This is a transcription of Episode 14 — Alaska: Alaska: Fresh-Caught Salmon, Cake Mix, and So Many Bears”.
David: Hello, welcome to Strong Sense of Place. I’m David Humphreys.
Melissa: I’m Melissa Joulwan. In each episode, we explore one destination through the pages of five books we love.
David: We search for books that are readable, engaging, opinionated, and tell you about the best.
Melissa: Fiction and non, contemporary and classic. These books help us understand the world and our place in it.
David: We’re on a trip around the globe, one great read at a time. Thanks for joining us.
[cheerful theme music]
David: Welcome to Episode 14 of Strong Sense of Place. Today, we’re getting curious about Alaska.
[audio clip of old-time announcer]
Our forty ninth state where raw frontier and the 20th century live side by side and a booming, thriving, promising land where the mountains are nameless and the rivers all run to God knows where.
Melissa: And we have actually been to Alaska.
David: We have.
Melissa: One time —
David: In the dead of winter —
Melissa: For a few days —
David: For a wedding. It was really nice.
Melissa: We went to Anchorage. It was a very cool city. It has kind of a laid back vibe. It was very Northern Exposure-ish.
David: Super laid back.
Melissa: Yes. And mostly, I think because you might have a moose in your yard when you wake up in the morning.
David: It feels very utilitarian.
Melissa: But they also really love nature because it’s right there.
David: Anchorage feels like if people left Anchorage, nature would reclaim Anchorage in about 72 hours. There would be old growth trees downtown wolves and bears would be on the city council, like, it would be over.
Melissa: Also, because we were there in the winter, it was not completely dark the whole time, but it was never fully light while we were there either.
David: Yeah, the sun kind of comes up over the horizon, rolls in it and takes a look. Says, you know what, no, I’m not feeling it today. Yeah, today’s not good. Maybe tomorrow. I don’t know. And then it sets around 3:00.
Melissa: And from ten to three it’s dusk ish. It was not the brilliant sunshine that you see sometimes in pictures of Alaska where the light is glistening on the water and the snow is sparkling. I’m assuming those pictures are from the summer because it did not look like that in the winter.
David: And then it looks like that at ten o’clock at night.
Melissa: It was beautiful. And the food was amazing. We’re going to talk about food a lot today.
David: Are you going to talk about eating the whale blubber?
Melissa: I am.
David: OK, do you want to talk about the 101 now?
Melissa: Yes, let’s do it.
David: All right.
Melissa: Ok, let’s get oriented. Everyone pretend you’re looking at a map of the United States. We’re going to go north to Canada, and then we’re going to take a sharp left and run into Alaska. Alaska has water on three sides. To the west, we have the Bering Strait and the Bering Sea. And then just on the other side of that: Hello, Russia.
Melissa: To the south, we have the Gulf of Alaska and the Pacific Ocean. To the east, Alaska butts up against Canada’s Yukon Territory and British Columbia, and then to the north — [sound effect of the wind blowing] is the Arctic Ocean and the Beaufort Sea.
Melissa: I’m going to take a little tangent. Dave doesn’t know I’m going to do this. One of the questions that I’ve been getting a lot in email lately is how we do our research. And coming across the name the Beaufort Sea is an excellent example of how we go down rabbit holes when we are doing research. So I thought I would just talk about that a little bit because I saw Beaufort Sea, and I thought to myself, ‘Well, that’s got to be named for a person.’
Melissa: So I looked it up. It is, in fact, named for Sir Francis Beaufort. And the first line of his Wikipedia entry is he’s a hydrographer. OK, so right there, I’m like, Why is he important enough? And —
David: What’s the hydrographer?
Melissa: Exactly. So now I have more questions.
Melissa: A hydrographer is a scientist who measures the physical features of bodies of water and predicts their changes over time. This is very useful for navigational charts.
David: Oh, all right.
Melissa: And that is important to Francis Beaufort because he was an Irishman. He ultimately became an admiral in the Royal Navy. But when he was 15, he was shipwrecked because of a faulty chart, and that inspired his lifelong commitment to creating accurate nautical charts.
David: I think if I was shipwrecked when I was 15, I would never leave the shore again.
Melissa: Yeah, well, Sir Francis Beaufort went the exact opposite direction. He also apparently created his own cipher, and he developed something called the Beaufort Wind Force Scale. So I’m thinking, Wow, this guy is kind of showing off with all the things he’s doing. And then I read a little bit further. According to reports, between his marriages, he also had an incestuous relationship with his sister.
Melissa: So, again, so many questions. But at this point, I’m, like, I have moved very far away from Alaska. Let’s get back to the Alaska 101. But that is —
David: That’s a lot of living, Mr. Beaufort.
Melissa: Yeah. And that’s a snapshot of what happens when we start doing research about these places. You think you know something, you know they’re interesting, and then you find these other little tidbits that just take you away.
David: I wish I’d known when I was younger that the more you study one specific thing, the more it unlocks everything else.
Melissa: Yeah, it’s fascinating. OK, final word about the Beaufort Sea. It’s frozen over for most of the year. So to the north of Alaska is often frozen, just ice. Alaska is the largest state in area in the United States. Its capital is Juneau. And Alaska became the 49 state in 1959. You may have heard the phrase Seward’s Folly.
Melissa: That is a reference to the original purchase of Alaska, which happened in 1867. U.S. Secretary of State William Seward arranged for the deal to buy Alaska from Russia. And people were, like, ‘You’re an idiot. All that’s up there is ice and snow.’ But then in 1896, gold was discovered in Alaska along the Klondike River, and there was a gold rush. And in 1968, oil was discovered on Alaska’s North Slope. So who’s the folly now?
David: Who’s the folly now?
Melissa: So after those resources were found in Alaska, that encouraged a lot of kind of adventurous Americans to head there and settle this newish territory. And that’s how we get Americans in Alaska. However, that’s all modern history and colonial stuff. There have been indigenous people in Alaska since 10,000 BCE.
David: That’s a long time.
Melissa: Yes, the Alaska land belongs to them, first and foremost. So back then, there was a land bridge that connected Siberia to Alaska. So now where we have the Bering Strait, there used to be connecting land and animals would migrate across that and tribes follow them. And that’s how they ended up there in Alaska. Many of the descendants of those people still live in Alaska. And there are tribes like the Athabaskans, Aleuts, Inuit, Yupik, Tlingit, and Haida. So I hope I’m pronouncing that correctly. And if someone knows, you can let us know.
Melissa: OK, so now we fast forward a little bit. It’s 1728, and Peter the Great of Russia wants to go exploring. He hires someone named Vitus Bering to go on an expedition to explore that little chunk land he can see over there to the east. It took two attempts, but Bering finally made it to land. And this is the bad part. They started hunting sea otters and fur seals, and that opened up a big channel for commerce between Europe, Asia, and North America in the fur trade. Continuing at the bad news, this is also when there were violent conflicts between Russian settlers and the native Aleuts. The indigenous people were killed outright or they were just overworked by their Russian overlords or they were brought down by diseases that were brought there by Russian settlers.
David: The same story that was happening on the East Coast.
Melissa: Yes. And in South America with the Spanish settlers. So the hunting and pillaging continued for almost a century. And then two significant things happened. The Crimean War and the depletion of the sea otter fur trade. And that’s when Russia was like, Yeah, let’s dump this chunk of land. And the United States purchased Alaska as a territory.
David: That’s kind of a downer opening a little bit.
Melissa: Yeah, I’m sorry. I can’t be held responsible for history. I just report it.
David: So the Russians came in, suppressed the local population, hunted the sea otters to within extinction, and then when they were done with it, they were like, Yeah, we’re out.
Melissa: Yeah, peace out.
David: And then sold it to the United States.
Melissa: I mean, it wasn’t all conflict all the time. Some of the native peoples did marry Russians, and so that’s why you still see a lot of Russian Orthodox holidays celebrated in Alaska, and you’ll find onion dome churches among the more American looking buildings. So it’s got this blend of both cultures. And all of that is really, really great for storytelling: gold miners and native mythology, and then, of course, there’s all of Alaska’s natural beauty. Three thousand rivers, Dave. Three million lakes.
David: I read that when I was doing my research. Three million lakes. Yes. That’s insane.
Melissa: Yes. Some of the tallest peaks in the United States, beautiful, snowcapped mountains —
David: Four of the top ten mountains in North America and Alaska.
Melissa: Beautiful wildflowers. The aurora borealis.
David: Yes. Which apparently you can see from Fairbanks 200 days a year.
Melissa: So magical. Yeah.
Melissa: If you want to get away from it all, Alaska is the place to do it. Some villages are so remote, they are only accessible by plane or boat. There are no roads. But it is not just the small towns. Juneau is the capital of Alaska. There are no roads into Juneau. If you want to go to Juneau, you’re going on a ferry boat or an airplane. One of the things that I found really interesting about Alaska as I’ve been learning more about it is that it really challenges my perceptions of how I think the world works. You know,, like, Americans have electricity, except there are plenty of Americans living in Alaska who live in areas so remote they don’t have electricity. A capital! Of course, you can drive into the Capitol. Well, not necessarily.
David: When I was much younger, I was a copywriter and I wrote for a Winchester Ammunition and one of the pieces of that work was writing their newsletter. And at one point somebody set me up to talk to a bear hunter in Alaska. And I called him and I talked to him for about an hour. And I remember hanging up and thinking my life couldn’t be more different than this guy’s life.
Melissa: And that’s kind of going to be a theme running through this show today, because the things we’ve learned from reading these books are really surprising and sometimes unsettling and fascinating.
David: Are you ready for Two Truths and a Lie?
Melissa: Oh, boy. OK.
David: Today is brought to you by one of my favorite animals: the bear.
Melissa: Aw, I also love bears.
David: These are all bear related. There are a lot of bears in Alaska. There are about 135,000 bears in Alaska.
Melissa: How many people are in Alaska?
David: Like seven hundred thousand.
Melissa: Whoa. Yeah, cool.
David: Here are three statements. Two of these are true. One of them is a lie. Mel does not know which one is a lie. Here we go. First statement. There’s an island that’s home to an estimated 1600 brown bears.
Melissa: I just imagine them all having tea parties and it was a really fun mental image.
David: Two: The Alaskan Department of Fish and Game has a mandate to keep the bear population in Anchorage in check. They claim that the only bears in Anchorage are in the zoo.
Melissa: I’m skeptical of that one.
David: And three: Kodiak bears. So there’s an island in Alaska, Kodiak. And they have a bear called the Kodiak Bear, which is an offshoot of the brown bear. Kodiak bears can grow up to 1500 pounds and 10 feet tall when they’re standing on their hind legs. That’s 680 kg and 3 m, if you’re metric. That’s a big bear.
Melissa: Oh, boy. I’m realizing I don’t actually know that much about bears. I think it’s true that there’s an island with 1600 bears that have tea parties every afternoon.
David: That is true. I don’t know about the Tea Parties.
Melissa: Pizza, then.
David: I can only assume they have regular get togethers. So, on the southeastern arm of Alaska, the one that heads down towards Canada, there’s an island known to the natives as Xootsnoowú. The name is usually translated as Fortress of the Bear.
Melissa: That’s awesome.
David: Yeah, the non-natives call it Admiralty Island —
David: Which is offering way less fun. It is a big island. It is larger than Long Island, and it’s home to the highest density of brown bears in North America. An estimated 1600 bears hang out —
Melissa: Doing bear stuff.
David: Drink tea, pizza, probably get together, watch the Super Bowl. They outnumber the human residents nearly three to one.
Melissa: Right on. Go team bears.
David: The National Park Service also estimates that about 2500 bald eagles live on the island.
Melissa: That sounds so magical.
David: And there’s also part of the island that’s called Murder Cove. You’ve been warned.
Melissa: The novels are just writing themselves on this island.
David: It’s true.
Melissa: OK, so that leaves me with Bears in Anchorage and the Kodiak bear. I’m going to say it is true that they’ve somehow gotten all of the bears out of Anchorage except for the ones in the zoo.
David: Really? You bought that? [laughter]
David: Anchorage is —
Melissa: Let me defend myself, OK? The reason why is because I thought you were trying to trick me. And the facts about the Kodiak bears were actually about grizzly bears.
David: Um, Kodiak bears are larger. We’ll get to that. So Anchorage is a lot bigger than you think. It’s over 1900 square miles, which in size places it somewhere between Rhode Island and Delaware. Alaska has these ideas of cities where it’s, I guess we would consider more of a county, like, it’s a large area. Anchorage is the fourth largest urban area in the United States and the other three, the top three, are also in Alaska. There are between 200 and 300 black bears living in Anchorage, according to a rough estimate given by a biologist working for the state of Alaska. They also think that there are between 30 and 60 grizzly bears living in Anchorage.
Melissa: So, are they in an apartment complex? Where these bears are hanging out?
David: They have a neighborhood: Beartrown. And they all hang out there. It’s a very open, non-xenophobic neighborhood. It’s really nice. There are also approximately 30 Northern Timberwolves in the Anchorage area. Northern Timberwolves — read this — can get up to 185 pounds in size.
Melissa: That is a big puppy.
David: Yeah. Also, Anchorage is nestled up against a half million acre state park called Chugach. One of the wildlife biologists said Chugach State Park is a bear factory. [laughter]
Melissa: Imagining a bear, smoking a cigar, standing on the front porch of the bear factory: ‘Another day, a bunch more bears.’
Melissa: Ok, Kodiak bears.
David: Kodiak bears are really, really big. Kodiak bears at the shoulder can be five feet tall.
Melissa: It’s so cool.
David: I have a hard time imagining walking through the woods and finding herself next to something that is 1500 pounds and five feet tall at the shoulder. And then it stands up and it’s 10 feet tall.
Melissa: And it thinks that you look like a really nice afternoon snack. Because you’re squishy.
David: The largest captive Kodiak bear was for a specimen that lived in the Dakota Zoo in Bismarck, North Dakota. He weighed 2130 when he died at the age of 22.
Melissa: He’s a big boy.
David: And according to the zoo director, he had a fat layer of nine inches when he died.
Melissa: Oh, I mean, that took some effort. You don’t get nine inches of fat by accident. He was working that tea party.
David: Yeah, he was proud of that. Like that: boom, boom. That’s all I got. That’s Two Truths and a Lie. Do you want to talk about books?
Melissa: Yes, I want to talk about books.
David: Tell me about your book.
Melissa: My first book is The Raven’s Gift by Dan Rearden. And this is a mash-up of several genres which I really loved. It’s an adventure story. It’s also a dystopian survival tale. It’s a suspense thriller, and it’s got a sheen of magical realism wrapping around the whole thing.
David: That’s a lot of book.
Melissa: I read this book in one day. It was so good.
David: How long with this book?
Melissa: It’s somewhere in the neighborhood of 300 pages. It starts out as so many of the books we’re going to discuss today do: a seemingly pretty normal couple decides they want to go on an adventure in Alaska. We’re going to see this over and over because it’s a very compelling place. John and his wife are teachers, they are new teachers. This will be their first teaching job. And they sign on to join a school in a remote village in southwestern Alaska. They’re going to live among the Yup’ik peoples and really immerse themselves in the culture.
David: Is this contemporary?
Melissa: It is. Just for a little context. The Yup’ik people live at the delta of two rivers, the Yukon and the Kuskokwim, and it is very remote. They’re getting around by boat and snowmobile, which in Alaska they call snow machine.
David: Yeah, yeah, I saw that too.
Melissa: It’s very cute. So the local people are basically living a subsistence life. They’re getting 70 to 90 percent of their food from the land.
David: Wow. I mean, once you’re at 90, why not just go all the way, save you that pesky trip to the grocery store once every six months or so.
Melissa: They hunt and fish and gather plants pretty much all year long to get ready for the coming year. And the kids get taken out of school for a few weeks when it’s moose hunting season, because if you don’t get a moose in September, you will not survive the winter.
David: That was a big plot point in one of the books that I read as well. You got to get your moose early or you’re out of luck for the rest of the year.
Melissa: Yes. And so John and Annie get there and this message is being pounded into them that winter is going to be a very big deal. One of the characters actually says to John, ‘We’re always getting ready.’ And it sets a kind of ominous tone for the whole thing. Our two teachers are very idealistic. They come into the situation with lots of energy and resolve. But soon they’re starting to feel really worn down by how tough this life is. They don’t have indoor plumbing. They’re surrounded by water. Everything feels much more foreign and much harder than they really thought it was going to be. Plus, there’s this constant anxiety about the coming winter and everyone says once you survive your first winter, you’re an Alaskan. But they are very doubtful about their ability to survive the first winter.
Melissa: But they’re muddling through. John befriends one of the native men and they go fishing together. And this guy is kind of helping him navigate this whole new lifestyle. Winter does finally arrive just as brutally as they kind of anticipated. They’re invited to the Slaviq, which is a kind of Russian Orthodox Christmas celebration. They travel from house to house in the village and they sing songs and eat candy. And it’s all very warm and welcoming. And so there’s a little bright spot and there are starting to feel like maybe they can actually become part of this community. But then an epidemic strikes. And the people of the village are getting very sick and dying. And from here, the story becomes one of survival.
Melissa: So we’ve switched from this kind of fish out of water situation to a life and death situation. I don’t want to say any more about the plot because it would spoil the surprises. And this is a very suspenseful page turner. But I want to talk about the structure a little bit because it really adds to the reading experience. There are three threads, three separate timelines. There’s what happened in the village during the epidemic. There’s John and Anna’s experience acclimating to life in the village. And there’s this Herculean effort to survive after the epidemic hits and the chapters move around among those three timelines. So it’s not linear. And it’s not at all confusing, but it is really unsettling because you’re not sure where you are in the story and where, if and where your characters are going to find solid ground again. Very, very effective. I really loved it. This is why I read it in one day. Because I had to know what was going to happen. It’s also really timely story to read right now with the pandemic that we’re all living through. It was both emotionally challenging and comforting to read about people also living through a very scary time. One of the other things that the author does really well is that even though the plot is quite harrowing, there’s never despair. There’s always this thread of hope running through the whole thing, even when things are really, really bad. He’s pretty magical with the way he’s putting words together so that it’s really tough, but also somehow optimistic and hopeful.
David: Does the author have a normal genre or —
Melissa: This was his first novel.
David: Wow. Really?
Melissa: Yes. OK, he is also the author of a nonfiction book about the relationship between the military and people in Alaska. I like this strong sense of place for a few reasons. First and foremost, you get a lot of what life is like in a contemporary subsistence culture, which alone is really interesting. There are things about this story that are so beautiful, the connection that people have to the land, their very strong sense of community, the simplicity of their life, the things they do every day relate directly to staying alive. That is really powerful: I need to do this thing if I’m going to live. Makes your priorities really simple.
David: It really does, yeah.
Melissa: But it’s also brutal and backbreaking and really insecure. If you don’t get that moose, you are in big trouble. And then, of course, in the story, the epidemic hits and all of their preparation doesn’t mean anything because now they’re fighting a virus. So it makes Alaskan’s seem both very, very tough and resilient and also very vulnerable.
David: Fragile. Yeah, yeah.
Melissa: The other reason it’s perfect for the show is that the weather and the landscape are definitely characters. They influence everything that happens. This book won a bunch of awards, including the 2017 Alaska Literary Prize, and it was a Washington Post notable book, and I loved it. It’s The Raven’s Gift by Don Rearden.
David: My first book touches on many of the same points that yours does, but it’s a little bit different. It’s The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey.
Melissa: I know that people really love this book. We got some recommendations to read.
David: They did, which is why I read it. This is her first book. She was a finalist for a Pulitzer for literature for it. Which brings us to the question: What have I been doing with my life?
Melissa: So her first book, she was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.
David: That’s right. It’s set in 1920s Alaska. A couple moves there from Pennsylvania fleeing the life that they had there and the heartbreak of not being able to have a child. And it weighs heavily on them. They are trying to outrun their past and they are presented with what I can only assume was the fantasy of Alaska. And they bought into it and they move up there. It is a hard life. Alaska in the 1920s, wow. There is cold and isolation and the whole trying to survive thing. There’s the point that you mentioned, which is if you don’t get an elk by September or so, you’re out of luck. You get a sense of the couple’s just exhaustion and trying to stay alive when the book starts were dropped into the wilderness and the main character, Mabel, is wondering about throwing herself into the nearby river.
Melissa: Oh, Mabel.
David: And then she can’t because the river is frozen over.
Melissa: Oh, that is so sad.
David: Isn’t it?
Melissa: That isreally heartbreaking.
David: And also just a fantastic image for what that’s like. We’re then swept into a nearby town. And there we meet the husband and he finds out that there’s even less money than they thought there was. And winter is coming. It’s bleak and somehow beautiful, but it’s bleak. Eventually, in a rare light moment, the couple makes a girl out of snow next to their cabin. They put a hat on her and a scarf on her. And then the next morning, the snow girl is gone and there are only small footsteps leading away.
David: Yeah, and then they start seeing glimpses of a mysterious child running wild among the trees. The girl appears and she disappears. She has a fox that follows her around. She seems to be attached to the snow somehow. They name her Faina.
Melissa: So at this point, do they think that she is the snow child that they made or are they not really examining that?
David: That is an interesting question that comes up a lot. One of the great parts of this book for me was the way that Ivey plays out this snow child. It was a long time before I decided if it was a real girl or a hallucination or projection of grief or a wild spirit of some kind. She is otherworldly and she’s played against the sort of the grit of Alaskan survival.
Melissa: That’s awesome.
David: The book is about their relationship to her and each other and how they become Alaskans, and it’s got some really amazing writing in it. The author grew up in Alaska up in the Northern Wilderness, so she knows what she’s talking about and she does a good job bringing it to the page. You can feel the cold and almost smell the trees and the lichen and the water. The seasons are huge characters. Winter in particular looms large over everything. If we’re not in it, we’re getting ready for it. And because of its relationship with the girl, it is both harsh and beautiful. The story is based on an old Russian folk story. Ivey used to work at a bookstore in a small town outside of Anchorage. She said she was working one day, saw this fairy tale, read it, loved it so much that she went home, put away a novel she’d been working on for five years and started this one.
David: Yeah, that worked out very well. It was a good decision.
Melissa: Yeah, that’s so cool. I love that. That little spark of inspiration.
David: Ivey interviewed with The Guardian and she said this. She said, ‘The landscape is much bigger than civilization here. We tend to romanticize nature. But in Alaska, there’s a dichotomy between beauty and something that’s also a little terrifying. That’s what I find fascinating in fiction writing where there’s some kind of friction you can’t quite make amends with.’ And I read that and it rang with me for a couple of reasons.
David: First, it really explains this work. She’s playing two truths against one another: the beauty of Alaska and the bite of Alaska. And also that’s one of the things that I love most about fiction when two seemingly contradictory things are true at the same time, like, life is hard and challenging and we’re all going to die. But at the same time, life is beautiful and full and we’re all here now. Ivey has a second book out now: To the Bright Edge of the World. It follows an expedition into the Alaskan wilderness. It’s a epistolary.
Melissa: That is one of my favorite things.
David: And I love the word, too. I don’t get to use that much. But yeah, it’s a told through journal entries and military reports and letters and documents. I haven’t read it, but the reviews are good.
Melissa: I want to read that right now.
David: And I wanted to mention this because it was endearing for me. Eowyne Ivey is named after Ewoyn the Shield Bringer The Lord of the Rings. I wondered about that Apparently her mom was a fan.
Melissa: All of that is beautiful. I love everything about that.
David: I also when I was doing the research, found out that this book has been adapted into a musical. It debuted in Washington in April of 2018. There’s a promotional video on YouTube. They were using sort of traditional Alaskan instruments to make the music.
Melissa: So cool. We’ll definitely put that in show notes
David: That is The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey.
Melissa: My next book is The Whale and the Cupcake: Stories of Subsistence, Longing and Community in Alaska by Julia OMalley. This is a collection of essays about what food means to the people of Alaska —
Melissa: And each chapter ends with a recipe. It was really great. So the author, in my opinion, is the queen of food writing. She won a James Beard Award in 2018, and she has written for The Guardian, Eater, National Geographic, The Washington Post, and The New York Times. She is a top notch food writer and she wrote this book. It came out in 2019. It was written as a companion to an exhibit at the Anchorage Museum that was all about Alaska’s food culture. You can read this book in an afternoon. It’s about over 175 pages. But by the time you’ve finished it, you’ll feel like you went on a road trip around Alaska and you hung out with quirky, single minded, independent Alaskans and they fed you a whole bunch of food.
David: That’s a dream.
Melissa: It is a dream. So there are essays about whale hunting and the tradition that drives that whole process and how a whole village kind of comes together to make that happen because they need that food to get through the year.
David: They’re whale recipes in this book?
Melissa: There are not whale recipes in this book, but there is also an essay about eating muktuk, which is whale blubber.
David: Yeah, we have some experience with that.
Melissa: When we went to Alaska, we were there on New Year’s Eve and in our friends family, it was traditional to eat muktuk on New Year’s Eve.
David: Muktuk tastes like wetsuit. It’s rubbery and salty and tastes a little bit like the sea.
Melissa: And yeah. So if you can imagine, there’s a black layer that genuinely does look like a wetsuit. And then on top of that is a layer of fat that’s not dissimilar to the fat you might find on a pork chop. Except that when you eat it, it doesn’t taste like sweet pork, it tastes like salty sea. And then there’s the little wetsuit to chew through on the end. So they put it on a paper plate, and they heated it up a little bit in the microwave to make it more chewable. Our friends just sprinkled a little bit more salt on it and bloop! just popped a chunk into their mouth. It was cut into one inch chunks, but they put some crackers out for me — to help me. So I was kind of smushing just a little bit of it onto a cracker. It’s one of those things, I think, where if you’ve been eating it your whole life, it not only tastes palatable to you, but you have warm associations built up around it —
David: Like Twinkies.
Melissa: I was going to say like kibbeh, but OK. I grew up in a Lebanese family. We eat kibbe nayeh, which is the raw kibbeh. You take a good cut of fresh lamb and grind it up and mix it with spices and cracked wheat, put it on some pita bread, pour olive oil on top of it and eat it. Yeah, I’ve been eating that since as long as I can remember.
David: I grew up in a Midwestern family and we make Kraft macaroni and cheese. I think that stuff is delicious, but I will not defend that, you know what I’m saying? If other people are, like, That’s not really food. I’m like, You are correct. It is not really food, but I love it.
Melissa: Ok, I’m going to say that muktuk is really food because it’s very high in fat, which you need if you are an Eskimo living in far north Alaska.
David: Fact. Yes.
Melissa: Other essays in this book also talk about the popularity of Vietnamese pho, which is the noodle soup and how that’s become an everyday food in Alaska and why it’s an everyday food in Alaska. There’s also a really great essay about what it’s like to go fishing for sockeye salmon in the Kanai in the summer. Every year millions of salmon swim through that spot because they’re spawning and every Alaskan resident can take home 25 salmon plus 10 more for each member of their household.
Melissa: And these things are huge.
David: That’s a lot of fish.
Melissa: But again, you’re stocking up.
David: Yeah. Do you know you can fish for salmon in downtown Anchorage?
Melissa: That’s awesome. We’ll do it on the lunch break. Read a book. Catch a Salmon.
Melissa: We actually heard a story about our friends in Alaska who went fishing for salmon and were canning the salmon in their house. And had an unexpected visitor.
David: Yeah. A bear started rattling the front door.
Melissa: Because the bear could smell the salmon that they were canning in their kitchen.
David: Yep. And this woman told us this story as if the bear was sort of secondary to the canning.
Melissa: Yeah, that’s true. She was very matter of fact about the bear. It was more like an annoyance that the bear interrupted the canning process.
David: That’s right. And then when she realized that we were having, you know, that our jaws were open, she went back and said, oh, yeah, and started talking about how she dealt with the bear.
Melissa: And then she gave me two cans of salmon and I really cherished it. And it was incredibly delicious.
Melissa: The food situation in Alaska is really interesting because as we already discussed, there’s a huge part of their diet that does come from subsistence activities. They’re catching salmon, they’re butchering a moose, they’re gathering fiddleheads in the spring. Blueberries, oysters — these are all things that are delicacies in other parts of the United States. In some of the interviews, the people the author talked to spoke about how much living off the land means to them, the connection that they feel to the seasons and to each other because they are relying on the land to give them their food. One woman said to her: ‘I don’t know if the right word is spirituality or if it’s just part of who you are. It’s ingrained in my whole being to be able to get these kinds of foods from the land and prepare them in ways I’m able to share with my elders and the people I love.’
David: That’s really nice.
Melissa: I found that really, really moving. But then there’s also this deep, abiding affection for packaged food. Spam is very, very popular. There’s a really common snack called Spam Musubi, which is a slab of fried spam that’s wrapped in rice and then rolled in nori, which is seaweed. It’s everywhere in Anchorage, restaurants, church picnics, football practice, gas stations. And here’s the other thing that makes it very popular. It costs about three bucks when you’re looking at a gallon of milk that cost like twenty dollars, that is very attractive.
Melissa: The other thing that’s really big is box cakes. Box cakes are a very big deal because they’re shelf stable. Usually to the mix, you’re adding eggs and oil. So sometimes in Alaska, they’re made with seagull eggs. And if you can’t get eggs, you can replace them with Seven-Up.
Melissa: Yes. One of the things I really enjoyed about this book is that the writing is very, very descriptive and evocative. You are transported right into that person’s home kitchen, the cafe, the grocery store. But it’s also really restrained. It’s not sentimental. It never goes over the top. The other thing is that as I was reading this, I had this kind of yearning, this empty, hollow feeling in my chest. I want that feeling. I want to live off the land. I want to be like these brave people who live out in the wilderness. But yeah, I would enjoy that for, like, four days.
David: Yeah, that would not be a good fit for me.
Melissa: Yeah, but it is a tribute to her writing that it made me think that. That is The Whale and the Cupcake by Julia OMalley.
David: My second book is If You Lived Here, I’d Know Your Name: News from Small Town Alaska by Heather Lende.
Melissa: I love that title.
David: It’s a great title and a good cover and I really enjoyed the first couple of paragraphs. The whole thing for me was just very propelling to get into it. Heather Lende is a contributor to National Public Radio’s Morning Edition and The Christian Science Monitor, but she also is the obituary writer for the local newspaper in Haines, Alaska. She wasn’t born there. She was born on Long Island, but she’s lived there for the last 30 years and she’s raised five children there.
Melissa: So is she considered Alaska now that she’s been there for 30 years or she’s still kind of a newbie?
David: I think you’re going to have to ask her that. The book is a series of essays she wrote about how much she loves Haines and she loves Haines. And that comes across. And it’s just it was really nice to read. About 1700 people live in Haines. It’s about 90 miles north of Juneau. You don’t drive to Haines. It’s either a boat or a plane. It is, by most accounts, devastatingly beautiful there. This is a paragraph from her book. John Muir came to Haines in 1879 with a friend who established a Presbyterian mission where the city of Haines now sits. Muir, one of the first non-natives to explore the region, afterward advised young people not to come to our part of Alaska. He warned that they’d have to either stay or know that every other place they’d see for the rest of their lives would be a disappointment.
Melissa: Wow. And that’s coming from John Muir — Mr. California. That’s beautiful.
David: She talks a lot about what it’s like to live in a town like that that is beautiful and small and remote, as you might expect, because she’s an obituary writer. There’s a fair amount of death. Sometimes people just disappear in Alaska, which is hard for me to think about. Their plane goes down somewhere and they’re never heard from again or they go out on a hunting or fishing expedition and they just don’t come back. Other times there are like fishing or sporting accidents. In one essay, she writes about the loss of a kid that she’s seen growing up. He had the wherewithal to buy a fishing boat but got caught up in a storm. There were three other kids on that boat and they made it, but he didn’t.
David: Lende has almost this magical ability to tell you three details about someone, and then you know what you need to know. When she was writing about her church, she wrote this. ‘Our senior member is Maisie Jones, a widow who has an English accent. She always dresses up and sometimes wears a hat to church. When I had knee surgery, Maisie took the opportunity to get me acquainted with opera. She lent me videos of Carmen and La Bohème and them came over and watched them with me, just to make sure I understood the story lines.’
Melissa: That’s such a good character sketche.
David: Yeah. And she’s really good at that. And then she sometimes uses that to like, devastating effect, like in the essay where she describes the local lovable grouch and then her experience waiting with him while he died.
David: There’s an essay about her trying to find details to write about a guy nobody seemed to know. He’d been dead for about four days before anybody thought to check on him in his apartment near the post office. And she writes, ‘I wrote that he died of an apparent heart attack, which is what it says on the death certificate, but that was just the first line of the obituary. The last word went to a snowplow driver who sometimes had an early morning cup of coffee with him at Mountain Market. He didn’t know anything about him at all except what mattered. All I know is he was a nice guy and I enjoyed his company.’
David: The book is not all life and death. There’s an essay about making the perfect egg salad sandwich.
Melissa: Oh, I love egg salad. I know I should probably read that one.
David: It’s very situational how she likes her egg salad. And so she tells you all of the parts that go into her perfect egg salad sandwich. There are weddings and dances. There are trips to go ice skating. One of her daughters is adopted from Bulgaria. And I read about what that trip was like for her. She talks about her son going hunting for the first time and what that was like for him, his father, and her. Between essays, there are reprints from the paper she works for, so little bits like so-and-so won an award or somebody got married or some business is celebrating an anniversary. One of my favorites was this one.
‘A foot of light, fluffy snow fell Monday night. Tuesday afternoon, the temperature rose 15 degrees and the wind shifted to the south, creating perfect conditions for surreal tumbleweed-like snowballs on school fields and the wide beaches at the bottom of Cemetery Hill.’
Melissa: Oh, I wish I could see that.
David: Yeah, me, too. ‘The white balls also rolled down Main Street as if being pushed by unseen hands, prompting one onlooker to suggest that the angels were bowling. Some grew to the size of basketballs before they became too heavy to move.’
Melissa: Ok, that is a beautiful piece of writing, and I want to see the magic snowballs.
David: I do, too! Tumbleweeds made of snow. Wow.
Melissa: Alaska, you’re just showing off now.
David: Yeah. For our Paris episode, I read The Only Street in Paris. That was a book written by an expat woman in Paris talking about the street. She lives on her adopted street that she’d been in for 20 years or so. This is a remarkably parallel book. It is the same experience, but Haines, Alaska, and Paris couldn’t be more different. And reading those together really punched up for me what you get one place versus what you get and another. As you said in your review, it made me want to experience that life at the same time that I was thinking I would never do well in this situation. But it was a great book and she seems like a lovely woman. That is If you Lived Here, I’d Know Your Name: News from Small-Town Alaska by Heather Lende.
Melissa: Surprise, I’m going to cheat again.
David: It’s time for the show for Mel to cheat and tell us other books that she’s read.
Melissa: This is just a really short recommendation, just in case somebody likes mystery books. I read a book called A Cold Day for Murder. It is the first book in a series of 22 books by Dana Stabenow. So if you like this one, you can spend a lot of time with a detective named Kate Chugach.
David: Are the other 21 also set in Alaska.
Melissa: Yes! Kate is a private eye in Alaska. This is a good, solid mystery with some great set pieces in it. It has a very, very strong opening description of snow in the forest and approaching an isolated homestead and the sounds and the smells and the cold. And throughout the book, there are very vivid descriptions of the terrain, the weather, the cold, and the day-to-day difficulty of living somewhere that is so beautiful and so brutal. So if you’re just looking for a fun kind of potato chip read, you might like A Cold Day for Murder by Dana Stabenow.
Melissa: Now on to my actual third book recommendation —
David: One cheat.
Melissa: There might be another one later. My final book is The Alaskan Laundry by Brendan Jones. And this is a coming-of-age novel about a young girl who is in a muddle at home in Philadelphia. So she runs away to Alaska to work in the fishing industry.
David: That seems like a tough choice.
Melissa: The thing that I love about these books of people going to Alaska for adventure and also to try to escape whatever they’re dealing with in their real life, is that all of them remind us you can run to somewhere new, but all of your stuff is going to go there with you. And maybe in this new environment you’ll be able to confront it. But, wow, have you picked a really challenging place to try to talk to yourself. So, Tara is our heroine and she is an awesome character. Back at home in Philadelphia, she regularly goes to the boxing gym. So she has the attitude of a girl who goes to the boxing gym and she’s in really good shape. And both of those things are going to serve her very well in Alaska. Because she’s a boxing Italian girl from Philly, you believe from the get-go that she is probably going to be able to hold her own in Alaska. And so she presents as really tough. And she is; she’s physically pretty tough, but of course, she’s vulnerable and a little squishy on the inside. And at the beginning of the book, she is really hurting. Her mother has recently died and she’s at odds with her father. And all she wants to do is escape. And she has a cousin who worked in fishing in Alaska. And so this idea doesn’t seem so far fetched. And one day she just up and goes.
David: All of the options that are available to her, that was the most appealing one.
Melissa: Yes. And it tells you something about her character that the most appealing one was the one that was very challenging and scary. And most unlike her life in Philadelphia.
David: Yeah. Sometimes you need that.
Melissa: Yeah. I mean, she’s in her early twenties. This is a time where she’s trying to figure out who she is, what she’s doing. So this story follows her experiences as a newbie in this town. She’s making new friends. She’s learning the ropes of work life and the really unfamiliar social life in a town where everything revolves around fishing and the seasons of the year. And she’s trying to get a grip at the same time on her own inner turmoil, her sadness about her mother, her bad relationship with her father. She’s left her boyfriend behind. That’s really complicated. I really, really enjoyed the relationships that she forms with the Alaskan characters that she meets. There is an older native Alaskan man named Betteryear.
David: Really? Nice.
Melissa: Yeah. He teaches her how to hunt and how to gather mushrooms and seafood in the shallows of the water. He’s very, very in touch with the land. She befriends a coworker who really has her back when she needs it. And he is also going through some stuff. So they form this really nice friendship. And I loved that. It never tipped over into romance there. That’s not giving anything away. They’re just good friends. And it’s really nice. There are, of course, lots of grizzled, salty professional fishermen that she gets to know. And there’s a tugboat — this broken-down, decades-old tugboat that she falls in love with. And that becomes a character in the story, too.
Melissa: So the author, Brendan Jones, actually lives on a tugboat in Sitka, Alaska. And he worked in commercial fishing, so he knows what he’s writing about. But it’s really fascinating to me that he made his main character a woman. So we get a lot of interesting peeks into what it’s like for a woman to be in what’s predominantly a male industry and male community. We also get a really inside look at the nitty-gritty of just what a day working in the fishing industry would be like. I mean, you’re always cold and wet. Start right there. And it’s very physically demanding.
David: Cold, wet and tired because there’s no good sleep on the fishing boat.
Melissa: Well, when she first starts, she’s actually working in the fish processing plant. And that’s fascinating because they give you a dorm room and your life is: wake up, eat something, work all day until you’re asleep on your feet, crash into the dorm to sleep enough to prepare for doing it again the next day.
David: Dangerous, smelly, unpleasant work.
Melissa: And the thing about it is that there’s also a simplicity about it that is really attractive. And I responded to that when I was reading it, and for a while, that works really well for Tara, our heroine, too, because everything else is stripped away and you’re not worrying about anything else. You’re earning your money now, but you’re not spending anything really. And your day is very well defined. It’s very focused on these physical tasks. And that’s it. As you might imagine, there are some tensions between Tara and the rest of the community. First of all, she’s a girl. That’s unusual. Second of all, she’s in her early 20s. So everyone just kind of assumes she doesn’t know what she’s doing. Later in the book, she has some run-ins with characters that are very surprising and she gets pushback from people that you wouldn’t necessarily expect. So there’s some good twists that I’m alluding to. I don’t want to give them away.
Melissa: She also makes some choices that, I mean, I think I said out loud, ‘Oh, Tara!’ At one point, she and her platonic friend decide they’re sick of the dorm and they just live in the woods in a sort of communal situation. He builds a platform and they sleep on this platform in the woods. In the summer, some hikers come through and the hikers join them. And they don’t like the hikers, but they’re out in this situation where they just seem outside the bounds of normal society. So these people show up and they’re just stuck with them. And that kind of turns into a fraught situation.
Melissa: This whole story has a sense of authenticity that I really enjoyed. And as the pieces of her life start to fall into place, it’s optimistic without being sappy, which I also really appreciated. Ultimately, I think this is a story about how we define home and what home means to us and how you choose the right people to have in your life so that you can be the best version of yourself and they can be the best version of themselves, too.
David: A coming-of-age story with found family.
Melissa: Yes, that is The Alaskan Laundry by Brendan Jones.
Melissa: But I have one more cheat.
David: I knew it was coming.
Melissa: There is a cookbook called Fishes and Dishes, and it is written by three Alaska fisherwomen. I read it after I read The Alaskan Laundry, and it was a very good book pairing because there’s a novel about a woman who works in the fishing industry. And then there’s a cookbook which is actually a collection of their recipes and essays that they’ve written about their lives working in the fishing industry. So I would recommend that if you’re at all interested. After you read the novel, you can go into the non-fiction and they go together really nicely.
Melissa: That is the Fishes and Dishes Cookbook. We’ll link to all of that and share notes since I cheated so many times today.
David: Those are seven books we love set in Alaska. I don’t know if you know, we have the show notes page for every podcast that we do, and they’re all fantastic. I was looking at them recently. They’re really fun. There’s videos. There’s pointers to all kinds of great stuff, most of which we’ve mentioned on the podcast, but not all of them. Some of them have extra little goodies and stuff. I highly recommend you check them out. They’re really cool.
Melissa: When I’m putting those notes together, I kind of throw off the shackles of writing a professional, polished blog post like I do in the rest of the blog. And it’s just kind of a grab bag of all of the fun things we found about each of these destinations.
David: So you read through that page and it feels like your mind has just gone on kind of a random walk through whatever location it is that we’ve just talked about. Anyway, super fun, highly recommended. Go check it out if you have an all of that is at strongsenseofplace.com. We also write blog posts for each destination. Mel, what are the blog posts you’re writing for Alaska?
Melissa: I’m really excited about Food+Fiction for the Alaska episode because we are sharing a recipe for rum cake based on the love that Alaskans have for box cake mix. I will also include a version of the recipe that doesn’t require a box cake mix. But if you want to do it like a true Alaskan, you got to open the box.
David: Double rum cake recipe.
Melissa: Yeah, you could make them both and have side by side taste test. I mean, why not? We’re all at home all the time now.
David: There is nothing wrong with that.
Melissa: We’re also going to be sharing a blog post of Instagram accounts that will transport you directly to Alaska. And I may also include a fantastic TikTok that I found of a native Alaskan woman who is all over the Internet introducing people to how she lives her life in Alaska. It’s really good. That will all be on the blog in the next two weeks.
David: Thank you for listening to Strong Sense of Place. We have a weekly newsletter, if you’re not on it, you should be on it. It’s fantastic. It’s packed with our favorite book and travel related things that comes out every Friday. It is a whole event. Check it out.
Melissa: Sometimes I write you a letter and tell you what’s on my mind.
David: Yeah, there’s that. Sometimes you get Mel’s opinion on stuff, but a lot of times it’s just really super cool things that we found that we want to share. If you enjoyed this podcast, please rate it. Let people know. That helps us out. If we can find a bigger audience that would help us out very much. Thank you for doing that. And don’t forget to subscribe so you never miss an episode. Mel, where are we going for our next episode?
Melissa: We are exploring a place that’s near and dear to our hearts and the hearts of our audience. We are going to the library.
David: Oh, fantastic. Thanks so much for listening.
Top image courtesy of bobby20/Shutterstock.
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