Land Gone Lonesome   2 comments

I grew up in Alaska where the Yukon River is our Mississippi, 2000 miles of mythic river, thick as chocolate milk, sweeping through Alaska’s interior on its relentless journey to the Bering Sea. The longest river in Alaska is the third-longest in the United States and the 21st longest in the world.

ILand Gone Lonesome: An Inland Voyage along the Yukon River’ve never canoed it or taken a boat even along all of the length that’s in the United States, though I’ve seen both ends of it – on in Canada’s Dawson (close enough) and at St. Mary’s where part of the Yukon Delta meets the Bering Sea and parts of the middle. I had a friend – Charlie Wolfe – who used to canoe it every year for 30 years (Whitehorse to St. Marys) but Charlie didn’t write down his experiences and draw conclusions from it. Dan O’Neill did, in the “Land Gone Lonesome”, a colorful and meandering portrait of the region with an intriguing agenda.

O’Neill is a noted Alaska historian with no illusions about the Yukon. It’s not an easy place to live. I suspect you have to be a little crazy to want to live there. In fact, I’ve never met a “normal” person who has chosen to spend more than a year or two along its banks. That would include me. A Yukon River village is a cool place to visit, but I’d never choose to make my home there.
When John McPhee wrote Coming into the Country in the 1970s, he found lots of people still willing to make their home along the river. Dan O’Neill found a much different situation 30 years later.

O’Neill put his 19-foot canoe into the Yukon’s navigatible stream in Dawson, in Canada, and headed downstream to nose around what remains of the fish camps, cabins and roadhouses of the Yukon’s boom and bust past. His recollections are actually from several trips over a number of summers, but things don’t change very rapidly on the Yukon.
“A hundred years ago, thousands of people bustled along this river,” he notes. “Today, it is a ghost river connecting ghost towns.”
There’s a quiet, misty-eyed quality to O’Neill’s journey that reads like a description of Thomas Kinkade’s paintings, but he also captures the bawdy sensibilities of the territory’s heyday with purple prose.

O’Neill turned to the land’s frolicking history to keep his narrative afloat because the river has run dry of human adventure. Earlier writers (John McPhee, Ernie Pyle, John Muir and Robert Service to name a few) discovered the Yukon was rich in characters. Interior Alaska’s long bleak winters, short muggy summers, floods and blizzards keep all but a hardy group from dawdling for long, but the Yukon’s isolation has protected it from all but the die-hards and crackpots. It is outcast territory.

O’Neill was interested in the fate of the “river people” McPhee was fascinated by, the early 1970s hippies who packed up their VW buses and headed to the wildest of America’s wild places, the Yukon River basin, where they could forage and fish, removed from the pressures of contemporary life. Contrary to television popularization today, the prize for most Yukon Alaskans is solitude, self-reliance and relief from property taxes. Back then, the rules were simple enough:

  • Bring in only what you can carry.
  • The land will provide.
  • What nature can’t fix, duct tape and a blue tarp will.

McPhee brought these “neo-pioneers” (as O’Neill calls them) to the attention of The New Yorker, and readers worldwide in his 1977 best seller, Coming Into the Country. McPhee is O’Neill’s phantom companion on this trip, but their relationship is a complicated one. McPhee was an interloper whose rose-glassed account annoyed the snot of me when I was forced to read it for a college class 35 years ago. O’Neill lives in a log cabin in Fairbanks and shows the same, albeit tempered, irritation. I’ve met Dan maybe twice. We don’t know each other, but I’m sure we hold the same opinion of McPhee — a starry eyed dreamer who tried to get it but really didn’t quite.
Whereas McPhee anointed the eccentric Dick Cook as the “acknowledged high swami of the river people”, O’Neill discovered that Cook was more of a crank than a revered guru of the Alaska subsistence movement. McPhee drooled in worship. O’Neill stripped away the lore of the former Marine who escaped to Alaska in 1964.

“I wanted to get away from paying taxes to support something I didn’t believe in, to get away from big business, to get away from a place where you can’t be sure of anything you hear or anything you read,” Cook told McPhee.

Cook died in 2001, drowned in the river he had lived along for 30 years after all of his possessions had been destroyed in a fire, on his way to a meeting in Eagle to protest the newest round of NPS restrictions. Bitter from battling the government over policies that have essentially outlawed subsistence living on the Yukon, Cook exemplified what happened to these squatters and their lifestyle as government and environmental interests took notice of the area’s natural resources. At his memorial service, locals wondered if he had simply been so weary of fighting the government that when his canoe tipped, as they are wont to do on the mighty Yukon, he simply let the river take him.

“The worst thing would be having it industrialized or commercialized,” O’Neill wrote of the land, now protected. “But being loved to death by the Park Service is the next worst.”

Beginning in the mid-1970’s, the National Park Service, the Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Outdoor Recreation, the Bureau of Land Management and the US Forest Service divvied up the territory for various projects and protections. In 1980, the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) created the Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve. While the “river people” were protected in theory — they could maintain their homesteads for a number of years and live off the land with certain permits — in practice, their cabins and fishing and trapping grounds were regulated out of existence. Environmentalists did their best to keep the preserve free of human residents, too.

“As people are eliminated from Alaska’s parks, new stories cease to be created and the tradition dies,” O’Neill wrote, trying to capture the Yukon landscape before nature takes back the last human footprint. He reintroduces us to our more resourceful selves, reminding folks who live 21st century lives in communities that have much greater population density that some people may seem crazy to you, but they actually want to live those bumper sticker slogans on beat-up Subarus.
O’Neill suggests that people belong in the Yukon-Charley as much as the protected flora and fauna, that it is only fair to leave the scrappy individualists to their hidey-huts and fish wheels, their trapping lines and unregistered riverboats, not only for their sake but for ours: to leave a little something for the American imagination, an elemental way of life that is lonely, lovely and very nearly gone.

O’Neill set out of float the Yukon River in celebration of the toughness of those who make this foreboding place their home, but the celebration turned to mourning as you realize – if you’ve read McPhee’s Coming Into the Country – that the bureaucrats and the environmentalists he so admired and believed would be the saviors of the “river people” won and regulated his Yukon River characters right out of existence.

2 responses to “Land Gone Lonesome

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  1. I tried to click the like button but now that WordPress has redesigned something and I only get a blank Mazola screen..Anyway great description of the book and you words have motivated me to read it.


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