‘I was trying to write the book that I wish I had been able to read when I moved here that was succinct, fast paced, really high energy, and from the voices of true Alaskans,” Molly Rettig said. “To bring history to life, it takes research, reporting, and then writing. And a lot of imagination.”
Rettig applied all of these skills to “Finding True North,” her first book, which examines how Alaska’s resource economy has evolved since the Gold Rush. But rather than attempting scholarly history, Rettig built the book around four longtime Alaskans who have drawn their livelihoods from Alaska’s resources, in sometimes conflicting ways.
“Those are the kind of relationships between wilderness conservation, wilderness recreation and resource development that I try to explore in the book,” Rettig explained. “What I learned is, we have more in common than we think.”
Like many Alaskans, Rettig arrived here by happenstance, planning on a short stay, and never left. Born and raised in Hershey, Pennsylvania, she attended the University of Richmond, obtaining a degree in sociology while mostly focusing on soccer. Then she headed to Colorado ski. “I was just a bum. A bum with a sociology degree.”
Rettig next spent a year on Maui, where she did her first freelance work for a local paper. After returning to Colorado she picked up more journalism jobs and started visualizing her career path. “I’d gotten the bug for writing,” she said. “I felt I was just finding my voice.”
She attended journalism school at the University of Colorado in Boulder, earning a master’s and focusing on science and the environment. There she met veteran Alaska journalist Bonnie Sue Hitchcock. This connection led her to an internship with the News-Miner in the summer of 2008. “I was blown away by Alaska. It was like Colorado on steroids,” she said.
In 2010 Rettig was hired by the News-Miner and had big dreams. “I pictured myself writing all of these glamorous stories and going out on the sea ice and going out with the whaling crews and all this really exotic arctic stuff,” she recalled. “But no, I was covering school board meetings and borough assembly meetings and city council meetings and man-on-the-street interviews.”
“But,” she added, “I loved it.”
A year later she took the position of communications director at the Cold Climate Housing Research Center, which she still holds. In her spare time she had been meeting with Alaskan old-timers, building deep friendships while recording their stories about their lives in Alaska. The people she met would direct her to others, and before she knew it, she had amassed a sizable archive. “I started thinking a year or two into this, ‘What am I going to do with all this material?’ I had hundreds of hours of recordings,” she said. That’s when she knew she had to write a book.
Rettig said the book took several years to complete. She needed a theme, and realized that the commonality in the stories she recorded was use of the land. “I’d been in Alaska long enough to realize that the resource economy was the whole paradigm of life here,” she explained.
Rettig narrowed her cast down to four people, each of whom had lived long lives directly tied to that resource economy. Their stories comprise the four sections of the book.
The first is built around Clutch Lounsbury, a third generation gold miner in Alaska. “His grandparents came up in 1907 on the Valdez Trail, traveled by horse and sleigh hundreds of miles from Valdez to Fairbanks. So I start with that,” she said. Rettig traces Alaskan gold mining through the family’s history.
Rettig said the massive expansion of air travel in Alaska was the next major resource boom, and she tells this through Wright Air Service founder Al Wright’s words. His life shows “how the Bush was settled and how World War Two transformed the Bush, and how airplanes brought the modern world into the Bush. And it’s all told through his family story.”
Wright, who grew up in Minto, took just six flying lessons before his instructor was killed in a crash. Undaunted, he immediately bought his own plane and launched his first commercial endeavor. “He had so many close calls,” Rettig marveled, “so many crazy flying stories.”
She chose her father-in-law, Mike Kunz, for the section on oil. An archeologist, he surveyed land along the proposed pipeline corridor to preserve any artifacts and protect historic sites ahead of construction. He went on to a stellar career in a field tied more to academia than resource use. “But,” Rettig said, “he’s the first one to say, ‘The only reason I was able to do all this stuff was because of oil development.’”
The final section looks at subsistence through Gwich’in elder Julie Mahler. Originally from Fort Yukon, Mahler decided that wasn’t remote enough and moved deeper into the Bush. “She’s amazing. She’s a trapper and mother and grandmother.”
While writing the book, Rettig experienced her own resource crash when oil revenues collapsed, torpedoing the state budget. CCHRC’s funding was eliminated (it’s since found an Outside source). Rettig had to confront her youthful ideals colliding with her adult reality as a professional, and wife and mother. “The idea that I couldn’t live here without all the development that came before me, and without this booming oil economy, then, am I still against that economy if I then have to leave and go back and look for a job in Colorado or Pennsylvania,” she asked. “Or does that change my mind?”
This experience further attuned her to her subjects, who also experienced booms and busts, helping Rettig discover how deeply Alaska become her home and hone her narrative. Her book, she said, “has the feel of me moving here as a young reporter, going back in time to try to discover Alaska’s history, and then telling the stories through the voices of the Alaskans who lived it.”
Find Molly Rettig online and learn more about “Finding True North” at mollyrettig.com.