FAIRBANKS — With the recent glut of Alaska-themed reality shows focused on human wildlife, it’s getting increasingly difficult to remember that it was the state’s expansive wilderness and abundant animal populations that used to be our primary attraction.
Local author Frank Keim hasn’t forgotten. Ever since he arrived in 1961 he’s been on a quest to explore the far-flung regions of Alaska, to learn all he can about its natural history, and to run as many rivers as he can possibly point his canoe down.
In “White Water Blue,” Keim recounts a number of his river-oriented adventures with a special emphasis on elements of the natural world he observed along the way. For river rats, backpackers and anyone interested in Alaska’s great outdoors, it’s a valuable and informative guide to what they can expect to find if they keep their eyes open on their next quest into the wild.
Most of the trips Keim recalls here were taken during the 1990s, and most explored Interior or Arctic regions of the state. Many of the rivers traveled in these pages are remote and require flight access, but a few are reachable from highways, meaning that even readers with limited budgets can follow his routes if they so wish and discover how much wilderness sits just beyond our collective doorstep.
While the bulk of these expeditions were undertaken by the middle-aged Keim, he opens the book with the tale of a disastrous 1971 trek over the continental divide and down the Kobuk River. Keim and his friend Steve Grubis got in over their heads — literally — on a river that turned out to be more than they bargained for. It’s a hair-raising account of consecutive mishaps, repetitive dunkings, demolished watercraft and improvised problem-solving by a pair of young men not quite prepared for their challenge but with enough know-how to come out of it alive.
The rest of the journeys undertaken here aren’t as turbulent, but what they lack in thrills is compensated for by the exquisite details Keim spills out about the elements of nature he encounters along the way.
Keim spent his professional career as a teacher, and this shows in his book. Every bend in the river or step ashore is an opportunity to describe the wildflowers, plants, birds, or animals that cross his path, to comment on the geological forces that constructed the land he’s traveling through, or to consider the impacts of human activities (including his own) on the places he visits. His all-encompassing observations and encyclopedic knowledge of the land result in endless paragraphs littered with exhaustive details that most of us would miss were we standing right alongside him. A hike taken during a trip down the Alatna River in the book’s title essay reveals this:
“On our climb to the ridge, we came across a miniature bridal veil waterfall where I doused my head again in the clear cold spray that tumbled down the sheer rock. Most of the wildflowers that had already faded lower in the valley were still in bloom up here, including alpine azalea, diapensia, glacier avens, windflower and many others. Besides tattlers and pipits, we encountered spotted sandpipers, white-crowned sparrows and a solitary tree sparrow. As we approached the ridgeline we heard the high-pitched barks of parky squirrels. What a surprise to encounter them so high, as it was also to find butterflies like yellow and white sulphurs flitting from flower to flower, slowly curling and uncurling their tiny proboscis to suck nectar from the blooms to feed the fleeting life in their featherweight bodies. A nondescript brown butterfly I had to look up in my insect guide back at camp proved to be a chryxus arctic (Oeneis chryxus). The caterpillar of this butterfly needs two years or more to complete its growth in the cold environment — an elegant example of adaptation in the Arctic.”
Most people wouldn’t notice a third of this, and even then wouldn’t be able to identify what was what. But those reading Keim’s prose will want guidebooks to geology, plants, wildflowers, insects, birds, and animals on hand just to keep up with him. Some might find the deluge of information a bit overwhelming, but anyone who thinks the Arctic is a wasteland devoid of life hasn’t listened to Frank Keim.
This drive to catalog the diversity and extensiveness of life in Arctic and sub-Arctic regions is fueled by Keim’s strong environmental views that are frequently expressed here. He makes no secret about his gratitude for those who set lands aside, and if he had his way, lots more would be preserved as well.
While Keim is more inclined to let the land speak for itself than to pontificate on his preservationist views, there are areas where he could have spoken up a bit more. Citing studies supporting some of his claims would have been helpful (particularly with more skeptically minded readers). Another unfortunate omission comes during a long hike through the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, where he and his companions discuss a series of questions about wilderness values posed by his friend Roger Kaye. We get the questions as well as the conclusions the trio reached, but precious little of the conversations leading to their answers. It would be nice to know how they toyed with Kaye’s queries.
Wilderness ethics permeate this book, however, and Keim’s accounts embody the sort of writing we need more of — the type that will persuade readers to love and care for lands they’ve likely never seen. It’s the real Alaska, the one reality-show producers and their audiences will unfortunately never notice, but desperately need to.
Freelance writer David A. James lives in Fairbanks.