Category Archives: The Armchair Adventurer

Book reviewing can be fun, but it is also fraught with hazards. Especially if you know the writer. My aim when reviewing is to think, however, of the reader, not the writer. If someone is going to go out and spend hard-earned money on a book, I would hate to mislead him or her. So I try to be honest. And I’m a bear about spelling, grammar, punctuation, and style. You know, that stuff most people think isn’t important. I beg to differ. But, in the end, a review is merely one woman’s opinion of a book. I tell writers who are disappointed with me that my views aren’t necessarily the best or worst, just mine.

Following the Clues to Find A Killing Fault

Cascadia’s Fault: The Coming Earthquake and Tsunami That Could Devastate North America

by Jerry Thompson

Counterpoint Press


Like the rocks and faults it explains, the theory of plate tectonics, newly formed at the time of Alaska’s 1964 earthquake, moved slowly, incrementally, into widely accepted thought. Even 20 years later, the scientific community was slow to agree that slabs of the earth’s crust floated on semi-liquid rocks, crashing into each other with regular frequency, was a viable concept. It took the Mexico City earthquake in 1985, a magnitude 8 shaker that killed as many as 40,000 people and destroyed or damaged almost 6,000 structures, for the theory to take hold.

Even then, as Jerry Thompson so vividly details in his book, Cascadia’s Fault: The Coming Earthquake and Tsunami That Could Devastate North America, acceptance was only the beginning. Scientists were just realizing all earthquakes were not created equal, nor were they caused by the same mechanics. In fact, just recognizing the mechanics, intervals, cause, effects, and everything else about earthquake, large and small, was showing itself to be a monumental task.

In part history, mystery, scientific searching, and quest, Cascadia’s Fault is a look at the many aspects of seismology, geology, earthquakes, and tsunamis, and the way humans tend to ignore dangers even when they’re right in front of them. Focusing specifically on the Cascadia Subduction Zone off the State of Washington, Thompson explores the subject in great depth, with astonishing technical detail that doesn’t make a non-scientist’s eyes glaze over. It’s a fascinating read.

Cascadia, Thompson writes, is “virtually identical to the offshore fault that devastated Sumatra – almost the same length, the same width, and with the same tectonic forces at work. This fault can and will generate the same kind of earthquake … magnitude 9 or higher. It will send crippling shockwaves across a far wider area …”

Hyperbole it’s not, as he follows through with very plausible details and scenarios. He also warns a Cascadia rupture will trigger other, more well-known faults – think San Andreas, Denali, etc. – causing undersea landslides, more earthquakes – kind of like dominoes falling one after the other. And instead of occurring every 500 to 550 years, as once thought, scientists now think these huge, earth-shattering events happen every 300 years or so. Cascadia last moved about 310 years ago.

The book, after an excellent Introduction by Simon Winchester, begins with Thompson and his wife at a bar in San Francisco on Christmas Eve, 2004. As every eye in the bar turned to the television, “Jimmy Stewart’s smiling face [was] wiped off the screen by a mountain of angry seawater.” The Sumatra earthquake had just unleashed a tsunami onto the region with devastating force. Thompson vividly recalls the details:

“The first horrifying, mesmerizing wave crashed against a seawall, jetting skyward in salty white torrents, tearing through a fringe of palm trees like a monsoon river, across a hotel pool deck and a manicured square of green lawn. The darkening surge roared uphill through narrow, cluttered streets choked with tourist luggage, broken timbers, small motorcycles with their riders struggling to stay vertical, cargo vans overturned and bulldozed by white froth into market stalls.”

But what does a tsunami in the Indian Ocean have to do with me, you ask. It’s a rare event, the first time something like that has ever happened. No real risk to most of us, right?

Wrong. Thompson is adamant about the wrongness. Things like this have happened before, all over the world, some even bigger and more devastating than Sumatra. We just don’t have any written records. That’s the key, he says. Humans always think in terms of human time – recorded history doesn’t mention any such disasters, so they didn’t happen. But geologic time scoffs at our puny minute-outlook. Thompson explains our recorded and social history don’t go far enough back to tell us the story.

But geologic history is written in stone – literally. And this is where the book takes a turn into mystery, although instead of a “who-dunnit,” it’s a “what-dunnit.” Thompson details the search for evidence that Cascadia has ripped the world apart in the past, a likely indicator it will again. Climbing mountains, digging into deep trenches, searching under the sea, and mucking about in old marshes, Thompson and his scientist heroes dig for the truth, looking for ancient evidence of mega-quakes and earth-scouring tsunamis in

And, as they get deeper into the search, they discover there are actually written human records of these mega-events. They just weren’t recorded as earthquakes. Legends, oral histories — even Japanese bureaucratic records – tell of devastating waves, shaking, landslides, and other earthquake-related disasters, indicating there are more of these massive events than we thought.

And though this is a hard science tome, with technical details and scientific theories and discussions, it is far from a dry, dull read. It pulls one in, not the least because of Thompson’s writing. A documentary maker by trade, he has a way with words that, while portraying massive destruction and despair, is still lyrical and laden with imagery:

“For half a minute that must have felt like a life time, 320,000 square miles … of Central and North America shuddered and rumbled up and down and from side to side. More than 20 million people … felt the earthquake. … Like the lowest bass notes of an upright bass, this fractured slab of sea floor played fatal music, a throbbing rhythm that pulsed with stunning efficiency through 190 miles of continental crust to reach the capital city. The first burst of notes lasted roughly thirty seconds …”

For anyone interested in geology, seismology, scientific discovery, history, or just a well-written book that will leave you thinking – hard – Cascadia’s Fault is one that should be on your “To Read” list.

Long-time Ranger takes us on the Wild Side

Bear Wrangler: Memoirs of an Alaska Pioneer Biologist9781602230446_p0_v1_s260x420

by Will Troyer

University of Alaska Press 2008



Back in the day, wildlife biologist was more wildlife rules enforcement than research or resource management. With few actual biologist positions open, if you wanted to work with Alaskan wildlife before statehood, you went to the Department of Fish and Wildlife and became a “fish cop and game warden.”

That meant camping out at streams during the summer, making sure no one took more than they were supposed to, or started earlier than they were supposed to, or broke any other rule.

Will Troyer started his decades-long wildlife biologist career in the summer of 1948, working for the US Fish and Wildlife Services in a seasonal position with the commercial fishery research branch.

“I was a wildlife management major and not looking for a job in fisheries, but working in Alaska caught my attention,” Troyer writes in the first chapter of his book, “Bear Wrangler: Memoirs of an Alaska Pioneer Biologist.”

He spent that first summer clipping the adipose from pink salmon fry so they could be counted as adults to determine survival success and migration patterns. It was a boring task, and getting to and from Prince Wales Island on the 36-foot Sablefish caused Troyer no end of discomfort from seasickness, but the surroundings were worth it. Troyer spent his evenings and days off roaming beaches and forests and observing wildlife. For a farm boy from Indiana, it was captivating – wild, remote, isolated:

“Where I had grown up in Indiana, the countryside was dominated by developed agricultural lands, people, and cities,” he writes. “As I experienced these wild lands I had so often read about in my youth, I realized that I felt at home.”

Although the summer passed too quickly and Troyer had to go back to college, he was already planning to return. He graduated from Oregon State College in 1952 with a B.S. in wildlife management. And there he ran into his first hurdle. Alaska in pre-statehood days had few wildlife management jobs. The territory’s wildlife resources were under the control of the USFWS, whose emphasis was enforcement and predator control.

Troyer found there were 25 wildlife enforcement positions available, and only eight management positions. So, if he wanted to stay in Alaska, he’d have to take the job that was offered. He was hired as the summer field assistant to Bob Bain, game warden for the Kenai Peninsula (winter) and in charge of commercial fishery enforcement at Sand Point (summer). Troyer’s first enforcement job covered
1,350 miles from Chignik Bay to the end of the Aleutians. Patrolling in boats and planes, the intrepid wardens tried valiantly to enforce the laws. But limited capabilities, inclement weather, and a wily population of fishermen who knew the limitations of the wardens made enforcement difficult.

Although Troyer excelled as an enforcement agent, his heart was in management, and he planned to get an advanced degree, hoping that would get him closer to his goal. He’d already arranged a fellowship when fate stepped in. The refuge manager in Kodiak was retiring, and Troyer was offered the job. In addition, he was dating a young woman he really liked, and leaving her was going to be difficult. This was an opportunity he couldn’t turn down, so he didn’t.

“Man! Things were moving awfully fast. I now had the job of my dreams and it appeared, also the girl of my dreams!”

Troyer spent 30 years working with wildlife in Kodiak, Katmai, and other areas of Alaska, from the Arctic Coast to the Aleutians. He pioneered numerous grizzly bear research methods, primitive by today’s standards, but well ahead of the curve at the time. He had countless adventures with every specie of Alaskan wildlife, including some bear stories that will make your hair stand on end.

Troyer is a natural storyteller, giving his tales depth and color that draw the reader into the adventure with him. Whether it’s standing in the middle of a caribou migration or sliding down a snowy hill after trying to get a Dall sheep, we’re there with him, seeing what he sees, feeling the wonder and awe of being in a truly marvelous landscape. His love for all creatures comes through, and his joy at experiencing every Alaskan adventure possible is contagious.

He brings in numerous details of his work, and carefully describes his research and methods, including some of the unorthodox ways he trapped and tagged grizzlies. He’s not at all embarrassed to talk about the methods that failed, or recount his missteps and sometimes really dumb moves when exploring the Alaskan wilderness. His tone is one of, “See, I did this stupid thing, and if you listen, you won’t.” He has the ability to laugh at himself and the world around him, and this makes him appealing as a writer.

In the end, the politics of the wildlife industry got to him, and as he moved up in the ranks, he found himself doing more paperwork and less of the fieldwork he loved. So eventually, he moved out of the FWS and into the National Park Service, which put him back in the field. He stayed there until his retirement in 1981.

And he did marry the girl of his dreams; they raised their kids as Alaskans, and now enjoy the slow life on the Copper River.

Delightful Anthology Offers Wide View of Alaska


The Alaska Reader: Voices from the North

Edited by Anne Hanley and Carolyn Kremers

Fulcrum Publishing 2005



When I first arrived in Alaska, I read voraciously anything—fiction or not—I thought might help me get a handle on this place. After all, it had been three decades or more since I had been here, and I lived in Anchorage, which, these days, resembles Sacramento, California (with snow), more than Alaska. Fairbanks was a completely new and alien planet.

So when I saw “The Alaska Reader,” I was really excited about something new. But another part of me, the practical part, said, “What could be different about this anthology?”

See, I’ve found numerous Alaskana anthologies, and even with different themes, there’s a certain sameness about them. They all include stories illustrating Alaska’s size, its wild nature, the roughing-it lifestyle that doesn’t necessarily appeal to me.

It helped when I read this paragraph in the introduction by Anne Hanley: “We began by looking at as many anthologies of Alaskan writing as we could find. The exercise made me despair. What could we possibly assemble that would say something about Alaska that hadn’t already been said?”

Here was someone who, by her own admittance, knew what a Herculean task she was undertaking—who didn’t have the hubris to believe hers was the definitive picture of Alaska.

In truth, Hanley and Kremers have put together an excellent collection of stories, poems, and excerpts from Alaskan writers that gives a very balanced and enjoyable picture of the 49th state.

Yes, I did say “poems.” Unlike other Alaskana anthologies, this one includes poetry written by Alaskan authors. That in itself sets it apart.

But even if you’re not “into” poetry, there’s so much represented at this banquet no one walks away intellectually hungry—unless they choose to. Hanley and Kremers approached the anthology as a collection of stories. For them, stories are more than just ways to pass time. Hanley got her first glimpse of Alaska in a story by John Muir, and in a place like Alaska, stories become vital ways to transfer wisdom:

“In cultures that depend on the weather and on the movement of animals, stories … convey vital information. In oral traditions, like those of many Alaska Natives, a story is told to a particular audience for a particular purpose.”

And the editors have a true respect and admiration for the people with which they share this state: “I’ve always been impressed at the range of skills possessed by Alaskans … Looking over the writers represented in this anthology, I see hunters, trappers, teachers, pilots, scientists, fishermen and fisherwomen, a stone mason, a sled builder, a former governor, a meat cutter. If I were marooned in a one-room cabin for a whole winter, I would choose these people to be with me, not only because they could keep the fire going and put food on the table, but because they could also sustain my soul.”

Another difference with this anthology is the way it’s broken into sections. With such titles as “Children of Dreamers,” “Taking Risks, Confronting Consequences,” “Naming and Unnaming,” and “Alaska as a Parable for the Future,” among others, how can you not find something tasty?

And the authors included—a complete list would include notables from all genres of Alaskana, and go on for several pages. You have former governor and conservationist Jay Hammond, adventurer Spike Walker, anchorage journalist Kim Rich, scientist Jill Fredston, and mystery writer Dana Stabenow. From the naturalist’s perspective, there are treats from John Muir, Margaret Murie, and Mary Tall Mountain.

Poets include Robert Service, John Morgan, Phoebe Newman, and Sheila Nickerson.

This is an excellent book, a veritable smorgasbord of words that delight, tease, and awe the reader.

I always wonder why editors choose the stories they do for anthologies—what was it about each particular story that made it a candidate, while others, some quite well-written or uniquely prescient, get left out. Obviously, that’s something the editors have wondered, because they tell you why each story was chosen: “In the end, deciding the final selections was easy. We simply chose what we could not bear to leave out.”

Each section has a particular “message,” if you will. My favorites were the section on risk, because it also includes consequences, and the last section, using Alaska as the “canary in the mine for changes brought about by global warming,” as the editors put it.

This section contains writings from three naturalists, a former governor, two native Alaskans, a Native Athabascan, two newspaper writers, two former Poet laureates, two historians, and a former fighter pilot. (And yes, I know that’s more than the 10 people listed in the contents page. But that’s what Hanley meant by the skills possessed by Alaskans.)

These accomplished writers have taken the idea that change can be good or bad and run with it, writing about everything from nuclear testing to politics to climate change.

Charles Wohlforth, in “The Whale and the Supercomputer,” talks about the way the changing climate will alter society globally. He argues that scientists can’t just study the science, but rather, they have to look at how the science affects people, because we’re stowing away on this “Spaceship Earth,” and there’s really no leaving us behind on the journey (although the possibility of leaving this planet and expanding into the universe seems to come closer every decade):

“Events in an infinitely complex world, full of constantly adapting people and natural systems, cannot be predicted reliably by a mathematical code.”

I thought that was genius, myself.

And the piece by Howard Weaver, a former newspaper editor born in Anchorage, now living in Sacramento, Calif., who took the mirror image of my road—he left Alaska and went to California, while I left Sacramento and came here. He talks about why, even when people leave, many come back in the end (and I thought I was unusual in that respect):

“Over the decades in the writing game in Alaska, I suppose I encountered every one of the 6,743 clichés available to describe the place, and none was ever truer than this: The real Alaska isn’t so much a state as a state of mind.”

And he admits he left because he felt that state of mind “had deteriorated faster than a spawned-out humpy in fresh water.”

But you can read between his words that he does miss it, and when a well-wisher predicts, “You’ll be back,” he is silent.

“Who am I to argue with that?” he finishes.

And that is what this anthology is about. It is well worth the time to read, and is definitely something I’ll go back to time and again, when I need to understand why I gave up sunshine and fresh citrus fruit from my yard for 60 below weather and darkness at noon.

It’s not the outside that counts—it’s the stories being told inside.


Forgotten Warriors of the Aleutian Campaign

Forgotten Warriors of the Aleutian Campaign


By Jim Rearden

Pictorial Histories Publishing Co., Inc. 2005


World War II is something we studied in high school, a series of battles many of us are too young to remember as anything more than questions on a history test. We know how it started – at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on Dec. 7, 1941. We know it took place on islands and in jungles of far-off lands with names like Bataan, Midway, Iwo Jima, Chichagoff, Kiska …

Chichagoff? Isn’t that an Alaskan village on AttuIsland? And Kiska?

Jim Rearden, noted Alaskan author, reminds us that Alaska was the site of the only battle of WWI to be fought on American soil, the 15-month Aleutian campaign, in his book Forgotten Warriors of the Aleutian Campaign. Rearden’s “forgotten warriors” are regular military — Navy weathermen, pilots, ship captains and hunters, trappers and “livers-off-the-land,” lumped together in the Alaska Scouts.

Rearden has put together a series of stories about these forgotten heroes in such a way as to make them living, breathing three-dimensional people rather than dusty figures from an ignored tome. Using a mix of his narrative, the narrative of others, letters and other writings of the men themselves, and the words of their colleagues, Rearden makes these men jump out of the pages, alive, scared, courageous—real. The reader can almost hear their voices, smell their fear and sweat, feel the strength they all had.

Like any good historian, Rearden begins with an overview of the time and place he is covering. With a prologue that begins, “The Aleutian Islands was a helluva place to fight a war,” he lets the reader know this was no easy duty for the men who found themselves stationed at Dutch Harbor, Adak, or any of the other God-forsaken islands along the “string of oddly-shaped beads” that arc 1,000 miles to the west in the direction of Russia. Of the 40 “main” islands, Unimak, according to Rearden, is the largest at 50 miles by 23 miles.

Rearden sets the stage for the difficulties of the campaign with the sentence, “It is, ‘One of the stormiest regions in the world,’ says the United States Coast Pilot, the Bible of mariners. ‘Heavy weather with rain or snow is common. Violent winds over the Aleutians, especially in fall and winter, frequently make navigation extremely hazardous.’”

Rearden also includes the cast of characters, as it were—the islands of the chain that figured into the campaign. It is always helpful to visualize the locale of the action, especially when the “action” is war, which can be confusing at best.

Another thing Rearden does, unusual in these days of political correctness, is warn—although that seems like a strong word—the reader he is looking at men who lived in the 1940s, and they faced an enemy who would just as soon kill them as look at them.

“One more subject: the word Jap. Today it isn’t politically correct, and has racist overtones. This volume, however, represents the world of 1941-45 when the word was commonly used. … Our Jap enemy was trying to kill us, and we were doing our best to kill him. … Our verbiage about our enemy wasn’t polite.”

And he doesn’t apologize for it, either. He looks at history with neutrality, opening a window into the past without shading it or trying to condemn the actors. And that’s how history should be presented.

Another good point about Rearden as historian—he puts distance and geography is simple, understandable terms and images: “From Unimak, the easternmost (island), to Attu, the westernmost, it is 1,000 miles—the distance from New York to Minneapolis.”

Easy to picture, easy to imagine the distance involved—and easy to see how planes could be lost, how men could lose all sense of reality, distance combined with fog and wind and rain and snow.

The story begins on June 3, 1942, when the Japanese bombed DutchHarbor and occupied Kiska and Attu islands, and ends on May 31, 1943, after the battle of Attu. Although there was a mop-up on Kiska days later, the Americans found the Japanese had slipped away several days before the attack, a black eye for the military that today goes unmentioned. (The Japanese managed to slip several large ships past the watchful eyes of the Navy, and evacuate 5,000 men off the island and back home.)

Niece’s Tribute to Adventurous Aunt Also Celebrate Alaskan Spirit

cover.between breaths

Between Breaths: A Teacher in the Alaskan Bush

By Sandra K. Mathews

University of New Mexico Press 2006



Alaska has always been synonymous with adventure – wide open spaces, new experiences and romance.

Donna McGladrey left her middle class home in Chicago for the Bush town of Dillingham in 1958, before statehood, to experience the adventure offered by a new frontier, one that “challenged her perception of herself, Alaska Natives, and other pioneers.”

The story of Donna’s adventure, which lasted from September 1958 until her untimely death in December 1959, is recounted in “Between Breaths: A Teacher in the Alaskan Bush.” What makes this story different from all the other books recounting the stories of various young women who came to The Last Frontier from middle class, affluent or poor backgrounds in the Lower 48 to teach “primitive” Natives, is the author of this particular book.

Sandra Mathews is Donna’s niece, not yet born when Donna flew into the wilderness of Alaska in 1959 with her boyfriend Richard Newton and never returned. Mathews has gathered correspondence written by Donna throughout her days in Dillingham, letters sent to Donna by her family, as well as interviews with people who knew Donna – old school chums, former students, and friends and family.

A labour of love, this particular book. And yet, as cloying as that may sound, it is a clear, honest picture of a young woman thrown into an element so unfamiliar and different every day was a struggle and homesickness a constant companion.

Mathews’ Donna is not a shallow, vapid young woman flitting through life “improving” the lot of the Natives. Her letters, her friends, and her biographer acknowledge her frailties, her fears, and her struggles.

The daughter of Methodist minister Leslie McGladrey and his wife Verna, twin sister to Dorothy, Donna was born in 1935 in Mora, Minn. Older sister Joan, 3 years old when the twins arrived, remembers coming home from playing to find two new sisters.

Donna’s childhood was idyllic, even though Methodist ministers – especially during the Depression – weren’t flush with cash or other assets. Verna had to pinch every penny, and the family learned to make do with very little. Additionally, “pastor’s kids” had an entire community watching their every move, so mischief and other kid stuff was out of the question.

But Donna’s sisters, Joan and Dorothy, remember lots of laughter and especially, lots of music. Verna, who played the church organ, and Leslie, an “amazing” singer, saw to it that music lessons for all three girls was a priority.

“Music lessons provided an important diversion, but also formed the basis for Donna’s future education and employment,” Mathews writes.

Donna’s education ranged from a private “whiz kids” school to public high school to MacMurray College, an all-women’s school in Jacksonville, Ill. She majored in music, aspiring to teach music to children.

Donna’s decision to move to Alaska, to teach music at the Dillingham school, was quick and surprising, to Donna as much as anyone. The telegram offering her the position arrived on Sept. 4, 1958; on Sept. 12, Donna left Chicago to begin a new phase of her life, to “move far away to reinvent herself, prove her worth to herself and others, and become independent,” Mathews recounts.

At the time, Dillingham, though a far cry from the very primitive little town of Snag Point it used to be, was still very different from Chicago. No electricity, little in the way of business or industry, and sanitation and water systems that were “subject to contamination,” according to a report filed by Muriel Speers for the “Post War Planning Survey commissioned by the Alaska Indian Service after World War II.

But despite Dillingham’s  primitive nature, the fact that the music teacher was expected to teach music with no instruments or sheet music (and no money for either unless she found it herself), swarms of insects, lots of rain, no apartments or houses, and a very poor first impression (“This town is a typical Eskimo fishing village. It is by far the largest fishing village in this area but as barbarian, primitive, uncultured, remote, dirty, shacky, miserable, etc., as anything anywhere,” she wrote in her first letter home), she soon fell under the spell of Alaska.

She grew to love her students, found ways to bring music to them, and met Richard Newton, an on-again, off-again boyfriend who eventually shared her tragic fate.

Mathews has done an impressive job of researching not just her aunt’s life and times, but the Territory of Alaska, its history, culture and beginnings. She explores the nature of the frontier, the way statehood changed the landscape and the people, and she describes in detail the journey she took to discover her aunt and tell her story.

The title is a mystery until the very end of the story, when Mathews discusses Donna and Richard’s last flight. Donna had moved from Dillingham to Chugiak, and as the Christmas holidays approached, she began to feel very lonely and homesick. Richard, who with his brother owned a construction company which was contracted to do some work in Dillingham, planned to fly to Dillingham for a few days, and Donna decided to accompany him, hoping to spend a few days with some old friends.

It was a dangerous flight over miles of uninhabited and almost impassable terrain, and Richard was only a student pilot. But despite her nervousness and innumerable delays due to weather, Donna climbed aboard the Cessna 175 and off they flew.

Contact was made with Richard at about 4:50 p.m. on December 30, 1959, and then … nothing.

Despite Leslie McGladrey and Charles Newton’s efforts and numerous and extensive searches, the plane would not be seen again until June 1960. Richard’s brother Charles had the sad duty of telling Leslie and Verna McGladrey their daughter had been found:

Charles searched the wreck in vain for traces of his beloved brother and his beautiful fiancé, but all he could find of their parkas, sweaters, and three sleeping bags was a small polka dot piece of blouse and a very small piece of green shadow plaid wool shirt. Charles wrote that, ‘The heat was so intense that two steel wrenches were fused together … death was between two breaths, instantaneous and merciful. They suffered from the fire not at all.’

In the end, Donna McGladrey’s Alaskan adventure was short and tragic, but her love for this land was boundless and unshakeable. She lived her life “between breaths,” always awed by the beauty and majesty around her, despite the suffering, pain and unhappiness she experienced.

Mathews has penned an excellent tribute to her aunt, celebrating her spirit and sense of adventure, her willingness to endure hardships, her unbounded love for a wild frontier. It reminds us why we live here, when there are other places much easier and less harsh, that would welcome us.

Familiarity Breeds Understanding

cover.3 among wolves


3 Among the Wolves

By Helen Thayer

Sasquatch Books, 2004



Human beings have always had a love-hate relationship with wolves. Though from the same family as man’s best friend, wolves inspire either great admiration or intense hatred in people. Throughout our history, we have swung from one side to the other, vilifying Canis lupus as evil vicious killers of livestock and pets – sometimes even small children – or making them into Disney cartoons.

But reality, as reality usually turns out to be, is far different. Wolves, though similar in appearance and behavior to our canine pets, and sharing their distant ancestors, are far more complex creatures than we often give them credit for being. They display emotions – compassion, empathy, anger, pride, and fear. They have strict social hierarchies and rules, sternly enforced. Wolf families consist of varying levels of personalities and responsibilities, and like human families, show clear evidence of connection.

Helen Thayer, known for a dramatic solo trip to the magnetic North Pole, documents these facts about wolves and more in her book “3 Among the Wolves,” published by Sasquatch Books. In this gripping story, Thayer recounts the year she, her husband Bill, and their bear dog Charlie spent in close proximity to three wolf packs, observing, documenting, and often interacting as a neighboring pack in the wilds of Canada.

Thayer begins the adventure with a brief introduction of herself and the rest of the Thayer “pack:” Husband Bill, a long-time commercial pilot and avid wolf admirer; Helen, born in New Zealand, professional athlete and adventurer; and Charlie, an Inuit bear dog given to Helen Thayer as a gift just before she took off on her North Pole trip, a dog with an Arctic grey wolf in his family tree and Canadian Eskimo huskies strung along the other branches. With Charlie as the “alpha,” the Thayers are convinced they can study wild wolves in their natural environment, becoming a neighboring pack to the wolves.

Charlie, at 100 pounds just a bit smaller than most full-grown male wolves, had a “proud alpha bearing,” Thayer writes, “which resembled the best of wolf behavior.” This personality is the key to infiltrating the society of the wild wolf.

The Thayers begin their three-part adventure by searching for a pack on the tundra of the Canadian Yukon, finding a group of 16 individuals of varying ages. They return several months later, geared to spend April through October as close to the den as possible. Charlie had already established contact with the group, led by Alpha and Mother, as the Thayers called the bonded alpha pair. With a few resupplies throughout the summer, the three pseudo-wolves camped in close proximity to the pack, observing and documenting myriad examples of wolf behavior, including teaching the next generation, caring for other members, ensuring the safety of pups, hunting and socializing with other animals, including Charlie, who, although kept tightly controlled on a 75-foot leash, showed many of the same behaviors as Alpha in guarding, caring for, and teaching his “pack” of Bill and Helen.

The second step of the journey involved following wolves and polar bears on the ice of the Beaufort Sea and Mackenzie River Delta. There, skiing and setting up camp on sometimes fickle sea ice, they encounter another pack of wolves, which seems to be nomadic in the winter, following the polar bears as they roam the ice hunting for seals.

The final leg of their trip was a winter camp near a small Canadian town to observe a different pack of wolves, one their Inuit friend John observed for many years.

Thayer is a gifted observer, and she writes in a way that keeps the attention of the reader. Interspersed among the adventure are facts – about wolves, the Arctic, sea ice, polar bears, and the aurora borealis. But the facts never become lectures and they never interfere with the story – they are the icing on a very tasty and well-made cake, adding spice to the book.

Among the observations Thayer shares is the fact that on the sea ice, polar bears, wolves, and Arctic foxes share an integral bond that allows all to flourish – the Thayers noted several instances when the bears, ideally suited for hunting on and through ice, caught seals and left them untouched, allowing the closely watching Canis lupus to eat their fill.

The tundra pack showed many instances of family concern, first by ensuring that Mother, ensconced in the den with newborn pups and unable to participate in hunts, was fed, then by feeding an injured older member until his foot was healed, and finally by taking on the responsibility of caring for and teaching the new pups how to survive in their environment.

She writes: “The wolves’ strong social nature enabled them to form lasting emotional attachments with other pack members.”

Throughout the book, Thayer helps the reader see the wolves as something more than the two-dimensional evil of the tales of the Brothers Grimm, or the shallow caricature of cartoons. Thayer’s wolves are vibrant animals, each with a different personality and unique way of looking at life. She introduces each wolf as another author would human characters, but never forgets these are wild animals with different instincts and needs.

And next to Thayer in all the adventures is Charlie, protecting the humans from harm and communicating with the wolves through barks, yips, tail-wagging, and howls. He is never completely lupine, but his wolfish ancestry is obvious, and he, as Thayer says in the epilogue, is the reason the trips were a success.

In addition to science, Thayer sprinkles Inuit and Eskimo legend in with the narrative, illustrating the interconnectedness of humans and wildlife in the North. It paints an awesome portrait of the wolves and the land on which they live.

If there are flaws in the book, they are minor. Thayer includes photos, heavily edited, as she admits, to hide the locations of the wolves for their safety, but they are small, and being black and white, the subjects are lost in grainy greys. I always like bigger pictures, as they say far more than words. On a related note, there is a photo on page 191 of the two Thayers skiing across the ice, and I couldn’t help but wonder – did Charlie snap the picture?

And a more in-depth biology lesson on the difference between wolves and dogs genetically – how close are the two species, really, DNA-wise – would have satiated this armchair adventurer completely.

But those are minor flaws, as I said, in a masterful story. I learned a lot about wolves and the wild I never knew, but the learning slipped in while I was enjoying a terrific read, which is, in my mind, the best way to learn. It is a thrilling glimpse into nature that almost – almost – made me wish I was a little more adventurer and a little less armchair.

But it is also a story with a message. Bill Thayer put it quite nicely as he and Helen and Charlie took their leave of the tundra pack in October: “Is it possible that some species instinctively understand, at a primitive level, that they’re just a single link in the environmental chain – that to survive, everyone must survive?”

Here’s hoping we humans figure that out some day.

Story of farmer-turned-doctor is more than your typical memoir

Note: This article originally appeared in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner on November 23, 2008.

How does a Mennonite farmer from the Midwest end up homesteading in Soldotna, becoming the only doctor in Tanana and an avid flyer and accomplished hunter? He catches “Alaska fever,” that’s how. “Bush Pilot Doctor,” one of the entries in the Prescription for Adventure series written by Naomi Gaede-Penner, details how Penner’s father, Dr. Elmer Gaede, took the road less traveled to Alaska as a medical missionary (of sorts) for the Public Health Services in 1955. With his wife, Ruby, and daughters Naomi and Ruth, Elmer drove from Kansas to Anchorage. The newly minted doctor was headed for the Anchorage Native Service hospital, at a salary of $7,000 per year — an immense amount of money at the time. The Gaedes piled into their Chevy and drove the Alaska Highway, found a place in a new subdivision and began their Alaska adventure. Continue reading

Story of truckin’ in Alaska needs more than dry facts from the road

Note: This article originally appeared in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner on November 23, 2008.

Ah, life on the road. Who hasn’t dreamed of it? Especially we intrepid adventurers who live in the Last Frontier. No cares, no worries, none of that boring same-old, same-old. Changing landscapes, changing views, a true exploration of the country. Continue reading