There are two standard ways of writing about the Arctic. One is to describe its fragile ecosystems, the inch-high willow trees, the braided rivers and the endangered herds of caribou. The other is to concentrate upon the whores in Fairbanks and the drunken Indians, both sad remnants of modern bonanzas from the gold rush to oil development. The truth about the Arctic lies somewhere in between. The land is fragile, but it takes a tough man or woman to survive there. Ask any Eskimo.
Jim Christy has maneuvered between the twin peaks of Far North hyperbole in this small book about the Alaska Highway, the granddaddy of the Alaska Pipeline. If his prose becomes oppressively macho at times, he is, after all, writing about white men in the Arctic, sometimes an oppressively macho subject. The history of these men is both sad and exhilarating; they have been arrogant in their half-frightened conquest of the North, but they have also died in their efforts.
The Alaska Highway or the Alcan, as it is called, was the first of the great modern northern construction projects. It was built hastily by the Army Corps of Engineers just after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in order to connect the vulnerable territory of Alaska with the contiguous United States. Christy has decumented the building of the largely gravel 1,532 mile road from Dawson Creek in Canada to Delta Junction in Alaska with interviews with men who worked on it, excepts from their diaries, and photographs which seem as remote today as those of the Gold Rush.
The Corps of Engineers understood nothing about construction in the Arctic, knew nothing about permafrost siltation, and drainage, the very problems that halted construction of the Alaska Pipeline for months. But it was wartime, and the job had to be done, so the road veers crazily to avoid patches of mushy muskeg and careens across Trutch Mountain with careless disregard for automobile brakes.
Christy devotes only a portion of his book to construction of the Alcan. He backtracks in to discussions of earlier Arctic exploration and then the picture dissolves, cinematically, into scenes in modern roadhouses. It gives the book a certain jerkiness, the handheld camera quality of cinema verite, which is no doubt intentional but not always successful.
There are also mistakes that a good editor should have caught. For instance, Will Rogers and Wiley Post crashed near Point Barrow, not while flying between Fairbanks and Eagle.
Christy takes the reader on a variety of expeditions up and down the modern highway, sometimes by bus, sometimes by car, and with an assortment of chance companions. He also travels on the White Pass and Yukon Route, the railroad that connects Skagway in Alaska with Whitehorse in the Yukon, lives for a while in the eerily empty town of Dawson, and flies with a local bush pilot. He captures the ragtag quality of life at the edge of civilization, its openness, its crudeness and its derelicts.
Christy compares the freewheeling honky-tonk of modern Alaska with the taciturn self-containment of the Yukon. Both are illusory, of course. All Alaska is not Second Avenue in Fairbanks, and the Yukon will soon be subjected to its own bonanza with the construction of a $20-billion gas pipeline from the Arctic which will parallel the Alcan much of the way.
The important point is that Christy is writing about nearly all the frontier we have left. Whatever frontier means -- boom town or wilderness experience -- this is it. What happens to all of us when the rough road north resembles the strip along U.S. Rt. 1?
One of my favorite memories of the Alaska Highway is the lone bicyclist I passed somewhere around Muncho Lake, pedaling furiously, a pack on his back. Where was he going, amid the dust and mud and flying rocks of the summer traffic, this 20-century pioner? Did he make it?