fish and Wildlife Service) C. Hart Merriam, "Alaska's first scientist" William Dall, geologist Grove Carl Gilbert, editor and founder of the Audubon Society George Bird Grinnell and 20 others. Also along were photographer Edward Curtis, several artists, and the two best-known "nature writers" of their time —John Muir and John Burroughs.

Lacking the ability to hire his own ship to trace the coast of Alaska, Adams decided to visit as many of the Harriman stops as he could by state ferry. For locations beyond ferry reach, he flew. The 3,000 miles of his subtitle, he explains, are a rough calculation of his water, ground and air travel. A helpful map shows his ferry route from Bellingham to Haines and Skagway and to Sitka; flights to Gustavus, Yakutat, Cordova, Anchorage, and Homer with a side trip to Whittier; more ferry to Kodiak, Chignik, and Dutch Harbor; and flights to Nome and Shishmaref.

In each place, and on the ferry and flights themselves, Adams meets all sorts of Alaskans, investigates ties to the Harriman Expedition, and reports what he learns and thinks about it all. In Metlakatla, on the southern end, for example, he first recounts the Harriman expeditioners' positive response to the "model Christian" Tsimshian community founded by missionary William Duncan. In a later chapter called "Second Thoughts," he meets with the director of what is now the Duncan Cottage Museum and presents a nuanced (if brief) discussion of colonial attitudes and their aftermath.

Adams is, by his own account, not much of an outdoors person, and in some places didn't hesitate to hire guides. In Glacier Bay, for example, a kayak guide paddles him to Russell Island, where they camp and encounter a pair of brown bears and — worse — biting flies. Adams wears his bug net, with his ball cap over it. "This, I soon learned, was the exact wrong strategy, since it compressed the net against my forehead, giving the insects a handy place to rest their legs as they bit my face ad libitum. For the next three weeks I wore a line of red dots across my forehead like a doll's hairline as a scarlet letter, broadcasting my ignorance to veteran Alaskans."

As Adams toggles back and forth between the Harriman story and his own Alaska adventures, much of his attention focuses on the remarkable character of John Muir, who identified himself on the 1899 expedition as a "student of glaciers" and was responsible for the expedition's devotion to "ice time." Adams departs regularly from his main, twin story to describe Muir's multiple Alaska trips and his very significant influence on America's conservation movement.

Another key theme in "Tip of the Iceberg" is change — particularly environmental change, and within that, climate change. Adams details the retreat of glaciers in Glacier Bay and Prince William Sound, drawing upon historic records and interviews with today's glaciologists to tell the story of the Little Ice Age (which peaked about 1750) and to present the science behind the growth and shrinkage of glaciers.

In Nome, Adams tells the story of how warming and the loss of sea ice are opening sea channels for shipping, port development, and resource extraction. "Climate change," he writes, "wasn't forcing Nome to search for its next boom. In Nome, climate change was the next boom." In Shishmaref, he spends time with the mayor, the relocation coordinator, and others who share the contrasting story of a community that needs to move to higher ground.

In Cordova, Adams contrasts the eco-disaster the Harriman group saw there — the destruction of salmon runs and the tremendous waste at the Orca cannery — with our more recent one. He writes, "Cordova's first disaster developed over decades and required many more decades to solve. Its second occurred at 12:04 A.M. on March 24, 1989, when the oil tanker Exxon Valdez struck a reef in Prince William Sound. The town still hasn't completely recovered from the damage."

"Tip of the Iceberg," with its fresh descriptive writing, strong character development and presentation of contemporary Alaska within a historical framework, is a valuable contribution to our state's literature. Long-time Alaskans as well as newcomers and visitors will find much to appreciate here.

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