Book

Summer is sputtering its way into Alaska, and Alaskans are anxious to move about after another long winter. And even as the pandemic appears to be winding down, it’s a safe to assume that many people will still be staying closer to home than usual, looking for things to do. The trick is figuring out what those things might be.

Most long time Alaskans have at least one well-thumbed copy of “The Milepost,” which is good for plotting the finer points of planning a road trip, like where to find gasoline and a burger. But it doesn’t offer impassioned arguments for getting you out of your car and actually exploring things. At the other end of the spectrum is Lisa Maloney’s comprehensive “Moon Alaska: Scenic Drives, National Parks, Best Hikes,” which should be on every Alaskan’s bookshelf. Maloney tells readers where they should go in the state, and enthusiastically explains why they should visit these places and what they should do upon arrival. The problem here is winnowing her suggestions down to an itinerary that’s compatible with your schedule.

So for those looking for a quick start guide to Alaska, a book offering a handful of ideas on things to see and leaving it up to readers to take it from there, “100 Things to Do in Alaska Before You Die” might be the ticket.

These “100 Things to Do Before You Die” books have been billowing forth for a number of years, attempting to provide readers with a bucket list for their visits to the far corners of the earth. I’ll admit I’ve always been a bit put off by the title of these books. Not so much for the macabre aspect as for the presumptuousness of it. But with their brief summaries of exactly 100 options, they serve a purpose and are clearly popular. So it was only a matter of time before Alaska got featured.

For this book, our guides are Fran Golden, who doesn’t live in Alaska, and Midgi Moore, who does. Some Alaskans might take umbrage at anyone from Outside telling us what we should see in our own state, but it actually makes sense. For potential tourists, knowing what a frequent visitor to our shores considers worthy of note is useful information.

Of course, useful information includes food, and that’s the section that opens this quick little book. It was a pleasant surprise to find the 229 Parks restaurant in Denali on the opening page since it offers high end dining and creative dishes rather than the usual fare. Beyond that, the section directs readers to a handful of cafes, trendy dive bars, and a few of the many distilleries and craft breweries that have popped up over the past couple of decades.

One thing that does become immediately apparent in this section is that the Southeast is disproportionately represented in the book. Moore lives in Juneau and operates a tourism business, so this isn’t surprising. But for residents of Anchorage or Fairbanks loading up their trunks and heading out for a weekend getaway, these options will be a bit harder to access.

The history and culture section that follows ranges further. In addition to opportunities available in the Southeast, the authors suggest several more far-flung options, including spending a night in Coldfoot, although I’d advise pitching your tent in the Marion Creek Campground a few miles north, which they don’t mention. It’s more scenic and less dusty. And the historic town of Wiseman a bit further beyond, which has fewer amenities but much more of interest, barely rates a mention.

This is where the problem with these sorts of books is found. Ask any local, and you’ll always find out that there are more intriguing options than what’s listed. As soon as any Alaskan picks it up, they’re going to notice the things that aren’t there (the absence of McNeil River from the list of bear viewing locations being one of the more glaring examples).

On the other hand, these same books can inform locals of things they had not known existed. I haven’t passed through Haines in more than 30 years, and was oblivious to the fact that the town hosts the Hammer Museum, dedicated to humanity’s oldest implement of mass construction and, as needed, destruction. Now I have a new item on my bucket list if I ever find myself in that town again.

The authors of these books have to walk a fine line between recognizing that most of their readers won’t stray far from creature comforts, while gently encouraging them to do so anyway. Thus when Golden and Moore suggest a visit to the sand dunes in remote Kobuk Valley National Park, they let readers know they need to book an air taxi “from the village of Kotzebue, 80 miles away, where there’s a heritage center, the park’s only facility with bathrooms.”

Much of what is contained in this book is of the passive, go-look-at-this nature rather than presenting things to do. But the pair do provide a few choices for those willing to move their bodies. Hiking the Chilkoot Trail is well worth the effort, although curiously, while they also list riding the White Pass and Yukon Route Railway, another journey not to be missed, they neglect to inform readers that this combination of hiking and riding can be turned into a perfect loop out of Skagway.

But again, this is where talking to Alaskans is important. Alaskans will also catch some errors that shouldn’t have made it through the fact checking process. Details on McCarthy and musk oxen are simply incorrect, using the term “Eskimo” is considered derogatory (how did they miss this?), and snowmachine is one word in Alaska, not two.

Despite these shortcomings, this is a quick and fun book, and if it gets you out your door, it’s done its job. Just be sure it’s merely the starting point for your own list. Alaska is boundless. Don’t limit yourselves.

David James is a freelance writer who lives in Fairbanks. He can be emailed at nobugsinak@gmail.com.