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National Park Service historian writes sweeping book on exploration of Brooks Range

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Posted: Saturday, December 14, 2013 11:55 pm | Updated: 12:00 pm, Mon Dec 16, 2013.

FAIRBANKS — Chris Allan, a historian with the National Park Service, has put together a vibrant look at the Brooks Range as only an insider can. His work at Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve and Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve has put him in touch not only with areas the state few Alaskans get to see but also with historical documents and tales of how the land was mapped, explored and cataloged. “Arctic Citadel: A History of Exploration in the Brooks Range Region of Northern Alaska” explores just that. It’s a look at the region, the exploration, the National Parks in the Brooks Range and the Native Alaskans who have made the land home. We caught up with Allan to talk about the book and the massive undertaking that led to its publication. 

Q. So Chris, how did this project come about? What’s the background that led to writing a book on the history of exploration in the Brooks Range?

A. I am always looking for historical topics that stimulate the public’s interest in Alaska’s national parks and their support for protected federal lands. And in Alaska we have some huge park units that many people see as “wilderness parks,” but wild places are also human places. They have a human past as well as gorgeous mountains, rivers and valleys. In the case of the Brooks Range region, the area is part of Beringia — the land corridor where the Bering Land Bridge allowed people to enter the Americas for the first time — and people have been hunting, fishing, and settling down there for over 10,000 years.

So to me, every national park is a “history park,” and I wanted to tell the story of how the larger world first learned about Alaska’s Arctic interior through the travel accounts, drawings and photographs of explorers. For a long time — well into the 20th century — northern Alaska and the Brooks Range was a zone of mystery and a blank space, too distant and too difficult to explore thoroughly. Today the Brooks Range is regarded as a world-class place for exploring wilderness. Basically, I wanted to understand how we got from there to here.

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Q. How much research went into this? It’s a healthy sized book — how long did you work on the project?

A. I have been working on this project for about three years. It was a constant part of my normal duties for Gates of the Arctic National Park & Preserve because almost everything I learned about the Brooks Range region or wrote about for other purposes would eventually end up in the book. Also, I submit articles for publication in Alaska History (the journal of the Alaska Historical Society) and parts of two of those articles ended up in the book. After a while I had to move an entire table into my office to handle the piles of books and boxes of research material.

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Q. The photos are great — sweeping scenes of the Brooks Range and photos of explorers struggling to reach the mountains. How did you gather all the photos?

A. Historical photographs are usually the spark that ignites my interest in a project. The more photographs exist, the more I feel compelled to investigate. We have such wonderful archives in Alaska—at UAF, UAA, the Anchorage Museum, and the Alaska State Library—that this state is a paradise for researchers. Because I wanted to show readers the Brooks Range both then and now, I collected the best historical images I could find and drawings and maps from as far back as the early 1800s and then went to my own co-workers to see what kind of photographs they had taken during their work in the parks. It turned out they took fantastic photographs. I also used photographs taken by former Artist-in-Residence for Gates of the Arctic Carl Johnson for the cover and elsewhere in the book. The result was stunning, and I owe a great deal of credit to my book designer, Frank Broderick of Arch Graphics in Anchorage, because he added his style and artistic sensibilities to the final product.

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Q. How much of this land have your seen for yourself? Have you spent ample time camping, exploring, hiking and wandering the Brooks Range?

A. The first time I visited Gates of the Arctic was in 2008 when I was new in my position, and the flight from Bettles to Walker Lake alone was staggering to the mind. The mountains seemed to go on forever, and wherever the plane went there were trails — not human trails but caribou trails, carved year after year in the soft tundra mat and across rocky slopes. I was born and raised in Alaska, but I had never seen a landscape like that before. Since then I have gone on two back-country patrols with park rangers. The first was on the North Fork of the Koyukuk River, and for me it was a chance to walk in Bob Marshall’s footsteps and take photographs of the peaks he called the “Gates of the Arctic” — Frigid Crags and Boreal Mountain. Floating the Koyukuk River in an inflatable canoe gave me a hint of what it was like for the newly arrived explorers, Alaska Native travelers, and others who I wrote about in Arctic Citadel. Later I floated for eight days down the Alatna River from its headwaters to Takahula Lake. Wolves ran along the riverbank and one curious brown bear stood up and huffed as we floated by. Along the way we stopped at cabins — some maintained by subsistence hunters, others collapsed and rotting from decades of neglect. I won’t soon forget that at the oldest cabins the bears had visited so many times that their paws wore deep paths in the forest floor and their wiry fur hung from every splinter and nail. Using teeth and claws, they had torn chunks out of logs and demolished doors and windowsills.

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Q. What did you find most difficult to write about?

A. One of the challenges was making sure that readers understand that “exploration” does not mean “first discovery by a human being.” In the case of the Brooks Range, Eskimo people and Athabascan people have considered this place their homeland for a long time, and when non-Natives arrived on the scene, they were more visitors than discoverers. In most of the early exploratory accounts it becomes clear very soon that explorers encountered Alaska Native people wherever they went, and that indigenous knowledge of the land is extensive. Also, Alaska Natives worked for the newcomers as guides, interpreters, hunters and boatmen; they were also outfitters, supplying expedition personnel with mukluks, parkas, dog sleds and dogs. I tried hard to illustrate the ways Alaska Native people participated in the process of exploration by outsiders.

Another challenge was offering a kind of “philosophy of exploration” by asking “Who gets to be considered an explorer?” and “What does exploration mean in the history of the region? “ I observed that because the Brooks Range is vast (the parklands alone cover over 17 million acres) and challenging that it took several generations of investigators to develop a basic understanding of the place. So, does ‘exploration’ end after the first outsiders make the first map, or does it continue? In the end I suggested that we expand the definition of exploration to include generations of people seeking answers as well as indigenous people who did their own exploring and often joined in when non-Natives arrived on a mission. The process continues because today the Brooks Range attracts people from all over who explore in their own ways and for their own reasons.

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Q. People often think of the Brooks Range as desolate and uninhabited. Is that your take on the region?

A. As with the ocean or the desert, the more time you spend in a place the more life you see. Life in the Arctic can be easily overlooked, like the tiny plants that make up the tundra, or dramatic and obvious like thousands of caribou on the move. And human beings are a part of that ecosystem. The community of Anaktuvuk Pass, for example, is located inside the boundaries of Gates of the Arctic National Park & Preserve and residents in that village and ten others near the park have the opportunity to pursue traditional subsistence uses under the authority of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act. So, can you find solitude in the Brooks Range for days and weeks at a time? Yes. Is the area desolate and uninhabited? No.

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Q. Obviously you have a love for the region. Why should people see it for themselves?

A. Well, the reason I wrote this book is that the Brooks Range deserves to be better understood. And the national parks that cover so much of the land in the Brooks Range region deserve to be cherished for what they do: they protect for all time a vast, unspoiled natural world and offer travelers the chance to experience landscapes available nowhere else.

Contact Features Editor Gary Black at 459-7504 or on Twitter at @FDNMfeatures. Interested in a copy of “Arctic Citadel”? Contact Chris Allan at 907-455-0636 or by email at chris_allan@nps.gov.

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