Friday, March 29, 2019

Tip of the Iceberg

Tip of the Iceberg: My 3,000-Mile Journey Around Wild Alaska, the Last Great American Frontier
© 2018 Mark Adams
336 pages

In 1899, railroad tycoon Edward Harriman organized a multidisciplinary expedition to Alaska, bringing with him some of the best scientists and artists in America. They sailed -- or rather, steamed -- their way around the coast of Alaska, pushing as far north as possible.  Over a century later, Mark decided to repeat their journey,   to discover for himself the stirring beauty of America's 'last frontier', and to compare his experience with those of Harriman's. The result is a winsome mix of history, nature writing, and travel that concludes with Adams' urgent message to readers: if you want to see Alaska,   go now, because  it's a land continually re-created, and even now many of its places are melting away, are being reclaimed by the sea, or likewise stand on the brink of transformation.

The Alaska witnessed by Mark Adams here is, in every respect, an utterly beautiful place -- and a strange one, where people are often more dependent on the ocean and bush pilots for transportation, where a given town's entire population fishes for their own food. In its remoteness, self-sufficiency,  and  scorn for Outside oversight, Alaska fully lives up to its motto of the Frontier state.  I could not help but think of the American west when reading this, or of the eastern frontier even earlier in American history.  There is danger in that isolation; bears are a common menace, and Alaskans actually experience the majority of earthquakes within the United States.  They're more at risk from tusnamis, too; while Hawaaians may have several hours warning of a tsunami, Alaskans may only have minutes to prepare.  To the beauty of the landscape -- the mountains, glaciers, and wilderness expanses --  Adams adds historical interest not only by retelling the story of the Harriman expedition, but pointing to its effects. The conservation movement was born around this same period, urged on not only by near-mystics like John Muir, but by would-be hunters in the form of Harriman and Theodore Roosevelt.  (Roosevelt wanted to go to Alaska, but that bum McKinley got himself shot, so TR had to be president, instead.)

Although I've never previously been interested in Alaska, Tip of the Iceberg has made it a far more compelling place, both for its natural grandeur and its culture.


  1. This sounds fun...sort of in the format of The Lost City of Z (which I'm reading now) where a modern-day writer tries to trace the steps of a historical figure. Alaska is on my bucket list, guess I better start planning.

  2. Also reminiscent of Douglas Preston's "Cities of Gold", where he's exploring New Mexico on horseback while following the trail of Coronado. Alaska's certainly found a place on my bucket list, but there's a lot more of the southwest I want to see first..

  3. it's a truly spectacular place but i've never been, either... someday possibly, altho somedays are rapidly receding into the past...


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