The Best Books about America’s Wildest State

Visiting Alaska can be a transcendental experience.

This northwestern section of North America only became a U.S. territory in 1912, and a state (the 49th) in 1959. The vast territory covers more than 663,000 square miles (twice the size of Texas), and is by far the least populated of all of the country. The vast forests and mountain ranges have long been inspiration to writers and poets.

Here are three great works that will help inspire you to put Alaska on the top of you adventure travel list:

Songs of a Sourdough, Robert Service

This 1907 collection of poems should be required reading for every high school student. Service was born in England to family of means (his mother was an heiress), and received an upper-class party education. He had an unquenchable thirst for travel and adventure, and in the late 1800s, traveled to Canada’s Yukon wilderness to become a cowboy. Traveling, whether to Cuba, the Deep South, Europe, or Alaska, inspired him to write countless poems, six novels, and two autobiographies. Some of his books were made into films; he even acted along side Hollywood siren Malene Deitrich in The Spoilers (1942).

This 1907 collection of poems should be required reading for every high school student.

His masterpiece, Songs of a Sourdough (Spell of the Yukon and other verses), includes perhaps his most widely-read work, “The Cremation of Sam McGee.” It’s a tongue-in-cheek tale about a gold miner who vows to cremate his good friend, who is freezing to death. The miner struggles to carry the body in the freezing Alaskan winter and then figure out how to carry out the cremation. The good news is that Sam really isn’t dead, just frozen, and the fire thaws him out.

 

Coming into the Country, John McPhee

This 1976 classic describes McPhee’s experience traveling across Alaska, from the backcountry wilderness to the remote bush to the more urban centers. The book started out as an article for The New Yorker (where McPhee was a staff writer), and evolved into a best-seller. It traces the history of Alaska, with insight into early settlers, trappers, native populations, miners, and bush pilots. The section about the gold rush—placer mining—is one of the most interesting ever written. His description “gin-clear” river, black and grizzly bear, and the vast Brooks Range are as evocative as they are poetic.

His description “gin-clear” river, black and grizzly bear, and the vast Brooks Range are as evocative as they are poetic.

The masterpiece is actually a trio of books that include a river trip in the Brooks Range that McPhee joined, with the goal of studying the health of some of its biggest waterways. The second part of the book delves into the question of politics in Alaska, and whether the state capital of this giant state should be in Anchorage or Juneau or somewhere else, and the last section, perhaps our favorite, is a study of the village of Eagle, with essays about the characters that lived in that remote region, from prospectors and fur trappers to oil riggers and ex military. It’s a great read with plenty of humor and insight.

Call of the Wild, Jack London

Any traveler to Alaska should read both of London’s Alaska-based classics, Call of the Wild (1903) and White Fang (1906). The latter is about a wolf/dog hybrid that endures incredible hardships in order to survive, and finally finds peace and security with the man who adopts him and brings him to California.

Call of the Wild is about Buck, a half-St. Bernard/half Scottish sheep dog that is stolen from his home in Santa Clara Valley, California, and sold into dog-slavery in the Klondike Gold Rush. He’s put to work pulling a sled, and after an easy life in California, has to figure out how to survive. He is finally befriended by a mountain-man/prospector named Thornton, who, after many adventures with Buck—is murdered by the Yeehat Tribe, and Buck takes revenge.

There’s a silver lining though, as Buck ends up running free in Alaska, as the leader of a the wild, yet noble, dog pack.

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