A Modest Crossing of Northern Alaska: A review of Arctic Traverse

What does a solo journey across the Alaskan Arctic entail?  As it turns out, much of it is a matter of putting one foot in front of the other, again and again and again, seemingly forever.  But if that is what you envision when you think of Michael Engelhard’s Arctic Traverse: A Thousand-Mile Summer of Trekking the Brooks Range, think again.  

This book warrants notice and an enthusiastic reception.  In an America where far too many think of nature in terms of a nearby state park and of self-reliance as an ability to find the nearest Starbucks without a GPS, this book deserves to land on more than one bestseller list.  But I fear that readers coming across this title might roll their eyes, thinking here we go again, another man versus bear story from the frozen north.  If this or similar thoughts cross your mind, well, once more, think again.

Arctic Traverse offers both a back country narrative and more than a few bear encounters, but these features mesh seamlessly with natural history notes, digressions on exploration, the words of writers who influenced the author, and the author’s own thoughts about what it is to spend life in untamed lands.  It is a wilderness journal, prose poetry, a treatise in philosophy, a primer on northern ecology, and pure magic, all rolled into one seamless volume.  

The book’s structure is straightforward, but also telling—straightforward because the chapters include subtitles numbered by days into the journey (from 1 through 58), and telling because the subtitles also include the number of miles passed on each of those days, ranging from as little as 4 to “number of miles uncertain.” This was no sprint across the Arctic, no carefully choreographed journey over a well-known route, but rather an adventure with no certainty of success and a very real if underplayed risk of life and limb. 

Importantly, this was not a well-funded expedition supported by commercial sponsors, but rather an independent low-budget affair, reliant on very limited personal finances and caches of food left by small aircraft.  “In an arcane calculus of pack weight,” writes Engelhard early in his book, “finances, caloric needs, and the nature of the terrain, I determined that I’ll need six caches along my planned route to Kotzebue.”  His gear is basic, some of it no more than substandard military surplus, and in the rainy summer back country he spends most of his time hovering between damp and soaking wet, “stiff and sore in the morning and tired and sore in the afternoon.”  He reports problems with his lower back and his right knee. He loses weight—so much so that at the end of his trip, seeing his own body in a mirror for the first time in more than eight weeks, he is not only surprised but scared.  He was—and this comes as something of a surprise, far enough into the book to believe that the narrator must be a young athlete—fifty-three years old when he crossed Alaska.

Within the misery and relentless routine of moving slowly through demanding terrain, he writes, “A phrase I’ve been thinking repeatedly on this trip when things get rough but are also dispensing splendor: I’m living the dream.”  And the splendor of northern Alaska is not lost within the very well-earned complaints or buried by the challenges.  Instead, hardship and grandeur become inseparable aspects of the same experience.  One, it turns out, is often not possible without the other.  

A few direct quotes might offer a glimpse into the depth and breadth that Engelhard brings to the page.  Regarding wildlife, he writes, “Forty-five mammal species, including marmots, wolverines, polar bears, and wolves, live here at least temporarily, nine of them, like the bowhead whale, offshore. Grayling, arctic char, Dolly Varden—an olive-backed pink-patterned trout named for a gaily dressed Charles Dickens coquette—thrive in refuge waters with thirty-two other fish species, most of them in the nutrient broth of river-fed coastal lagoons.”  About a philosophy of backcountry travel, he offers, “While a young man fears that by going too slow he might miss something . . . an older man fears that by going too fast he will miss everything.” Concerning the relationship between humans and the rest of our world, he shares, “Physical separation indoors is just the beginning of alienation from nature.”  As to conservation, he suggests, “One of several human cognitive biases—brain fogs, if you will—is prognostic myopia: the distant future means zilch to us.”

I could go on, but isolated quotes do not represent the whole, which in the best books exceeds the sum of the parts.  In Arctic Traverse, it is not the individual ideas and facts or even their collective meaning that burn an impression into the mind, but the juxtaposition of the ideas and facts with the human experiences and emotions of a lone traveler.  And that is what pushes the book from the realm of the merely good to that of the great. 

Reading, I am humbled by Engelhard’s intelligence and his abilities, both those that serve in the wilds and those needed at the keyboard.  At the same time, I am impressed by what comes across as a sincere modesty, subtly suggesting (almost certainly incorrectly) that anyone with time on their hands could follow in his footsteps.  

In closing his book, I am left with a desire to meet him.  If he is half as inspiring in the flesh as he is on the page, the encounter will be more than worthwhile.  


Item added to cart.
0 items - $0.00