"A Miserable Paradise: Life in Southeast Alaska"

"A Miserable Paradise: Life in Southeast Alaska"

On a cold morning in Ketchikan in early January 2020, Jeff Lund witnessed a vehicle in front of him spin out on black ice, going one and a half full turns before halting. Lund writes that he jumped out of his own truck to be sure the other driver was OK.

“The man was shaken but fine, riding the chemical reaction. Like he signed up for a merry-go-round but it ended up being a Tilt-a-Whirl,” Lund explains in the opening of “A Miserable Paradise.” Then he adds this postscript: “This ended up being a pretty solid metaphor for the year itself.”

Most of us probably aren’t ready to revisit 2020. Between the pandemic, the social unrest and the political upheaval, it was the most collectively traumatizing year America has endured in decades. But books are starting to emerge from the rubble, and Lund’s appears to be the first from our corner of the continent.

Lund earned this dubious distinction by accident. He began the year planning on writing a month-by-month account of life for an avid outdoorsman in Southeast Alaska. The idea was to write each month’s entry in real time, without the benefit of hindsight, giving readers a chronological narrative that reflected his thoughts and experiences as they occurred. The story of watching the spinout was written when it happened, only his one sentence postscript is a subsequent addition.

We all know what followed. Whatever anyone planned for 2020, and no matter where in this world they were, nothing went as intended. For Lund, that meant his book went in an unplanned direction.

In normal life, Lund is a schoolteacher who moonlights as an outdoors author, and an avid fisherman and hunter. So for him, rainy Ketchikan is definitely a miserable paradise, as it allows him to pursue a life off the land while holding a full time job with summers off. Not a bad deal and as 2020 began sliding into infamy during March of that year, a deal that Lund developed even greater appreciation for than he expected when he began this project. While city dwellers elsewhere in the country and abroad found their movements and options suddenly restricted, Lund had the choice of heading out on the water or into the hills.

This is exactly what he did, and much of this book is standard within the genre of outdoors writing. Lund goes fishing and hunting and hiking and boating and generally has a good time of it. Readers looking for detailed descriptions of the kill will be disappointed. Lund doesn’t dwell on such matters. But there’s reason to this. In the overall timeline of getting meat, firing the gun is little more than an eye blink. Surrounding that is a lot of hard work, and it’s in these pockets of time that Lund ruminates on the year he finds himself in, and on philosophical matters, as would befit a high school literature teacher.

Beginning with the entry for March, however, the calamitous pandemic becomes an inescapable presence in this book, and reading Lund’s reactions to it as they played out will remind readers how suddenly and strangely our shared reality was upended. At first Covid-19 was something awful happening someplace else, but not a major concern. And then suddenly the schools and restaurants were closed, the summer’s anticipated flood of tourists upon which Ketchikan’s economy is heavily dependent dried up to nearly nothing, and a foreboding sense of uncertainty took full charge of our lives.

Lund dealt with the stresses by doing what he always did. Getting outdoors. Whatever else was taking place, when he was casting flies or hunting for deer, an elusive sense of normalcy returned. And this is the most important lesson from this book.

Lund offers readers 12 chapters, one for each month. The lion’s share of each is given over to stories of his adventures and the memories of past outings they evoke. Only a brief section of each chapter addresses the ongoing concerns of the pandemic. This arrangement gives it perspective. Current events might be overwhelming, but Alaska is still here, and still a place we can find ourselves in, apart from the daily madness.

Lund occupies a unique spot in our national divide. As a consumptive user of the outdoors, he’s an instant persona non grata in many left-leaning circles (although this is less true in Alaska). And as a teacher, he’s an enemy of mankind for those on the extreme right. Yet in this book he comes across as something altogether different. An average guy with a job classified as essential and a passion that is badly misunderstood by urbanized wildlife defenders, trying to find his way through an unprecedented situation.

It’s refreshing to encounter a largely depoliticized take on 2020, and to have this be Alaska’s first book to examine the year makes it even more valuable. We need this middle ground where someone recognizes that health and economic concerns are both deeply important, and that when they come into conflict, answers aren’t easy. And policy answers aren’t forthcoming in this book. What one does find here is how the mutual stereotyping by the two ends of the political spectrum that loudly dominates our national discourse leaves little room for voices in the middle. The very voices we most need to hear.

Lund is one such voice, and his advice is clear. Get outdoors. This book bogs down at times, and Lund tends to lose focus. But as an Alaskan, Lund recognizes the gift that surrounds him, providing endless opportunities, even in a year when possibility often seemed like nothing but a long ago memory. It’s an invaluable perspective. We’re sustained by where we live.

“I’ve never felt that I have even the slightest grasp on all Alaska has to offer,” Lund writes. “Every year I feel like I’ve scooped water from a tub of possibility and poured it into a cup of realization.”

That’s his report from 2020.

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